north pier

Jay Fettig, founder and owner of North Pier Brewing Co., is not “from” the beer industry. He’ll even tell you he’s only a mediocre-at-best homebrewer. But, that doesn’t disqualify him from running a successful brewery. While in business school at Indiana University, he drafted a business plan for what would eventually become a Benton Harbor, MI destination.

north pier

Jay Fettig

North Pier came out swinging when they opened in May 2016, during the same weekend the Senior PGA Championship was being played across the street at Harbor Shores Golf Club. Fettig says it was “definitely trial by fire, but we sold a lot of beer.” And, they still do. It must’ve been a good weekend for them to open because it’s not uncommon for golfers to pull up in their carts between holes 13 and 14 to grab a howler to go. They have continued to sell more beer than originally estimated.

Initially, North Pier planned to roll out 800 barrels annually. After the trend Fettig noticed during their inaugural summer in a tourist-heavy Lake Michigan town, and feeling the pinch of struggling to keep up with draft demand in their taproom, he activated a growth strategy. Now, they have the capacity to produce 4,000. They know well enough that they don’t have to max it out all at once just because they can, but have set themselves up to grow into it at their pace. Baked into their existing property is an additional 13,500 sq ft, on which they can build, that would allow them a total of 20,000 sq ft for production. They’re also sitting on a 7,500 sq ft warehouse that will be used as a cold room and a buffer for the miscellaneous.

Fettig’s right hand man and head brewer is Steve Distasio. Distasio, who joined North Pier nine months before they opened, attended brewing school in the UK, and had a tenure at Rogue studying under John Maier. “Hiring Steve was the best move we could’ve made,” says Fettig. Distasio runs a tight and impeccably clean ship. His approach, he says, is to “operate a very small brewery like a very big brewery.” Fettig adds that they’re also conscious about not chasing trends. Out of the 12 beers on draft in their taproom, most are Belgian-inspired.

north pier

Steve Distasio & Jay Fettig

From the beginning, Fettig and Distasio had distribution and ultimately canning on their radar. “If we wanted to grow and do what we had intended, we had to do it sooner than later,” Fettig says of striking while the iron was hot. They partnered with a distributor in November, and are releasing their first two 16oz cans out of their taproom during their one-year anniversary party on May 27—a perfect way to relax this Memorial Day weekend. Two of their mainstays, Buckrider, a Belgian IPA, and The Conjurer, a Belgian Golden Strong, will be the first available off the line. They’ll also release a limited number of 750ml bottles of a saison aged in French oak wine barrels with two different types of Brett. The event is free to attend, but ticket packages that include an all-you-can-eat crawfish boil and po’boys, along with a beer token and commemorative glass, can be purchased via Eventbrite.

North Pier is family-friendly, and welcomes outside food. Although they don’t have any intention to build a kitchen, they have a close relationship with their cash-only neighbors across the street at North Shore Inn who’ll deliver the best burger in town to soak up Drake’s Drum, North Pier’s 12.6% English Barleywine. When the weather’s nice, a garage door in the taproom retracts to create a seamless ebb and flow with their communal deck outside, which is available for private rental during the off-season. However, at the rate North Pier is going, they may not have an off season for a while.

 

Photography: Steph Harding

 

Cider Week GR

The cumulation of Grand Rapids first ever Cider Week ended with a Festival held at a location just as iconic as the Michigan apples our (many, many) ciders are made of—the Grand Rapids Blue Bridge.

The Cider Week GR Blue Bridge Festival was held on Saturday, April 22nd from 2:00 p.m.- 7:00 p.m., complete with live music, over 15 different Michigan cider makers, and a steady stream of sunshine and laughter.

The Michigan Cider Association, formed in December of 2014, exists to “provide short- and long-term significance and value to all members through the promotion and support of Michigan cider.” Michigan boasts the second highest number of US cider producers in the US, and the industry as a whole is expected to continue to grow.

With a venue just as unique as the cider companies representing Michigan Cider, the Blue Bridge was a perfect spot to mingle and enjoy the beautiful weather. Attendance was most likely higher than initially anticipated, and for good reason. For $25, attendees got to take home a commemorative glass and try ten 8oz pours of a wide variety of ciders from across our state.

Cider Week GR

There seems to be a strong trend towards actually tasting the sweetness of the apples itself, without artificially (and overly) enhancing the natural sugars present. I was pleased to be able to try a variety of dry and semi-dry ciders from companies like Acme Cider. David Winick & Lori Tauer started Acme for a simple reason—they couldn’t find any mass produced ciders they actually liked. “People who drank our ciders said they loved it, so we decided to impart on the business part of it. We recently got our license, and we will be building out production, and this is the first event we’ve distributed out of,” shared Tauer

“Our ciders are full of love,” laughed Winick, “We spent a lot of time creating a dry cider with a good balance, and some depth to it. You know, if it pleases us, we feel it’s going to please other people, and that’s the bottom line. That’s why we do it.”

Farmhaus Cider co-owner, John Behrens, made it a point to treat attendees to one-offs and unique, summer-centric beverages. “We brought a bunch of different ciders we don’t usually distribute, like our Hop Crop, (a dry hopped cider with a big, bold mouthfeel) and our Too Cuc, a cucumber rosemary cider, perfect for sitting out on a patio—or a bridge.”

The style of ciders ran the gamut, from the Tequila Sunset Cider, a tequila barrel aged w/ blood orange offering from Acme to Cellarman’s Coffee Cider, made with Ethiopian Limu Coffee and Star Thistle Honey.

As a first year event, it seemed to be a success for both the attendees and the cideries offering their beverages. If you didn’t get a chance to attend, make sure you seek out some of the Michigan made ciders distributed throughout the state.

 
Sietsema Orchards & Cider Mill, The Peoples Cider Co., Vander Mill, Pux Cider, Farmhaus Cider Co., Tandem Ciders, Blake’s Hard Cider Co.,Northville Winery and Brewing Company, St. Julian Winery, 45 North Vineyard & Winery, Starcut Ciders, Virtue Cider, Uncle John’s Cider Mill (Official Page), Suttons Bay Ciders, Corey Lake Orchards, Robinette’s, Cherry Creek Winery , Acme Cider

 

In sharp contrast to a city built on politics—a force with the power to polarize millions, beer just proved to have the strength to do the exact opposite. Nearly 15,000 professionals just converged for a week in Washington, D.C. for Craft Brewers Conference & BrewExpo America®, the industry’s largest annual convention, hosted by the Brewers Association.

We attended because… well, beer, of course. And so did an honorable contingency from Michigan. When I travel to a new city or an international destination, the last thing I want to consume is something I can get back at home. You’ll never catch me eating a Big Mac in Europe (or domestically, for that matter, but you get the point). However, when you see people from all over the U.S. waiting excitedly in line for MI beer, and then bummed when the keg of Two Hearted kicks, it makes you feel proud to be an American, reppin’ The Mitten State.

On Wed, Apr. 12, Michigan Brewers Guild threw a party, Michigan Hoppy Hour, at Capital Lounge, and picked up a generous bar tab that I can only imagine had a few zeros on it. For a couple hours, we hung out with our arms around our friends from back home, and got to watch D.C. locals gush about the beer we have at our fingertips on any given day. It makes you pause, and realize we’re a part of something special—regardless of whether you voted for Trump.

 

To all those from MI we bumped into, saw in passing, or shared a few pints with throughout the week, here’s to you—a shout-out!

  •      Shannon from Michigan Brewers Guild
  •      Jeff from Harmony Brewing
  •      Mitch from Speciation Artisan Ales
  •      Chris and Brendan from Transient Artisan Ales
  •      Rings and Matt from Cedar Springs Brewing Company
  •      Jeff from Rockford Brewing Company
  •      Dave, Francesca, Lauren, and Jason from Founders Brewing Co
  •      Jason, Kate, Jacob, Brooks, and Josh from Brewery Vivant
  •      Chris and Max from The Mitten Brewing Co.
  •      Mike from Cheboygan Brewing Company
  •      Fred, JP, Adam, Mark, and Isaac from New Holland
  •      Tim from Territorial Brewing
  •      Dave from City Built Brewing Company
  •      Stephen from Batch Brewing Company
  •      Brian from StormCloud Brewing
  •      Brad and Matt from Atwater Brewery
  •      Erik, John, and Michael from Pilot Malt House
  •      OpenRoad Brewery
  •      Jay and Steve from North Pier Brewing Company
  •      Matt and Rene from Arbor Brewing
  •      Boyd and Chris from Coldbreak Brewing Equipment
  •      Steve from Hunter’s Handmade Brewery
  •      Brew Detroit
  •      Laura & crew from Bell’s Brewery
  •      Steve from Henry A. Fox
  •      Justin & crew from Hop Head Farms
  •      Brown Iron Brewhouse
  •      North Channel Brewing
  •      Alliance Beverage Distributing
  •      Imperial Beverage


Photography: Steph Harding

b nektar

In its eight years of existence, B. Nektar Meadery has grown steadily, upgrading from fermenting in carboys and 55-gallon food-grade drums to producing up to 150 barrels of liquid a week.

“We just keep getting bigger,” said William McCune, production manager at B. Nektar.

Now, the meadery’s annual festivals draw crowds of over 1200 people to its quiet neighborhood in Ferndale, Michigan.

“The amazing thing is that’s all just people for us,” McCune said. People who want B. Nektar’s unique brand of mead, cider, and beer.

Stop and think how mead, a traditionally heavy, syrupy drink sipped by the likes of Beowulf, could possibly draw crowds that huge in the warmest months of the year.

The answer is in B. Nektar’s one-of-a-kind approach—one informed in various ways by wine making, the craft brewing industry, and traditional mead making. Its effect has been to vastly widen mead’s audience, paving the way for meaderies everywhere.

“Ever since we’ve started, we’ve kind of been seen as the ‘big guy,’” McCune said. “After our success, that’s where you’re seeing all these meaderies popping up across the country.”

Drawing more people to mead called for a little beverage re-branding and finding the right audience.

“We wanted to make something that was drinkable and enjoyable and not too high of an ABV,” said Miranda Johnson, B. Nektar’s marketing director. “Taking Beowulf and Vikings away from it, but also throwing in session meads for easy drinkability.”

Though B. Nektar’s mead making process and tools share a lot in common with wine making, the connections with that industry stop there. The meadery is more interested in engaging the curious palates of craft beer drinkers.

“We want to continue pushing pretty hard to set the precedent for stepping outside of the box in mead, and really introducing it into the craft beer realm of people,” Johnson said.

The meadery is achieving this not only by making sessionable meads and ciders, but also by brewing a few beers. Those selections are only available at B. Nektar’s taproom in Ferndale. With varieties such as a Jasmine Green Tea Belgian IPA and a Sage Lime Witbier, they bear the same experimental style of B. Nektar’s meads.

But simply being experimental and still drinkable doesn’t get you extra points in the Michigan craft industry. B. Nektar surpasses that by making nuanced flavor combinations that are well suited to the beverages. Lime zest and juice complement agave nectar and orange blossom honey in Tuco-Style Freak Out. Michigan grapes sing with wildflower honey in Grapes Gone Wild.

Those successful recipes meant taking risks and being smart about them. B. Nektar’s company culture fosters the creativity showcased in their concoctions.

“Everything in our social media says ‘we let our imagination guide us,’” Johnson said. “It’s not a joke. Sometimes the imagination’s a little crazy, but thankfully we have enough people that are like ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait, let’s talk about this.’”

“It’s a really fun environment and creativity is welcomed and there is no lack of it, that’s for sure,” Johnson said.

B.Nektar’s 2016 Summer Mead Fest is set for August 6. Learn more here.

 

Photography: Steven Michael Holmes

MittenBrew.com readers have come to know us as a leading resource for information about the people, places, and events in Michigan’s thriving craft beverage scene.

This time the news we’re reporting is about us. We have a new owner. Steph Harding, well known for her photography work, stepped up to the helm when legal transfer of the business occurred on August 1, 2015.

MittenBrew.com began as an idea between friends in January of 2011. Co-founders Bryan Esler, Christopher Epplett and Rob Kirkbride launched the website a few months later in May.

“We started the site with the tagline ‘Uncapping the story of Michigan beer one story at a time.’ I’m confident it will continue to do so,” Esler said.

Esler had been the only original co-founder active in ownership at the time of transfer. He will remain involved occasionally as a special consultant and event photographer.

“Bryan has put a lot of sweat equity into building MittenBrew.com to its current level,” said Harding. “I am looking forward to continuing the efforts and making it the premier website for Michigan craft beer, spirits, cider and mead information.”

Esler will shift his focus to his photography business, where he photographs corporate and community events, food and drink, commercial promotional images and more.

“I’m so proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish over the past four years,” said Esler. “While it’s bittersweet for me to move on, I know MittenBrew is left in good hands with Steph.”

Her plans for the future of the business include expanding coverage of meads, ciders and distilled spirits as Michigan’s share of those industries worldwide is rapidly increasing.

MittenBrew.com’s format will largely stay the same for the time being. A new content-based email newsletter has begun with the goal of new editions every 2-3 weeks.

Many current staff writers and photographers will remain, with a few new additions and advancements of interns.

Harding’s photography can be found on MittenBrew.com, in Roadbelly magazine, Grand Rapids’ Beer City USA campaign, on her website www.stephharding.com, and many other notable places. She will continue contributing her work in addition to ownership responsibilities.

The Schaefer family has been growing in the apple business since 1855. Last year, their commercial farm produced 300,000 bushels of apples. As is the case with most commercial farms, many of those bushels went to waste. One hundred thousand Schaefer apples too ugly or too large to put on the fresh market were thrown away. Watching this happen over the last couple of years, it occurred to Chris and Andy Schaefer that they could use those reject apples—whose only downfall was their appearance—to make hard cider.

“We’ve always got these leftover apples that aren’t good enough to put on the fresh market, so just kind of figured we can use them for something else,” said Andy Schaefer.

About three years ago, the Schaefers purchased the 75 acres which make up the “Centennial Farm,” the grounds on which the Schaefer apple legacy started. Their intent was to grow apples specifically for cider, which they plan to produce under the moniker Schaefer Cider Company. Since then the Schaefers and their farm employees have been grafting, planting and experimenting to get the farm cider ready.

At this point in the season, they’ve got about six weeks before they start picking apples. As they near harvest, Chris and Andy Schaefer are enjoying the “calm before the storm” on the farm.

“We’re just hoping we don’t get hail or something else that pops up that takes out the crop,” said Chris Schaefer.

But the Schaefers are hardly without work. In addition to the “regular,” non-farm-related jobs they both hold, they’re putting together their tasting room and transforming the farm into a destination where they hope people will come to enjoy traditionally influenced hard cider. They’re also awaiting the licensing paperwork to go through the final stages before they can begin serving alcohol.

The Schaefers have 12,000 trees that they’re devoting primarily to cider apple production. Among those trees are reliable varieties that the Schaefers can count on to produce plentifully every year. Also among them are some more experimental varieties, ones that haven’t been grown since Prohibition.

“We’re planting stuff like Jonagold, which is good for fresh eating but it’s also good for cider,” said Chris Schaefer. “But we also have these really cool varieties that nobody’s really grown for [100 years], some of them, and we’re seeing how they work.”

Because Prohibition snuffed the cider game out early on in the United States, many varieties of cider apples stopped being grown. Cider apples don’t always meet the flavor and aesthetic standards set by the fresh market, so they weren’t viable crops without a market for cider. The Schaefers are devoting a portion of their acreage to bringing those varieties back to life.

A lot of the Schaefers’ experimentation is a complete shot in the dark. There’s no telling how much the trees will produce, whether or not they’ll produce every year, what soil conditions they prefer—all this must be determined by trial and error.

“There’s very little known about some of these,” said Andy Schaefer. “That’s the tricky part, because you don’t know exactly what rootstock to put them on, what conditions they like to grow in.”

“There’s going to be a lot of failure, a lot of wasted time,” said Chris Schaefer.

But the freedom and room for experimentation are exciting, and they give Schaefer Cider Company a leg up on the competition. They have complete control over what kinds of apples will go into their cider, whereas cider producers who don’t have their own orchards must rely on what their apple producer is willing to grow.

“We are able to experiment with this stuff, where a lot of other cider producers can’t,” said Andy Schaefer.

While these experimental varieties may be fun to replicate from history, they also need to make money. Another job that faces the Schaefers as they enter into the cider business is educating their customers’ palates.

“There is a problem with getting people’s tastes evolved,” said Andy Schaefer.

The Schaefers plan to look to the craft beer movement for inspiration on how to approach this issue. For them, it will mean keeping a range of flavors and styles on draft. They plan to include more familiar back-sweetened styles for those with a taste for the sweeter alongside their more traditional, naturally sweetened styles.

“But we really want to do something that is unique and traditional.” said Chris Schaefer.

Keep up with Schaefer Cider Company on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

Dan Young of Tandem Ciders sits down with Pat Evans to discuss the growing Michigan cider scene, and to talk about the inaugural Michigan Cider Week.

SPRING LAKE TOWNSHIP — Knowing the quality of Michigan apples, Paul Vander Heide is investing in the superiority of Michigan fruit.

It’s not just buying apples from local farmers that has the owner of Vander Mill Cider and Winery investing — now he is investing in the farmers who produce the fruit.

Along with three other hard cider makers, Vander Heide has recently formed the Michigan Cider Association, a non-profit association with a two-fold purpose. MCA is a registered non-profit in the state and waiting federal processing.

“We’re going to be doing work within the Michigan agricultural industry, reaching out the different growers and trying to explain to Michigan apple growers what kind of things we are looking for as cider producers,” Vander Heide said. “(What we are looking for) may be different than what they’re used to producing for, which is largely the fresh market.”

The second purpose of MCA is to pool the resources of hard cider producers in an effort to educate consumers, according to Vander Heide who acts as president of the Association. He is joined by Nikki Rothwell of Tandem Ciders in Suttons Bay, Andrew Blake of Blake Farms and Andy Sietsema of Sietsema Orchards and Cider Mill in Ada. But MCA is open to more members, especially on the Mitten’s east side.

“We’re really looking for folks that are energized to use time and resources making this collective effort worthwhile,” Vander Heide said. “So many times in business, you’ll see an association or guild with not a lot coming out of it. We want to make it worthwhile. We think the opportunity is there.”

The opportunity MCA hopes to capitalize requires building relationships with farmers.

“We’ve noticed that the farming community is kind of old school in the way it does business — establishing those relationships is very meaningful,” Vander Heide said. “We may be asking them to change the type of crop that they’re planting.

“It takes a good amount of trust because it takes a good amount of investment for them, both in time and in capital to start changing over to crops that may be more cider specific and less interesting, or less marketable in the fresh market.”

Step one to firming this relationship with apple growers will be an event MCA is hosting during the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market Expo in downtown Grand Rapids on Dec. 9-11.

“We’re going to reach out to all of our growers,” Vander Heide said. “We’re going to bring cider makers and apple growers into one room. And just start to network with each other — talk about needs and how they differ for cider.”

The idea, Vander Heide explained, is to educate small orchards in a way that optimizes crop growing for both the apple producers and cider makers. Hard cider usually requires sweeter apples than typically sold in a grocery store. The right level of acid and tannins also help produce better cider.

Overall, MCA hopes to create a team approach with farmers.

“Apple farming in Michigan has become very much commodity-based,” he said. “That really puts a strain on the smaller orchards.

“This is a real opportunity for some diversification for things apple farmers know how to do — grow fruit.  If they have another outlet in a growing industry like cider, then that’s good for everybody.”

Nationally, Michigan ranks third in apple production and the state is a national leader in the growing hard cider market.

“We have a lot of producers coming up, we’ve got a thriving wine industry, which really helps encourage people to get into cider,” Vander Heide said. “There’s no doubt Michigan has some of the best fruit in the world.

“We’ve got very rich soil, we’ve got a lot of natural irrigation. Some of these other apple-growing states, they might produce a lot of apples, but it’s heavily irrigated. We’ve noticed, in having some history with out-of-state apples, Michigan really has the ability to a supply a superior quality product. “

For now, MCA is focused on the upcoming Fruit Expo. The Association will follow up with Michigan Cider Week, April 6-11, 2015, which culminates with the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition, April 10-13. The Michigan Cider Association hopes to engage the competition event in a way that includes more consumers and increases public appeal — not merely relegating it to just a competition in small room.

Supporters of the Michigan Cider Association can like the organization on its Facebook Page.