GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — If Lake Michigan were a beer, what would it taste like? The answer lies inside Speciation Artisan Ales’ new Grand Rapids taproom.
Speciation Cellars at 928 Wealthy St. SE near Diamond Avenue is set back from the roadway, tucked behind another row of businesses, giving it an “air of mystique” like the brewery’s first site in Comstock Park.
“(You get a) feeling of discovering something really unique and interesting when you walk back into this … alley and discover this really cool building,” co-owner Mitch Ermatinger said.
The public will get its first chance to step inside that hidden gem Friday afternoon during its grand opening.
FLAVORED BY THE GREAT LAKES
While the century-old building is eye-catching with its vaulted wood ceiling, minimalist white walls and mural of living petoskeys, Speciation prides itself on standing out by what it serves up.
Inside the rows of barrels, taps and shelves are the barrel-aged sour beers Speciation Ales was founded on as well as other brews, hard seltzers and wines created in uncommon ways.
“Most beers are made with one strain of yeast, which makes it very straightforward flavor profile,” he said. “We use a combination of tons and tons of different kinds of yeast and bacteria, so you get a very complex flavor profile out of all of our products.”
The Laurentian Series answers the question of what lakes Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie and Ontario taste like as a beer.
“We take a big open vat of unfermented beer and we leave it outside next to each of the Great Lakes to collect microbes… overnight,” Ermatinger explained. “Then we drive it back to Grand Rapids and fermented it here for 2 to 3 years. And so basically that series is all Michigan ingredients, including the yeast.”
Ermatinger says there are subtle differences between each of the lakes.
“Some of them are more fruity, like peachy and some of them have more of like a white wine characteristic,” he explained.
Lake Michigan falls on the citrusy fruity side of the spectrum. Ermatinger says it has hints of flavor similar to Sweet Tarts candy and white grape juice.
The brewery’s Native Species natural red and bubbly white wines are created from clusters of Michigan grape clusters processed the old-fashioned way.
“We crush them by foot and let them ferment and we package them up unfiltered,” Ermatinger explained. “The idea is super simple — the wine will make itself. You just crush the grapes and it’ll ferment with the yeast that’s on the grapes, which is the way wine was always made until recently.”
Ermatinger says Native Species’ first rose is also on the way.
The hard seltzer craze has also made its way to Speciation.
“We jumped on the seltzer train because I was diagnosed with celiac disease last year and I can’t drink beer anymore,” Ermatinger explained. “I was against making seltzers as a company until then, and then I was like, ‘OK, let’s make something that I can drink and make it the way we would make beer.’”
The brewery’s sci-fi themed craft seltzers are created from Michigan beet sugar and flavored with fruits, spices and dry hops. The florescent pink version dubbed “Skyhook” is the most popular item on the menu, according to Ermatinger.
“If you tasted it blind, you would not know what it is. It’s a little bit acidic, kind of similar to a cider. It’s got similar flavors to a cocktail, too. But it is made with just Michigan sugar and pineapples and hibiscus,” he said.
And who is tasting all the other creations by Speciation?
“We basically just trained our production staff to be able to recognize these flavors and make the right decision, and they have done a very good job,” said Ermatinger. “Also, my wife is a ridiculously good taster — she’s always been a better taster than me. And so now she’s the person that they go to when there’s a problem or a potential issue.”
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
While it’s roughly the same size as the old brewery, Ermatinger says the new tasting room is where he has wanted to be since the start.
“I’ve been in Grand Rapids for 13 years and Wealthy Street was my first neighborhood that I really moved into. And I’ve always felt like there’s a really strong community on Wealthy Street,” he explained. “We really wanted to be in this neighborhood, and this was the first building we looked at and we just fell in love immediately. And so we knew we had to be in this building as soon as we saw the inside of it.”
What visitors won’t find inside the taproom is a kitchen. Speciation Cellars plans to tap into Wealthy Street’s diverse group of restaurants to fill that void.
“I definitely would consider it a food Mecca and it keeps getting better and better. Like every couple of weeks, there’s a new place that opens,” said Ermatinger. “So you can order takeout from any of those places or you could cook food at home and bring it in. There’s all kinds of options.”
Ermatinger eventually plans to share what beer, wine or seltzer pairs best with local dishes.
EVOLVING WITH THE TIMES
The evolution theme that’s played out on the walls and labels for Speciation is also part of its pandemic business model.
Like all bars and restaurants, Speciation was forced to close its Comstock Park taproom in mid-March to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Ermatinger says monthly bottle releases and deliveries paid the bills and helped the business “tread water and survive” until it could move into the new space in Eastown.
Ermatinger says since Speciation Artisan Ales holds a manufacturing license, the new taproom is exempt from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s recent executive order banning indoor dining at bars and restaurants for whom alcohol sales make up 70% of sales.
He says COVID-19 sped up plans to add a new air exchange in the building. The roll-up garage door also helps keep fresh air flowing through the 5,000 square foot space.
Visitors can expect added safety measures including half-capacity seating spaced out for social distancing, hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the building and a self-service busing station for glasses and markers on the floor to space out guests in line.
“Also we have our menu digitally, so you can scan the menu as you walk in the door on your phone and basically look at what we have while you’re in line on your phone,” Ermatinger added.
Masks are required when moving around the building; patrons can buy a custom one at Speciation Cellars for $8 or $15.
Ermatinger says while the building has “really good air flow” from its large roll-up garage door, coronavirus sped up plans to add an air exchange system to the new tasting room.
Before the pandemic, the owners of Speciation Cellars hadn’t planned for patio seating. Now, their aiming to transform most of the parking lot into an outdoor dining space within the coming weeks.
“The pandemic’s changed a lot about our plans, but we’ve always been a very flexible company and we’ve been able to roll with punches forever. This is a big punch, but we are rolling with it,” said Ermatinger.
He says when the taproom finds its rhythm, events that were popular at its old location will return, including playing patrons’ vinyl records from a turntable behind the bar.
“We’ve heard from a lot of people that this will be the first place that they go once we’re open,” said Ermatinger. “Just to hear that people have been cooped up and they’re excited enough to come to our taproom, that’s been pretty exciting to hear.”
Speciation Cellars will be open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday; noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday.