Nick VanCourt of Ore Dock Brewing Company

Going Pro by | Jul 2015 | Issue #102

Photo by Adam Robarge

Nick VanCourt brews beer in Michigan, which means his peers are some of the best the US has to offer. Michigan’s incredible craft beer scene was a boon to VanCourt when he was a young drinker, but now that he’s brewing at Ore Dock, a small brewery on the shores of Lake Superior, his job is figuring out how to stand out among so much talent. He’s done it by keeping his beers—whether American Ales or rustic Saisons, Wits and sours—grounded in a sensibility that’s more European than brawling American. “In England, I saw how delicate a beer can be,” he says. “We’ve come around to nuance and balance. It’s not soft or corny.”

1. Love the legends
Growing up taking sips off his grandfather’s bottles of German lagers, and with a longtime homebrewer as an older cousin, VanCourt came of drinking age surrounded by a healthy respect for beer. But the stuff that pushed him over the edge was Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. Two Hearted led to Bell’s Oberon, and to Founders, and there was no turning back. “Not only could we get beer, but we were getting some of the best beer out there,” he says. “[Those breweries] had a profound influence on me, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.”

2. Don’t fear the push-button brewhouse
VanCourt’s first glasses of Saison Dupont and Cantillon were relevatory. So when he decided to make the jump to professional brewing, VanCourt enrolled in the Siebel Institute’s World Brewing Academy, which took him on a tour through Europe’s classic breweries. The sheer diversity of the flavors he tasted in Belgium, England and Germany stuck with him. But so did the techniques that produced them. “Orval is this very rustic, Old World, earthy thing, and it’s made in an incredibly high-tech brewery. It doesn’t all have to be Cantillon,” he says. “So I’ve tried to take the route of being open to all these technologies, which allow your beer to be fresher for more people.”

3. Come home
It was always VanCourt’s plan to launch his own brewery. And he and his wife both assumed that, at some point, they’d wind up back in Marquette, Mich., the Upper Peninsula city where they went to college. When he discovered a couple launching a Marquette brewery on ProBrewer.com, VanCourt reached out to Wes and Andrea Pernsteiner, Ore Dock’s founders, and served as a sounding board while they planned their brewery. “I said, let me know if I can help out, I went to school there, I love Marquette, what you’re doing is cool, and, oh, you stole my location. And they said, ‘Well, you should apply.’”

4. Trust in good taste
The Ore Dock crew initially feared that a Belgian-only brewery on the edge of Lake Superior might be too much of a niche operation. They’ve balanced a stable of traditional Saisons and Witbiers with IPAs and Porters. Still, the team has discovered that there’s a far larger market for old-school Belgian styles in northern Michigan than they’d first imagined. “We’re doing these really dry, nuanced, characterful beers, and they sell really well now. We’re not inventing those styles, but we’ve been a part of bringing them here. I’m proud of that.”

5. Try something new
“We’re a mostly rural place, and the $19 30-pack dominates overall, but a lot of people are ready for Belgian flavors,” VanCourt says. In many cases, he’s had an easier time winning new craft converts with traditional Belgians than with American hops. “People who are already going to try a beer at a brewery, they’re that much closer to accepting it,” VanCourt says of Belgians. “These are completely different flavors. There’s something to try if you like red wine, or white wine, or gin.” In other words, there’s no need for training wheels beer, when you have a funky Oud Bruin on hand.

6. Trim the fat
Ore Dock runs a rotating series of seasonal Saisons, although its summer recipe, Ore Dock Saison, has evolved into a quasi-flagship beer that appears early in the season, and stays in distribution late into the fall. VanCourt has been refining the recipe for five years, and the more he’s worked on it, the simpler it’s become. The current iteration uses just two malts—a base of French pale malt and a bit of French wheat—and one hop, Crystal. “What are the things that make the beer what it is? Do you really need a couple percent of this or that, if it’s not really showing? We like homing in on what we’re really tasting.”

7. Stake out new ground
Ore Dock’s founders launched with an IPA because they doubted whether a slew of Belgians could produce the kind of sales volume they needed to keep the lights on. But how do you sell the style in a state dominated by IPA heavyweights like Bell’s and Founders? Ore Dock’s answer was to slide halfway out of the American IPA category. Reclamation IPA lays piles of Ahtanum, Columbus and Chinook hops on top of heirloom British malt and a dry British Ale yeast. “It’s really aromatic and bitter,” VanCourt says. It hits some familiar notes, but it also stands apart. “In the land of Two Hearted IPA, I’m proud to have gotten that beer out there.”

8. Dig the odd stuff
Beer drinkers like hops. But this has lots of brewers chasing after a limited supply of new varieties. “The hop market is so hard,” VanCourt says. He’ll buy a box or two of popular hops, like Galaxy, when he can, but doesn’t want to lock in a long-term contract. “I don’t know if I’m going to want them in three years. Everybody’s already over Citra, because they want Mosaic.” So VanCourt gravitates to less sexy varieties, like Australian Topaz and Ella hops. “When you really dig into these odd, off-the-beaten-path hops,” he argues, “that’s where you find the unique flavors.”

9. Stay grounded
In a small town, community support is critical to the brewery’s success. “We’re excited by how many people, even here in a town of 20,000, will come in and drink our beer on a Wednesday at 3 p.m.,” VanCourt says. “We started lean, thinking it might be the best we could do here, and it turned out that there’s so much support. […] that’s what makes you excited about developing new beer, making beer better, is people coming in and asking about it and caring about it. We don’t take that for granted.”