BIG RAPIDS — Jim Crank took a risk when he hired his brewer for Cranker’s Brewery.

When he began looking into expanding his Coney Island operation into the brewing world, he was interviewing professional brewers from some of the largest breweries across the country, including Sierra Nevada, Gordon Biersch and Rogue Ales.

These brewers came in, wearing work shirts with patches acting as points of pride from their work in the industry.

One brewer stood out, but it took some time to find him.

Upon Adam Mills’ arrival, Crank walked into the room and couldn’t find him. Mills was in a suit, a far cry from the other’s choice in clothing.

Mills was the last interview for the head brewer position and didn’t even sniff the 10 years of professional brewing experience Crank was seeking. He was a homebrewer.

“He comes in and has a suit and tie on, it’s, ‘Hi Mr. Crank, this that and the other,’” Crank said. “He didn’t fit the bill.”

Crank said he’s not sure how it came up, but he found out Mills is Italian and their views on food and beer being crucial to each other matched up well.

One of the requirements of the interviews was for the brewers to bring their six best beers and Crank said Mills’ were the best across the board.

Then, Mills invited Crank and his wife to his house for dinner to show him more beers.

At Mills’ house, Crank’s mind was made up as soon as they reached the dinner table and the three hyper kids running and jumping around the guests became angels.

“This guy knows what he’s doing,” Crank said. “It’s been a great relationship and he’s family. He’s like a son.”

The risk paid off and the close relationship hasn’t caused any detriment to the product, which has found its way on to the market gradually since production began in 2012.

 

The beer is beginning to show up on more shelves in West Michigan, but the Big Rapids-based brewery has also had great success in the Detroit market, according to Crank, as the strong reputation of longtime West Michigan IPAs such as Founders Brewing Co. Centennial IPA and Bell’s Brewery Two Hearted is more easily overcome on the East side.

Several beers can be found packaged throughout the state, including Dark Cherry Wheat, Bulldog Red, Coconut Porter and Professor IPA. A canned version of the Professor might be in the works soon as well.

Professor is one of Cranker’s points of pride. And the IPA with massive West Coast influence from Crank’s travels in the 1990s isn’t a slouch.

Crank said he’s blind tasted the Professor against several nationally recognized IPAs on three occasions with 12 drinkers. The closest session was 9-3, with Cranker’s winning out.

The test might be a bit biased, but the beer is crisp and clean, an attribute Crank gives to Mills strongest quality.

“He is the closer,” Crank said. “This dude knows how to finish a beer as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. There are brewmasters that are better, but a lot of it is how he finishes the beer. That’s his specialty.”

Crank pushes his production team to brew as much as possible, but he said he wouldn’t ever ask Mills to cut corners, not that Mills would do it.

“If I told him to, he would let me know that he doesn’t agree with that,” Crank said.

Last year, Cranker’s brewed approximately 4,000 barrels and it hopes to hit 6,000 barrels by the end of 2015. Distribution is expanding rapidly, going from 24 Meijer stores to more than 90 and 50 Kroger stores.

Some additional capacity can come from an expanded facility in Big Rapids, but Crank said the brewery is looking for space to get a 40-barrel brew system with 120-barrel fermenters.

Aside from the 15-barrel brew system in Big Rapids with 30 and 60 barrel fermenters, there’s also a 2-barrel system at their Grand Rapids restaurant, which recently made the switch from Coney Island to authentic Mexican and barbeque. A Cranker’s restaurant also can be found in Mount Pleasant.

Crank has come a long way since he and his wife were first looking at breweries such as Big Buck Brewery in the 1990s. Then, he saw the market wasn’t ready for him to start a brewery, so he waited. He waited nearly 20 years before it was time, and then decided to grab the market.

With that in mind, Crank and his team look to continue making beer they like and believe consumers will latch on to.

“I’m in it for the love of the beer, the love of the culture,” he said.