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When the mash water has heated long enough, Short sets up a ladder next to the mash tank, removes his glasses and one of his two T-shirts and climbs up to the rim of the tank. “This is the ass kicker of the day, also known as the Joe Short physical fitness program,” he says. He shoulders a 50-pound bag marked Briess Malt Ingredients Co. Malted Barley, cuts open the top and pours it into the tank, and then another and another, until he has poured 550 pounds of malt and barley. The enzymes that will activate as a result are key elements in the alchemy that will create an enticing brew from the murky liquid now soaking what looks like a giant vat of oatmeal.
He then grabs what looks like a slender canoe paddle, shoves it into the mash and stirs the dense mix of wet grains. Steam rises from the tank and curls his hair, beads on his face. “Smell that rye?” he says. Sweat soon runs down his arms. The veins across his forearms and biceps swell with the effort.
Suddenly Short stops stirring and cocks his head. “What are we listening to now?” he asks his assistant brewer, Steve Ison, the first person to last more than a year working in the brew house with Short.
“A little Howling Wolf,” Ison says.
“Howling Wolf, all right,” Short says, and resumes pushing the mash around in the tank.
After a while, sweat stains the back of Short’s shirt. Then he says abruptly, “That’s it. We’re mashed in,” and climbs off the ladder. But five minutes later he’s on the ladder again, this time pushing a thermometer into the steaming mix.
Not that Joe Short recommends it, but beer-making eventually won out over college, and in his senior year he dropped out of Western Michigan University, where he’d been studying to be a shop teacher. Examples of his woodworking still decorate the pub: a giant toy box, red seats from a Cadillac mounted on wood frames, crates for the displays, the bar itself.
Out of college, and having grown up in Rapid City, Short gravitated back North, taking a job with Traverse Brewing in Williamsburg and working there six months. He moved back to Kalamazoo to pursue opening a microbrewery in St. Joe, but it didn’t pan out. Then he landed at Michigan Brewing Company, near Lansing. “I worked for Dan Rogers there. He had more scientific and technical information than anybody else I’d met in the industry,” Short says. Their mutual appreciation for good beer formed a bond. “The guys there would say, ‘Hey, Dan really likes you; but Dan doesn’t like anybody.’”
When a manager from Jackson Brewing Company (no longer in business), in Jackson, called Rogers to see if he knew of any promising young brewers, he recommended Short, then 21 years old. He spent three years in Jackson developing his brew technique. “I went from being a C- brewer to being a B+/A– brewer there.”
But still he had a desire to own his own place, and when a relative told him the hardware store in Bellaire was up for sale, he peered into the windows on Thanksgiving night, 2002 and knew he’d found his brewer’s home. “I thought it would take $30,000 and three months, but $250,000 and 18 months later we poured our first beer,” he says. That night, he and two good friends who helped build the brewery sat in the Cadillac seats and enjoyed the fruits of their labor.