By Josh Epperson
This is a story about beer. And craft beer at that. Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard it before. A group of friends get together and start brewing beer that tastes like pomegranate or whatever. Well, this one’s different.
This is a story about gaining it all and falling apart. This is a story about hope, fragile as it might be.
To start, let’s meet Michael Brandt. He is a bold, charismatic, passionate man. And today, he is the co-owner of Garden Grove Brewing Company in Carytown. Back in the ’90s Brandt started brewing beer.
“It was like being a pirate,” he says.
With a combination of yeast, sugar, and some organic material, he could make booze. And he got good. He would spend hours poring over beer books and brewer’s manuals. Before long Brandt was the assistant brewer at Calhoun’s Brewery in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
After soaking in all the knowledge he could, Brandt shifted his focus to making wine. Through hard work and relentless passion, he became head winemaker and viticulturist at Naked Mountain Winery, and later he transitioned to a position as assistant winemaker at Linden Vineyards. Brandt was pursing a dream, guided by passion.
They say 85 percent of wine tasting depends on your sense of smell. And for Michael Brandt, it was what set him apart. He could crush fresh grapes in the vineyard, smell his fingers, and understand what flavors he would taste in the glass. And when a glass was poured, he could look at its color and the way it moved, and tell you about the soil in which it grew. It was like a super power. And for Brandt, it defined him.
So it is this version of Michael Brandt – with his magical nose and a job that he loved – who went into the basement of Linden one day in the early 2000s to power wash the machinery.
“I just said to myself, ‘I’m going to clean the shit out of this basement,’” remembers Brandt.
For hours he cleaned. Underneath wine vats, behind old machines, determined to get every bit of dust and grime. And then he passed out. Was it exhaustion? Blood sugar? He came to, but passed out again.
When he was finally rushed to the emergency room, his sense of smell had already disappeared.
In one afternoon Brandt had lost it all.
“I was beyond depressed,” he remembers. “It was like my whole world disappeared.”
The doctors had no idea what happened. There were guesses about black mold or a viral infection, but there was no clarity. One minute Brandt was on top of the world; the next: no job, no craft, and epic depression.
Without his sense of smell, he couldn’t bear the thought of going back to the world he loved if he couldn’t enjoy it.
“I can’t see being a chef without a tongue. I mean, you know how to cook, you can still do it, but if you can’t enjoy the benefits of what you did, it just seems so depressing. … I had to find some other passion,” Brandt reflects somberly.
For three long years he struggled. He got accepted to grad school. No smell. He had a child. No smell. He graduated with a master’s and got a job in research. No smell.
“I had to have a talk with myself. I said: ‘Hey, dude. This happened; that’s it. What are you going to do about it?’ Literally, it was like a light bulb. It was just: move on!”
And it seemed the world he had created was working out.
Until one day in 2009 he passed someone smoking a cigarette. And he could smell it.
Coffee was next. Then gasoline. Then slowly, other smells came.
“I started to work on it really hard. Once it became three or four things, it got pretty ridiculous,” says Brandt.
He would line up fruits and re-teach himself their smells. He would pester his wife, Kara, with questions about what she smelled. He would obsessively use the skills from his days in the wine industry to train himself and hone his senses once again.
Before long he was making batches of beer to see if he could make booze he would actually enjoy. Then he heard about a guy looking for a brewer to help open a new space in Richmond. So he applied. That opportunity became Garden Grove, a small, humble place in Carytown with plenty of beers and a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere.
“I still can’t believe that I’m here right now making beer. I just can’t believe it,” reflects Brandt. “I just couldn’t give up the love. I just loved it too much.” And with this new lease on scent, he’s making beer that reflects his journey. “All the beers here have their own life, their own identity,” he says emphatically.
A tasting at Garden Grove is an experience. Whether it’s a light, crispy pale ale or a deep, rich stout, you’ll always get a drink with a story. It is the story of Michael Brandt. He is the reason why each brew is so complex and unique and full of fragrance.
Garden Grove recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. It’s a huge accomplishment for Brandt and his team. If you have a chance, stop by and try one of their unique brews. And look for Brandt. He’ll be the guy with the big beard and the grumbly voice. The one who just a few years ago couldn’t smell a thing, and now is sharing his dream with the Richmond.