Ever since 2006, when Ryan Michaels nabbed the gig as head brewer at McKenzie Brew House of Malvern and Chadds Ford, he’s gradually enhanced the standard house beers. Now they’re nationally recognized.
Last week, we caught up with Michaels, who chatted about sliding into his beer career, winning gold medals for his brews, introducing barrel aging on-site, and even concocting his praised Pumpkinfest ale.
Main Line Dish: Last month, at the Great American Beer Festival, McKenzie Brew House was awarded its third gold medal in the past four years for the Saison Vautour. Could you shed some light on this award-winning farmhouse ale?
Michaels: The Vautour is a Saison brewed with both barley and about 25 percent rye. I think our other brewer, Gerard, proposed the idea of using rye in it. Our recipes tend to come about after a bit of dialogue between the two of us over a beer. It won gold at GABF the second time we brewed it, so the draft version has stayed the same, though we bottle it after it’s spent some time in oak.
MLD: Winning honors in Denver helps an East Coast-based brewery gain a national reputation. How did it feel taking home the win for McKenzie’s this year, as opposed the previous years?
Michaels: A lot of people have come up to me and said, “Well, I guess it wasn’t a fluke.” It makes things fun for us, because people all over the country recognize the name and seek out the beer. A lot of the bottles we sell get traded around the country.
MLD: McKenzie Brew House is substantially smaller than some breweries in southeastern Pennsylvania, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped you and other McKenzie brewers from bringing out the big guns. What do you think makes McKenzie’s beer able to compete?
Michaels: I think our size is an advantage. A brewer friend of mine called the beers we were pouring out in Denver at the GABF this year “space and time beers,” meaning we had plenty of space and time to age them. We aren’t a beer factory cranking out as much beer as we can. Everything is hands-on and we definitely make a craft product.
MLD: Since taking the wheel of McKenzie’s back in 2006, producing the house brews for the brewpubs and tons of seasonal specialties, what do you feel has been the most challenging part of being the head brewer? Most rewarding?
Michaels: I feel like many of our beers have evolved over the years. It’s sometimes a challenge tweaking them to where we want them to be without a regular saying, “What have you done to my Pale Ale?” It’s incredibly rewarding when you finally nail it and everyone is happy.
MLD: Briefly, could you reveal how you became involved in the beer industry?
Michaels: I graduated from Temple with a degree in American studies and art history and promptly began waiting tables at Valley Forge Brewing Company, where my older brother was a manager. I went from waiting to bartending, managing and eventually brewing the beer there.
MLD: This year, you and brewer Gerard Olson have began to do some barrel aging in-house. What made you decide to bring this process into the McKenzie beer-making mix?
Michaels: About three years ago, Gerard decided he was going to buy some barrels from the Chaddsford Winery and stick them in the brewery. Neither of us were huge fans of bourbon barrel aging, but we soon got addicted to what a wine barrel can do for a “space and time beer.”
MLD: Since it’s pumpkin beer season and tons of seasonal beers are flooding the market, what makes McKenzie’s Pumpkinfest different? What goes into this concoction?
Michaels: My favorite brewers tend to use spices as something that can contribute to a beer, but they are rarely over the top or even identifiable. People want to taste the spices in that beer, so I try to find a middle ground were the spices are well integrated yet it still tastes like autumn. This year, we used pumpkins from a farm I used to ride my bike to and buy sweet corn from when I was a kid in central PA.
MLD: Any other new beers on the horizon that we all should be getting jazzed about? What are you looking forward to?
Michaels: We have four beers from barrels that will be released this fall in bottles. Some will be in our Christmas gift pack. We have enough barrels now that we can bottle out of them and also offer barrel-aged seasonal draft beers at the Malvern location. We are working on being able to do more of that in Glen Mills.
MLD: If you weren’t working in the beer industry, what would you choose as your career?
Michaels: I’d be a relief pitcher. I had a pretty nasty forkball back in the day. My career was cut short when I started picking on a guitar, so one of those things I guess. I get to choose?
McKenzie Brew House has two locations: Malvern is at 240 Lancaster Avenue and can be reached at 610-296-2222, and Chadds Ford is at 451 Wilmington-West Chester Pike and can be reached at 610-361-9800. For more information about McKenzie Brew House, visit www.mckenziebrewhouse.com.