WARREN — Pull up to Falling Down Beer Co., and you might think you turned in the wrong driveway.

What used to house a diner has been revitalized as one of Southeast Michigan’s newest breweries. While it may not look like much from the outside, open the doors and you’ll be treated to great beer and food.

“I always refer back to one of the first Yelp reviews we got — ‘the beer is awesome, the food is fantastic, and the booths and the atmosphere suck,'” said co-owner Mark Larson. “But that’s the general consensus — everyone thinks the beer and food is great.”

Larson, who teamed up with George Lang four years prior to the brewery’s March 29 opening this year, says it was a mix of science and creativity that brought them together.

“(Lang is) more flamboiant and like, ‘let’s see what this does, that does,’ and usually comes out with a great beer,” said Larson. “I took my experience with him, and about 30 books, and went at it.”

It’s that creativity that garnered the brewery’s most popular beer — Ninja Chicken (5.6% ABV), an American Pale Ale that flies out of the brewery whenever it’s brewed.

“Browns are my absolute favorite style of beer to drink…you will always see a brown here on tap,” said Larson.

The 10 barrel system has also given way to some great experimental beers — including a green tea IPA.

But just because the beer is great and food is getting rave reviews doesn’t mean Larson isn’t thinking about a remodel. The team recently completed the first steps to turn Falling Down into a more modern-day brewery by getting rid of the old brick, fast food tiles and replacing it with cement.

Other plans include upgrading to standard pub tables and benches, to create kind of a “indoor beer garden,” according to Larson.

The two owners are also hoping to upgrade the eight-tap system to eventually hold 24 taps, and to start distributing as soon as possible.

For now, though, Larson and Lang are just brewing what they love — for the good of Warren.

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Falling Down Beer Co. is located at 2270 East 10 Mile Road in Warren.

ADA — Gravel Bottom Craft Brewery served for the very first time on Saturday, at its Ada Drive location. The brewpub served roughly 1,000 pints on that day alone, and anticipates more the coming weeks.

Owner, operator and long time homebrewer, Matt Michiels began working on his idea for a homebrew shop around five years ago. By that time he had been brewing his own beer for more than a decade, and decided during his time as a stay-at-home dad that it was time to go back to work, but not in a way that he had before. Previously, Michiels worked in finance and accounting, but felt that returning to the corporate world was less than ideal.

The brewpub served five different beers ranging from a Belgian wit, to a porter with Michigan maple syrup, to a citrusy IPA. A Black IPA proved to be a rather popular choice on Saturday, and the Pale Ale stood its ground as well. Plans for future beers include many styles of beer including sour ales, experimental ales and even some rye and wheat whiskey barrel aged selections, too.

Originally, the brewpub was formulated as much more of a homebrew shop with a 15-gallon pilot system for experimental batches that local homebrewers could enjoy part of the way through their trip to gather supplies or ingredients. However, when Michiels began to analyze the Grand Rapids area market, he quickly realized that the town was ready for a much larger, 100-gallon batch size.

Gravel Bottom is now a place that has something for the beer lover, the brewer and everything in between. Classes and seminars are offered on a wide range of topics, and many of the recipes that are served at the brewpub will be available for purchase in a homebrew-sized ingredient kit.

Additionally, the brewpub will feature recipes from local homebrewers. The first featured recipe — a Grapefruit IPA — is brewed exclusively with hops, barley, yeast and water, but packs a very distinct grapefruit aroma.

While not open yet, the homebrew shop contains a rather wide variety of ingredients, and is stocked with much of the tools and equipment required to make beer at home.

Michiels stated that distribution and bottling of their beer is not part of the plan for the future of Gravel Bottom, but their most valued goal is “to serve the local community in the form of an experiential place to try what’s on tap, and to learn the art of brewing beer.”

Gravel Bottom Craft Brewery and Supply is closed Sunday through Tuesday, but Michiels anticipates expanding their hours in the near future.

GRAND RAPIDS — While it is true that beer is only made of four simple ingredients: Barley, yeast, hops, and water, each beer is uniquely crafted with varying recipes and methods, and each brewery takes a different path to get there.

Founders Brewing Co. opened its brewery for public tours in 2013, and with the help of a very enthusiastic tour guide — education ambassador Gabriel Rains — I was able to get a glance into the company, from its early beginning to its hopes for the future.

Our tour group began our journey in the older part of the brewery, the quaint, 30-barrel system, geared up in close-toed shoes, footies and safety glasses. This extra precaution is absolutely essential to participate in the tour to ensure that no beer is contaminated in any way. Rains regretfully informed us that he was forced to turn down five people who showed up unprepared (so don’t make that mistake).

Gathered around in this first room, Rains began filling us in on the brewery’s operations from the very beginning, starting with the founders of Founders.

Recently out of college, Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers left their careers to pursue the world of craft beer. At first, their beer wasn’t quite cutting it, but after a threat of bankruptcy, they revolutionized their beer in hopes of at least going out with a bang.

This “bang” began selling, and soon enough, they were back on their feet and barrel rolling toward success.

Founders is now the 30th largest brewery and ranked in the top four breweries worldwide by Ratebeer.com.

After describing Founders’ climb to the top, Rains asked the question of which ingredients go into making beer. Although these four ingredients seem very simple — Founders’ ingredients all come from unique sources, and the way in which they go into making the beer is a complicated process.

The tour then led us through an expansion, the kegging, bottling and canning lines (the canning line is brand new, with a hoard of empty cans waiting), and into the final stop which will expand Founders production even further. This all was not without in-depth explanations, stories and a couple of laughs.

The $10 tour is just enough to keep out freeloaders, yet affordable enough to be enjoyed by many. At the end of the tour, each participant is given a Founders pint glass with a ticket for a free Class 1 beer and other Founders memorabilia, which is, needless to say, well worth the cost of the tour.

So whether you love Founders or beer in general, this tour gives an adequate insight into both the company and the craft. If you’re in the area, stop by; otherwise, it makes for a good kick-off to a trip to Grand Rapids and a tour of BeerCity USA.

FERNDALE — Greg Burke knows what makes for a great brewery.

As a former patron of Woodward Avenue Brewers, Burke was immediately attracted to the brewery’s unique look and feel.

“It has a very west coast eclectic feel — it doesn’t feel really corporate or cookie-cutter,” he said. “That’s what attracted me as a customer.”

Now as the WAB’s head brewer, Burke tries to continue the feel he fell in love with.

When he originally started homebrewing in 1994, Burke knew right away that the job was for him. After participating in an apprenticeship program in San Francisco, he helped open Ann Arbor-based Grizzly Peak, and then did the same with Redwood Lodge in Flint.

But WAB, which opened in 1997, has been able to settle him in one location for almost eight years.

While Woodward Avenue is known for its session-like beers, Burke does experiment at times.

“I’ve seen things wildly change since I began brewing,” he said. “I’ve worked hard to really try to hone my skills to produce beers that are unique to the marketplace, and unique to themselves across our draft selection.”

Such is shown by the Czech Engine Light Pilsner, a 5% ABV brew made with Czech malts and Saaz hops.

“I try to use a variety of ingredients — we try to make intelligent choices about hop and malt selections, and see how those integrate into the flavor profile,” he said.

Burke also has some plans for new brews in the future, including the brewery’s first-ever Oktoberfest, which has a tentative name of WABtoberfest. The brew will be released in September, alongside its staple Pumpkin Ale.

And if history tells us anything, WAB will continue to thrive with both its standard and experimental beers. The brewery has been recognized by HOUR Detroit as “Best Microbrewery” in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Woodward Avenue Brewers is located at 22646 Woodward Avenue in Ferndale. MittenBrew.com readers can receive 25% off during the month of August. Click here to download and print the coupon!

When you hear that brewing is a family affair at Eastown’s Harmony Brewing Company, you can’t help but wonder if there isn’t some family feuding involved too. Brothers Jackson and Barry VanDyke make the beer there, and how many brothers can merely exist together, not to say work together, without some friction?

Apparently these two can. Sitting next to each other, talking about their beer and their business, they are the epitome of, well, harmony.

Fraternity means fairness, says Barry. Half the recipes on the tap board are his, half are Jackson’s. The labor of owning and running the business is shared evenly too. This allows them to swap duties and work shifts now in Harmony’s second year, but in its first year, when they both had to work all the time, it allowed them to share the psychological burdens of the job, the stress of a fledgling business. Barry still remembers those late nights that ended with them “falling asleep in the booth trying to talk to each other.”

One of the duties that doesn’t keep them up at night any more is the brewing itself — that is, the physical work of beer-making, the boiling, fermenting, kegging, etc. This falls to Benjamin Isbell, Harmony’s barback-turned-brewery manager. “We quickly saw that Ben had the brain for it,” says Jackson, and they worked to hand those duties off to him.

Isbell is a perfect fit for the position. He’s a hyper-local brewer for a hyper-local brewpub — he can see his own driveway from Harmony’s offices — and he’s someone the VanDykes trust.

That trust is essential. It’s the first thing both he and the VanDykes mention when asked about his role. The VanDyke name is on the line for a product that Isbell makes, and Isbell acknowledges that for such a young business, “every little detail could mean failure — or success.”

Isbell makes sure those details translate to success. His method is simple: “They tell me what they want to happen and I make it happen.”

With Isbell manning the equipment, making things happen at the end of the process, Jackson and Barry can work more freely on the initial, creative stages. They now have time to “do a lot of critical thinking,” says Jackson, and that means they have more time to think up the kind of experiments central to their brand.

Harmony has “the funky stuff,” admits Barry, alluding to beers like the Black Squirrel (a porter brewed with a “peated” malt) and the Star Stuff Belgian Dubbel (brewed with bona fide meteorite dust). “We want to be idiosyncratic,” echoes Jackson.

“Funky” fits a brewery like Harmony, first because it aims to serve the quirky clientele of its Eastown neighborhood, and second because it doesn’t aim to bottle and distribute its beer. Its beers don’t have to rely on mass appeal.

And yet Harmony appeals to a crowd massive enough that its booths and church pews are usually full. Some of their funkier beers, like the love-it-or-hate-it Black Squirrel, might start a few arguments — “which is awesome,” says Jackson — but their tap list is broad and balanced enough for everyone to find at least a few new favorites.

GRAND RAPIDS — It’s no surprise that Barry and Jackson VanDyke are good brewers — they know a thing or two about taking raw materials and turning them into something great.

Before opening their own brewery with their sister Heather VanDyke-Titus, the VanDyke brothers were real estate developers. They renovated several buildings that now house well-known Grand Rapids establishments, including the Meanwhile, the Electric Cheetah and Brick Road Pizza Co.

Now they’ve renovated a space of their own.

Harmony Brewing Company is unique among Grand Rapids microbreweries in that it doesn’t feel like a bar. Though small, it’s airy and open, and you can usually hear yourself speak. The VanDyke brothers wanted to create a family-friendly atmosphere that could serve as a neighborhood pub.  “We’re very intentional about making everyone comfortable,” says Jackson.

That includes Eastown hipsters as well the East Grand Rapids affluent.

Because Harmony is a neighborhood establishment and not a distribution brewery, the VanDyke brothers feel free to experiment. They can put 200 gallons of a certain beer on tap, Barry explains, without worrying about replicating it next month or maintaining a consistent brand. The experimentation has led to some provocative but popular brews, most notably the Black Squirrel, which tastes like a campfire.

It’s worth noting that Harmony is one of our favorite small breweries. It’s got a relaxing vibe but galvanizing beers — a contrast, to be sure, but somehow it all works out. They don’t call it Harmony for nothing.

Here’s what you can expect on a visit to Harmony Brewing:

Brews. An experimental but well-balanced tap list starts on the hoppy side with the Fiddle Stix IPA and runs all the way to the smoky Black Squirrel and the Albius Vanilla Porter. A favorite for this summer is the Cavendish, aged in a cherry bitters barrel and boasting an aroma like that of a good pipe.

Fare. Harmony’s nearly Neopolitan pizzas are some of the best in town; each is made from top-notch ingredients. Standouts include the Good Earth (spinach, mushrooms, caramelized onions, Jarlsberg cheese, balsamic and fresh basil) and the Crispy Pig (pepperoni, ham, prosciutto, mozzarella and basil).

Prices. Most pints are $4, while pitchers are $12. Pizzas run from $10.99 to $14.99 and feed one very hungry person or two moderately hungry people. A build-your-own pizza option starts at $7.99, with bar snacks starting at $2.99.

Atmosphere. The space is bright, airy and relaxed with something of a coffeehouse vibe. The natural light and wooden elements make the place feel modern, as does the wall of Mason jars that take the place of the more traditional steins for mug club members.

Specials. Mondays: All day happy hour. Tuesday–Friday: Happy hour from 2-6 p.m. Tuesdays: $5 cheese pizzas and $6 pepperoni pizzas. Wednesdays: Mug club discounts and $1 off signature cocktails. Thursdays: $10 pitchers after 9:00 p.m. Sundays: $2.50 well drinks.

Location: 1551 Lake Dr. SE in Grand Rapids, right between Eastown and East Grand Rapids.

DOUGLAS — When Scott Farney describes the success of Saugatuck Brewing Company, he breaks down its evolution into three main phases.

First things first — brew. Second, have a pub with good grub. Last, have a banquet room (and name it after a nearby ghost town).

Of course, there’s sales and ever-growing distribution. But Farney, the company’s sales manager, knows it really comes down to the beers and the perfect place to consume said libations.

The eyes of most folks walking through the doors of the West Michigan brewery focus on the flowing tap handles around the L-shaped bar — incidentally about 16 people can belly up on a stool.

Named the Lucky Stone Pub, the bar is surrounded by both tall top and traditional tables along with booths, most often filled with smiling patrons being served outstanding pub grub.

“We have an Irish or English style feel to the place, which is what we’re really going for — a warm, friendly atmosphere where you can taste great craft beer learn about great craft beer,” Farney said. “That’s another part of what we want people to experience right when they walk in.”

One part of the learning experience comes with a brew-on-premise system adjacent to the bar — Saugatuck is the only brewery in the Mitten that has a system where customers can brew their own beer and bottle it to take home.

The other part of learning is the knowledge of the brewpub staff. Bartenders and waitresses are trained to answer questions about each brew just as well as the brewer could (or at least as close as you can get).

”Every single person on our staff knowledgeable on craft beer and all the great food we sell,” Farney said, adding that Saugatuck was recently named in the Top 5 brewpubs for food by Revue Magazine. “If there’s not a brewer here readily available to answer questions, the front line is our servers, our bartenders. When folks come to a brewery like this, they expect — and rightfully so — to be able to have their questions about our brews answered.”

The emphasis on knowledge of its brews shows in that, while Saugatuck boasts an acclaimed food menu, the center remains the first phase in its original plan — the beer.

“There’s great craft beer available throughout the entire state of Michigan,” Farney said. “There is great beer within 20 minutes of any direction of us. I think that good food service and really good tasting food enhances the entire atmosphere and the entire experience of great beer.”

And it doesn’t get any fresher than going to the pub for a pour — the brews come straight to the tap handles from the 10 tanks in the back.

“You are getting the freshest beer possible when you come here,” Farney said. “Saugatuck Brewing Company is all about being a balanced brewery from start to finish. We do lean more toward a balance and drinkability in all our styles.”

One way Saugatuck keeps its true-to-style beers unique is by using a variety of yeasts in the brewing process. Still, the company is never afraid to dabble in the extreme and unique. Its Neapolitan Milk Stout, for example, is unmatched by any other brew.

“We don’t use a house-style yeast strain,” Farney said. “A big part that creates that balance in our beer is managing different yeast strains and styles and — in part— those traditional characteristics and pronounced styles in those beers.”

As far as extreme styles, Saugatuck is known for its frequent limited releases in small quantities. It also has a small barrel-aged program.

“We are also unique in that we are not a one trick pony,” Farney said. “We’re able to go the other way and make the extreme beers just as well as other breweries that are doing the extreme styles.”

Bringing all three phases together has spelled much growth and growing pains for the brewery. When it opened in 2005, Saugatuck started in a smaller building across the street from its current operations at 2948 Blue Star Highway. In 2008, the brewery and pub moved to its larger location inside a building that housed a former manufacturing plant.

And, sure enough, it’s a building with plenty of room for growth.

“We are pretty blessed with an expansion of space to move into,” Farney said. “Right now, our limit is just shy of 10,000 barrels if we were running on maximum capacity.”

Farney said Saugatuck is always working to stay ahead by having a long-term and short-term plan each in place at all times.

“Because of [the] amount of growth we are experiencing, we have to stay ahead of the curve, he said. “So we do have a lot more planning going on, we don’t want the demand to dictate the supply. We want to stay ahead of that in a way that is logistically sound for our company.”

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BREWERY OF THE MONTH DEAL: Saugatuck Brewing Company will be happy to give anyone visiting the brewery during the month of May who shows this article a 10% discount off an item purchased in the pub.

GRAND RAPIDS — It was Opening Day for the Detroit Tigers on Monday, and as expected, Tigers fans packed the house. When the first pitch was thrown, it was standing-room-only; scores of peanut shells already littered the ground, crackling underfoot; almost everyone in sight had a pizza slice or a beer in hand. The crowd was briefly hushed, but then broke into applause as, hundreds of miles away, the ump called ball one.

This was Opening Day, not at the ballpark, but at The Mitten Brewing Company in Grand Rapids. For West Michiganders who, like those congregated Monday, can’t make it to game itself, The Mitten should be a good substitute all season long.

The place emanates a baseball feel. The first seats available upon walking in aren’t at a table — they’re seats from old Tiger Stadium displayed in the lobby. Once inside, Tigers insignias, flanked by vintage portraits of old teams and baseball legends, decorate the walls. The tapboard and the menu complete the baseball theme: Beers like the Triple Crown Brown and pizzas like the Thai Cobb pay homage to the game.

This is all the intention, the “field of dreams” if you will, of The Mitten’s founders and owners, Chris Andrus and Max Trierweiler. Their earliest plans for The Mitten envisioned a baseball-themed brewpub. “We wanted to create our dream place” said Andrus, “the place that we’d like to visit.” That place was a place where people can drink really good beer while watching their beloved Detroit Tigers.

They built it, and they hoped that the fans would come. So far they’ve had to rely more on the place’s organic marketing than on any blowout promotions. Though they initially planned to have their opening day on the Tigers’ 2012 Opening Day, they had to push it back to the World Series more than six months later. As Tigers fans will remember, the Series was painfully short; The Mitten’s first season came to an end just days after it started.

This seemed like a problem for a baseball-themed pub: “Our biggest fear was the offseason,” Andrus admitted. But the placed boomed, and demand was so high that baseball took the backseat. “All we were trying to do was catch up during the offseason,” said Trierweiler.

With no time to market or even showcase itself, The Mitten had to rely on fans to figure things out for themselves. That appears to be working.

David Collins and a handful of relatives — some from out of town — sat down at a table just before the first pitch. Collins had been there once before and noticed that “there’s something about the place that just feels like baseball.” His cousin Chandler agreed, and after a few innings began to admire the pub’s energy. “I’d watch any game here,” he said.

Paul Tufft, a Grand Rapids native, occupied a different table with some friends. He, too, had decided to come for Opening Day based on what he had seen there before. “I figured we’d be among Tiger fans,” he explained. “It’s the perfect ambiance for a game.”

This season, The Mitten will aim to build on the fan base it already has and expand its baseball connection. The brewery has added a chili dog pizza to the menu (Andrus described it as a “a yesterdog, but flat”). It will also have a tap at Fifth Third Ballpark this summer, and will offer $1 off any food or drink item for anyone who brings in a ticket stub from a Whitecaps game. Trierweiler suggests that they might even host a whiffleball tournament in the parking lot before a Sunday afternoon game.

Right now, both the Tigers and the Mitten Brewing Co. are off to a hot start. Even though the Tigers won’t win every game, The Mitten probably will.


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