There are more than 4,000 beers from approximately 800 breweries available for sampling at the Great American Beer Festival (which last took place in early October 2019). I do my best to make the rounds each year—trying one or two pours before moving on—but there’s one booth where I consistently linger, tasting most everything on offer. Short’s Brewing Company never fails to serve up something interesting.

“It’s all about being fearless, having that creative freedom, and being willing to try something different.” —Tony Hansen, Short’s Brewing Co.

Short’s was founded in 2002 by a then 22-year-old brewer named Joe Short. Its original brewpub, located in the remote village of Bellaire, Michigan (pop. 1,086), has since quadrupled in size, and the brewery has expanded into a 30-barrel production facility in nearby Elk Rapids. Production numbers have doubled each year for the past decade, according to Chief Innovation Officer Tony Hansen, and Short’s—now the third-largest brewery in the state—has extended its lineup to include ciders and hard seltzers. Growing up has not meant playing it safe, however. Short’s continues to embrace a playful, beer-first ethos characterized by nonstop experimentation and a penchant for following its own whimsy.

“Our entire purpose, from day one, was to make something unique; something special that would convince someone to drive out into the middle of nowhere to try a beer,” Hansen says. “We’re not looking to please everyone, but we are looking to have a beer for everyone. Even if you don’t like 19 of the 20 beers we have on tap, chances are we’ll have that one weird beer that’s perfect for you.”

The pub serves as Short’s “primary R&D facility,” Hansen says, debuting at least two or three new beers each week. Ideas can come from anyone; in the past, this has included kitchen staff, servers, and even a member of the cleaning crew. “I’m the keeper and the filter of the ideas, but they all go on a list and the best at least end up getting a trial in the pub,” Hansen says. “We also take a lot of new products to festivals, events, and tap takeovers.”

While its lineup includes traditional styles, Short’s has gained notoriety for its cocktail- and culinary-inspired beers. Mule Beer, for example, riffs on a Moscow Mule cocktail. Brewers begin with a neutral cream ale base and blend in components of ginger beer and lime, “like a shandy,” Hansen says. “It took a lot of fine tuning to get the mix just right.”

For beers such as Strawberry Short’s Cake and Key Lime Pie, brewers incorporate specialty malts that help build a base of flavor, in this case mimicking the nutty, biscuit taste of pie crust. Key Lime Pie is also dry-hopped with copious amounts of real graham-cracker crumbles. “We have a good grasp on what malts to use, what yeast to use, and what’s going to give us either a neutral profile that will complement the culinary ingredients we’re going to add, or what kind of base beer will give us flavors that amplify those ingredients,” Hansen says.

While Short’s has won its share of accolades—bringing home four GABF medals in the experimental beer category, along with other awards—Hansen says widespread recognition and continual growth aren’t primary motivators. “It’s all about being fearless, having that creative freedom, and being willing to try something different,” he says.