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Interview with Ron Jeffries of Jolly Pumpkin

Schroppfy talks to the Chief Squeegee Operator at JP
Interviews September 22, 2005      
Written by Schroppfy

Łódż, Warsaw, Poland; Michigan, OHIO -

Schroppfy: I’m sure you are sick of this, but what’s with the fascination with pumpkins and the Islands?

RonJ: Who doesn’t like jack o’ lanterns, and tropical islands? They seem to play a role of one type or another in everyone’s psyche, right? All sorts of images and feelings flood to the fore at their mere mention. What better imagery to use to evoke feelings of happiness and ease?

Schroppfy: Where were you trained and what was your longest stint? How in the world did a guy like you decide to do a lambic at Grizzly Peak? In other words, how did you even find out about such beers?

RonJ: I’ve done a bit of formal training here and there, but mostly I am my own master. An unfortunate (or fortunate?) part of my being has a strong resistance to persons / objects / institutions of authority. My wife (Laurie) says I have a problem with authority, and I think my dad said it most eloquently when he asked / stated: You’ve never had a sensei have you? Never trained under a master? Nope. Not me. I make a habit of fumbling and finding my own way. I now live a fairly disciplined life and try to follow the Tao and bushido as I can. I draw inspiration from within and from without. I try to pay attention to my breath, and to the wind.

How did I find out about lambics? Well, I like beer. A lot. I started studying beer styles and brewing science in the very early 90s, and followed my passion. My first wild beer was not actually at Grizzly Peak, but started while I was at Bonfire in 1998. I brewed, blended, and allowed the beer to sour for a year in an open kilderkin (large firkin). I served half straight, and aged the rest on whole cherries before serving. I thought it was fantastic! An admirable start, and I was hooked on sour beer production. Grizzly Peak was the brewery where I brewed my first full batch of lambic style beer, though. Why I decided to do focus on French and Belgian farmhouse ales and wild and sour beer at Jolly Pumpkin can be summed up in a word - art. I think they are some of the most delicious and complex beers in the world, and I am determined to bring their artistry to life in my own brewery.

Magic life-changing beer epiphanies? Hmmm. Things generally happen to me more gradually, tending to grow and evolve over time. It did happen once though, but it’s kinda personal.

Schroppfy: What challenges are you facing right now?

RonJ: Challenges? I guess the same as every small new microbrewer, sell enough beer to stay in business! If anything, the challenge is even greater for us. My beers are a niche within the niche of craft beer. We make strange beers, and put them in strange bottles, as I’m fond of saying. It can be difficult to gain access to shelf space, and put your beer in the hands of the people who will really appreciate them. But in the bigger picture, these are issues all small brewers face.

Schroppfy: Do you have some spontaneous fermentation projects going on now?

RonJ: Well, all of our oak is developing natural wild yeasts and cultures, so really all of our beers have an element of spontaneous secondary fermentation. I do plan on brewing a "true" lambic style beer as soon as the weather cools down. I plan on maturing this beer for the traditional three years in the oak, so don’t look for it anytime soon!

Schroppfy: What more can you tell me about how long your beers stay in the wood? Do you have any long-term aging projects?

RonJ: How long in the wood? It all depends on the beer. Generally the longer in the wood the more character is imparted. The Blanca generally spends two to three weeks, the Oro four weeks. The Roja is handled a little differently. Each bottling is a blend of four to five 53 gallon barrels. I roam around the brewery sampling barrels until I find the right ones, then move them into our bottling tank for blending before bottling. The barrels tend to range in age from one to nine months in age. I usually just average and tell people two to three months in the oak. The Biere de Mars gets four months.

I have a few select barrels I am aging for a minimum of a year before bottling. I have Special Reserve versions of La Roja and a Luciernaga ready to bottle as soon as I find the right glass.

Schroppfy: What’s the water like in Dexter? Do you use the composition of the water to your advantage?

RonJ: The water in Dexter is very high in calcium, similar to water in the area along the French and Belgian border. It works very well for brewing the rustic farmhouse style beers we are creating!

Schroppfy: You seem to have a real love of European hop varieties, such as Hallertau. Can you tell RateBeer readers a bit more about your choices of hops?

RonJ: Like much of what I do, it’s all about the flavor. And actually although I use European varieties, except for the French Strisselspalt, mostly I use US grown hops. I like the blend of flavors and aromas the European hops give when grown on US soil. I feel they greatly complement the blend of flavors and aromas I create in my finished beers. In my funky cool American spin on French and Belgian farmhouse style ales.

Schroppfy: Why do you have such a notorious problem with the federal authorities regarding your labels? Who does the label art?

RonJ: I think we have problems with our labels for a variety of reasons. Probably because we are doing some very different beers than the majority of what the TTB label folks see on a daily basis. My labels often require multiple revisions and explanations before they are approved. I’d like to say something cool, like how scandalous, or politically, or philosophically challenging the labels are, but most likely it’s just the
low level of awareness of the types of beer we specialize in. Strange beer, in strange bottles. Kinda boring.

To date all my label art has been done by Adam Forman.

Schroppfy: Where do you get your inspiration?

RonJ: My inspiration? I get asked this all the time as well. I have a strange brain? Really, I take inspiration from within and without. It’s probably fairly difficult to separate the two. Creativity rarely takes place in a vacuum. Does anyone really know where creativity comes from? I’m a fairly creative person by nature. Sometimes I wonder what my next idea will be, if I’ll have one, will I be inspired, can I create? Something usually pops up. I’m just very glad and thankful every time, and feel lucky to have such a wonderful outlet for my creativity as making something as enjoyable as great beer.

Schroppfy: Do you like beer geeks popping in on you?

RonJ: Drop ins? Sure, they’re fun! Just realize my brewery is an artist’s workshop, and as such I can be at times the moody artist. It’s part of the creative process. You have to have dark in order to have light, right? It may seem a hard to believe if you’ve only seen my sunny personality, but the ugly side is there as well. Some days Laurie bans me from the phone, and banishes me to the brewery proper. Even on the best of days, if I’m "in production" as I call it, I usually don’t have time to visit much. It’s always best to visit during our retail hours of 12 pm to 6 pm Friday, and Saturday. That way at least Laurie is free to visit if I’m caught up in something. But the long and the short of it is, either way I love hearing from people who enjoy my beers!

Schroppfy: Will there be a tasting room?

RonJ: Tasting room? Well, we currently offer small tastes of beer at the brewery during retail hours, but we don’t have the permits yet for proper on site "consumption". So a taproom or pub, yeah, at some point... now when, that is the question. Honestly, it will take a fair amount of money for us to add even the simplest of tasting rooms to our little rustic brewery. So it’s a matter of cash flow really. The more Jolly Pumpkin ale you drink, the closer we are to that taproom! So drink up (responsibly, of course!)

Schroppfy: What do you think about the teeming Michigan scene? Is there a lot of interest in new Belgian-inspired breweries?

RonJ: Michigan scene? Belgian inspired breweries? I can only think of two. Bastone, and myself. And we are very different! (I also have a story about that one, ask me next time you are in!) As for more Michigan breweries producing Belgian inspired beer, the answer is simple, they can be some of the most complex and fantastic beers in the world! Who wouldn’t want to try to brew them? In general though, I think more people in
Michigan need to support locally made microbrewed beer. With most of the microbreweries in the state ranked in the top fifty in the world (ratebeer.com), Michiganders need to take note and be proud of local brewers! Buy, drink and enjoy (responsibly) Michigan brewed beer. A bottle of Jolly Pumpkin should be at the top of your shopping list every week, if not more!

Schroppfy: What do you suspect is the ultimate future of Jolly Pumpkin? How small/large do you want to be?

RonJ: The future is cloudy at best. But that’s OK, I grew up in Southeast Michigan, and I am used to cloudy days! Large or small is not really the right question. I would like Jolly Pumpkin to be profitable, set trends in the philosophy of living, working, and employment, and grow a reasonable amount, and while remaining smallish and special, gain world wide recognition as a brewer of exceptional beers of outstanding flavor, and grace. Not too much to ask for, is it?



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start quote I think my dad said it most eloquently when he asked / stated: You’ve never had a sensei have you? end quote