Creative brewmaster prepares for grand opening of Mitten Brewing Co.

The Mitten Brewing Co. is located on the north side of Grand Rapids, on Leonard near Alpine.  File by Ryan Hagerman
The Mitten Brewing Co. is located on the north side of Grand Rapids, on Leonard near Alpine. File by Ryan Hagerman

Robert Wanhatalo, with his full red beard, loves to brew. He has been brewing for several weeks to prepare for the grand opening of Mitten Brewing Co., making more of the brewing company’s signature beers, like the peanut butter and chocolate Cracker Jack porter, but has also been coming up with other recipes. Wanhatalo loves to tinker with recipes and explore new flavors.

“Early on I learned recipe formulation, the basics of, and as I grew more comfortable in that regard I would play around with things a little more, just trying things out,” he explains. “Sometimes when messing with adjunct flavors, you can come up something really, really good and crazy, or it could be the worst beer ever.”

Currently, Wanhatalo works at the Mitten Brewing Co. as brewmaster. Mitten Brewing Co. is a Detroit Tigers themed nanobrewery. Located at an old firehouse on Leonard Street, the brewery had its “sneak peak” while the Tigers were playing at the World Series.

One of the joys of working at the Mitten Brewing Co., Wanhatalo describes, is the community within the brewery, such as listening to the World Series “cranked all the way up” while brewing in the back.

“Those things make it fun,” he explains, “I look at people in offices, doing the same thing every day. Here, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Wanhatalo never had scholastic experience with crafting beers, but that didn’t stop him from learning the craft. He first started brewing at The Hideout as an assistant brewer. When they offered the position while he was in college, Wanhatalo dropped everything and accepted the position.

“I get a call — I was in a final exam — and Ken McFale, who was the former owner of The Hideout Brewing Co. called me up and said, ‘Hey, want to come out and brew with me?’ I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ So that day I didn’t sign up for any more classes, I called my job and says ‘Hey, I’m giving you my two weeks notice, I’m gonna go brew beer,” Wanhatalo says.

Before The Hideout, Wanhatalo had no experience brewing. Now he has been brewing for three years, and in a head brewing position for one year.

“[Ken McFale] was really taking a chance with me coming in there, having never done it, not even on a homebrew scale, and basically just took his time [with me],” Wanhatalo explains, “for which I am forever grateful, of him just taking his time just showing me everything, and making it understandable and comfortable.”

Wanhatalo appreciates his learn-as-you-go experience but also thinks that a more scholastic approach can be beneficial.

“I can see [the advantages of] both,” he says. “Honestly, I would like to do a year of schooling and develop certain aspects of my brewing skills. But right now, I’m good with what I got.”

However, Wanhatalo claims that some lessons are only learned through hands-on experience.

“I can also see an advantage where I started, diving in head first and not looking back,” he says. “You learn from your mistakes, but you don’t want to make mistakes, so you pay a lot more attention. That’s something you don’t learn at school. You learn that on your own.”

Wanhatalo has also enjoyed being a part of the greater brewing community in Grand Rapids. Occasionally, the breweries come together for community projects.

“Our next project is coming up, the brewer’s festival at Fifth Third Ballpark,” he says. “That’s the fun about it: it’s us doing a citywide high five, and I think it really piques the interest of the consumer when they know how closely together we work.”

Mitten Brewing Co.’s grand opening is Friday, Nov. 16.

About the Author

Ryan Hagerman

Ryan Hagerman is a Chimes guest writer for the 2012-13 school year.

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