MARQUETTE — Blackrocks Brewery’s production site is fully equipped with a 20 bbl brew house, five 40 bbl fermenters, canning equipment and a ping pong table for downtime.
But when co-owners David Manson and Andy Langlois started the operation, they never anticipated their brewery to receive such a positive response. Now, with the new production site having opened in September, the brewery is growing at a steady pace, keeping up with the demand of its distributors, retailers and customers.
As is the case with many brewers, Manson and Langlois started brewing beer in a basement. Both working for the same pharmaceutical company at the time, the two only dreamed of opening their own place in conversations had over the mashing process. When they heard the company they worked for was going to start laying off employees, they decided it would be the perfect time to take the plunge.
The pair entered the craft brew game when local breweries Jasper Ridge and The Vierling had been well-established, but they wondered about the local interest in craft brewing.
“Jasper Ridge and The Vierling were holding down the fort,” said Langlois, “but we didn’t really know if craft beer would catch on in Marquette.”
“I think we underestimated it though,” says Manson. “We really thought there’d be a lot more Miller/Bud type of people. But in fact [craft beer] is huge; it’s a bigger market than we could have realized.”
Still, rather than catering the styles of their beer to the tastes of those they expected to be their customer base, Langlois and Manson decided to make the recipes that piqued their interests.
They didn’t expect the response they received.
“[The customers] who heard about it came in and got caught up in it. They came in asking for what was closest to Bud Light and now they’re our biggest hop heads,” said Manson.
The brewery’s taproom is located in a small house on Third Street. The ceiling is covered with handmade mugs, the bottoms of which feature a variety of clever mug-club-member nicknames. The tap handles are a miscellany of found objects, including a hockey stick handle, part of a baseball bat and a microphone. Their eight taps feature the three mainstays — 51K IPA, Coconut Brown and Grand Rabbits Cream Ale — as well as five frequently-changed experimental brews.
The interest in Blackrocks brews isn’t slowing down, and has spread throughout Michigan. With the new production site, the brewery has increased capacity for brewing and distributing as well as room to grow. The cozy taproom in the ground floor of the Third Street house is becoming too cramped. With the additional space their new production site provides, the brewery is adding seating in the upstairs portion of the house, which previously had been used for office space and storage.
Rather than having a long-term plan for where their expansion will take them eventually, Manson and Langlois prefer their growth to be steady and organic.
“We have a vision, but it’s not anything we’ve spelt out into a full-on corporate vision document,” says Manson. “We’ve always kind of grown where it organically feels right.”
The brewery may not necessarily have a plan for where their growth will take them in the long run, but Langlois and Manson make their decisions based on a few key priorities.
“We base a lot of things on what’s fun. As long as it’s fun, then we’re usually doing the right thing,” says Langlois. “Not that we don’t work hard, we work our butts off,” he adds, “but if the labor of love is lost and it’s no longer fun, then we’ve gone down the wrong road.”
Ultimately, Langlois and Manson want to do their best to represent Michigan beer.
“There’s a responsibility to represent not only U.S. craft beer, but specifically Michigan is really getting on the map,” said Manson. “I mean, sure we could have used half the amount of hops or gotten a cheaper version of some of the grain, but we want to make sure we’re representing. We’re not just some hicks in the U.P. who are jumping on the trend. We’re very passionate about the beer and the industry.”