Destination: Brewery Terra Firma in Traverse City

In Brewery Review by Karl

This visit has been a long time coming, hasn’t it.

Brewery Terra Firma Visit a2

From the beginning of this site’s existence, I’ve been telling you about the creations that sprang forth from the brew kettles commanded by John Niedermaier. We first encountered his work at Right Brain (we posted snapshots here and here along with a Honey Basil review) where we fell in love with insane beers including the Empire Spear asparagus and stouts featuring cinnamon and spearmint.

These beers were unapologetically weird, but they worked. We knew we had found a fellow appreciator of the avant-garde. Then, when it was announced he had parted ways with RBB, we reported on that too.

Soon after, it was clear that plans were being made for a unique brewing concept taking its cues from the farm-to-table movement. This farm-to-kettle concept would sit on a ten-acre farm south of Traverse City, use flavoring ingredients and hops grown on site, and be the home for the literally hundreds of recipes that Niedermaier had come up with over his decades-long career in brewing.

It would be called Brewery Terra Firma, and it was so anticipated by locals that it had its logo on the wall of Traverse’s beer Mecca 7 Monks since the day it opened, months before BTF had even broken ground. We visited almost exactly two years ago, back in August 2011 to take a look at the farm where all this would happen, long before ground was broken, cement poured or grain milled. Part 1 and Part 2 will give you an idea of what they were working with.

Back then, it was an idea. Now, it’s a reality. We visited, and we can report back that it’s been well worth the wait to get our hands on BTF’s beer.

Brewery Terra Firma Visit 6

The taproom is so new you can practically still smell the paint drying. The plain space is obviously still in the midst of the “moving-in” process; loud and bright and pleasantly airy. 40 silver taphandles adorn the walls, awaiting their inevitable duty dispensing any one of those hundreds of different beers. To start, rather than brew some of the more off the wall stuff, John opted to go back to his roots, and offer a couple of beers from his original gig at the Traverse Brewing Company — the Manitou Amber and the Gladstone American Pale Ale.

We actually first encountered those two beers already getting established on taphandles at bars and restaurants downtown, a surprise of sorts for me since I had been so used to having to travel to his old brewery as the only place his beer was available. “We’re really a production-first facility,” John told me during a quick tour around the brewery. “The stuff for here…that’s for fun.”

This is not to say that the brewery is going to power out barrel after barrel of the more mainstream stuff. While we were there they were working on a massive 9% double brown ale called Brown Donkey Smasher as well as prepping a beer made with orange marmalade, while on draft were options like the Ancho Chile Dutch Double Chocolate Porter (which — and this is going to destroy any idea you may have of objectivity when it comes to me and BTF — John told me was brewed as one of the first offerings specifically for me).

Brewery Terra Firma Visit 5So…what about the beer?

Well…it’s great.

The Bee Hive Honey Blonde, the only beer currently using farm-produced ingredients (they’ve been producing buckwheat honey in farm apiaries from day one) starts light and sweet like your normal above-average blonde, and then finishes beautifully with a kiss of bright honey sweetness that’s not sticky, cloying or otherwise dominating.

Brewery Terra Firma Visit 14

Look at all those pretty colors.

The Ancho Chile Dutch Double Chocolate Porter was lighter than I expected, which is perhaps appropriate for a “summer” porter (is there such a thing? I guess there is now). The balance of hearty porter roastiness, sweet rich chocolate and that tiny itch of chile at the back of your throat was balanced just right, and dangerously easy drinking.

The Pipes & Drums Scotch Ale, released in time for our second visit and not pictured on the above menu, was smoky, caramelly and blissfully hearty, while the Copper Grasshopper ESB — and I know this is going to sound like blatant hyperbole — was probably the best I’ve ever had. (That sentiment was backed up by everyone else who visited with me, for whatever that’s worth.)

John has told us more than once: “I’m only opening a brewery once  — so I’m going to do it right.” It took quite a long time to make it to this point, but it’s very safe to say that Brewery Terra Firma is off to a just-right start.

The best part? Between the boundless number of established recipes and all the inspiration that can come from the farm’s harvests, there’s plenty more to come.

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About the Author


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Karl has written about food, travel and beer for Chicago Magazine, Draft Magazine, Thrillist, Time Out Chicago and more. His book, Beer Lovers Chicago, comes out in early 2017, and if you're buying, he's likely having a porter or a pale ale.