Ernie Richards: Grand Rapids Brewing Co.'s Sparkle Queen
“What good is sanity?!”
That was the first thing out of Ernie Richards’ mouth when I showed up to interview him, after having commented about how impressive Grand Rapids Brewing Co.’s draft list looked. He laughed from his belly partially in self-reflection and part exhaustion, which made his salt and (heavier on the) pepper beard move, just a little. His eyes, although caught under the shade of his flat-brimmed baseball hat, gleamed with kindness behind the glare from his black-rimmed glasses. He offered me a beer, poured one for himself, and then pulled back the curtain to expose the methods behind his playful madness.
Before taking over the head brewer position at GRBC in early 2017, Ernie brewed on the opposite corner of the same block at the original HopCat location, a sister property in the BarFly Ventures family. Before brewing at HopCat, which he admits was “pure luck,” Ernie didn’t have a single batch of brewed beer to his name.
He earned a degree in genomics and molecular genetics from Michigan State University, but wearing a stark white lab coat for the next 30 years wasn’t going to cut it. His exit internship amounted to him “hanging out with boring people, culturing algae colonies, and screening them for fat production,” while still paying down his student loans. He laughs, “I wish I would’ve found out what lab life was like before I spent all those years and poured all that money into it.”
Fortunately, his comprehension of organic chemistry and microbiology would ultimately lend itself well to a proficiency in brewing. He’s able to reflect on what he’s been able to apply from his education, “Whereas most people learn how to homebrew first, and are able to grasp the functionality of it, and then progress to the more technical aspect, I learned the process backwards.” There’s still part of a sweet, innocent nerd in him that justifies his journey, “Brewing is a beautiful way to manifest the science component of what I paid for without having to be restrained in a lab.”
Ernie seems much more comfortable in his current role wearing broken-in jeans and a T-shirt embellished with a cuddly raccoon, holding a stemless wine glass filled with a barrel-aged sour. Speaking about his years in the hospitality/service industry, surrounded by his type of colleagues, “It’s so rad because you work with the weirdest, most eclectic, colorful people.” While enduring at an upscale fine dining restaurant, hating that he had to “wear a fucking tie,” a buddy of his tipped him off about a new craft beer bar in downtown Grand Rapids that was holding open interviews.
He walked into HopCat hoping to get an interview, but showed up at the wrong time. Instead, he bumped into two guys checking out the place, and struck up a casual conversation with them about Belgian beer and jazz clubs in Chicago. He had no idea who they were, but says, “They were super cool.” After he told them why he was there, they introduced themselves. Mark Sellers and Garry Boyd, the owner and ringleader of HopCat, respectively, were instant fans of Ernie—so much that they offered him a bartending gig on the spot.
Since opening in 2008, HopCat has seemed to have birthed a litter of sought-after brewers who have all since been adopted by new homes. Before Jake Brenner, who also had a tenure on HopCat’s modest 3-barrel system, went on to open GRBC in 2012 as their inaugural head brewer, he was pulling double-duty bartending on the weekends alongside Ernie and Bobby Edgcomb. While these three were counting their tips and drinking beer after their shift one night at close, Jake told them that he was moving next door to GRBC. Confident in what he saw in Ernie, Jake casually nudged him to take over brewing in his place at HopCat. Perhaps lubricated with slightly impaired judgment, Ernie accepted and told Jake, “Yeah, sure!” When Ernie woke up the next morning to a text from Jake that said, “You’re still coming in on Monday to learn how to brew, right?”, confirming Ernie’s verbal commitment, Ernie thought, “Fuck. What did I sign up for?”
In hindsight, Ernie is happy with his decision to take the leap into brewing because he had gotten his fill with bartending, “It starts to wear on your soul a little bit.” Bobby soon started brewing with him at HopCat—until Jake recruited Bobby as his assistant brewer at GRBC. Ernie, now unsupervised, was left to his own devices, responsible for brewing solo at what was becoming one of the most recognized and respected brewpubs in America. No pressure, right? There’s something to be said for picking the person with the perfect amount of intrinsic motivation to do the job right—to do the job well, coupled with being a little bit weird. Just enough to keep things from getting too safe. Ernie was that guy.
His uninhibited knack for harnessing weirdness now had an outlet. Ernie got to “venture down deeper into the rabbit hole” of fantastic creativity. He says the freedom HopCat trusted him with was “probably one of the most ideal scenarios I could have ever asked for. It was truly the best learning experience for me.” He wasn’t entirely an island. “I pretty much had an entire bartending and service staff who were well-trained critics, who were available to me all the time. They were really open and honest with me about the beer. If they didn’t like something [I brewed], they were awesome about being objective and constructive. They know what good beer is supposed to taste like, and categorically where it’s supposed to be stylistically. If I was off, they let me know.”
The OG Grand Rapids HopCat is currently the only location out of the anti-chain chain’s nearly 20 locations that brews its own beer on top of having a well curated draft list. With almost 50 national and international taps always rotating right next to his own, Ernie had serious benchmarks by which to judge whether he was going in the right direction. “When you’re putting up a tap directly next to similar beers that are wildly popular—known by everybody, you have to be on your A game.” It was 48, give or take, constant reminders for him to strive to be better. “If you’re only surrounded by your own [beer], you don’t have anything to shock you out of your own bubble of what’s comfortable.”
Fast-forward to late 2016/early 2017. Ernie had been the sole brewer at HopCat for over five years when Jake tells him and Bobby that he’s been offered a professor position in the brewing program at Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College. All three guys had become beer brothers, bonded over brewing, so “neither of us could’ve been upset with Jake in the least for taking advantage of an amazing opportunity—for himself, and his family,” Ernie supports. Garry, one-half of the executive team who originally hired Ernie, invited Ernie to inherit Jake’s position as head brewer at GRBC, reuniting him with Bobby, for critical support.
As most things do, the timing happened for a reason. Ernie felt as though his head may have been scratching the metaphorical ceiling of what he was able to accomplish at HopCat, with its system’s very specific limitations. Of what he was able to achieve at HopCat, Ernie says was “the equivalent of competing in a full-grown adult’s BMX race while riding a little kid’s Strawberry Shortcake Huffy. So, the fact that I was able to brew beers that were in comparable range with some of the country’s biggest breweries, with relative consistency, and find ways to fine-tune that system to compete with them was pretty humbling.” In Ernie’s place now at HopCat is Ben Bagby, a homebrewer and former Kalamazoo HopKitten, who earned the job after an internal company wide brew-off challenge, of sorts.
Now, nearly a year into brewing at GRBC, Ernie seems right at home to be reunited alongside his better half. However, Ernie’s now brewing on a system that’s about five times larger than HopCat’s, so both he and Bobby have had to, in a sense, relearn their jobs and how to work with each other. Ernie’s an obsessive tinkerer, and Bobby is a “master of consistency.” Ernie acknowledges, “I’m very aware that I can’t just leave anything alone, and since Bobby’s a wizard with so many aspects of that system, I’ve had to let him teach me the intricacies of it. He’s got the patience of a saint. He’s like a brother to me, and in some cases nicer than a brother probably would be. Mentally, strategically—Bobby’s the voice of reason. My bread and butter is taking risks, but he calls me out when it’s probably going to end poorly. I know ‘assistant brewers’ are way too often not given the credit they deserve, but shit seriously would not get done at the level we’re doing it if it wasn’t for him.” Honestly, they’re so damn adorable together.
Coming off of GRBC’s second annual ArtPrize submission, this year’s Camp Rapids, Ernie and Bobby probably won’t have the luxury of slowing down anytime soon. Teases in the local press, recent public feedback, and internal staff support of the current beer program seem to be unanimous: the beer is good. Flattered, Ernie says, “It’s been really cool to watch the staff come together around the beer Bobby and I are making.” Still, they can’t get complacent. They try to approach their production schedule with a little more intentionality than what Ernie was used to at HopCat (especially in its earlier days), because at GRBC they have 18 taps to fill with consistent integrity.
The clientele, generally speaking, is noticeably different at GRBC than it is at HopCat, but Ernie and Bobby can use that to their advantage. Unlike HopCat, “GRBC can’t be so willy nilly with our beer because we don’t have a national lineup to pick up the slack if we screw up. What we brew and put on tap is entirely who we are. There’s a lot more weight put on the decisions about what we brew.” When asked if that adds any additional pressure, Ernie takes it in stride, “Yeah, definitely, but it translates to a healthy pressure—to ensure that every beer we put on is worth it.” That hasn’t swayed Ernie’s inherent urge to still pull off “wild and crazy shit.”
Their current draft list represents a dichotomy, yet is complementary. It’s a well-balanced lineup, grounded in safe, gateway styles like their mainstay IPA, brown, stout, and Hefeweizen. Its other half is a trip, appropriately offset by plenty of “weird shit” for the curious. For those who crave the peculiar, chase after hybrids like their bourbon barrel-aged dark strong ale blended with a Flanders red, a bourbon barrel-aged barleywine with cocoa nibs and vanilla, and one of Ernie’s ever-rotating signature funky saisons or fruit-forward sours. GRBC’s barrel-aged portfolio is evolving, “almost to an impressively annoying level,” Ernie says, noticeable by the volume of barrels starting to squeeze the relatively modest space of their brewhouse.
There should always be room allowed to be playful and test people’s comfort zones. If nothing else, Ernie has been known to keep himself entertained by naming his beers, which can often be a little left of center. Earlier this summer, GRBC proudly released a flamboyant 5.7% sour with lactobacillus fermented with a tropical brett blend, “peached to the far depths of fantasy land,” known as… wait for it… Princess Peach Unicorn Fairy Glitter Sparkle Queen. For Ernie, “It’s a weird social experiment. Names will often change how you approach and perceive that [beer]. Sometimes, these names are designed to be challenge. If you can get over that, and enjoy it—actually appreciate the beer aside from it’s dumb name, then you know what—it’s gotten you out of your comfort zone, and creates a dialogue. I don’t want to get to the point where we’re taking things so seriously, where all we’re thinking is, ‘What can we name this beer to just make it sell the most?’. It’s much cooler when a grown-ass, white, heterosexual male, who can admit he sincerely loves the beer, has to verbally order a Princess Peach Unicorn Fairy Glitter Sparkle Queen.”
Being obnoxiously macho about beer isn’t the only thing that Ernie takes a swing at. “Too much of the cool craft beer world pretends to be aloof to our culture of extreme consumption patterns—that they’re too good to make, or drink, quality lagers and pilsners. When are people going to get worn out by everything having to be so over the top all the time, and just learn to be comfortable with simple and delicate?” He wants to help move the needle. He’d love to see Silver Foam, GRBC’s flagship 4.5% American lager (first brewed in 1893) available year round in cans (it’s currently only available on draft and in 22oz bottles) at a price point that helps contribute to taking a bite out of AB InBev’s market share. “There’s so much more to be said for brewing clean, subtle, laid-back beers that don’t feel obligated to be so intense. To me, it takes more skill to brew a beer like that than it is to just throw as much as you can at it.”
Part of chipping away at the absurdities of what’s considered acceptable is Ernie’s commentary on social media. Social Bot War Pawn, GRBC’s spin on an English Mild, was a subliminal message to everyone overly consumed by social media. “If you look at how people are influenced by it, you start to realize that, before they know it, they’ve become victims of being social media pawns. People will proliferate a story that suits their own internal narrative—essentially planting the seeds to influence others’ perceptions, which will then circle back to affect their own perspective on how they’ll approach a thing. It’s the same with beer. You can name a beer whatever you want to lure people expecting one thing, and then give them another.” For Ernie, he’d like that other thing to be an elevated experience with his beer around a deeper conversation about life.
And then the conversation got ethereal. Probably because I asked him about his thoughts on life after death. “I’m not that narcissistic to say that I think I’ll come back as a human. How are we any better than all the other possibilities? When you’re dead, you’re just dead. If anything, we go back into this vast pool of lifeforce, and we all become the same energy. People have a lot of comfort in believing in reincarnation or life after death, but I think that’s just masking our own fears and inadequacies because death sucks. Maybe we’re caterpillars, and death (or life) is really just our cocoon phase.” When Ernie dies, my money’s on—or, at least my hope is, that he comes back as a Princess Peach Unicorn Fairy Glitter Sparkle Queen, and we’ll all be lining up, very comfortable in our own skin, to order another stemless wine glass of him.