Tuesday, 23 September 2014 16:15

Michigan's 'Outlaw' Craftsman of Beer: Bitter Old Fecker exemplifies small-batch craft brewing

Written by  Joe Boomgaard
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Bitter Old Fecker labels were designed by Keith Neltner, the Kentucky-based creative artist behind Hank Williams III album covers Bitter Old Fecker labels were designed by Keith Neltner, the Kentucky-based creative artist behind Hank Williams III album covers

Nathan Hukill wants to keep the “micro” in microbrewery.

But judging by the quality of the products he’s making, his Bitter Old Fecker Rustic Ales LLC in Chelsea is going to have to resist a considerable push to scale up production to meet demand.

“I want to keep it small,” Hukill said. “I have no desire to be the next Bell’s or Dark Horse with the volume I’m trying to reach.”

Tucked away in a tiny, unmarked suite in a strip mall in rural Southeast Michigan, Hukill has been brewing up handcrafted, barrel-aged concoctions for just over a year and a half. In that time, he released three highly-lauded beers, each of which defy style conventions.

A veteran homebrewer – “I had about a dozen filled carboys in my apartment at a time for a while there” – Hukill honed his brewing skills for years before going into business.

Hukill calls his small-batch creations “rustic ales” for a good reason: He intentionally wants his beers to harken back to the days when brewers like his grandfather found inspiration in the materials they had on hand at the time. In essence, they used what nature provided them.

Bitter Old Fecker – Fecker is his mother’s maiden name – became a full-time job for Hukill a couple of months ago. He started the company in 2011, but just got licensed as a brewing operation in May 2013. In the meantime, he worked several jobs, including as a butcher. He started in the beverage business by answering a Craigslist ad for a company in Ypsilanti that was looking for help with packaging beer.

Hukill ended up getting the job with Unity Vibration, a startup maker of kombucha beer. The experience helped him shape the business model behind Bitter Old Fecker.

“They were working from a single room in their house,” he said. “I just thought, ‘I could do something like this,’ and I eventually took it from idea to brand to what I wanted it to look like.”

Pick up any of the hand-labeled, hand-numbered bottles of Bitter Old Fecker beers and Hukill’s attention to branding becomes immediately clear. Early on in the process of developing the company when he was trying to figure out its brand identity, he came to an important realization: He wanted his labels to remind him of his favorite Hank Williams III album covers.

When his own versions didn’t live up to expectations, Hukill hit the Internet to search out Keith Neltner, the Kentucky-based creative artist behind musician’s album artwork.

“I told him what I was doing, and he dug the idea,” said Hukill, who lists his title as Head Fecker. “I wanted to get noticed, but we were going to be really small. That’s one of the reasons I got Keith to do the branding.”

Like his favorite punk-outlaw country star, Hukill sets out to produce his own unique styles of beer – conventions be damned. That’s why the brewing process has involved ingredients like rose petals, hickory bark, morel mushrooms, juniper, chamomile, honey and lavender – samples of which are stored in mason jars in the company’s small brewhouse.

The results of the “labor-intensive” brewing process speak for themselves, Hukill said.

“My beers are different by design,” he said. “They’re based on styles people are familiar with … but there’s always some kind of non-traditional ingredient to accentuate the style.”

To date, Bitter Old Fecker has produced three beers, all of which are aged in bourbon barrels in his tiny production space:

    • Strutter, an imperial IPA with chamomile, rose petals, juniper, and honey;
    • Kaplan, an imperial bronze ale similar to an old ale made with morel mushrooms;
    • and Jet, a black ale made with smoked peppercorns and vanilla beans.

 

A fourth beer, which was just released as this report went to press, is Darlin’, a blonde ale made with lavender and charred lemons. He expects to repeat the four beers again next year as seasonal releases, as well as work in other year-round offerings.

Looking ahead, Hukill plans to expand to a 10-barrel system in October to increase his production capacity from the 1,132 bottle-run he produced for his most recent release. He’s also in the early stages of discussions to expand distribution of his beers to West Michigan. They’re currently only available at select retailers in southeast Michigan,

Michigan is a deep market for craft beer,” Hukill said. “I just want to do what I do, the best I can.” 

 

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