MARQUETTE – Standing on an industrial metal platform, some 7 or 8 feet above the floor, Nick VanCourt checks a temperature gauge the size of his fist and steals a glance at the oversized digital clock on the far wall.
“We’re going to need that to be a little warmer,” he says, raising his voice to be heard above the whirr of the commercial air handling system.
Behind him, pipes rumble gently as ground malt mixes with steaming water – climbing now toward 160 degrees – before sloshing down into just one of the behemoth stainless steel tanks. The smell of slowly cooking grain hangs heavy in the air.
“Brew day is typically making a batch and then running around, doing a lot of things during it,” he says, before grasping the rails along the narrow stairway leading to his platform. He shifts his body weight and leaps to the ground below.
It’s early January. The Ore Dock Brewing Co., where VanCourt is head brewer and part owner, has been open for just more than seven months, and VanCourt is brewing his 60th batch of beer.
Though that word – “batch” – is a bit of a misnomer. It just doesn’t carry enough weight to describe what happens in the Ore Dock brew house.
By day’s end, VanCourt, 32, will have mixed 750 pounds of malt with more than 240 gallons of steaming water; he will transfer the liquid between towering vessels, before opening a chest-high door in one of them and scooping out roughly 1,000 pounds of spent, water-logged grain. And before heading home, he will flood in excess of 340 gallons of beer into a fermenting tank, where it will rest for the next three weeks.
“It’s kind of a place of extremes, in a brewery,” he says.
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In December 2011, VanCourt was standing in this very room – then just the hollowed-out shell of an old auto garage at 114 W. Spring St. – talking about his brewing roots.
“It all started for me with homebrewing,” he said then, before mapping out the future location of his commercial brewery on the bare concrete floor.
Now, slightly more than a year removed from that interaction, the Ore Dock Brewing Co. has gained something of a following, not to mention a lot of momentum. The brewery is set to begin distributing a few select brands, which will be on tap at local establishments, in the coming months and the long-term goal includes bottling and wider distribution.
In large part, VanCourt’s beers have fueled the business to this point, and have been well-received, both in the Marquette area and beyond. The Ore Dock Porter, in fact, was recently awarded a silver medal at the World Beer Championships.
The Ore Dock Brewing Co., located in a massive two-story space on the south edge of Marquette’s bustling downtown district, is the most recent – and possibly final – stop on an unconventional journey for VanCourt, a Daggett native. After graduating from Northern Michigan University in 2004 with a degree in media production and new technology, he worked briefly in the Upper Peninsula before landing in Madison, Wis. There he worked for the Department of Natural Resources, and became an increasingly active homebrewer.
That hobby led to an internship at Madison’s Great Dane Pub and VanCourt soon enrolled in the World Beer Academy. It’s clear that training is paying off in spades.
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Pointing now at various sized jars – one has a clear liquid in it, while the other is filled with what appears to be road salt – VanCourt explains how he amends the brewery’s water to make it more suitable for brewing.
By changing the ratio of certain chemicals in the water, he says, he is also able to mimic water from different regions of the world.
VanCourt will plainly discuss the differences in Belgian and American yeasts, and will describe how European malts differ from their western counterparts. He knows, generally, the amount of proteins and enzymes in each.
That knowledge – and that attention to detail – helped him land jobs as an assistant brewer at the Milwaukee Brewing Co.’s production brewery and later at Tyranena Brewing Co. in Lake Mills, Wis.
For countless hours, VanCourt labored in those Wisconsin breweries, making someone else’s recipes on someone else’s equipment. Rarely given the chance to test his ideas for recipes, he homebrewed constantly.
“I kind of had to, just to keep on track for this,” he says, motioning at the brewery surrounding him. “The goal was always to do this.”
The other goal for VanCourt and his wife – also a U.P. native – was to return to Michigan.
“We always said we’d move back to Marquette, but we thought we’d be retired when we did it,” he says.
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When Marquette residents Wes and Andrea Pernsteiner – a couple VanCourt had met years before – decided to open a brewery in the city, they called him up and he jumped on board. While the Pernsteiners maintain control of the company, VanCourt and his wife are minority owners, along with a handful of others.
Currently, he is the only minority shareholder who is also a full-time Ore Dock employee and his life revolves around brewing, which he does twice each week, on average. However, the Ore Dock recently installed two new large fermenting tanks, which doubled their capacity. When the process is ironed out, VanCourt figures he’ll be brewing more often each week and estimates that it will be possible to churn out 1,500 barrels – 46,500 gallons – of beer annually. He admits, however, that 1,250 barrels is more likely.
While there are currently three breweries in the city of Marquette and another in Ishpeming VanCourt isn’t concerned about saturating the market. First, he says, in looking toward distribution and bottling, the Ore Dock is doing something none of the other local breweries are even attempting. And perhaps more importantly, Americans are turning more and more into craft beer drinkers who frequent local breweries.
In fact, the share of the beer market held by craft beer rose to just more than 5 percent last year, according to an NPR report from May, though sales grew 15 percent, year-on-year.
But VanCourt knows the craft beer story nearly as well as he knows the science behind a good porter. And as he leans over an industrial sink – he is testing the specific gravity of a batch brewed up a couple of weeks back he recites some of the stats. He knows them well.
So when he looks up a moment later it isn’t entirely clear if he is talking about the craft beer movement, generally, or about the Ore Dock Brewing Co., specifically.
“That’s one of the coolest things, one of the things I think is most encouraging about this whole thing,” he says. “We’re just getting started.”
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.