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

two rails

Our names are fundamental to our identities. They’re our calling card. Some say they’re our favorite word to hear. Maybe it’s a load of hoopla, but I get the impression I’d be a different sort of guy if I was a Tim or a Hugh. I’m defined by an intrinsic “Jack-ness,” however lame I know that sounds. All this means to say is—I can see why somebody might get a little funny when another starts to muck with their name. So we see Railtown Brewing getting understandably defensive as a new brewery is poised to open close by with a similar name.

In December 2014, owners Justin Buiter and Gim Lee founded Railtown with a dream like many startups in the industry: sell enough beer to quit their day jobs. Two weeks after opening their doors, they turned in letters of resignation to their former employers and haven’t looked back. This past July, they made a big move, expanding into a pole barn megaplex that can fit twice the number of Railtown enthusiasts. Their steady growth and support from the community has exceeded their wildest expectations. I’d call it karma paying out dividends to two happy-go-lucky guys who deserve success.

That said, with such success comes the need to protect their brand, which brings us to their yet-to-be competitor Railbird Taphouse and Brewery where a couple obvious questions arise. Are the names too close for comfort? And to go Shakespeare, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” Maybe. Unfortunately, when entering the arena of intellectual property things get a little hairier than the soliloquies of star-crossed lovers.

Railtown is alleging four counts of trademark infringement in a consumer confusion case substantiated by several accounts where people are already mixing the two up. The examples range from employment applications inquiring and implying the two are under the same ownership to patrons wondering why Railtown would want to open two locations at once. Railbird argues that this confusion could be handled through consumer education, and that Railtown doesn’t own exclusive rights to the word “rail.” Joel Baar, Railbird’s lawyer, made a distinction between the industrial and the aviary, “In fact, most of the beer-related businesses that use “rail” as a formative part of their mark have a clear railroad industry connotation.” True, but there’s a larger issue at hand. Is ten miles a far enough degree of separation to prevent people from making associations they shouldn’t? The jury’s out on this one for now.

Railtown’s end game is pretty simple, without much wiggle room for a middle ground—Railbird needs to change their name. “We registered first, we trademarked first, we operate in the same industry, and we’re drawing from the exact same consumer base,” Buiter said. When put that way, it does look pretty cut and dry. “We’re basically neighbors and we have very similar names.”

But in talking with Buiter, you can tell he didn’t want it to go this way. Early on he met with members of Railbird to hear their story and hammer out a solution over a couple pints. “We were recently in the startup phase, about three and a half years ago, on a really tight budget. We know what it’s like. We didn’t want this to put them in a position preventing them from opening up their doors.”

Buiter extended an olive branch. “We offered to assist them with rebranding and the associated fees. We wanted to get them in a good spot moving forward, but they had no interest in changing their name.” Instead Railbird moved forward with the name showing no indication of folding. Aware of their infringement on the Railtown trademark, they dismissed those concerns, deeming Railtown—in their words—as “just a strip mall brewery.” Insult aside, should the size of another brewery determine how creative you are when coming up with a business name?

It is, at the very least, an awful coincidence how clearly Railbird’s name parallels Railtown’s, and how perfectly it aligns with a slice of Byron Center history. Taking home in the old Byron Hotel, Railbird sought to honor the legacy of ‘The Chicken’, both the meal and the goofy statue that stood guard out front as a roadside attraction. Positioned with a view of the Kent trails, the term railbird—a person who spectates, usually at a horse race—effectively kills two birds with one stone. In a statement sent to MittenBrew, Railbird said, “Given our location, the fact that no one owns the word “rail,” and the homage we desire to pay to The Chicken, we can think of no better name for our taphouse than Railbird Taphouse & Brewery.”

While it is a good name, it comes off as perplexing that Railbird would pour money into court fees and dig their heels into a brand they’ve hardly established, especially before even opening. Just recently we’ve seen another brewery handle a similar situation with a touch more grace. Formerly known as Kings Brewing, this first African-American owned brewery in Michigan got a call from another Kings Brewery based out of California. Obviously the name was taken. Opting for the populist route, FKA Kings let its fans take the reigns, hosting a competition to see who could devise the best new name. It was a bright move that deepened their consumer relations while maneuvering them out of a tight spot too.

We should also note the large helping of irony to this whole situation. Railtown originally formed under the LLC Grinning Mitten only to scrap the name after deciding it best to avoid conflict and confusion in the marketplace with fellow Michigan brewery, The Mitten Brewing Company. In regards to the switch, Buiter reflects on it matter of factly, “It’s in everyone’s best interest to have a unique name for their business.” I imagine it must be frustrating for Railtown to watch a new brewery mire themselves in a problem they were able to so easily sidestep.

In an industry which prides itself on camaraderie and community, it’s odd that Railbird would stay staunchly opposed to any sort of compromise from the get-go. Whether in the circuit court or the court of public opinion, a stubbornness to adapt could be their downfall. The craft beer industry is booming, with plenty of room left for fresh faces to join the fray. It’s important that these voices come from original places.

 

With literally thousands of beers to try from hundreds of breweries, time is a precious commodity at the Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Fest. One gulp of Brewery Becker’s 15% Braggot and you might need a 15 minute breather by the riverside to sober up. Tick tock. Follow up with a healthy pour or two of KBS and that’s a wrap. Needless to say, the four hour window can hardly feel like enough to scratch the surface of Michigan’s amazing beer scene. I found a winning formula in seeking out unfamiliar brews, mingling, and simply taking in the sights.

summer beer fest

Hayley & Beer-tern Jack

One key observation: what a good looking group of drinkers. It’s clear the craft beer community has upgraded its sartorial sensibilities beyond those hosed hardhats you suck beer out of. I saw patterns galore, sick kicks, fanny packs too. The range of personal style reflects a culture as diverse as its beer selection. Still, in spite of our differences we can all unite behind a pretzel necklace, the greatest tongue-in-cheek alternative to a choker. Sense of humor should always precede fashion sense, and judging from all the smiles I saw Friday, craft beer still has its priorities straight. Here are a few of the friendly faces we met while patrolling the grounds.

 

 

 

Photography: Katie Raymond

mushroom head

I’ll admit, sometimes I rest on my laurels when describing any brown beer I’m drinking: “I don’t know, I guess it’s malty?” Malty. Like calling something “interesting,” it’s a cop-out that implies flavor while hardly saying anything at all. Maybe notes of toffee? A rye spiciness and a clean mouthfeel? The breadth of characteristics malt can impart is as wide as it is complex. Still, I can see why drinkers struggle to place what makes malt so special. Suffering from a case of middle child syndrome, malt lacks the panache of palate blasting hops and fails to rile the zeitgeist like wild yeast does—but that doesn’t mean you should ignore it. At the foundation of every good beer is its grain, and while malt remains an unsung ingredient in the public eye, there are some passionate maltsters out there looking to change its reputation.

Enter Mushroom Head Malt Company. The brainchild of husband and wife duo Richard and Danni Vierzen, Mushroom Head represents a merging of its founders talents—Danni’s scientific mind and Richard’s ability to harvest just about any crop on Earth in full. A hand on his father’s dairy farm since he could swing a rake, Richard has grown into a man who understands and loves land. He affectionately refers to his own with feminine pronouns, “A heavy rain and her soil will spill into the pond,” and “She’s gonna put out a great harvest this year.” From the looks of it, she most certainly will.

mushroom head

Richard and Danni’s malting journey began a few years back after a bad farm deal. We’ll spare the nitty gritty. Essentially they were forced to shift from their normal farming practices and turn lemons to lemonade—or barley to malt if you will. “We first attended the Great lakes Hops and Barley convention in 2016 thinking that hops would be a good idea,” Danni said. “We quickly saw a need for Michigan barley and we had already been growing top grade cereal grains for the last 10 years.”

So they erected a barn to germinate and kiln grain and then, bingo, a malt farm was born.

Recently, I paid a visit to the Vierzen’s farm in Saranac, MI and spent the day learning more about the process from seed to grain sack. Mostly though, I moseyed about the grounds marveling at their field of barley that stretched into infinity. The Calypso Winter barley with its waist-high stalks swaying in the breeze looked like hairs wisping off an impressionist’s paintbrush. We took a hay ride to the edge of the plot and Richard let me pluck a couple kernels for taste. Plump and healthy, they burst with a sweetness like a grass jellybean. The symmetry and size of the plant suggested a yield that might exceed even Richard’s expectations. Last year the Vierzens harvested about 100,000 pounds of barley. This year the bounty could double, a win-win for Michigan’s agriculture and its craft breweries alike.

The way Danni sees it, there’s a sense of pride to incorporating locally sourced crop. “When I go drink a beer made with Mushroom Head malt, I know I am drinking something one-of-a-kind,” she said. “It has a flavor unlike anything you can buy online. The freshness that comes from buying local cannot be matched!”

Early adopters of Mushroom Head agree. The boys at Thornapple Brewing used some of their cracker malt for a SMASH (single malt and single hop) saison and were impressed by a level of quality not usually seen in our state. In another case, Gravel Bottom tinkered with their Hoppy Bliss wheat IPA recipe to include 2-row pilsner malt from Mushroom Head. Onsite expert Ben Darcie found that the malt gave the beer a bigger body and a better platform for the Michigan grown hops to shine too. “It’s an exciting reflection of where we are,” Darcie said. “It’s our soil and sun encapsulated. We’ve put Michigan in a glass.”

For now, you can find Mushroom Head malt popping up for wholesale at homebrew shops like Siciliano’s and in Michigan beers made by some of our best breweries. That said, it’s well worth the field trip to meet the Vierzens and hear their story firsthand. They’re a tight-knit family, charming and hospitable, and I’m sure they’d welcome you with open arms and beer in hand. While they continue to make a name for themselves with their exceptional product, watch as they grow like their namesake fungus.

 

beer fridge

If NewAir AB-1200B sounds like the name of a fridge from the future, that’s because it is. With its pristine black matte finish and inaudible whirr, the NewAir looks like an appliance you’d find on a starship, voice-powered by the HAL-9000 perhaps. But instead of filling it with the freeze-dried goo astronauts have to eat, you can stock it up with a more earthly beverage: beer, and lots of it. If you configure the shelves correctly, the storage space maxes out at an impressive 126 cans. That’s five and a quarter 24-packs of Solid Gold, or just your one three-liter bottle of Samiclaus if you’re trying to be a real grinch.

beer fridge

Another feature worth noting is its security that comes by lock and key. Anyone who’s returned home from vacation to find their vertical of Black Note missing knows that some treasures are best left kept from prying hands.

But even you can be your beer’s own worst enemy. The other night, mid heated game of ping-pong, I whipped my paddle across the room and shattered my last bottle of Bourbon County. Mopping up the remains, I decided then and there that letting my prized beers rest on a wobbly credenza wasn’t going to cut it as “cellaring” any more.

With total temperature control, maximum energy efficiency, and a design so intuitive any buzzed up college kid could get it up and running, there’s no excuse to forgo the upgrade. Embrace the future of the beer fridge, it’s here now.

And bonus! If you use the promo code MITTENBREW at checkout you’ll get an extra 20% off the price tag. Hop over here to get your hands on one.

 

beer fridge

FAQs

How cold does this fridge get?
You can adjust the temperature as low as 34 degrees, making this one of the coldest beverage coolers on the market.

Is this beer cooler loud?
No. The motor chilling this fridge is very quiet, measuring on 35 decibels at its loudest in our testing.

Can you install this as a built-in underneath kitchen cabinets?
No. This unit has a rear vent and is designed to be spaced at least 2 inches from the wall at its back.

Will wine bottles fit in this fridge?
Yes. Adjustable racks offer lots of freedom in how you set up the interior of the cooler. Just be sure to adjust the thermostat to the ideal temperature for your wine, which is typically around 55 degrees for most varieties.

 

Sponsored by NewAir

steve siciliano

For Steve Siciliano, proprietor of Siciliano’s Market (perhaps West Michigan’s most well-respected bottle shop and homebrewing supply store), admitting failure acknowledges how seriously close he was to giving up—and how thankful he is that he didn’t. Siciliano, who many would consider partly responsible for laying the foundation of what would become known as Beer City USA, endured five years of dark days before craft beer saved his store, and maybe his life.

 

MittenBrew: Your blog tells a brief story about your store’s history, but why pivot into the realm of convenience stores in the first place?

Steve Siciliano: I was the regional manager for a marketing company in the late ‘70s. I hated the work, the travel, and had young sons at home, so I took on franchise ownership of a 7-Eleven. It ended up not being an easy business to run, but it taught me about the business of retail and, more significantly, the importance of being a part of a community.

 

MB: How so?

SS: Back then, 7-Eleven was different than the way we think about them today. They operated more like a mom and pop store. They really stressed the value of community, and backed it up with charitable giving. Everything started by making customer service the priority. I found that I really liked the interaction with the customers, but I was kind of a quiet fella, believe it or not. I’m really quite reticent for the most part.

 

MB: That doesn’t sound like someone who’d end up having an affinity for providing exemplary customer service.

SS: It sounds weird, but I developed somewhat of a stage persona, so to speak.

 

MB: Something you turned on and off?

SS: I’m not a loquacious type of guy, so it was a way for me to connect with the customers and have some fun with them at the same time. [With a quick, soft chuckle under his breath seemingly surprised by the popularity of his accidental alter ego…] And, they liked it! If they came in and I didn’t throw an innocent, verbal jab at them or literally throw a donut at them playfully on their way out of the store, they thought something was wrong with me.

 

MB: After you got good at throwing donuts, you left 7-Eleven to buy a different store in Creston Heights. What were you hoping to achieve differently?

SS: In the eight years I owned the second store, I felt like I was able to really engage with and impact the community in a positive way, especially with the Scholar Dollars program. Unfortunately, the neighborhood’s socioeconomic status at that time didn’t lend itself well to the direction I was interested in going. We did okay with the working crowd in the morning and around lunchtime, but business would go quiet after dark. I was getting into wine around then, and knew that I’d have to consider a different location if I was going to be able to give that a shot on the shelves. Then I bought this store.

 

MB: What was this place like when you bought it?

SS: As soon as you walked in, you were hit with porn magazines. I mean, the guy had a shit ton of pornography. And that’s pretty much all he was selling—porn and cheap booze…and maybe a bag of stale chips. It was bad. But when I walked in, I’m thinking, “I know how to run a store, I know what I’m doing. I’ll come in here, remodel it, stock it up, and have plenty of space for wine, too.” I envisioned a really nice convenience store—and guest experience. So, I put in soda fountains, coffee, everything I thought I needed. But nothing—I was up against the reputation of the previous management. It was crickets for five years. It was tough, really tough. People just did not come in here. Nothing worked.

 

MB: I read in another interview that you said you “pretty much died here” during that time. Is that true? Did you ever want to throw in the towel?

SS: It was probably the worst time of my life, really. Just five years of me sitting around an empty store. It was tough. I mean, I slipped into a depression. I never failed at anything in my life, and I was failing. To be honest with you, there were times when I’d go in the back room and cry. I was exhausted—mentally, physically.

 

MB: Did it stress family life at home?

SS: Yes, yeah… There’d be nights where I’d just go home, sit in the dark, and stare at the wall.

 

MB: What turned it around?

SS: Around the time I bought this building in ‘93, craft beer was just starting to gain interest. I started hearing whispers about it from random customers in the late ‘90s, and I listened to them. I remember this very distinctly: I brought in a case of Bell’s, was working out the price for a six-pack, and thinking to myself, “There is no way this is ever going to sell.” I mean, I couldn’t see people buying it—paying that much for a six-pack?! So, I thought, “What if I just price them out and sold the bottles as singles?”

 

MB: So, wait. You’ve been pricing beer as singles since the late ‘90s?

SS: Yep. Everything that came in, I priced out as singles. And it worked.

steve siciliano

 

MB: Simple, but genius.

SS: It just snowballed from there. As customers would recommend that I try to get this beer, that beer, those imports, I did. If anyone ever asked if I could get my hands on a certain beer for them, I would. At that time, I would do anything to earn a customer.

 

MB: Is that what led you to expand into to homebrewing supplies?

SS: Tom Buchanan, head brewer at Ludington Bay Brewery, used to live in the neighborhood. He was a customer, and really good homebrewer. He said I should consider selling homebrewing supplies, but I knew nothing about it. I did a little research, found a local distributor, GW Kent, asked for a catalog, and ordered a bunch of stuff I didn’t know anything about. I was scared shitless because I didn’t have the money to spend on it, but it drew people in. It probably took another three to four years before we started making money, but I was getting new and returning faces through the door, and it was fun again.

 

MB: How much lighter was the weight on your shoulders?

SS: Making money is a great antidepressant. For so long, the store was this big, heavy airplane slowly… taking… off… It took a long time to gain altitude, but we finally did.

 

MB: How close were you to running out of runway? Why didn’t you quit?

SS: [Lights his pipe, takes an intentional, steady drag, exhales calmly, and introduces us to his wife, Barb, who has just joined us to listen in…] It’s interesting that you ask that. Barb and I met in ‘98, at the tail end of those dark first five years here at the store. From the very beginning of our relationship, she’s been very supportive, very involved, and with me every step of the way. But before we met, I actually tried to sell the store.

I called a good friend of mine—the same commercial real estate guy who helped me get the Creston store, who helped me buy this store, and I said to him, “Listen, I can’t do this anymore. It’s killing me. You gotta help me sell this place.” So we listed it. We had some lookers, but it didn’t sell. He couldn’t figure out why. And you know what? It was the fucking universe telling me, “You stick this out.” I really think it was something metaphysical, something bigger than me telling  me, “No. You stick this out.” Now, I say to myself, “Thank God I didn’t sell.”

 

MB: You couldn’t ditch the store. The only thing you had left was the hope that customers would eventually walk through the door. Once they did and continued to return, how did you apply your philosophy of what you learned about community and customer service to keep the store above water?

SS: I had the idea to throw a party for homebrewers. We held it at St. Ladislaus Aid Society, an old Polish hall. They could bring their beer, we’d feed ‘em (Barb and her friend Connie made ribs in Connie’s kitchen) and we were going to play trivia. I found this old silver cup at an antique store, and we called it The Siciliano’s Cup, and we’d award it to the homebrewing team with the highest trivia score—not the best BJCP-judged beer, like it is now. Now, in its 15th year, it’s revered like the Stanley Cup. Since, we’ve parlayed that into throwing our own Big Brew Day at Trailpoint Brewing Company to celebrate National Homebrew Day, which happens annually on the first Saturday in May.

steve siciliano

 

MB: I get the sense that your customers are more important to you than just a cash transaction.

SS: I’ve met SO many wonderful people over the years, especially here. Like-minded people who love good things—good beer, spirits, wine, cigars. I’ve developed a lot of really close friendships. It’s one of the many cool things about running a store like this. We’ve always considered ourselves to be a mom and pop place, and I like that. My wife, Barb, is a face of Siciliano’s, too, and our employees are an extension of us—they’re so appreciated. We’ve just tried to create an atmosphere with a tangible personal touch.

 

MB: Do you consider Siciliano’s a contributing factor to Grand Rapids being known as Beer City USA?

SS: I know so many professional brewers now because they started out being homebrewers. I feel pretty proud of the fact that many of them got their start in our store. We’re like a farm team of local brewers. [He affectionately starts name-dropping…] Jacob Derylo, from Vivant, used to work here. Matt Blodgett from Founders. Gary Evans and Mark Lacopelli from Trail Point. The guys from Mitten Brewing. Seth Rivard from Rockford Brewing. The guys from Pigeon Hill and Unruly in Muskegon. The guys from Odd Side and Grand Armory in Grand Haven. Elk Brewing. Tom Payne, who just opened Two Guys [and was shopping for supplies during this interview]. I mean, I can keep going…

 

MB: The Siciliano’s jumbo jet has been in the air, turbulence-free, for a while. You’ve got a successful annual homebrewing competition, a complementary, impressively-attended National Homebrew Day party, a résumé of helping influence a who’s who in the local brewing scene, and you just recently announced your “semi-retirement”. Why now?

SS: My age. My wife. [Laughing…] I’ve been slowing down for a couple years now. Don’t get me wrong, if they need help behind the counter, I’ll jump behind there. I’ll help carry a customer’s order out to their car, but I’ve been concentrating more on the marketing end of the business. Writing’s always been in my blood—I’ve got a degree in journalism. I’ve self-published a novel. It’s my creative outlet, so I love writing our blog. But Barb’s like, “What are you gonna do, keep working for the rest of your life?! I want to go travel.” So, me being a smart man, I started listening to her.

steve siciliano

 

MB: Are you going out kicking and screaming?

SS: When you’ve spent half your life building something, it’s hard to walk away from it. You know, I got in this morning at nine o’clock, and said, “I like this.” We’ve been traveling a lot more lately. And, you know what, I’ve kinda liked that, too. I’ve been grooming the management team for about a year, and I trust them. So am I going kicking and screaming? Yeah, maybe I was at first, but they’ve got the program dialed in now. So much, in fact, that most of the time they don’t even put me on the schedule. [He shows the schedule as proof.] It’s a coup! [Laughing.]

 

MB: So when you finally clock out for the last time…

SS: [He cuts me off…] I don’t think I’ll clock out. [Barb adds, “I don’t think he will either.”] I’ll clock out when I’m dead.

 

MB: Fair enough. [We all pause in silence…]

 

MB: Do you have a vision for how you’d like to see the store once you are gone? Is there an heir to the throne?

SS: Not yet, but I hope it stays. Once I’m dead and gone, I hope that… I hope they find a way to keep this thing going, and under the same name. That’d mean a lot to me.

 

MB: If this store with your name on it is your legacy, what does your headstone stay?

SS: Let’s put it this way. At my funeral service, which won’t be open casket because I’ll be ashes, I want the book I wrote, the black belt I earned, my fly fishing rod, and a picture of Siciliano’s Market there. And I want Tom Petty’s “Room At The Top” playing on a loop.

 

MB: When you’re looking down from the top of the world, what drink will be in your hand?

SS: Maybe a Manhattan (with a good bourbon, good sweet vermouth, and a Luxardo cherry). Maybe a nice glass of wine, or an authentic Belgian beer. And a good cigar. Or my pipe.

steve siciliano

 

MB: Well, Steve. We hope you don’t see that day for a long time, but when you do we think that sounds like a good way to go out.

 

Photography: Steph Harding