Just off of the corner of Mound and Chicago in Warren, you will find the humble and hidden Kuhnhenn Brewing Company bustling at capacity most days of the week.
In that brewery, you’ll discover the Kuhnhenn family still doing business in their original location.
The location where Eric Sr. ran his hardware store. The location where brothers Bret and Eric began selling homebrew supplies and eventually the beer being drank today. Kuhnhenn Brewing Company started out as, and still remains, a family owned business in the Old Village of Warren.
Where a hardware store once served a generation of fixers and doers, the brewery now serves a generation full of craft beer drinkers in a different manner.
During the 1990s, Brett and Eric Kuhnhenn took over operations of Lutz True Value from their dad, Eric Sr. Their management of the store coincided with their new found hobby of brewing.
Unfortunately, it also coincided with the opening of many big-box home improvement stores in the area, putting a strain on their business. Foreseeing how the story would play out, Bret and Eric started selling homebrew supplies out of the store, eventually converting it fully to homebrew supply retail shop in 1998.
“There was a time where you could get your screen repaired and get a beer. You could wait for your screen and drink,” explained Bret Kuhnhenn. “It was hard to give up the sales of the hardware shop. In the beginning, hardly anyone would come in.”
In 2001, the brothers officially launched the brewery. But not without the hard fought battle of convincing their father it was the way to go.
“He was against it. He did not like that idea,” Bret said. “We had to drive him around the local breweries and at the time there weren’t very many. We drove him to the local places to get the experience.
“I think after the third place we finally convinced him.”
As the brewery came of age, so did the beers. Brews like Simcoe Silly and Penetration Porter have been around since the beginning, while newer and award winning beers like DRIPA and 4D have helped round out their flagships and truly establish the Kuhnhenn name.
Jon Piepenbrok, VP of Marketing and Sales for Kuhnhenn Brewing Co., said the brewery’s reputation often precedes itself, especially with its customer base.
“While we may appear to be huge, 99.99% of people who come through these doors think we’re so much bigger than we are,” he said. “We’ve kind of unintentionally had this puffer fish or peacock attitude without even realizing it.”
For comparison, Piepenbrok used Founders Brewing Co. as a basis.
“Last year we produced right around 2,000 barrels of beer. This year we’re on track to produce somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 barrels,” he said. “If you compare that to Founders, for example, if I’m not mistaken they’re close to 200,000. So we’re just a fraction the size of Founders. And still just a drop in the bucket compared to ABI or Miller-Coors.”
Kuhnhenn Brewing Co. also feels they face certain geographical challenges that the west Michigan breweries may not.
“In southeast Michigan, it’s been a little more difficult,” Piepenbrok said. “I’ve said throughout my time in the industry, the west side of the state is at least five to seven years ahead of where we’re at in Detroit.”
However, Piepenbrok feels the tide may be turning in their favor.
“Something really strange has happened over the last two years especially,” he said. “The west side of the state has seen it gradually increasing over the last four to six years. Metro Detroit has only really seen it the last 18 to 24 months.”
Along with the perception of being a large brewery, Kuhnhenn is also dealing with the old economic principle of supply and demand. While supply has remained on the same trajectory, the demand trajectory has skyrocketed.
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Because of the production pinch they’re in, the brewery has answered with the purchasing and revamping of a new facility in Clinton Township. But the expansion hasn’t come without its hold ups.
“Anyone who’s ever embarked on an expansion project or any type of construction effort can tell you whenever you think you’re going to open, it’s going to be way later than that,” Piepenbrok said. “Because we’re such a heavily regulated industry there are so many additional governmental bodies that have a say on what we do on a daily basis, it definitely adds challenges.”
Originally scheduled for a 2014 opening, the new Clinton Township location, formerly a home and garden center, will feature a full view into the brewhouse and bottling line, as well as a huge outdoor patio. The brewpub and production facility will feature a full kitchen with a concept menu of gourmet sausages and sides.
“With the production brewery open, that location will produce our core brands not only for distribution, but for both pubs as well,” Piepenbrok said. “That includes DRIPA, Fluffer, Penetration Porter, Loonie Kuhnie, Simcoe Silly, White Devil and maybe a handful of others.
“The Warren brewery will focus on single-batch beers, draft only and more experimental beers.”
Even with the new facility poised to open in 2015, Pipenbrok said it will merely help keep up with the demand Kuhnhenn is facing.
“We’re at capacity now. There’s literally no more physical space in [the Warren] building, which is why we needed the expansion to the new facility,” he said. “Probably within five years of opening the new brewery, we’ll already need another facility. Because there’s no end in sight for the growth of craft beer and locally produced beer as long as it’s good. And we’ll continue to make good beers.”
Beers so good, Piepenbrok and the rest of the crew aren’t shy when it comes to talking about quality.
“I like to walk the fine line of confidence and arrogance. Arrogance is ugly, no one likes that. But, there’s nothing wrong with being confident in what you do and what you produce,” he said. “I have no qualms saying we produce some of the best beers in the world.”
Not only good beers, but meads as well. With the rise of meads across the country, Kuhnhenn plans to stay ahead of the curve.
“We bought two 1,000 gallon fermenters to expand our mead production, with the possibility of using our other fermenters for production,” Bret said. “I see us in the future as possibly being one of the largest mead producers there is.”
Bottling and distribution are very much on the radar for Kuhnhenn. Currently, the brewery does special releases every so often throughout the year. The hold-up for the brewery is the measly four beer bottle filler, which also requires four people to run it.
“We’re, on average, filling nine bottles a minute. We’re talking a ridiculous amount of man hours. There’s a physical toll on our guys,” Piepenbrok said. “They’re waiting on the new place to open because of this sexy new bottling line we have over there, which will bottle up to 250 bottles a minute with three guys running it.”
In order to get ready for a 2015 opening, Piepenbrok said its all hands on deck to get things ready.
“We’re still a very small, family owned company. And the owners are involved on a daily basis,” he said. “Most of the hours of the week, Bret and Eric are over at the new facility getting their hands dirty, wrenching on equipment, installing plumbing, running electrical. That’s what we do. We do what needs to be done.”
While the brewery’s collective eye is on the prize of growing the Kuhnhenn name and getting their beers into the hands of more consumers, the corner of Mound and Chicago will always be home.
“It’s amazing to think that we’re coming from this little pub on the corner of the Village in Warren with a tiny little brew system to going full-scale production,” Piepenbrok said.
“We want people to know where we’re from. This is the Michigan mentality, this is the Detroit mentality, the Macomb County mentality. We’re hard working, blue collared and that’s not a dirty word. That just means we make things and we’re passionate about making them. We don’t do jobs half-assed. We start things and we finish them. We’re just a bunch of normal dudes making some good beers.”