On the corner of Chicago and Mound in the town of Warren sits Kuhnhenn Brewing Co. As you first approach Kuhnhenn, you might think you’ve been misdirected to a hardware supply store, and well, that’s because that’s what it used to be. The location was purchased by the family in 1970’s and served as a local hardware store for decades. It wasn’t until the 1990s when sons Eric and Bret, both avid home-brewers, took over the store and began to include brewing supplies in their inventory. Fast forward a decade later to 2001 when Kuhnhenn is no longer a hardware store, but a working brewery instead. A working brewery that would become a staple in Michigan craft beer. We sat down with Eric and Bret to discuss both the past and future of Kuhnhenn.
Paste: Prior to opening the brewery, Kuhnhenn used to be a hardware store. Even though you both took over operations, was it hard to convince your father that it was the right move?
Eric and Brett: Our Dad thought we were crazy. We took over operations of the hardware stores (we operated two at the time) in the early ‘90s when he wanted to focus on his construction business. When the big-box retailers moved in, it put a crunch on small independent guys like us. Since we were both into homebrewing, we started selling supplies out of the hardware store. He didn’t necessarily approve of when we ceased buying hardware altogether and founded the company in 1998 (and not just because he’s the landlord), but he supported our decision nonetheless. He comes from the old school, and at that time the industry was much smaller than now. He found it hard to believe anyone would pay $5 or more for a glass of beer. Ironically, now he’s here every day, and is one of the biggest beer geeks we know.
Paste: You used to homebrew out of the hardware store. Have any of those homebrew recipes made it into the tanks at Kuhnhenn?
E&B: Most of our original homebrew recipes were the foundation for what the brewery is now. (Bret) first brewed Loonie Kuhnie Pale Ale in the early ‘90s, and was the impetus for the original Kuhnhenn Brewing Co business plan. Penetration Porter, Classic American Pilsner, Brothers Gold Kolsch, Ironmonger Dunkel, our Export Stout, Witbier, Festbier, KuhnieWeizen—these beers and more were all homebrew recipes before they were scaled for commercial brewing.
Paste: You make several Eisbock beers. This is an uncommon style in the US; what was your inspiration for making it?
E&B: We wanted to do something different. Especially in the early days, we were always trying to push the envelope as far as flavors, styles, ABV, etc. This was “extreme beer” before there was really such a term. We never had an interest in doing weird ingredients and stuff; we still want it to maintain its integrity as beer. Our Raspberry Eisbock was first released in 2002, after toying around with small batch test versions for years. The style has always been one of our favorites, mostly due to its rarity. Few do it because it’s very difficult to do it right; and it took us a long time to get it right, then in 2002 we released this really small run of this super-high-gravity lager (at the time it was a little over 12% if memory serves) aged on fresh raspberries and packaged in teardrop bottles. We wanted something that was more reminiscent of a port or brandy than a beer, and it was. We still have a couple of those bottles around somewhere, and it still tastes quite nice. It’s all about changing the idea of what beer can be, while still being beer.
Paste: You have been brewing mainly your Raspberry Eisbock the last few years. Are there any plans to bring back the Blueberry or other fruited Eisbocks in the future?
E&B: Yes, we would like to experiment with different variations of Eisbock—different fruits, and what have you. We have a few things cooking right now, and we hope to be able to release some variations later this year, along with Raspberry.
Paste: Your Double Rice IPA is something different than the usual IPA. What made you want to brew this style of a hoppy beer?
E&B: We had wanted to play with rice as an ingredient for years, mainly to prove that there’s nothing inherently wrong with rice as an ingredient. Of course some larger brewers use it as an adjunct, to thin out the beer and for cost measures; the rice we use actually costs more than the malted barley, and the mash process is much more complicated, but so worth it. It came about over some beers. We wanted to create a hop-forward beer that could showcase the beauty of the hops without being overly bitter, with a nice malt base, but dry – bone dry. We achieved that with DRIPA™ in that the hops really shine and the rice not only lends to the dry, crisp smack at the finish, but it also gives the beer a brilliant clarity and light enough mouthfeel that before you know it, the glass is empty. The dryness also helps to hide the hefty 9.5% ABV as well.
Paste: There aren’t many breweries that do both beer and mead. What made you decide to take on both?
E&B: Simply, we love to make things. We also make wine, sodas, and distilled spirits. We come from an area that makes things. Across the street from us, they make cars. A mile south, they make tanks. We make things to drink that make people happy.
Paste: What is your favorite beer or mead that you’ve released?
E&B: It may sound clichéd but that’s like choosing your favorite child and the answer honestly changes daily. We’re truly proud of all of our releases, even the ones that didn’t totally work and make it to consumers, and the early-on happy accidents, because they were all chances to learn more.
Paste: Is there one particular beer that you are looking forward to releasing?
E&B: We will be celebrating our 15th Anniversary in 2016, so we’re most excited to release whatever we end up releasing for that milestone!
Paste: I know you are working on an expansion, and possibly canning beers like DRIPA. Will these beers hit distribution, or be sold primarily at the brewery?
E&B: The Production Brewery is nearly complete (as of late December), but initially will be focused solely on production for more draft beer. We hope to bottle going into year two of the new facility, but that will come when it comes. Canning is an option as well, since we do have the equipment, but it is slightly further down the list of priorities at this point. When we do begin to package large amounts of bottles (and cans) they will see widespread distribution in places that truly respect and care about beer. We want our beer to always be stored cold (or very cool) and never in direct UV light. We want our beer to always end up in the beer drinker’s glass tasting as delicious and fresh as a glass served over the bar in our own brewery.