railtown brewing

 

The Tale of Two Rails has closed. After duking it out privately in court since last September, Railtown Brewing Company and Byron Station LLC reached a settlement regarding the trademark infringement from the name “Railbird Taphouse and Brewery.” Today, the Byron Center brewery has unveiled its new title: “Alebird Taphouse and Brewery.” It’s hard to believe that Alebird fought tooth and nail to  a change so simple. To think this legal entanglement, the backlash from the beer community, the wasted energy that suspended their opening date, all balanced on the crux of an ‘R’ —it’s almost hilarious from an outsider’s perspective.

To Justin Buiter, co-founder of Railtown Brewing Company, I’m certain the situation’s absurdity amounted to more migraines than laughs. “In an industry where camaraderie and collaboration typically prevail, we’re disappointed that getting here had to take so long and involved attorneys,” Buiter said in their press release today.

While the craft beer market continues to welcome new members on its shelves, this story signals that friendly relationships with competition are important but brand protection comes first. If Railtown didn’t object to Railbird’s infringement, the flood gates could open for others to operate under other “Rail” names, ultimately watering down recognition for an identity they’ve worked so hard to cultivate.

Still it can prove tricky navigating that perception between bully and business owner. In this case, Railtown exits this confrontation with grace. Compromise was on the table from the jump, and Railtown had even offered to help pay for some of the rebranding fees. It’s a shame the name switch required coercion but hopefully the two breweries can avoid a lifetime grudge match. “We wish the crew over at Alebird Taphouse and Brewery well,” Buiter said. “We’re excited to see what they bring to the growing Grand Rapids beer scene and the local Byron Center community.”

For us craft beer enthusiasts, a few pints are in order to wash away the memory of this unfortunate case. I’d say a couple glasses of Peanut Butter Cocoa Time at Railtown should do the trick.

Here are the rest of the details from the press release.


 

DUTTON, Mich. — Railtown Brewing Company has reached a settlement with Byron Station, LLC, a company Railtown accused of trademark infringement. Byron Station, LLC sought to name its yet-to-be-established brewpub “Railbird Taphouse and Brewery.”

Byron Station, LLC has agreed to change its brewpub’s name to “Alebird Taphouse and Brewery,” cease using “Railbird Taphouse and Brewery” as its name, withdraw any trademarks including the word “Railbird” and refrain from seeking further trademarks including the word. The company will keep its existing logo, referred to as “the burgundy chicken.”

Railtown Brewing Company has allowed Byron Station, LLC the right to name one beer “Railbird,” which may only be sold on tap at Byron Station’s premises in Byron Center, Michigan and may not be packaged. The company may also produce merchandise relating to the “Railbird” beer, so long as the “Alebird Taphouse and Brewery” name is clearly tied to it. Railtown also agreed not to use the word “Railbird” in any manner.

Byron Station, LLC declined to agree to confidentiality or a non-disparagement clause and chose not to collaborate with Railtown Brewing Company on a joint press release regarding the lawsuit.

“All along the way, we’ve been trying to find a middle ground that would work for both of us,” said Justin Buiter, co-founder of Railtown Brewing Company.

That began when Railtown Brewing Company approached Byron Station, LLC in May 2018 to notify the company that its brewpub’s name infringed on Railtown Brewing Company’s trademark. Railtown requested that the company change its branding and offered financing to assist in covering the costs of establishing a new name and brand.

“We said, basically, ‘We just want to make sure that you guys are going to be able to open your doors, and that a name change isn’t going to be the thing that keeps you from opening,’” Buiter said.

Byron Station, LLC refused that offer and continued to use the “Railbird” name, which led Railtown Brewing Company to reluctantly pursue a lawsuit.

“We’re relieved to have reached a settlement,” Buiter said. “In an industry where camaraderie and collaboration typically prevail, we’re disappointed that getting here had to take so long and involved attorneys.”

Now that the lawsuit is in the rearview, Buiter is looking forward to re-centering on what he and co-founder Gim Lee got into the business for.

“With this behind us, we can get back to focusing on what we love: beer,” Buiter said. “We wish the crew over at Alebird Taphouse and Brewery well. We’re excited to see what they bring to the growing Grand Rapids beer scene and the local Byron Center community.”

resilience ipa

Growing up on Lake Michigan, most of my formative memories include water: getting up on skis, hunting in the shallows for crayfish, night swims. Even in my first memory I’m bobbing up and down in water, floating outside North Manitou in my mother’s arms, eyes fixed on the horizon’s infinite line. The water was healing; communion. Encounters with fire on the other hand were strictly “play.” We contained aerosol can flamethrowers to bursts of pyromania. Raging bonfires were extinguished by a couple buckets of water. Surrounded by the safety of its elemental opposite, I never imagined fire as a threat.

Last month, California was on fire and no one could put it out. For weeks on end the Camp Fire ripped through communities, swallowing forests with its the hellish maw. Now doused, the damage is done and the fire has earned its place as the deadliest in The Golden State’s history. Upwards of 80 people lost their lives and around 20,000 buildings were destroyed. At a minimum, the economic cost will exceed billions.

Perhaps struck hardest by the devastation, the city of Paradise was lost almost entirely to flame. As a Michigan native, this kind of disaster is difficult to comprehend. We complain about snowfall and cool summers, but only on the rarest occasion does nature come for our homes. Just recently the Butte County Sheriff’s Office lifted evacuation orders, permitting survivors to salvage and rebuild what remains of their city. In a majority of cases, families will return to nothing but ash.

Chico, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company’s home base a couple towns over, was spared a similar fate. Even so, they weren’t left unscathed. With more than 40 employees losing their homes to the fire, Ken Grossman, Sierra Nevada’s founder, felt compelled to do something in the best way he knew how: brewing a beer. And so Resilience Butte County Strong IPA was born. From its inception, Sierra Nevada promised to donate every penny earned from draft and can sales directly to Camp Fire relief, but they also released the beer’s blueprints, hoping others in the industry would brew the same recipe and chip in to the fund. This grassroots movement to recruit local breweries quickly grew into the largest display of synchronized philanthropy the craft community has ever seen—over 1,400 breweries worldwide will donate 100% of the proceeds from their batches of Resilience IPA.

From the sidelines, it’s pretty heartwarming to see craft beer band together like this, and while our reputation for “Midwest Nice” precedes us, the number of Michigan breweries who signed up for the cause still impresses. The Mitten Brewing Company were early adopters, the 19th of all and the first in Michigan. After spotting the call to action on Facebook, brewer Jeff Williams immediately reached out to participate. “We do a lot of charity work as is, so this jives with how the company works,” Williams said. “The grain is getting donated, the hops are getting donated, basically we’re just donating our time, so why wouldn’t we do this? It’s unfathomable what that fire did, gulping down football fields in seconds.”

Williams’ nonchalance makes the project sound like a no-brainer, but his attitude reveals how ingrained cooperation is into his, and craft beer’s, core values. Extending help to strangers thousands of miles away exemplifies the spirit of craft beer as a means of aid, not selfishness. As co-brewer at the Mitten, Jon VanderPloeg puts it, “One of the reasons I’m here is because of that culture. Not just to make a huge pile of money. We didn’t do anything but make a batch of beer, but there was an organization willing to say this isn’t all about profit, this is about helping people.” Available on draft Thursday, December 20th, their recipe deviates to feature 100% Michigan grown ingredients: hops from Michigan Hop Alliance, malt from Empire and Motor City Malt, and yeast they’ve cultivated in house. Essentially, it’s a big high five from a group of Michiganders who have come to care about their community at large.

With their version of Resilience set to hit draft lines this weekend, City Built Brewing Company’s head brewer, Dave Petroelje, joined the chorus of support as well. In our conversation, Petroelje shed light on his personal connection to fire. “The Resilience IPA project has a special meaning to me because I grew up in Northern California. One of my sisters lives an hour away from Paradise. Now every time I go to visit her, I always think, when is a fire going to come through her part of California?” As the climate continues to warm, and droughts and fires intensify, it’s a scary question to ponder. “Everybody thinks about earthquakes when it comes to California disasters, but fires are quickly becoming even more destructive,” Petroelje said. If this is only the prelude to what California can expect in the coming decades, it’s at least a comfort to know that there’s a global net of goodwill waiting when the going gets tough. “Corporate social responsibility is a big part of the brewing culture here in West Michigan and Founders and Vivant have set that standard in a lot of ways,” Petroejle said.

To see Founders throw their hat in the ring only proves him right. Their Resilience IPA went on at the Grand Rapids taproom December 15th, providing much needed optics for the relief fund. Jeremy Kosmicki, head brewer at Founders, shared his reverence for the Californian operation. “Sierra is one of the most respected brewers in the country, so when they ask for help, they have a lot of pull.”

That sentiment has echoed from many participants. “Growing up in California, Sierra Nevada’s a big part of my beer history and education, so to be a part somewhat in collaboration with them is pretty awesome,” Petroejle said. There’s no question that Sierra’s Pale Ale is one of craft beer’s foundational pillars. Their portfolio may appear simple or streamlined compared to other more outlandish breweries, but their quality control has always stayed top notch. Resilience IPA is another example of their commitment to high caliber beer. “It’s a fairly straightforward recipe so as many breweries as possible could get their hands on the ingredients,” Kosmicki said. That said, the simplicity doesn’t imply a lack of substance. “It should turn out tasting like Sierra’s Celebration Ale which is an absolute favorite of mine.”

Yes, taste matters, but ultimately the motivation behind this IPA is more important than its flavor profile. While many of us in Michigan enjoy a white Christmas, we should make effort to find Resilience IPA and support those who have endured such tragedy. We can show, even through our drinking choices, that Michigan is always ready to lend a helping hand.

Find a list of participating breweries here. 

 

 

mitten brewing

The latest Mitten Foundation project will benefit Safe Haven Ministries

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — This winter, The Mitten Brewing Company and The Mitten State have teamed up to proclaim “Love Shouldn’t Hurt.” The companies’ Mitten Foundation collaboration will raise funds and awareness for victims of domestic abuse.

Sales of LOVE IPA, a red India Pale Ale brewed for the cause, or a LOVE tee, hoodie or glass will support Safe Haven Ministries: a Grand Rapids organization dedicated to serving women and children who have suffered domestic abuse.

“Helping families in our area this winter is as easy as enjoying the Michigan beer and apparel you already love,” said Scott Zubrickas, co-owner of The Mitten State.

mitten brewing

The fundraiser kicks off on November 21 and will continue until the companies have raised $10,000 for Safe Haven Ministries. The funds will underwrite shelter costs for area women and children seeking safety from domestic abuse.

Domestic abuse is a prevalent issue nationwide: one in three women have been victims of physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to a national report from the CDC. The problem pervades Grand Rapids, too.

“Last year, our two companies came together to grant money to our Westside neighbors in need of heating assistance. We noticed that the bulk of the applications came from women, but more interesting was that they were all survivors of domestic abuse,” said Dana Mate Dones, president of Mitten Foundation, Inc. “This year we understood that the best approach to helping was through the experts in the subject, Safe Haven.”

Safe Haven Ministries provides emergency shelter, case management, support groups and more to women and children suffering from domestic abuse. The organization also provides education and prevention programs for businesses, schools, healthcare providers and other members of the community.

mitten brewing

LOVE IPA will be sold only at The Mitten Brewing Company’s Grand Rapids location at 527 Leonard St NW. LOVE branded apparel and goods will be available for purchase online at themittenstate.com or at The Mitten State shop at 415 Bridge St NW.

“We’re confident that with the help of our amazing customers we can meet our goal and ensure that area women and children in crisis are safe and warm this winter season,” said Chris Andrus, co-owner of The Mitten Brewing Company.

 

speciation artisan ales

Imagine life’s first strands, the RNA in volcanic pools wriggling like an eel in attempt to express itself. As it reacts to cyanide and sugar, nucleotides are formed—RNA’s baby food. From these humble beginnings we have a miracle that science is still trying to understand. Information unfurls, cells are born. Earth settles. Not too hot, not too cold, the stage is set for life to really go bananas. Multi-celled organisms split and explode in unnamed oceans. Fish grow legs and walk on land. Things are changing. Flash-forward a few billion years and we have humans drinking beer in cities. They share the planet with termites, giraffes, and more. After all this time, life has done a lot of differentiating.

When drinking Speciation Artisan Ales I end up thinking about these large spans of time, certainly in regards to the patience required for the beers to mature, but more so in how the flavors feel so outside of time, prehistoric, like those first eukaryotes struggling and succeeding to become life. How when you have a sip time narrows, the palate a petri dish for yeast to slow dance on. They say there’s beer to drink about and beer to think about. These beers demand attention. “That’s the goal with the beers that we make,” owner Mitch Ermatinger said. “They’re not meant to be shotgunned, we want you to sit and enjoy.”

speciation artisan ales

Mitch Ermatinger

While rewarding in their complexity, brewing with the wild yeast can feel like leading blind sheep to the pasture. “We try to guide the beer in the direction we want it to go through, but we leave a lot of fermentation up to nature,” Ermatinger said. “Here’s some food, munch on it and make something magical.” There does seem to be something mysterious at play beneath the cage and cork. How did he learn to coax magic out of microbes?

By now, many are familiar with the Speciation origin story. As a brewer at Colorado’s Former Future, Ermatinger helped spearhead Black Project, a spontaneous fermentation side project so popular it eclipsed its forebearer and became the main gig. In spite of acclaim and a handful of medals won at GABF, Mitch always had the dream of someday opening his own place. There would need to be a homecoming. That came in 2015 when he and Whitney Ermatinger, his co-owner and wife, returned to West Michigan with experience and a business plan. His reputation snowballed as he helped Harmony Brewing Company launch their sour program and distributed personal test batches to community bottle shares. “I was hoping that the quality of the beer would show that we were worth their time and money, and that we were serious about making world class beer,” Ermatinger said. Call it guerilla marketing-lite.

All the hard work culminated on January 14, 2017 when Speciation released its inaugural beer Genetic Drift, a funky Saison with wild yeast harvested from a crab apple flower found on family property in Holland, MI. Traces of this original culture are sprinkled throughout much of Speciation’s lineup, cultivating a unique identity to the brand. If not the sexiest beer in the Speciation portfolio, Genetic Drift at least serves as a powerful mission statement. As Charles Darwin put it, “Species undergo modification, and existing forms of life descended by true generation from preexisting forms.” Meaning? As the culture evolves over time, it’s important to respect its ancestry. It’s pretty romantic. The dust off a petal helped launch a brewery.

Now, just shy of two years later, Speciation has grown into a different sort of beast. Previously opening the garage only once a month for bottle releases, they’ve finally unveiled regular hours to the public: Thursday through Saturday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Fans have been chomping at the bit. It’s been a long time coming, unfortunately marred by unanticipated frustrations. “My biggest regret is not finding a landlord who was on board with what we’re doing, even basic things like opening a tasting room,” Ermatinger said. “It’s caused a lot of stress dealing with someone who impedes our vision for the company.” Thankfully, after plenty hard fought battles, the team has assembled a space that fits the beer they make.

speciation artisan ales

Mitch & Whitney Ermatinger

Hidden in a warehouse on the outskirts of Comstock Park, the building looks more like a place you’d get a root canal than a Berliner Weisse, but once inside the facade seems like an intentional fakeout. The air is thick with a dungeon musk. Low light and picnic tables accentuate the farmhouse cozy. There’s this pervading feeling that you’ve stepped into another era—Jurassic chic. Looking around though, the obvious set piece is the number of barrels stacked high against the walls. It’s a confident decoration choice, confessional in a way: here you are surrounded by what you’ll eventually drink. Spotting a Gray Skies Distillery logo on a barrel teases possibilities; what kind of collaborative experiment could be aging in there?

From snagging Gray Skies barrels to joint recipes with HOMES, Speciation’s collaborative spirit has proven a testament to their success from day one. “We can all make beer better,” Ermatinger said. “Every time we collab with another brewery we learn something about their process, and it goes the other way around too.”

Their relationship with City Built Brewing Company reflects that symbiosis. Brewing roughly ninety percent of Speciation’s wort, City Built provides them the liquid foundation for yeast to create alcohol. They do make a buck as the host brewery, but more importantly, it conveys a mutual respect. Ed Collazzo, City Built’s co-founder, clued me in to a dynamic shift in their partnership. “Beyond our friendship, he needs a brewery because he doesn’t have one. For our new sour program, we’ll need a space to avoid getting bugs in our brewhouse.” City Built has been kicking out awesome kettle sours for a while, but the decision to up the ante with wild fermentation could have to do with friendly competition. “We’re encouraged to do better because he’s in town. There’s a lot of thought behind his plan, both in quality and how he’s changing the sour game in Michigan.” It’ll be a bit before we taste the fruition of this endeavor, but we can sense the Speciation influence in City Built’s November can release, #happyfriendsgiving, a Cranberry Berliner Weisse with lactose.

Another key to the success of the tasting room will be Quinn Vollink, Speciation’s taproom manager. A long time face at The Sovengard, his relationship with the Ermatingers and passion for sour beer landed him a full-time spot handling day-to-day operations. “The big thing for me is educating the public on our process and getting people excited about what we do,” Vollink said. “I’m a Zingerman’s alumni and I put big pride in making sure everyone leaves happier than when they first arrived.” Knowledgeable and friendly, whether you want to talk to him about yeast strains or the Talking Heads, you’ll want a spot at the rail to get to know Quinn.

speciation artisan alesMitch clearly appreciates the help too, “For two years I was working 80-100 hours a week and I was burning out. Then we had a kid. When we had Quincy it made me realize I needed to delegate or I would die. Despite this being so much fun I don’t want to work my life away.” This trust to relinquish control is necessary in both fatherhood and beer. Volatile and fickle, I imagine brewing a sour isn’t altogether different from raising a toddler. “I can’t control all the microbes, there’s too many variables. But I also don’t want control, I want the beer to go in different ways, come together and make something unique.” Spoken like a true dad.

With a little extra time on his hands, Ermatinger has started plotting a next move. “We applied for our winery license, so soon enough we’ll be making wild fermented wine and cider too,” he said. “They’re a funky wine. Similar to lambic.” Essentially wine that’s alive, natural wine is a middle finger to the bore and snobbery put on by sommeliers. “Because we’re not selling to wine people we’re going to be doing things that are unorthodox like a tequila barrel-aged white wine.” Maybe on paper that sounds like dorm room hooch, but the staff promises they would never release a product they wouldn’t drink. Regarding quality control, “Our beers take time, the production staff is constantly tasting them, making sure to see how they taste and if they’re ready or not,” Volink said. “We use the highest quality ingredients and we have fun getting them. I like that we don’t take shortcuts.”

Speciation also takes a page from the wine world when it comes to terroir—how climate, soil, and aspect affect taste. I like to think about it abstractly, like how it feels returning to a family cabin; how bombarded by stimulus both sensory and spectral, the environmental factors congeal into something, well, home. “The whole point of our beer is to make it taste like the place that you’re in. We’re proud to be part of the Michigan beer scene,” Ermatinger said. With a fully-fledged tasting room and a vision for the future, expect Speciation to only get better with time.

 

 

gabf

Back in 1982, the craft beer revolution was becoming something exciting, marked by something new—a premier, national festival and competition. 24 breweries, 50 beers, and 800 attendees seemed like small potatoes, but it was grand on a different type of scale. It was the first Great American Beer Festival, after all.

Now it’s 2018. Over 800 breweries, 4,000 beers, and 60,000 attendees over three days of craft madness reflects a different kind of picture, if not the same revolution. If you’ve been drinking craft beer these past few years, you know what the market looks like—unlimited options of craft from all over America. Craft beer is a good thing, so there can’t be too much, right? Right.

GABF, annually organized and put on by the Brewers Association, marks the still-growing and ever-changing craft industry across the world. The all-encompassing nature of the experience is overwhelming (in a positive way), but here’s what we took away as enthusiastic representatives of Michigan and our own craft mitten lifestyle.

Navigating the Colorado Convention Center is like navigating a small city. Countless rows of breweries from A-Z are stacked end to end with large endcap booths marking the beginning and end of another section. In the heart of it all is a meet-the-brewer neighborhood with extra industry folk, extra beer, and hey, it’s extra crowded. Outlying spaces are filled by seminar space, local food trucks, stages for music, walls of merchandise, and casual seating.

Every step and every direction there is something to catch the eye, the interest, and the taste buds. One brewery brought its own break-dancers. One seminar highlighted a bug and beer pairing featuring traditional bug dishes from Mexico. Jameson, as in the whiskey distillers from Ireland, had the biggest festival setup—at a beer festival!

Michigan represented well. We saw pioneers like Bell’s Brewery, New Holland Brewing Co., and Short’s Brewing Co. boldly stake their claim on the floor with eye-catching endcap booths and, as always, delicious beer. Short’s setup screamed northern Michigan, with a booth decorated in waterskis and bright colors. New Holland brought aspects of their original Holland location with them and created a mini, brick-layed pub that created just the right ambiance to highlight their most popular brew, Dragon’s Milk.

Michigan also had some great newbies there, like Eastern Market Brewing Co. and Grand Armory Brewing Co. representing from Detroit and Grand Haven respectively. As first-timers, these breweries were excited to get fresh feedback on their beers and brands from national consumers.

How does all of this come together? How does it connect? Craft beer has always been about fun, but beneath that are attributes that have defined the industry since the beginning—aspects like quality, independence, local, community, collaboration, creativity, hard work, and innovation. This universal language of craft strives to bridge gaps everywhere. Local to global. Professional to amateur. Community to community. Brewer to retailer. Brewery to consumer. Craft to other craft.

Some new offerings at GABF this year definitely fell under the above characteristics and practices. New this year was both a Pro-Am Brewer Competition as well as a Collaboration Competition.

The Pro-Am united professional breweries with homebrewers to collaborate on recipes to compete for top, national honors. This exchange of skill sets, opinions, and experimentation reflects the creativity and transparency of the craft industry. Craft workers always strive for better quality, new ideas, and further education. Most professionals and commercial breweries now are marked by homebrewing pasts. It’s a cycle that keeps craft as dynamic as ever and challenges the industry to go down new pathways.

Also new this year was the Collaboration Competition, which connected multiple breweries in the creation of one great recipe to win national honors. In the spirit of community, this brings two brands, two missions, and two businesses into a new practice with each other. Open communication has always marked workers in craft beer—there is no information hoarding here. This competition just ups the ante on the creativity and collaboration that already defines the craft beer community.

GABF’s evolution reflects craft communities across the nation—how they grow, adapt, and change. What stays the same is the enthusiasm. Brewers create because they love the craft of beer. Consumers drink because they love the liquid and the experience. It all begins and ends with actual beer. Everything in between can change and evolve at anytime. This mystery and guessing and experimentation are how we all get our next steps.

This is how the craft industry boomed with New England IPAs this past year. The demand and craze was so big nationally that GABF added it as a beer style category for the first time ever; and as it turns out, it broke the record for the most submissions in a category. The style that originated on the east coast picked up traction nationally—uniting brewery communities, cultures, and practices. New things created from old. New spins on traditional styles. This was just this year’s example.

What comes next? Breweries always have their ears to their consumers and to fellow brewers elsewhere for inspiration. Whatever it is, it will surely taste great and will represent something bigger than just beer in a glass.

 

Photography © Brewers Association

barrel + beam

Barrel + Beam opened its doors in Marquette in January 2018 with a clear vision. Seeming to come out of the gates sprinting, the brewery emerged with a well defined brand, a suite of farmhouse and barrel aged ales and an ambitious self distribution plan.

None of that happened overnight.

“It took a decade for that to become a clear vision,” said Nick VanCourt, brewer/owner at Barrel + Beam.

That vision started roughly the same way most breweries do. VanCourt’s homebrew recipes were receiving a warm reception from friends and family. He told his wife, Marina, that he’d like to start a brewery. She told him that he ought to get an education and some experience first.

He did. He graduated from the World Brewing Academy and garnered professional experience working at Wisconsin’s The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company, Tyranena Brewing Company and Milwaukee Brewing Company. Most recently, he was the head brewer at Marquette’s Ore Dock Brewing Company.

During those 10 years, the vision for Barrel + Beam gradually became more specific. VanCourt decided he wanted to focus solely on bottle and cask conditioned farmhouse and barrel aged ales, which set Barrel + Beam apart from every other brewery in the Upper Peninsula. VanCourt was drawn to the styles’ rich, complex flavors and dry finish.

“I just personally think it’s where the pinnacle of the best beer experience can be,” VanCourt said. “You have this beer that is rich and really strikes a note in your mouth. But then when you swallow, it goes away.”

 

Barrel + Beam’s tap list has become a case study in the ways traditional and modern brewing techniques express themselves in beer. The brewery’s old-world line uses ingredients imported from Belgium and France, and its new-world line uses all Michigan produced ingredients. The tap list also features ales soured over months in barrels, a traditional technique, and kettle soured beers, a modern way. Tasting Barrel + Beam’s brews offers an opportunity to study exactly how these techniques impact flavor.

One example comes in the two saisons on the tap list: the French-sourced “Terre a Terre” and the Michigan-sourced “Terroir.”

“Side by side, they’re very different beers, even though they’re not different in formulation at all. It’s just the ingredients,” VanCourt said.

It’s a study in the effect of terroir—the environment in which the ingredients are produced—on a beer’s flavor.

“People know it in wine, but in beer nobody seems to talk about it. That’s the point to us with these ingredients,” VanCourt said.

Choosing to become a niche brewery in the Upper Peninsula came with its risks. One that VanCourt anticipated was the need to distribute to be successful.

“It wasn’t just going to happen here in Marquette,” VanCourt said. “We were going to have to get out there and bring our beer to our market.”

The brewery’s first full-size batches were produced for distribution. VanCourt started self distributing to bottle shops in Marquette, then throughout the U.P. and Northeast Wisconsin. The footprint has since expanded to include Northern Michigan, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor.

VanCourt said self distribution is a challenge and ultimately unsustainable. With his van, he’s only able to get 30-40 cases to his locations at a given time. It’s inefficient and costly.

“We can’t do this forever,” he said.

But he’s grateful for the opportunity to get to know his stockists, and he knows that when the time comes to hire a distributor, the relationships he’s built in these first months will only make things easier.

Barrel + Beam’s home base is set in the building that once held the famed Northwoods Supper Club, a popular dining destination in Marquette that opened in 1933 and operated for 75 years. The supper club closed in the midst of the 2008 recession and sat untouched on the market for years. Getting it up to standard to host the brewery took a $2 million renovation, which VanCourt said was worth it for its size, location and unique history.

“The family that started it, you know, they were as crazy as we are—to show up here when it was the middle of nowhere and build a supperclub. And it worked, wonderfully,” VanCourt said.

VanCourt and his wife, Marina, worked hard to maintain the wooden beams that gave the building its original character. They’ve turned it into a cozy space to enjoy Barrel + Beam brews, either after a day of shopping in Marquette or hiking, biking or snowmobiling the nearby Iron Ore Heritage Trail.

Word of mouth is spreading about the brewery, and VanCourt is optimistic about what the future holds.

“There’s two things that you can’t screw up: one is the quality of your product, two is the customer service you provide,” VanCourt said. “We just know that if we make the product the best we can and we get it to where our market is, then we have a chance.”

gr tuks

While not quite as fast as a speeding bullet, a Tuk can turn more necks than Superman. When hanging with Austin and Jaleen Dingledine, owners of GR Tuks, you do start to feel a little like a hero. As we zipped down Cherry St. toward Brewery Vivant, people literally cheered like we just stopped a crime. Nope. We’re simply drinking and soaking up the city’s sights, and a ride in the Tuk is by far the most thrilling way to go about it.

So what’s a Tuk? A Tuk is an anachronistic machine. It looks like a vehicle Elon Musk would construct from Fred Flintstone’s blueprints. And yet theirs are state of the art, 100% electric, with a bumping sound system as well.

OK, so why a Tuk?

gr tuks

Jack, Jaleen & Austin

“The idea stemmed from my sister’s travelling and experiences with Tuk Tuks, specifically in Thailand,” Austin said. “From her first encounter with a Tuk, she knew this experience had to be shared with Grand Rapids.” While the ones abroad tend to come in technicolor, the Dingledines chose classic white and a wider body. “Our tuks are super luxurious compared to any other Tuk I’ve been on,” Jaleen said. “And I’ve been on a lot of Tuks!”

Aside from these minor discrepancies, Austin and Jaleen have wholly imported this mode of transport to a T. Clocking in at a top speed of 25 mph, when the Tuk gets moving it feels like you’re on safari but the lions and giraffes are Grand Rapids’ best breweries. I had a blast going on an abridged version of the Beer City Tour with the Dingledines and learning more about the story behind GR Tuks.

Beginning at Craft Beer Cellar, the bottle shop/bar makes for the perfect pickup point where riders can snag a couple cans before hitting the road. Unlike the beerless folk you see pedalling on the Beer City Cruiser, a tuk isn’t a dry vessel. Yes it’s legal to drink – and a hard selling point. Like getting away with something you shouldn’t, it’s hard to overstate how awesome open-air drinking is as you nod at passers by, Two Hearted in hand. Austin, who works in insurance as well, acknowledged that while the license isn’t cheap, it’s totally worth it. “Honestly it’s a see to believe situation to really grasp the experience.”

While it was only the three of us in the Tuk, you could max it out with a group of six if you’re looking to achieve the clown car effect. It’s cozy but not cramped—imagine cruising the open road on a mini-pontoon. “The seating positions of the Tuks fosters great conversation and camaraderie,” Austin said. Or if you want to build a caravan, rent both Tuks and tear up the town with a full squad. The full $250 two-hour Beer City tour includes pit stops at Brewery Vivant, City Built, and New Holland’s Knickerbocker—each location satisfying a different gustatory itch. Split the cost among friends and, bingo, you have an affordable and unforgettable night on your hands.  

The timely tour right now—and there’s still time to book one—is the ArtPrize route. Starting at 6pm outside the Harris building, the Tuk shuttles you about to the city’s best venues. It’s a killer alternative to wearing out your sneakers trying to find all this juried selections. “The ArtPrize tours have been solid gold,” Jaleen said. “It’s unreal the amount of art our customers are able to see in two hours.” It’s clear the Dingledines take the competition seriously. This year they transformed their sister vehicle, the Grand Rapids Beer Trolley, into a mobile ArtPrize entry titled The Last Rhinos. Canvassed by artist Dan Kopas, the piece intends to spread awareness on the rising rate of Rhino poaching. Keep your eyes peeled for the trolley as it stampedes across Grand Rapids.    

While fun and connection are crucial tenants of GR Tuks, family is what binds the business together. The brother sister combo works wonders, “We come from different backgrounds and strengths,” Austin said. “We have certainly discovered what roles are best fit.” Most importantly, they’re a welcoming duo who are genuinely interested in facilitating a good time. “It’s not everyday someone forms a relationship with a family who owns a Beer Trolley and a pair of Tuk Tuks!” Getting to know the Dingledines is half the fun, and the other half, well, you’ll just have to hop on a Tuk to experience the zaniness firsthand.

 

great american beer festival

LANSING, Mich.—Seven Michigan Brewers Guild member breweries were awarded a collective nine medals this past weekend at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) Competition, in Denver, Colorado—the largest commercial beer competition in the world and a symbol of brewing excellence, presented by the Brewers Association.

The Brewers Association (BA) awarded 306 medals to 280 breweries across the United States with award-winning breweries receiving prestigious gold, silver and bronze medals in 102 beer categories covering 167 different beer styles (including all subcategories), establishing the best examples of each style in the country and earning a symbol of brewing excellence. Read more about the competition below.

Michigan Brewers Guild member received the following awards:

GOLD

  • West Coast Swing Amber – American Style Amber/Red Ale: The Mitten Brewing Co., Grand Rapids

SILVER

  • NZ Pilz (American Style Pilsener): Wolverine State Brewing Company, Ann Arbor
  • Kung Fu Smurf (Belgian Style Dubbel or Quadruple): Bastone Brewery, Royal Oak
  • Breakfast Stout (Coffee Stout or Porter): Founders Brewing Co., Grand Rapids
  • Roundhouse (Double Hoppy Red Ale): Bell’s Eccentric Café, Kalamazoo
  • My Brown Eyed Girl (English Style Brown Ale): Thornapple Brewing Co., Grand Rapids
  • Porter (Robust Porter): Founders Brewing Co., Grand Rapids

BRONZE

  • Cerveza Delray (International Style Pilsener): Brew Detroit, Detroit
  • Raucher (Smoke Beer): Wolverine State Brewing Company, Ann Arbor

The Great American Beer Festival is the granddaddy of all U.S. beer festivals, offering the largest collection of U.S. beer ever assembled. The judging panel awards gold, silver or bronze medals that are recognized around the world as symbols of brewing excellence. These awards are among the most coveted in the industry and heralded by the winning brewers in their national advertising. Medal distinctions are as follows:

  • GOLD: A world-class beer that accurately exemplifies the specified style, displaying the proper balance of taste, aroma and appearance.
  • SILVER: An excellent beer that may vary slightly from style parameters while maintaining close adherence to the style and displaying excellent taste, aroma and appearance.
  • BRONZE: A fine example of the style that may vary slightly from style parameters and/or have minor deviations in taste, aroma or appearance.

GABF Competition Statistics:

  • 32nd edition of the GABF competition
  • 8,496 entries plus 101 Pro-Am and 49 Collaboration entries
  • 2,404 breweries in the competition from 49 states plus Washington, D.C. (no Mississippi)
  • 293 judges from 13 countries
  • Average number of competition beers entered in each category: 83
  • Category with the highest number of entries: Juicy or Hazy India Pale Ale (391 entries)
  • 280 medal-winning breweries (including Pro-Am and Collaboration)
  • 306 total medals awarded plus three (3) each for Pro-Am and Collaboration
  • 537 first-time GABF entrants
  • 31 first-time GABF winners

The Michigan Brewers Guild is the network of innovative and passionate brewers that serves as the recognized advocate for the Michigan craft beer industry. The mission of the Michigan Brewers Guild is to promote and protect the Michigan craft beer industry with an overarching goal to help craft beer acquire 20% of the market by 2025.

Michigan’s thriving brewing industry conservatively contributes more than $144 million in wages with a total economic contribution of more than $600 million. In terms of overall number of breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs, Michigan ranks #6 in the nation – thus supporting its claim as “The Great Beer State.”

 

Photo © Brewers Association