TRAVERSE CITY — There’s been an unlikely smell lingering around the taproom at Right Brain Brewery.
It’s not fresh hops, nor is it the sweet smell of steeping malt, although those scents are readily available in the company’s beers.
Nope, it’s the smell of someone thinking outside the culinary box — it’s the smell of cooking Belgian waffles.
A puff of the sweet, bready smell erupted from one of two waffle irons on the taproom’s back counter Wednesday morning as Chef Mike Meador lifted its lid to extract two cooked waffles.
The squares of crunchy, puffed batter weren’t destined to be drowned in syrup or buried under fruit topping. Meador quickly turned to his stainless-steel kitchen table and laid the steaming confections on a piece of parchment paper and began to layer sandwich toppings on one of them.
“Russell encountered waffle sandwiches at a food truck out in Portland,” Meador said, referring to the brewery’s owner Russell Springsteen. “It made sense. Waffles are bread, so you can put anything between them.”
Meador said at first he first was skeptical about the idea of replacing sandwich bread with the crater-filled breakfast food. He was a chef trained in classic French techniques who graduated from culinary school, interned at a cutting-edge Chicago restaurant, and had worked for some time at Bistro Foufou in Traverse City.
He was looking for a change of pace and had heard the brewery was looking for a chef.
“I’m not going to lie, I balked the minute he said it,” he said.
But that was before the experienced chef took a job offer and began to build the brewery’s menu of off-kilter sandwiches from scratch.
Meador’s chef’s station at one end of the bar and the waffle sandwiches that pass across it each day get plenty of sideways looks from outsiders, but for those familiar with the sandwiches and the brewery, they’re a perfect fit.
The idea to replace slabs of rye or whole wheat isn’t new. Home cooks across the country have done it in various forms for some time, and a few restaurants, including a small chain in Chicago, have commercialized the practice.
Still, it’s a relatively new idea for the Grand Traverse area.
“Everything here is a bit off center,” Meador said. “It just works here.”
Most people associate waffles with sweetness, so there’s a hurdle the brewery must overcome when its patrons first read the menu of six sandwiches. They include combinations like ham and gouda with sun-dried tomato aioli and corned beef with cherry peppers and dead kettle mustard all book-ended by a pair of freshly-cooked waffles.
The large cubes of open space on the face of each waffle create pockets of the juices and sauces on each sandwich, Meador said.
“I would say that’s non-traditional,” said John Hall, a beer enthusiast and assistant brewer at Brewery Ferment. “It certainly sounds interesting and it sounds like something to try. We’ve become a foodie town, so i think people are going to begin trying different things.”
The crusty creations are the brewery’s first entrees and took quite a bit of work to perfect.
Meador worked for a handful of weeks early last summer building the filling option for the sandwiches and perfecting a batter that’s not your typical sweet waffle mix.
He began with a standard buttermilk waffle batter recipe, then removed most of the sugar out. He also replaced part of the buttermilk with beer.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to substitute this with a carbonated beverage and it’s going to blow up,’” he said. “When you add ingredients that don’t really belong, you can have some really wild results.”
But it didn’t blow up and the result is a light and savory substitute for typical breads that carries with it a darker brown color and a subtle malty flavor from the beer.
The sandwiches still are a bit of a hard sell to anybody who hasn’t tried one, but Meador says most customers are pleasantly surprised at his flavor combinations.
“I think people’s first reactions is that it is going to be sweet,” he said.
By the end of the summer, the taproom was whipping out as many as 90 of the sandwiches on busy Fridays and Saturdays. Since then, Meador has introduced a vegetarian sandwich that features arugula, taleggio cheese, pears and roasted pistachios.
And Meador hopes the waffles will be just a first big step outside the culinary box for the brewery that made its name coloring outside the lines.