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Mitten Brewing Co. prepares for grand opening with creative brewmaster

Robert Wanhatalo is brewmaster at the recently opened Mitten Brewing Co. He talks about his apprenticeship at The Hideout and the joys of brewing in Grand Rapids.
Robert Wanhatalo inspects some hops.

Robert Wanhatalo inspects some hops. /Ryan Hagerman

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Mitten Brewing is located at an old firehouse building.

Mitten Brewing is located at an old firehouse building. /Ryan Hagerman

/Ryan Hagerman

Robert Wanhatalo loves to brew. He has been brewing for several weeks to prepare for Friday's grand opening of Mitten Brewing Co., making more of the brewery’s signature beers, like the peanut butter and chocolate Cracker Jack Porter, but has also been experimenting with other recipes. Wanhatalo loves to tinker with recipes and explore new flavors.

“Early on I learned recipe formulation . . .  and as I grew more comfortable in that regard I would play around with things a little more, just trying things out,” he explains. “Sometimes when messing with adjunct flavors, you can come up with something really, really good and crazy, or it could be the worst beer ever.”

Wanhatalo is the brewmaster at Mitten Brewing Co., located at 527 Leonard St. Mitten Brewing Co. is a Detroit Tigers themed nanobrewery and pizzaria that opened on Oct. 25. Located at an old firehouse on Leonard Street, the brewery had its “sneak peak” while the Tigers were playing in the World Series.

One of the joys of working at the Mitten Brewing Co., Wanhatalo says, is the establishment's atmosphere, which includes listening to the World Series “cranked all the way up” while brewing in the back.

“Those things make it fun,” he explains. “I look at people in offices, doing the same thing every day. Here, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Wanhatalo never had scholastic experience with crafting beers, but that didn’t stop him from learning the craft. He first started brewing at The Hideout as an assistant brewer. When the owner of the Northeast side brewery offered him a position while he was in college, Wanhatalo dropped everything and accepted the job.

“I get a call—I was in a final exam—and Ken McFale, who was the former owner of The Hideout Brewing Co. called me up and said, ‘Hey, want to come out and brew with me?’" Wanthatalo recalls. "I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ So that day I didn’t sign up for any more classes. I called my job and said, ‘Hey, I’m giving you my two weeks notice--I’m gonna go brew beer.”

Before working at The Hideout, Wanhatalo had no experience brewing. Now he has been brewing for three years and has worked in a head brewing position for one year.

“[Ken McFale] was really taking a chance with me coming in there, having never done it, not even on a homebrew scale, and basically just took his time [with me],” Wanhatalo explains.“I am forever grateful [to] him [for] just taking his time, just showing me everything, and making it understandable and comfortable.”

Wanhatalo appreciates his learn-as-you-go experience, but he also thinks that a more scholastic approach can be beneficial.

“I can see [the advantages of] both,” he says. “Honestly, I would like to do a year of schooling and develop certain aspects of my brewing skills. But right now, I’m good with what I got.”

Wanhatalo also suggests that some lessons are only learned through hands-on experience.

“I can also see an advantage where I started, diving in head first and not looking back,” he says. “You learn from your mistakes, but you don’t want to make mistakes, so you pay a lot more attention. That’s something you don’t learn at school. You learn that on your own.”

Wanhatalo has also enjoyed being a part of the greater brewing community in Grand Rapids. Occasionally, the breweries come together for community projects.  He specifically mentioned the upcoming Winter Beer Festival at Fifth Third Ballpark.

“That’s the fun about it," says Wanhatalo. "It’s us doing a citywide high five, and I think it really piques the interest of the consumer when they know how closely together we work.”


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