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.
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.
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.
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.