Diagnosed with Celiac Disease, This Brewer Opened a Winery

February 14, 2020

By Jack Raymond, February 14, 2020

We begin our story inside of Mitch Ermatinger’s small intestine. In July 2019, Ermatinger, co-owner of Speciation Artisan Ales, had been feeling something funny in his chest. He assumed it was heartburn, so he swung by the doctor for a routine endoscopy. It found flattened villi, a sure sign his immune system was attacking itself while trying to process gluten. Doctors diagnosed him with Celiac disease and prescribed cutting gluten from his diet immediately. His body could no longer process wheat, rye, and barley—the bedrocks of beer. For obvious reasons, that’s quite the speed bump for a brewer.

Since opening in 2017, Speciation has amassed a loyal fanbase thanks to its portfolio of world-class sours. From a collection of spontaneous beers that capture wild yeast from each Great Lake to a series of Berliner Weisses ideal for Michigan summers, Ermatinger has set the standard for Michigan sours. And then, with wings clipped by circumstance, the future of his role became unclear. He knew his relationship with beer was going to change but wasn’t sure what that change looked like.

“I still remember what it’s like to taste our beers, so it’s not like I’m completely in the dark,” Ermatinger said. “But for how long I can continue to remember, I don’t know.”

It’s difficult to imagine—and trust—the brewer who can’t drink his own beer. The old adage “never trust a skinny chef” has withstood the test of time for a reason. “I mean, I’m not happy about it,” Ermatinger said. “I miss beer. Especially hoppy beer. I’m dying for a Two Hearted.” Nevertheless, he’s figured out a way to take fate’s lemons and make lemonade. Or better yet, grapes into wine.

Prior to Ermatinger’s diagnosis the Speciation team had taken a shine to natural wine and opened their own label, Native Species, in early 2019. With bourbon barrel-aged reds, and skin-contact orange wines, Ermatinger showcased a side of viticulture the causal wino rarely experiences. “I was really inspired by wines I was tasting in Copenhagen and Brussels and Amsterdam,” Ermatinger said. “Probably because they didn’t make me feel like garbage, but also because I loved the idea.”

Flavor-wise, their wine shares adjectives with sour beer—wild, funky, alive—but a key difference is, for the most part, you won’t find a speck of gluten in wine. And so the lightbulb switched on for Ermatinger. Wine could be his silver lining. He started shifting focus from hop vines to grapevines and Native Species evolved from a side project into a full-time gig.

His background with sour beer parallels that of a natural vintner. Both play a role during fermentation that’s more shepard than scientist, trusting the beverage to mature while guiding it in a hands-off fashion. Both create a product that is alive and evolving inside the bottle. That said, natural wine does lean harder into the nothing added and nothing removed mentality, fostering a holistic connection between grape and glass. 

“Many folks think that natural wine has to be organic, but living in Michigan, it's nearly impossible for our growers to be fully organic,” Ermatinger said. “Instead we source grapes from trusted growers that use minimal, effective spraying. Some years they don't need to spray at all, and canopy management is sufficient to control pests and mildew. Other years light spraying is necessary.” 

Domaine Berrien Cellars, a vineyard in Berrien Springs, grows a majority of Native Species’ grapes. Its location in Southwest Michigan has a similar climate to the Northern Rhone region of France, providing a goldilocks zone for grapes to flourish. Rather than rely solely on big-box grapes like Chardonnay or Merlot, Native Species also embraces unsung varieties like Vignoles and Frontenac. It differentiates Native Species from conventional brands while establishing roots in our state’s agriculture. 

This isn’t to say Speciation has kicked its sours to the curb. If anything, quality has improved thanks to its consistent staff input, but fear of public perception kept Ermatinger mostly quiet on the changes with his involvement. He didn’t want consumers questioning the authenticity of beer that its brewer couldn’t taste, but given some time Ermatinger said, “I think we’re at the point now where we’ve proven our beer quality hasn’t dropped so we feel comfortable talking about it publicly now.”

Even if you hadn’t heard the news, the additional gluten-free options at the taproom signalled a change of tune for the brewery. The draft lines, once sour across the board, are now interspersed with cider, piquettes, pét-nats, and seltzer. The latter, however, aren’t your typical trend-chasing White Claw knockoffs. Speciation’s first two canned seltzers use whole fruit (rhubarb and hibiscus, raspberries and orange zest) and kveik yeast for fermentation. The end result tastes complex, tart, full-bodied and, yes, it’s gluten-free. 

Ultimately, while interested in gluten-free alternatives, Ermatinger refuses to compromise to placate his disease. He’s felt pressure from distributors to enter the gluten-free beer market, but he’s hesitant to brew one despite the lack of quality options on the market. “It’s atrocious,” Ermatinger said about the state of gluten-free beer. “Anything I’ve found on the shelf is barely passable if you compare it to a regular beer of the same style. Having the right combination of grains in a form that is gluten free is tricky.” For now, though, his priorities remain elsewhere.

At the end of last year, Ermatinger announced they would move from their tasting room in industrial Comstock Park to a new location in downtown Grand Rapids that houses both Speciation and Native Species. Anticipating a larger, more diverse, and more receptive audience has inspired some big plans for Ermatinger’s Native Species brand. “We want to go for an urban winery feel—a winery that operates more like a brewery—which more wineries should be doing anyway,” Ermatinger said. “There are too many rhinestone castles, too many tasting rooms where you walk in and think, this is geared toward 55-year-old women. Wine can be cool, and we want to try and make it as cool as our beer.” 

Ermatinger wants to demystify wine culture’s stuffy baggage. That means everything from spirit barrel experiments that beer fans understand, to enjoying reds at their “Metal on Vinyl” nights, where you can rub shoulders with other wine geeks who love Lemberger and Black Sabbath in equal measure. 

Outside the taproom, Ermatinger has noticed beer and wine colliding in interesting ways. “A lot of the sour beer fests we’ve been attending have been adding natural wine, and we’ve started doing some wine festivals too, when they find out we’re a brewery ask us to bring beer too,” Ermatinger said. As the walls crumble between industries, Ermatinger finds himself in a happy middle, moving between two worlds. “It is hard to live a meaningful life without Two Hearted, but I’m confident I’ll have one again someday, somehow.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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