There are some 4,000 breweries in the US and countless more across the planet, but does the increase in breweries result in an increase in unique beers? Or simply an increase in remakes of successful hop-malt mash-ups? Is there still such a thing as a West Coast style beer, when it’s made on the East Coast or Midwest?
Talking with Great Lakes Brewing Company, founded in 1988, long time Brewer and Events Specialist Luke Purcell explores how geography plays a role in Great Lakes’ beer style, and how the brand walks the line between their own tradition and the ever-changing palates of beer drinkers. Cleveland’s beer has changed a lot over the years, but the brewery makes a point to integrate their city’s sensibility and heritage into its flavors as trends come and go.
Paste: Your name is essentially a statement of geography. How do you think that’s affected the company’s development with time?
Purcell: To speak for the owners, since the beginning they wanted to plan regionally. That’s why they chose Great Lakes rather than Cleveland or Lake Eerie or something that specific. They wanted to be local but regional. They had that vision.
The water is a big deal. The water from the Great Lakes region is really good brewing water so I think that’s been a big factor.
Paste: Do you think that’s influenced the styles that have been brewed in the area?
Purcell: We’re known for our porter and the water is really good for darker beers like that. When Bell’s started, they were doing stouts and porters too. Edmund Fitzgerald is my favorite beer we make, and it’s a beer we’ve been making since way back when. Certainly the water played into that.
There’s a lot of water chemistry [in brewing]. Once you decide what you’re going to make, you have to decide what kind of water you’re going to use. A lot of the reason people play around with their water is to emulate the region for a style they’re brewing, like the water of Pilsen. We do a bit of water chemistry and filtration to eliminate chlorine, but we figure our signature to our beer is that local water—just like those historic styles—so we don’t play with it too much.
Paste: Part of what inspired the geographic question is you hear terms like “West Coast beer.” What’s a “Midwest” or a “Great Lakes area” beer?
Purcell: With our Commodore Perry, it’s almost American IPA vs. English IPA. It’s a blend of the two, with an American hop and English hop. I used to call it a North Coast IPA but Midwest works too.
Paste: How do you think the North Coast or Midwest style has changed throughout your brewery’s history?
Purcell: Seeing the changes around us in my 20 years at Great Lakes has been interesting. The hard part is to maintain and not get tempted to tweak a recipe. When I started at Great Lakes in 1996, Commodore Perry IPA and Burning River Pale Ale were very aggressive beers by the standards around the country. Now they’re really balanced examples of those styles. Instead of changing them, we took a step back and said these have a big following. Those thoughts creep into your head: this isn’t what everyone is liking right now, but you realize the best thing to do is to make a whole new beer.
My palate has probably gone through a million changes: I loved hop forward IPAs, then I got sick of them, now I enjoy them once in a while.
Paste: I imagine your recipes today have been tweaked since the originals. How do you think they’ve changed over time?
Purcell: For quality or because our system has changed four times, that alone makes it a challenge.
You can look at numbers and specs. We’ve gotten better at fermentation with Dortmunder. The finishing gravity is a little bit lower, so it’s consistently a little drier. Carbonation might be better.
When Pat and Dan Conway first started Great Lakes, they called Thaine Johnson, who had been the last working brewer in Cleveland when the Schmidt’s plant closed in 1984. Those guys hit it off and he helped them design their system. Eliot Ness and Dortmunder were beers of his design.
When I started working here he would come in every Thursday and do a walk through the brewery and give us shit about something to make sure we were on our toes, even though he was the nicest guy you could meet. We’d be excited and want Thaine to try any new beers. He’d try to say nice words but say, “It’s too aggressive for this old fart. Just give me my Dortmunder. Do whatever you want, just don’t mess with my Dortmunder.” So I would love to have Thaine taste Dortmunder today to see how it meets 1992.
Paste: Is the evolution of a recipe related to behind the scenes stuff, or changes in consumer palates?
Purcell: It’s everything. Ingredients and availability are different. While we want to keep it the same, we’ve had to mix in replacement hops over the years with Dortmunder. Year to year, the crop changes and you have to adjust. You’re constantly tweaking beers. There have been a couple times a recipe drifted away somehow, especially with the more brewers we get, which results in more hands in the brewhouse.
Paste: With so many beers and increased awareness, is there still a regional style that people lean towards? Or do people expect homogenized styles since they’ve tried everything?
Purcell: I wish there was an easy answer to that. Even in our region it differs from territory to territory. When we started, Dortmunder was our number one Cleveland seller by far. When we’d go to new markets, it was Burning River. Edmund Fitzgerald is a very good performer outside of Cleveland.
To say there’s one style that’s popular, honestly it’s IPA because that’s everywhere, but I think they’re different because of water and other factors. Our IPA is more balanced. I think Two Hearted has more balance to it also. There are some examples of IPA that can be not so West Coast but not an English style either.
Lately there’s been a swing back towards more approachable or session beers taking off, and lagers, which is exciting for us being a mostly lager brewery.