bells brewery

Bell’s Brewery makes a lot of beer. During a tour of their sprawling facility in Comstock, Michigan, Austin Giles, our guide and the biggest bear hug of a person, spouts trivia at a mile a minute to drive that point home. Here are a few facts that stuck. Every second, two pints of Two Hearted are sold in Michigan. Every ninety minutes, during three different shifts a day, the team starts a new batch, and to get through one four-hundred barrel fermenter, of which they have sixty-six, it would take a person sixty years while drinking a six-pack a day. Giles smiles as though he’s up for the challenge. 

So yeah, Bell’s makes a lot of beer, but that doesn’t mean they’ve lost touch with their roots. At the beginning of a timeline tracking the brewery’s milestones, there hangs a soup pot—Larry’s first brewing vessel—that could double as a sacred idol. “You look back at the pot and it’s like, oh my gosh, we were the original nanobrewery,” Bell said. It’s true and frankly insane to see how much has changed. When Bell opened up shop his competition included twenty-five other American breweries—only nine of which remain—and by 2020 we’re on track for upwards of eight thousand. Looking at the soup pot, these numbers leave an impression. This humble cauldron ushered in one of the nation’s largest and most successful breweries.

Despite his stature as a beer titan, Bell comes off disarmingly

down-to-earth and easy to get along with.

 

While moseying among the steel tanks, stories high and warehouses long, it’s hard not to feel awestruck by this empire Bell has built. Now distributed in 40 states, the Bell’s footprint goes toe-to-toe with many big box brandsand on its own terms no less. As AB-InBev continues to gobble up craft breweries, and craft breweries merge into conglomerate fortresses, Bell’s remains one-hundred percent independent and family owned. “Big brewers can say all they want that people don’t care who makes their beer, where it comes from, whether it’s independent,” Bell said. “I happen to know that they do.”  

 

I believe we’d all agree. Still, for as much as they care about their consumer, when I think about Bell’s I think about a pair of leather bootsworn in, trusty, but tucked away in a closet and taken for granted. At times, Bell feels forgotten too, “The number one question we get on tours is, is he still with us?”

He most certainly is, and to share a conversation with him now is to get lost in an aura of enigmatic energy. Despite his stature as a beer titan, Bell comes off disarmingly down-to-earth. We ricochet between his dreams of Bollrathian aliens, admiration for Walt Whitman, and musings on baseball. “When my brain has nothing to do, the place it goes is Cubs,” Bell said. Admittedly, his folkish veneer dissolves when he takes a call regarding his new Aston Martin. The sportscar will accompany his collection of eight Jaguars. Hippy turned tycoon, I can’t name another auteur in the industry quite like Larry Bell. I like to imagine he keeps a copy of Leaves of Grass stashed in every glove box. 

That said, when discussing the company, Bell is lucid. “I feel really good and excited about where we are right now,” Bell said. “We have a lot of energy behind innovation and new brands.” Take Flamingo Fruit Fight, Sparkleberry, and Pooltime for example. There’s a noticeable uptick of fun seeping into the portfolio. The Leaves of Grass series embodies the brewery’s free spirit too, breathing life into one of our country’s most nourishing poems. To borrow from verse, “the human race is filled with passion. So medicine, law, business, engineering… these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love… these are what we stay alive for.” Whether the beer takes off or not, it’s touching that Bell would risk sales to indulge a deeply personal project. 

 

Bell’s charters an intriguing way forward during a time when the future of craft beer isn’t entirely clear. Some argue there’s plenty of pie left for newcomers. Others worry how small the slivers are getting. “Let’s face it, we’re seeing the plateau,” Bell said. “Those heady days of 20% growth are gone. A third of the top 50 breweries had negative numbers this year.” 

From the sidelines, it seems like a good time for Bell’s to dig in their heels and pump out Oberon year-round, pile on surplus and see how things shake out, but they refuse to rest on their laurels. In fact, they’ve done the opposite. They’ve invested in a new pilot system to nurture creative recipes on a larger scale, revamped their beer garden to welcome nationally touring acts, and tinkered with their flagships to better reflect a drinker’s taste in 2019. It seems to be working. 

Unfortunately, a lot of press has focused on Bell’s trademark disputes and shifting leadership, but there’s an untold story in how they’re quietly adapting to a changing landscape. As consumer behavior shifts constantly, careful planning has gone into striking a balance between innovation and tradition, and hopefully what this amounts to is Bell’s meaning a little something important to everyone.

Let’s start with the enthusiast, perhaps the hardest to please, because no sooner does Oberon get tapped than it gets maligned on untappd as “worse than last year’s,” or for those who really want to flex their troll cred, “better when it was Solsun.” This vocal minority views Oberon as a scapegoat representing all that’s wrong with mainstream taste. It feels unfair to levy all this anger on one beer. While Oberon does taste mild, even compared to some of its seasonal competition, that’s its intentionto enhance experiences, not distract from them. Ultimately, if it bores, don’t drink it, there’s a wealth of choices to satisfy. Bell’s recently caged and corked The Wild One with raspberries, an open-fermented fruited sour that directly appeals to a beer nerd’s palate. But even these experimental offerings are beside the point. 

“Beer geeks get in their own echo chambers, whether it’s on Beer Advocate or other related groups. From where I sit, the world of beer is quite different,” Bell said. “I look at how much Two Hearted we sell.” As I’m sure you could guess, it’s a lot. “If Two Hearted were its own craft brewery it’d be the 13th largest brewery in the country.” No buts about it, Two Hearted mints cash, but maybe we’re lucky to enjoy this elephant in the brewhouse.  

For the third consecutive year, Zymurgy magazine, the homebrewer’s holy text, voted Two Hearted as the best beer, full stop, ousting the likes of Pliny the Elder and Heady Topper. Bell’s placing could derive from how cozy they are with homebrewers—what other major brewery packages their house yeast for commercial use?—but Matt Moberly, VP of sales and marketing, sees it differently. “Two Hearted’s beauty is in its simplicity,” Moberly said. “I think that sometimes the complexity of trying to innovative and utilize cool-kid hops can overpower the beauty of a balanced beer.” Single-hopped, aromatic, endlessly drinkable, it’s absolutely the six-pack I reach for after getting burned by another New-England murkbomb.

 

This brings us to Official, Bell’s foray into the hazy IPA market, which on a surface level looks like analytics pandering to what’s hot. I’ve caught myself accusing Bell’s of bandwagoning on the hazy train, but Bell anticipated these criticisms from the jump, “Look, we’ve been brewing unfiltered beer for decades,” he said. “If there’s something that’s trendy, how do we do it the Bell’s way, within our ethos and standards.” That means no flour and no shortcuts. While light on haze, the bouquet on Official is huge, and the tasting notes hit requisite citrus flavors without overwhelming the senses.  

A recurring motif from my conversations is the brewery’s insistence on quality. Bell’s gets first pick of centennial hops out west, their foeders are some of the finest in the biz, their brewing and packaging equipment is state of the art and environmentally friendly. They take pride in being a jack of all trades. “We define our brewery based on the breadth of our portfolio, not any single area,” Moberly said. “We strive to be a brewers brewery: let’s be really really good at everything we try.” The Bell’s logo has become synonymous with integrity.

bells brewery

Matt Moberly

So why have some brands like Roundhouse and Quinanan Falls disappeared into the ether? While beer speaks for itself, Moberly has noticed that to capture a younger audience, good liquid on its own doesn’t always cut it. “It’s so crowded now you have to have the total package when you put something out,” he said. “You have to not only have good beer but good branding and imagery for a chance to be successful.” Visually refreshing classics like Porter and Kalamazoo stout shows a willingness to bend even when it hurts. The new typography doesn’t quite match the original’s charm, but the consistent look should block well on store shelves. 

Ultimately, it’s about getting great beer into the hands of those who have overlooked it. For a majority of their brands, this isn’t a problem. Their portfolio has become iconic, slipping into the unexpected cracks of our lives. “I don’t know who climbs a mountain with a can of Coke,” Moberly said. “But they love to carry an Expedition Stout or a Two Hearted, take us along to their favorite places, and share their experiences with us. That’s pretty awesome.” 

Questions of succession remain as Bell reckons with his mortality, “I know I won’t live forever,” he said. I wouldn’t expect a funeral any time soon. His faculties remain acute, and his vision clear as day as a member of the old guard, Bell doesn’t see the craft beer tide reversing any time soon. “The revolution has already won,” he said. “We cracked the cosmic egg.” Whatever the future holds, all signs point to the cosmic scramble turning out in Bell’s favor. 

 

broad leaf beer

Opinion

Can Brewery Vivant’s “Weird Cousin” Grow on Their Own?

 

Brewery Vivant has earned their reputation and respect from the industry and consumers for good reason. Their commitment to community, sustainability, and inclusive company culture are impressive and admirable. In 2010, they introduced West Michigan to Belgian and French-inspired farmhouse ales and have kept us hooked. They prove that a brewery’s food can—and should be—just as good as their beer. C’mon, by now, if you haven’t had their duck nachos, burger cooked medium-rare, or a dessert by their house pastry chef… Sorry, where were we?

When Vivant announced the recent grand opening of Broad Leaf Local Beer., they gave it a seemingly endearing and harmless nickname that created two things: interest and expectations. Other media outlets latched onto these low-hanging buzzwords, too. Before the doors had a chance to open, Broad Leaf came off as if it was already in the shadows of their otherwise presumed more mature relative. In some variation, headlines baited: Broad Leaf Local Beer, Brewery Vivant’s “Weird Cousin,” Opens.

broad leaf beer

Playful? Perhaps. Accurate? Eh… Time will tell. The hangup now, for me though, is that I’m struggling to unsee them.

When I visited Broad Leaf on the first day they were open to the public, I wanted to be weirded out. A weird version of something related to Vivant? Yes, please! Instead, I found myself trying to figure out where Vivant left off and Broad Leaf began.

And, yes—to be fair, I realize this was their first day. But, if you’re going to self-proclaim your own nickname, even in jest, you gotta come out swinging. Give us something strange, mysterious, unusual.

Broad Leaf’s location in Kentwood is a well-needed reprieve from big-box retailers and fast food chains on a crowded 28th Street. It definitely looks different than Vivant. Where it deviates from Vivant’s intimacy and distinct, inherited architecture, it makes up for in hip, industrial open-format simplicity. Bonus points for their clever use of shipping containers. It feels like you’re in the heart of a city on the come-up rather than a stark strip mall of sorts. I like where the place seems to be headed.

The interior is pointed in a direction that could get weird. The color palette used throughout is fun, and the couple pieces of hanging tapestries are trendy enough to start giving off a vibe that’s right on. Their intent is to decorate the walls with local artwork. There’s so much space to play with—if maximized just right, it should help tie the room together. When the kitchen opens later this summer I’m hopeful that if their food is half as good as Vivant’s—and fingers crossed a little daring—it will also help them better demonstrate the experience they’re promising.

Upon closer examination, however, things got a little blurry. Namely, with the beer list. Based on what the press was recycling in advance of their opening, the beers were supposed to be, rightfully so, the lynchpin in distinguishing Broad Leaf from Vivant. In a press release from Vivant, owner Jason Spaulding explains, “With the development of new hop varieties, new beer styles, and emerging brewing techniques we wanted to push the creative line and participate in this new wave of craft.” Jon Ward, creative director, supports Spaulding’s vision, “…with the opening of Broad Leaf we have a whole new corner of the map to explore—beyond the edges of the map in some ways.” I was excited when I read this. Toss the map and carve your own path, I say!

But… out of the 13 beers available on draft, four were clearly designated “Vivant beers,” and a handful of the remaining nine have either been in rotation or were currently still on tap at Vivant.

broad leaf beer

For those Vivant loyalists paying close attention, two were most recognizable. Pugs! Pugs! Pugs! Pugs! Pugs! King of the Metal (Cowboys) is a green-colored juicy “Weird IPA” with Blue Razz slushy mix. It was listed under Broad Leaf beers while Rage the Dulcimer, a barrel-aged stout with grilled pineapple, salt, and chocolate, was listed under Vivant Beers. I drank both at Vivant three weeks prior during their second annual Weird Beer Weekend. My lips hadn’t touched a beer yet at Broad Leaf, and I couldn’t help but scratch my head.

While Broad Leaf is still putting the finishing touches on installing their own brew system on site, Vivant’s team of brewers has been pulling double duty to stock Broad Leaf’s draft lines. I can respect that. Utilize your established resources to help launch your new project. But, also be mindful to allow your protégé to shine in their own light.

While we unknowingly have already seen many of Broad Leaf’s beers piloted under Vivant’s roof (and name) in preparation for Broad Leaf’s opening, this is also precisely where the momentum behind their inauguration, for me, stalled. Although the beers I drank that were labeled “Broad Leaf” were quite good and crafted with expertise, aside from a tease of different hop varieties and the absence of Vivant’s signature use of Belgian yeast, I didn’t know whose beer I was really drinking. Was it a leftover Vivant beer repackaged as a new, different brewery, or was it an accurate representation of who Broad Leaf is to become? I hope that the latter is the one that matters to both breweries in question.

I trust Vivant, and I want to love Broad Leaf, but I believe one thing needs to happen sooner than later, even if that means a refined, shorter draft list in the interim: Broad Leaf’s identity and beers need to be distinctly independent from Vivant. Otherwise, Broad Leaf may risk being known only as Vivant’s other brewery. If Broad Leaf was instead marketed as, let’s say, Vivant Experimental—where peculiar and quality are concocted, I believe both endeavors could get away with much more. But, if Broad Leaf is going to be positioned as its own brewery, it deserves its own persona, too.

broad leaf beer

You can’t fault Vivant for pursuing a second location. For space alone, it satisfies their need for additional cold and dry storage while alleviating space restrictions within their original footprint in East Hills. To further capitalize on the move, creating a second brewery is a smart no-brainer. Another brewery in the family unlocks accessibility for a whole new audience and convenience for those who crave something Vivant, but want to save a trip downtown. After all, their success has allowed for Broad Leaf to exist

Still, the underlying question begs whether Broad Leaf will be able—and whether Vivant will allow it—to own an identity distinct and distinguished enough from their older and wiser normal cousin.

 

burning foot

The one-of-a-kind beer fest will take place on Muskegon’s scenic Pere Marquette Beach on August 24, 2019

 

Muskegon, Mich. — For the fifth year in a row, Lakeshore Brewers Guild is hosting the Great Lakes region’s only on-the-beach beer festival. Burning Foot Beer Festival returns on August 24, 2019. This year’s edition promises more breweries, bigger bands and better sound.

“We’re really upping our game this year,” said Burning Foot Beer Festival Chairman Allen Serio.

Eighty breweries from around the Great Lakes region will be represented at the festival. Festival goers can sip world class craft brews and munch on food offerings from six local food vendors, all while exploring the gorgeous natural scenery that permeates Pere Marquette Beach in Muskegon, Michigan.

The festival will feature a “Hop Up” Art Tent with brewery inspired art by local and regional artists. Attendees can also look forward to the flaming “Hop Tower” installation, interactive element charging stations and more.

burning foot

Every year, Burning Foot Beer Festival brings in a mix of acclaimed local and national musical acts, and this year is no exception. The festival will have two stages, one main stage and one waterfront stage for acoustic acts. The music will kick off with high-energy country performer Matt Williams. The lineup also includes regional bands like Tropadelic and the Melophobics. Nineties alternative band Sponge will also perform, and the headlining band is national act Everclear, known for ‘90s hits like “Santa Monica” and “Father of Mine.” Check out the full band lineup on the Burning Foot Beer Festival website.

The experience promises to be one of a kind.

“Once you see that sunset over Lake Michigan on an August night while you’re drinking good beer and listening to great music—you can’t beat it,” Serio said.

Festival goers don’t need to worry about getting home after the festival, either—with the purchase of camping tickets, they can camp on sites right next to the festival grounds.

“You get down there, you spend the whole day at the beach, you enjoy this great festival, and then you can sleep right next door and wake up and hear the waves 20 feet away, crashing on the shore,” Serio said.

Tickets for the festival will first be available at a ticket release party hosted at the downtown Muskegon beach volleyball courts located behind the Western Market chalets on Saturday, June 8 from 12-4 p.m. The party will feature draft beer and music, and all tickets will be on sale without a processing fee before they are released online. General Admission tickets will also be available at a discounted rate of $45.

Online ticket sales will open at 5 p.m. on June 8, with General Admission tickets at $50, “Sandbox” VIP tickets at $125 and Designated Driver tickets at $20. Festival goers interested in camping can purchase tent tickets at $50 per tent and RV camping tickets $100 per site. Shuttle tickets are $10 each.

Participating breweries include:

MICHIGAN

  • Arclight

  • Arbor Brewing Company

  • Ascension Brewing

  • Atwater Brewery

  • Barrel & Beam

  • Batch Brewing Company

  • Beards Brewery

  • Bell’s Brewery

  • Big Hart Brewing Co

  • Big Lake Brewery

  • Boatyard Brewing Co

  • Brew Detroit

  • Brewery 4 Two 4

  • Brewery Vivant

  • Brooks Brewing

  • Cedar Springs Brewing Company

  • Cellar Brewing Co

  • Cheboygan Brewing Company

  • City Built Brewing Company

  • Clam Lake Beer Co

  • Cranker’s Brewery

  • Creston Brewery

  • Distant Whistle

  • Drafting Table Brewing Company

  • Dragonmead Microbrewery

  • Draught Horse Brewery

  • Eastern Market Brewing Co.

  • ELK Brewing

  • Fetch Brewing Co

  • Final Gravity Brewing Co

  • Founders Brewing

  • Grand Armory Brewing

  • Griffin Claw Brewing Company

  • Harbor Light Brewery

  • Haymarket Beer Company

  • Lansing Brewing Company

  • Ludington Bay

  • Midland Brewing Company

  • New Holland Brewing Co.

  • Newaygo Brewing Co

  • North Channel Brewing

  • North Pier Brewing Company

  • Odd Side Ales

  • Old Nation Brewing Company

  • One Well Brewing

  • OpenRoad Brewery

  • Our Brewing

  • Perrin Brewing

  • Petoskey Brewing

  • Pigeon Hill Brewing Company

  • Pike 51

  • Railtown Brewing Company

  • Rake Beer Project

  • Right Brain Brewing Co.

  • River’s Edge Brewing Co.

  • Rochester Mills Beer Co.

  • Saugatuck Brewing Co

  • Schmohz Brewing

  • Short’s Brewing Company

  • Silver Harbor

  • Sister Lakes Brewing Company

  • Speciation Artisan Ales

  • St Ambrose Cellars

  • Starving Artist Brewing Co

  • Stormcloud Brewing Company

  • Tantrick Brewing Co

  • Tapistry Brewing Company

  • Territorial Brewing Co.

  • The Mitten Brewing Company

  • Thornapple Brewing Company

  • Three Blondes Brewing

  • Trail Point Brewing

  • Unruly Brewing Company

  • Vander Mill Cider

  • Watermark Brewing

  • Waypost Brewing Co.

  • White Flame Brewing Co

INDIANA

  • Central State Brewing

ILLINOIS

  • Revolution Brewing Co.

WISCONSIN

  • Sprecher Brewery

Upper Hand

ESCANABA, Mich. – Upper Hand Brewery is proud to announce that two of its beers were awarded medals at the 2019 World Expo of Beer.

Escanaba Black Beer was awarded a gold medal in the Dark European category, while Barrel-Aged Old Fighter took home bronze medals in both the Strong American and Wood-Aged categories.  

“Escanaba Black Beer is one of the three original Upper Hand recipes, and it has remained unchanged in our year-round portfolio since the day we opened,” said Upper Hand Brewery President and Founder, Larry Bell. “It is very gratifying to see it win top honors in its class.”

“I’m also delighted that the barrel-aged version of our Old Fighter was recognized with medals in two categories,” he added. “Like a good bottle of wine, we brewed this beer specifically to age gracefully, so it is incredibly validating to see it honored after over three years.”

There were 803 entries in this year’s World Expo of Beer, which is held annually in Frankenmuth, MI. It is Michigan’s largest professional beer competition. Upper Hand Brewery is the only U.P.-based brewery to receive awards at the 2019 event.

Escanaba Black Beer is available year-round in cans and draft.  Barrel-Aged Old Fighter is a small-batch, draft-only brand available at select bars and restaurants throughout the Upper Peninsula.

 

ABOUT ESCANABA BLACK BEER:

Escanaba Black Beer is at home around both summer fire pits and winter fireplaces. This dark, delicious, malt-forward black ale has a moderate roastiness that is balanced with a silky-smooth, mildly bitter finish (4.5% alcohol by volume – available on draft and in 12oz cans).

ABOUT BARREL-AGED OLD FIGHTER BARLEY WINE-STYLE ALE:

Barrel-Aged Old Fighter is a bold, brash take on the American Barley Wine style. Barrel-aged for fifteen months in blend of bourbon, rye, and port wine barrels, Old Fighter displays caramel, rich malt, and oak character throughout (12.7% alcohol by volume – available on draft).

 

ABOUT UPPER HAND BREWERY:

Upper Hand Brewery is a crew of hikers, campers, dog-walkers, anglers, hunters, bikers, and folks that just want to get out there. We believe that life’s mission is to do what you love, where you love, with the people you love. For us, that means brewing the best beer we can, in the best place on Earth: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

We put a lot of thought into brewing beer that reflects what we love about where we live. We have the unique opportunity to try and capture an experience—a sense of place—in each and every beer, and we take it seriously. That’s not to say we don’t have a lot of fun. The U.P. is full of adventures and we love making beer that makes those adventures even better.

A little more about us: our founder—Larry Bell of Bell’s Brewery—had always dreamed of opening a brewery in the Upper Peninsula. Little clues of those dreams can be found in many of the classic Bell’s brands, which pay tribute to the U.P. in their names and label artwork. His dream became a reality when we broke ground on our 20-barrel brewhouse in 2013, and we haven’t looked back since.

 

 

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.