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Interview with Ron Jeffries of Jolly Pumpkin

Author // Devon

 

Ron Jeffries brewmaster at Jolly Pumpkin
Above: Brewmaster Ron Jeffries
Our trip to the Great Lakes region began with Jolly Pumpkin, a small brewery in Dexter, Michigan which has been putting out a very unique range of oak aged beers. Our later travels would reveal to us that sour beers are a new trend that many breweries are testing, so it seems only fitting that we begin with the only brewery in the US to age all of their beers. If you haven't tried any of Jolly Pumpkin's beers we recommend you go out and find them. To simply call them Belgian inspired beer is doing them a disservice. Ron Jeffries, brewmaster at Jolly Pumpkins, exhibits a true passion for beer. While many say they brew purely for the passion, when you hear it from Ron you really believe it and the beers reflect it. We met with Ron early on a Friday morning to talk to him about his inspirations for these unique brews and what we can look forward to in the future. It's here our interview begins.

 

 

Barrels aging beerDCB: So certainly one of the unique things about Jolly Pumpkin is that you're the only brewery who ages every beer. Is that something you've always been interested in?
Ron: I've been a professional brewer for a long time before I started Jolly Pumpkin, 12 or 13 years. I had done a lot different beer styles and played around with some store bought wild yeast in the past and done a few of the bourbon aged beers and wood aged beers. The first thing people started doing were the bourbon aged beers and it took a while to catch on. We started playing with that somewhere in the late 90's. With starting Jolly Pumpkin the focus really was using wild yeast and sour influenced beers, wood aged beer. So from the very beginning that was the idea. That was the long answer to that. 

DCB: There's a lot of barrels here, did you buy them new?
Ron: Most of them were bought used but the larger ones are new. Were new we've put a lot of beer through them over the last few years. The 1000, 1200, 2000 liter barrels we bought new. Everything else we bought used. The Barrels are really expensive. We're constantly adding barrels. And really for us we're looking for happy homes for the wild yeast. So a barrel that's been used and treated nice is in prime condition for us to sour beer.

DCB: Do you get them from wine makers?
Ron: We have some used bourbon barrels, we some used brandy barrels and wine barrels and some barrels Firestone Walker used to make some of their beers in. But what they used barrels the wine barrels we bought them from a cooperidge that buys them from a winery that re-coops them. And the other ones we try to buy them from other breweries that are making bourbon beers in them so it takes the initial hit of the spirit out. That way we get the level of the bourbon or brandy or whatever the spirit is down to a point through where through blending we can get a nice profile without overwhelming the beer with that spirit flavor.

Open Fermenters
Above: Jolly Pumpkin's Open Fermenters
DCB: When you guys opened did you feel like the market was ready for this style of beer?
Ron: No, you know, opening the brewery and doing this style of beer really had to do with love and the passion for this type of beer rather than the commercial viability. So we still don't really know if it's commercially viable[laughs]. So it's kind of we're going to make this type of beer and we're going to sell it wherever people would like to drink it. So we have a little different distribution model than other small craft breweries. A lot of craft breweries start up and get a draught handle on every bar in the town, and then in the next town down the road and the surrounding area and they work out that way. Rather than force sour beer on everyone in the area we pretty much immediately started shipping out farther than most breweries our size. And we're still a very tiny brewery.

DCB: How do you test new beers, is it a bit of a gamble?

Ron: It's got to be a little more than a "hope it works" we don't have the ability to do test batches and if we did a homebrew batch it would almost impossible to scale it. You only get one shot at making a good beer, and you can't screw it up. If you screw it up then nobody's going to want to drink it. If you do that a couple times in a row you're probably out of a job. There's a lot more pressure than you would think on developing a new beer and getting it right the first time. I've been fortunate enough to work in some busy breweries and some of them brewpubs where somewhat crazy experiments can still be drunk in a reasonable amount of time because people are always willing to try something new. In a packaging brewery we really don't have a lot of leeway. We do a little bit of refinement obviously. If the recipe isn't just right we do a little bit of refinement as we go. Something that I always strive for is that perfect beer in the plutonic sense. So a lot of time there's subtle adjustments going on, and part of that is that I'm constantly searching for that elusive perfection. And part of that is we're and agricultural product. So every bag of grain is somewhat different. Every batch of hops is somewhat different. So we need to constantly adjust, even if we're making the same beer, we need to be making adjustments so the beer comes out the same. Some of the fun of our beer is that the beer will be different because of the batch nature, the wild yeast and different seasons because it's different temperatures in the brewery and yeast and the bacteria are more active. August for example is a month we've brewed really tart beer. Any batch that goes in the 1200 or 1000 liter in august is very tart beer. We do a lot of our white beer then. And it's really refreshing and a lot of that is coming out right now that we brewed in august. So in line with keeping that consistency when people try one of our beers they want to recognize it as that particular beer. Something like La Roja, which is a sour flanders style a blended beer, we blend beer aged between 2 and 10 months. We sample a whole mess of barrels and select some we think will work and then do some sample blends that we'll taste with some current Roja and try and get as similar a profile as we can. And sometimes it's not quite the same, but it's so awesome we have to bottle it anyways.

So in line with keeping that consistency when people try one of our beers they want to recognize it as that particular beer. Something like La Roja, which is a sour flanders style a blended beer, we blend beer aged between 2 and 10 months. We sample a whole mess of barrels and select some we think will work and then do some sample blends that we'll taste with some current Roja and try and get as similar a profile as we can. And sometimes it's not quite the same, but it's so awesome we have to bottle it anyways.

DCB: So we also saw you're working on a new version of the bam bier, the ES Bam

Ron: Yeah, the Bam Bier is our farmhouse style ale and we're one of the first to make the farmhouse style ale in the states and now it's becoming almost common. So we did the Bam Bier, it was one of our most popular beers and a lot of fun for us. So we had the idea to do a series of Bam Biers for the different seasons. The second beer was Bam Noir which is just coming out now and the third will be the ES Bam. We have the fourth that's kind of in the idea stage. It's fun stuff. It's sort of a reaction to the whole extreme beer movement. Which is fine, extreme beer is fun and great but even our strong beers need to maintain a level of drinkability where you want to have a 3 rd or 4th pint. Whether you should have the fourth pint of 8% beer, you might want to think about that. So we've taken that and said lets make some beer that's really drinkable and really refreshing and you can have a few pints and still be fine. So that was kind of the genesis of the Bam Bier.

DCB: Do you have many draught accounts?

Ron: We don't do a lot of draught beer and I could go on a big tirade about the reason but a lot of it has to do with, and even going to the 12oz bottles I did with a little trepidation. We do the bottle refermentation. And fermentation not only creates alocohol and CO2 but also a lot of flavor compounds which are influenced by the size and shape of the fermentation vessel itself. So when we referment in the 12oz vs the 750ml we subtle different flavor and I prefer the 750ml. Don't get me wrong the 12oz is still great. The 750 mil is a little more elegant a little more refined flavors. A deeper wider breadth of flavors. The draught is the same way. The kegs develop a little different flavor. But what we can't replicate in the keg is the high level of carbonation. Our style of beers, especially some of the stronger beers and even the bam, require a pretty high degree of carbonation. Draught systems in America at least just aren't designed for beers at that level of carbonation. So we ave to ship our draught beer with lower carbonation and it changes the beer. 

 DCB: So what's the future for you guys what are you looking to next?

Ron: Well, I'm a creative person or at least I like to think of myself as a creative person. So I like to come out with new beers but we can't abandon our existing line. So what we're doing is coming out with seasonals. So in addition to the bam biers we're bringing out a noel for the holidays and I'm working on a couple beers that I've been meaning to do for a long time. It takes a long time to get some of these beers ready. So we're growing the bam bier line as kind of our 12 oz lines. I've got another one I'd like to come out with in the spring and a couple ultra secret beers. We're starting batch dating on the bottles too so you can see the actual blend that was used in each beer. So on the Roja you can look on the website and see what batch went in and what blend was used.

 

We conlcuded our interview with Ron, though not before picking up some Bam Noir. After talking with Ron we're more than a bit excited about his upcoming beers and we'll be sure to let you all know when they come out. The ES Bam should be amazing and we can't wait to give it a try.