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Friends, partners brew success at Dragonmead

October 13, 2010

WARREN — What’s brewing at Warren’s Dragonmead Microbrewery?

The short answer is, a lot.

The long answer can be found on their voluminous menu of beer, wine, mead and soft drinks.

True-to-form concoctions including the Belgian-style Final Absolution Trippel, the English-inspired London Brown Ale, and the Drei Kronen 1308 German-style lager are brewed on premises in Warren, on 11 Mile just east of Bunert, at a brewery founded by three friends — Larry Channell, 56, Earl Scherbarth, 74, and Bill Wrobel, 52 — who once worked for the Big Three.

“My partner Earl worked at Ford, and my other partner Bill worked at Chrysler, as did I, and we were home brewing together that entire time,” Channell said. “How that worked out is we would get together every Saturday and try to make really good beer.”

Channell said their hobby started with a home brew kit bought for Scherbarth’s birthday. The brewing process was laborious at first.

“What ended up happening was, we were near death by the end of the day. It was really hard cracking grain, doing all the items. We worked 12 to 14 hours and ended up just having 10 gallons of beer at the end of that time,” Channell said. “We thought that might be the end of it, but we kept on working on it; and two weeks later when that beer came out, it tasted really good.”

That experience in the early 1990s became the inspiration for more beers made with different ingredients and with design modifications to the home brewing equipment.

“It got to the point where we went from three people, actually four, working 12 hours or so at a time or longer to make 10 gallons of beer, and then we were able to do, by the time we were done in about six months, one person brewing 50 gallons of beer by themselves while the other three of us sat around and drank,” Channell said. “So it worked out pretty well, and we did that by just redesigning the process over and over.”

By 1997, Channell said he and his friends were looking at starting a business. They considered working with computers or printing, but eventually decided on a brewery, even though it was originally considered an off-the-wall idea.

“Eventually, my partner mentioned why don’t we start a brewery, to which we responded, ‘Bill, that is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life,’” Channel said, admitting that soon after the men found their niche in the brewing business by crafting a wide variety of fresh, high-quality beers.

Dragonmead opened in May 1998 and now boasts 52 taps that typically pour 47 beers and five sodas made there by the brew staff. 

“Our objective is to brew every style of beer that we make and make the most styles in the world, bar none, and to brew it exactly as it would have been brewed when that style was most popular,” Channell said. “Every beer has a slightly different orientation, and we try to make it exactly that way.”

The process starts in the brewery in the back of Dragonmead’s 2,000-square-foot pub.

Grains from seven countries — more than 50 varieties are used in a given month, more than 70 over the course of a year — are stored in a room above the brewery’s grist hopper and mash tun, where the cracked grains are mashed to make wort, and the lauter tun, where all particulate matter is extracted.

From there the liquid heads to a boil kettle, where hops are added.

The soon-to-be-beer is then strained and moved to a fermenter, where added yeast  reacts with sugars to produce alcohol. It stays in the fermenter for a week to two months until the desired result for the style is reached.

While Dragonmead currently sells beer only in Michigan, their work has been recognized repeatedly on the international stage.

Final Absolution Trippel, for example, won a gold medal at the World Beer Cup in 2006, much to the chagrin of some world-renowned Belgian brewers.

The brewery’s accolades adorn the walls of their comfortable pub that resembles something you might find in England.

“The best part is the notoriety. You can’t find a better business than this,” Scherbarth said, smiling. “I spent 40 years at Ford, and I never had so much attention in my life as I got into the brewing.”

Dragonmead produces about 1,200 barrels of beer annually in comparatively small batches.

Channell said a typical brewery makes batches of 15 barrels at a time, or about 30 full-size kegs. Dragonmead only produces three barrels in each batch.

“We just do it five times as much,” Channell said. “We brew a lot. We brew at least 12 times a week. If you brewed any larger, you could only have six, seven, eight beers on tap until your less popular beer would start to go bad. What we chose to do was to have a high variety and keep 40-50 beers on tap at a time.”


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