From Scratch: Jolly Pumpkin Ales

With a floundering automobile industry and stagnant overall economy, could fantastic artisan ale be the cure to Michigan’s ills? Ron Jeffries would like to think so.

Since he broke ground for his Dexter brewery — an inconspicuous building just off of the town’s quaint Main Street — Jolly Pumpkin has established a brewing repertoire of four regular and 12 seasonal small-craft ales. It’s won multiple best-in-show awards, including a Grand Champion title at the Beer Tasting Championships and medals at the Great American Beer Festival (or what Jeffries refers to as “the Olympics of beer”). Today, Jolly Pumpkin is sold all over Michigan and in more than twenty other states.

Not bad for a company that’s barely three years old.

"From start to finish, lots of work goes into small-craft brewery," explains Jeffries, who runs his business with wife Laurie, 17-year-old son Daemon and close friend Sean Brennan.

Despite the industrialization of larger brewing companies, beer is essentially an agricultural product, much like bread, he said. And just like the bread-making process, in creating beer, it’s what you put into it that counts. For Jeffries, that means at least six days a week at the Jolly Pumpkin site and all natural ingredients into his ale.  

"Before you make a new recipe, you want to know what the beer tastes like in the end," Jeffries says. "You think of how you want a beer to taste and work back to the raw materials [at the beginning]."

Some of Jolly Pumpkin’s best-known brews include Bam Bière (a deceptively simple golden ale named one of the nation’s 25 best brews by Men’s Journal) and their spicy amber ale, La Roja, which took home the gold at the 2005 Beer Tasting Championships. But some of the brewery’s most inventive (and best-selling) haven’t won awards — yet.

One such brew, the Luciernaga, is aged for 12 months in oak before even hitting the shelves — or lips — of pale ale lovers. The sweetly sour Perseguidor, created earlier this year, is a selected blend of brews from different barrels. Even if the recipe was replicated, Jeffries said, no other batch of Perseguidor would taste quite the same. The two are part of Jolly Pumpkin’s 12 seasonal offerings, and their names are probably a reflection of their creator’s years at the University of Michigan.

"I just have a very strange kind of brain that takes words in and sometimes puts things out," jokes Jeffries, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English literature and also attended graduate school at the university. Another indicator of his right-brained mind: Jeffries calls brewing a creative enterprise, much like painting or sculpting.

Sixteen years ago, Jeffries became interested in brewing science after a friend of his attempted to start a home brewery. Over the next decade, he put in time installing brewpubs, training brewery workers and consulting for Schelde Enterprises, which still contracts him to do retail work for Ann Arbor’s Grizzly Peak brewery and grill.

The dream of opening up his own brewery was always the end goal — but the dream didn’t always have such a distinctive moniker.

"We started writing business plans for [the brewery] 10 years ago, but didn’t always have a name for it," Jeffries says. "We came up with a lot of good names, and Jolly Pumpkin was the goofiest — it’s more of a play on the Jolly Roger than any sort of squash."

Jeffries himself is appropriately piratesque, with wild black hair, a lanky build and gold earrings. Similarly, The Jolly Pumpkin design aesthetic is a fusion of high-seas imagery and Halloween gothic. The company’s jagged logo recalls the lettering in Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas, and the beer labels feature artwork by Adam Forman, an artist formerly based in Ann Arbor who now does film concept work out in L.A.

Forman’s fantastical style — often featuring jewel-colored nymphets, treasure chests and the like for Jolly Pumpkin — makes Jeffries’ beer bottles stand out, and has also successfully pitched a movie or two. He contributed concept drawings for the upcoming film adaptation of 300, the Frank Miller graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae.  

"Sean saw a scene in the trailer for 300 and said ‘Hey, it’s the Bière de Mars label!’ " Jeffries recalls. The label features a broad-sailed ship perched on a nasty looking wave — and so does the movie trailer.

But there’s more significance to the success of Jolly Pumpkin than the awards it wins and its sensory appeal. Jeffries sees an opportunity to help remake Michigan’s economy.

"We put a lot of money into the economy," Jeffries says. "Brewing is a noble enterprise in a lot of different ways — it’s humanitarian, really." Local breweries and brewpubs pump tax dollars back into the state; they provide jobs and, increasingly, tasty, award-winning ale.

Though overall sales for microbrews in Michigan aren’t on par with the Pacific Northwest --historically known for craft beers-- there are now over 70 small breweries in the state and the number is growing. The craft beer industry already generates significant tax dollars and could provide more if the state decides to hike beer taxes to make up for this year’s budget deficit.

Could Michigan become the new go-to state for microbreweries? Robust sales in other states and raves from local taverns suggest Jeffries and his ales are doing just that.

Ashley’s on State Street in Ann Arbor — a favorite watering hole for University of Michigan students and locals alike — carries a variety of Michigan brewed beers, including Founders, Short’s, Bell’s and New Holland. While Jolly Pumpkin is a much younger enterprise than a brewery like Bell’s (which was established in 1983), Ashley’s keeps several of its beers on tap.

"We try to keep as many microbrews from around here as we can," bartender Kate Raw says. “People are inclined to buy Jolly Pumpkin because it’s so local.”

Assistant beer buyer Monica Mooney adds, "Every time I’ve recommended the La Roja, the person I’ve recommended it to loves it… it’s the staff favorite."

Jeffries is grateful Jolly Pumpkin has won so many fans but seems a bit surprised by their enthusiasm. "The structure of our beers is a niche in the niche beer world," he chuckles. "Who’s drinking sour Belgian ale?"

Apparently a lot more people than you’d think.

Kimberly Chou is a freelance writer living in Ann Arbor.


La Roja - a spicy amber beer

Ron Jeffries

Draft at the tasting room at Jolly Pumpkin

Laurie Jeffries

Wooden barrels and packaging supplies at Jolly Pumkin

Photographs by Peter Schottenfels - All Rights Reserved
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