KALAMAZOO — Nick Rodammer took first place in Bell’s 3rd Annual Homebrew Competition, announced Sunday during All Stouts Day.

Rodammer’s recipe, a Belgian black IPA, will be brewed with Specialty Brewer Zeke Bogan at Bell’s original Kalamazoo brewery, and will then go on tap at the adjacent Eccentric Cafe.

This is the same brewery where many of Bell’s smaller batches are brewed including The Wild One, the Jazz Series, Roundhouse IRA, Kal-Haven Ale, Harvest Ale, a number of specialty stouts and more.

Following Rodammer in second was Jay VonBuskirk, for his hoppy beer brewed with mango, and in third were Adam and Britani Wisniewski, who brewed a brown ale with smoked malt.

KALAMAZOO — Nick Rodammer took first place in Bell’s 3rd Annual Homebrew Competition, announced Sunday during All Stouts Day.
Rodammer’s recipe, a Belgian black IPA, will be brewed with Specialty Brewer Zeke Bogan at Bell’s original Kalamazoo brewery, and will then go on tap at the adjacent Eccentric Cafe.
This is the same brewery where many of Bell’s smaller batches are brewed including The Wild One, the Jazz Series, Roundhouse IRA, Kal-Haven Ale, Harvest Ale, a number of specialty stouts and more.
Following Rodammer in second was Jay VonBuskirk, for his hoppy beer brewed with mango, and in third were Adam and Britani Wisniewski, who brewed a brown ale with smoked malt.

KALAMAZOO — The fourth annual Bell’s All Stouts Day is set to take place starting at noon on Sunday at Bell’s Eccentric Cafe.

The event will feature 17 different stouts — including four that are barrel-aged — as well as food companions. The lineup is as follows:

  • Kalamazoo Stout
  • Special Double Cream Stout
  • Java Stout
  • Expedition Stout
  • Oatmeal Stout
  • Rye Stout
  • Milk Stout
  • Trumpeter’s Stout
  • Harry Magill’s Spiced Stout
  • Smoked Stout
  • Dagger Stout
  • Sweet Potato Stout
  • Black Note
  • Bourbon Barrel-Aged Cherry Stout
  • Bourbon Barrel-Aged Batch 9,000
  • Bourbon Barrel-Aged Kalamazoo Stout on nitrogen
  • Bourbon Barrel-Aged Kalamazoo Stout firkin

All Stouts Day is billed as an event to try stouts that you might not otherwise be able to, in addition to Bell’s standard lineup of darker brews.

SPARTA — Citing health issues, Michigan Beer Cellar owner Dan Humphrey is looking to leave the business he started two years ago.

In an MLive article, Humphrey says, “I’ve got some health issues and it’s getting to be too much for my wife and I. I’ve been working probably 16 hours a day for three years straight to build this business and I need to slow down a bit.”

In addition to brewing beers — several of which are distributed — the brewery also makes wine, mead and artisan spirits.

The business is currently listed on Craigslist for $540,000.

The Grand Rapids Brewing Co.’s opening date was announced quietly on Facebook last night.

The brewery is now up and running, brewing beer, and slated to open on Dec. 5.

The beer will be brewed on a 7-barrel system it acquired from the former Grand Rapids Brewing Co. on 28th Street.

It will produce eight to 10 different style beers, including a revamp of the popular, pre-Prohibition Silver Foam, which was sold throughout the region by the Grand Rapids Brewing Co.

Although it was scheduled to open much early in the fall, some brewing equipment malfunctions have taken time to fix.

The brewery will be all-organic and will be able to accommodate 450 customers at one time.

Without Founders Brewing Co., chances are the boom Grand Rapids currently is seeing would not happen, and the title of “BeerCity USA” almost certainly wouldn’t exist. And the Michigan beer industry likely wouldn’t be the same either.

Unbeknownst to most people is how close that reality actually came.

The bolt cutter story is known by anyone who knows the Grand Rapids craft beer scene, and soon will be immortalized in Founders’ 15th anniversary ale.

In 2000, partners Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers had stopped making all their debt payments and lease payments. Eventually, they owed more than $500,000 and had six days to pay it off, or they would see their brewery chained up.

So Engbers bought a pair of bolt cutters. He didn’t have to find out what would happen if he used them. A Grand Rapids-businessman, Peter C. Cook, helped guarantee their loan, and now the rest is history – kind of.

But that foreclosure story scratches the surface of how close Founders truly came to closing, well before it was named the number three brewery in the world. Even after the loan scare, the company continued to bleed money several years following.

“The dark days were a lot darker than people think,” said Mike Stevens, Founders president and CEO. “If Founders ended today and I had an opportunity to start again tomorrow and they said the life cycle would be the exact same as Founders, I would say, ‘No thank you.’”

Stevens’ partner, Dave Engbers, sitting across the desk agreed with the sentiment.

“You don’t want to sound like one of those people who say when I walked to school I walked through five miles of ice up hill, but that’s pretty much what we did,” Engbers said. “But really that was it, it was working 18-20 hour days every day, broke as you can be, zero money, no friends.”

Most companies have their startup struggles, that’s not the unusual part of the story. Most of Founders’ problems stem from starting in an industry that had no base, no foothold to begin a climb to profitability.

Founders has existed for about 15 years, and for 10 of those, Stevens and Engbers lost money in their endeavor. They likened it to an iceberg, where the 75 percent under the chilled water is the company losing money.

Now, the company, growing at a double-digit rate, is safe and one of the leaders of the Michigan craft beer charge. But that charge was close to not having one of its leaders.

“I’d wager to bet, if we had a way out, we would have taken it,” Stevens said. “We had personal guarantees in loans, our wives had signed, we had second mortgages. There was no other option than to succeed.”


The new old guys

Although the Founders guys can’t be included in the pioneers of craft brewing, they are veterans, even if they don’t feel all that old.

When Stevens and Engbers opened the doors to Founders, they looked up to Larry Bell, Ken Grossman from Sierra Nevada and Anchor Brewing. Asked how they felt to be one of the old guys on the block, they joked they feel “fat and slow.”

Engbers said the industry was so slow in the 90s, with little prospect, he thought they had opened their doors too late. It turns out they were early.

“In all seriousness, we do have a different perspective than a lot of folks,” Engbers said. “We’ve made some mistakes along the last 15 years and it’s nice to know we’re looked at as veterans.”

The struggles the company faced in its youth was large in part because of the beers they were making — basic craft beers every craft brewer was making.

Brewers were concerned with making beers that hit a wide market, beers that created Engber’s infamous “well-crafted, unremarkable beers,” saying. Unfortunately, they didn’t stand out, didn’t pull consumers away from mass-market brewers and almost stifled the brewing boom — a whole wave of microbreweries went under.

“When we were trying to hit the wider swath, we were competing with hundreds of breweries,” Engbers said. “By us narrowing our focus to make bigger, bolder, more complex beers, there were only a handful of people playing in that arena.”

Stevens credits the switch to the rapid increase in Founders recognition, and even the craft beer boom we’re seeing today.

“It took us some time to figure out selling one beer to 100 people doesn’t work,” Stevens said, “but selling 10 beers to 20 people works. We narrowed our focus to a beer geek. They were the passionate ones, the people who care about beer, they were the ones that were interested, intrigued and spread the word.”

The lessons Founders and other early breweries learned are lessons new brewers have to know before they start, otherwise, they won’t survive.

“When we started, it was not what is being seen today,” Stevens said. “It is a different dynamic for those starting today. It’s not what we went through and there’s a respect we have because of what we went through, because the industry had to grow around us.”


Lessons from Founders

Founders, and other early microbreweries, had the luxury of trial and error. Although they had to weather ups and downs, they survived making the wrong beers. Today, that won’t fly.

“When we opened up, people gave us multiple chances over a several year period,” Stevens said. “It took us a while to hone in on what we do.”

But new breweries entering the market will not be afforded that chance. Engbers and Stevens said it’s sink or swim from the beginning for new entries.

“It’s a great time to start a brewery and it’s also a the worst time,” Engbers said. “There is no margin for error. It’s going to be pretty brutal, so you better come out knowing exactly what you’re doing and do it.”

Experts expect the Michigan craft beer market share in Michigan to at least double in the next several years, and that leaves plenty of room for new breweries to open up. But with so many entries trying to survive in the market, it becomes cutthroat.

Many in the industry, including Founders and Bells, fear the upstarts that don’t have a brewing background or the pockets to finance those who do.

It all comes back to those startup 15 or more years ago.

“We’ve seen a buildup of really interesting product and now there’s good entries because there’s that room,” Stevens said. “The consumers’ palate has been trained over the last decade or so because the consumer expects a beer to be good. Now if you’re not focused on your product and you’re not doing a good job with your brewery, there will not be that opportunity for the second or third chances, you’ll just be removed.”


The smell of success

Was Founders really close to shutting down, leaving Grand Rapids without its flagship brewery leading the craft beer charge? Perhaps we’ll never know.

But Engbers and Stevens saw the — sometimes “insurmountable” — struggles they overcame to reach the world-reknowned level they know now.

They’re the only ones who can know how close they were to potentially stopping the Grand Rapids beer revolution.

“I love our story, I love to look at it and there’s a bit of victory,” Stevens said. “If you said would you do it over again? I would actually say, ‘No.’”

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series. This part details the resurgence of Grand Rapids brewing.

GRAND RAPIDS — Following Prohibition, more than 700 breweries opened up in the United States. That number dwindled to fewer than 100 in 1980, a far cry from the 2000 that were scattered across the nation at the turn of century.

However, there were no Grand Rapids breweries since 1951, when Fox Deluxe closed. Virtually all that stood in Michigan were Frankenmuth Brewing Co. and Stroh’s prior to Larry Bell starting Bell’s Brewery Inc. in 1985.

Then, in the mid-90s, there was a mini-movement in Grand Rapids, that started with the opening of a reincarnated Grand Rapids Brewing Co.

“I know they (opened first) because I incorporated Grand Rapids Brewing Co. a few years before,” said Mike Stevens, president of Founders Brewing Co. “Then we opened.”

Following Founders’ opening in its original location on Monroe, and operating under the name Canal Street Brewing Co., with labels adorned with pictures of original Grand Rapids brewers.

For the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s Thank You, BEER! exhibit, Founders brewed a commemorative beer, Furniture City Stock Ale.

“We thought it’d be a fun thing for us to do in respect of the brewers of yesteryear,” Founders Vice President Dave Engbers said. “It epitomizes the beers they brewed; malt forward, hops reduced, it’s a nice easy drinking beer.”


The first try

Soon after the new GRBC and Founders opened up, several more breweries opened in Grand Rapids in the late 90s, including Arena Brewing Co., Robert Thomas and Big Buck Brewery, among others.

That doesn’t include other area breweries that are now major players in the Michigan beer industry such as Arcadia Ales and New Holland Brewing Co. Still, Engbers said all the above fell into a pitfall of the early craft beer renaissance, making “well-crafted, unremarkable beers.”

“They weren’t horrible, but we were trying to make something that had wide acceptance,” Engbers said. “Everybody was making pales, wheats and ambers. But they didn’t standout, people weren’t looking for them.

“People were demanding more from a beer and it took us until the brink of bankruptcy to figure that out.”

Although Founders figured it out, and has taken its knowledge to great heights, many of the late 90s breweries weren’t able to make it long.

The lack of bold beers coupled with the practically nonexistent customers left most of the breweries hurting.

“When I look at our middle years, we were growing, but the demand for craft beer was not what it has come to be the last few years,” Stevens said. “It was relatively quiet on consumer sentiment. It was an industry you could keep your doors open if you were focused and making good product, but it’s not like now, where the growth rates are double digits.”


The tipping point

Stevens and Engbers suggested the craft beer popularity explosion right about 2008 was because of a tipping point of consumer palates and interest in craft beer.

But the pair also suggested another tipping point might be on the horizon, and could result in a similar fizzle to startups like in the late 90s.

“That’s the biggest fear right now, that we’re going to fall into that same pattern of a bunch of startups,” Engbers said, “a bunch of people who, quite frankly, don’t belong in the industry. Most people who are established are kind of waiting for that, next two to three years we’re going to start to see fallout.

That’s not to say the pipe will have dried up, there’s still plenty of room in the market for Michigan craft beer. The market share stands at about 4 percent, and the Michigan Brewers Guild has a goal of 10 percent, a modest proposition as some states stand at 20 percent of locally-produced craft beer.

Stevens said the high-quality breweries of the last decade or so have trained beer drinkers’ palates to expect more from their beverages.

“There will be room for them because the market share will probably double in the next five years,” he said. “But it’s not the wild west of the 90s where you could make a hit or miss product. Now it’s a little different, because you’re jumping into a working industry, you’re jumping in at a point you can’t afford to sink, we jumped in and it was guaranteed you were going to sink.”


Comin’ round the corner

With brewery numbers in the United States recently surpassing the pre-Prohibition totals, Grand Rapids — and Michigan — craft breweries also are about to come full circle.

Frankenmuth Brewery is reestablishing itself as a quality brewery following a devastating tornado in 1996. Frankenmuth Brewery first opened in 1862, making it one of the oldest breweries in operation today — in a sense.

In a recent exclusive MittenBrew tour of Bell’s, Laura Bell showed us the soon to be used Stroh’s barrels for a brew.

Stroh’s Brewing Co. began brewing beer in Detroit in 1850, but ceased production in Detroit on Feb. 8, 1985, mere months before Larry Bell sold his first beer. When Bell’s releases the beer brewed in the Stroh’s barrels in Michigan, it truly will be full circle in the industry.

The Grand Rapids Brewing Co. also is making its full circle journey complete, with its third reincarnation.

Mark Sellers, and his Barfly Ventures LLC., are set to open the brewery this fall on Ionia.

The new GRBC replicated the original’s logo from a calendar in the Grand Rapids museums archives and also will brew Silver Foam, the popular beer that was last sold in 1918 — with a slightly different recipe.

Although a lot of the aspects of the new brewery will have a historic twang to it, Sellers said it won’t be the exact same, just enough to bring back a classic feel.

Sellers also owns HopCat, which helped bring Grand Rapids the BeerCity USA title, as one of the best beer bars in the world.

Between HopCat, Founders and the incredible beer culture in Grand Rapids, craft beer continues to fuel a Michigan beer fire that is spreading nationwide.

And with the huge new collection from brewers in Grand Rapids and around the area, Forist said if the museum wanted to do another exhibit in 100 years, it’d be a whole lot easier.

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series. This part profiles the history of Grand Rapids beer, the next, the resurgence of Grand Rapids beer.

There’s one thing that really stands out about nineteenth century brewers; they had fantastic mustaches.

However, that’s not what the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s Thank You, BEER! exhibit is profiling. Instead, the exhibit will profile and honor  the city’s beer industry that has come full circle since the early twentieth century.

Thanks to three loaners, Steve DeBoode, Kevin Foley and Bill Norton, the museum is able to put on a functional exhibit that runs until Dec. 30. Although the museum has a decent collection from the old Grand Rapids Brewing Co.’s corner stone, Museum Curator Alex Forist said the trio’s collections really help bring the exhibit to life.

With the museum’s collection of Grand Rapids Brewing Co. memorabilia and an assortment of items from current area breweries — such as bolt cutters from Founders Brewing Co. and the Larry Bell’s original 15-gallon kettle — stand vast walls of bottles, cans and posters from a long history of beer.


Furniture City Brewing

Most of what is known about the old breweries comes from Albert Baxter’s 1891’s “History of the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan.”

In fact, Forist and the museum crew watched the documentary “How Beer Saved the World” and Baxter’s book to do most of the research for the exhibit.

According to Baxter, John Pannell set up the city’s first brewery in 1836, at the bottom of Prospect Hill, which was located near Pearl Street and Ottawa Avenue. Pannell was an Englishman, but soon the Germans overtook the fledgling industry.

Christoph Kusterer opened on the Westside, and bought out Pannell in 1849. Kusterer was one of the German immigrant figure heads in the 1800s, even serving as the “Grand German Jollification Parade Marshall” to celebrate Prussia’s victory against France in 1871. Unfortunately, Kusterer died in 1880 in a shipwreck of the Alpena. His sons and grandsons continued the brewing name.

In 1849, the Christ brothers came to Grand Rapids, two working with Kusterer and the third opening the Bridge Street House Tavern, granted Grand Rapids’ first tavern-keepers license following the village’s turn to a city.

The brothers eventually opened up a large brewery near Ottawa Avenue and Bridge Street, but a fire burnt it down on July 13, 1873.

As the German immigrant population continued to grow, the popularity of lagers did too. At the end of the Civil War, there were four major breweries in Grand Rapids: Kusterer’s City Brewery, Union Brewery, Michigan Brewery and G. and C. Christ Brewery.

Baxter wrote the popularity was so much, Grand Rapids’ output in 1875 was 16,000 barrels and production was valued at $600,000 in 1877 and more than 160 men were employed by brewers.

In the late 1800s, Cincinnati was a brewing powerhouse, leading to a former Kusterer brewer, Adolph Goetz to start the Cincinnati Brewery at 208 Grandville Ave. with the slogan, “Equal to Cincinnati Beer.”

Goetz eventually left to start a brewery in Colorado, but returned a few years later as Kusterer’s brewmaster.

Some non-Germans came into the picture in the late 1800s, but due to a lack of demand of ales and porters, they quickly failed. In 1879, seven breweries were in Grand Rapids, all German and all producing lagers.

In 1887, an outside force entered the market, Toledo Brewing and Malting Co. and began the movement toward a larger scale of beer production. And at the turn of the century, Anheuser Busch, Finlay Brewing Co. of Toledo, Muskegon Brewing Co. and Joseph Schlitze Brewing Co. all held market shares.

Instead of trying to find their own way against outside competition, six Grand Rapids brewers joined forces. Charles F. Kusterer, George Brandt, Tusch Brothers, Paul Rathman, Frey Brothers and Adolph Goetz opened up the Grand Rapids Brewing Co. on Jan. 1, 1893.

Grand Rapids Brewing Co. brewed several types of beers and distributed them across the region, but one type, Silver Foam gained immense popularity.

An icehouse for Anheuser Busch, where Founders Vice President Dave Engbers said bottling was done, still stands as the Grand Rapids Community Foundation building today. Constructed in 1905, it might be the last of a network of railside icehouses and the AB logo still stands proudly above Grandville Avenue.

The only local competition to GRBC was the Petersen Brewing Co., a successor to the Michigan Brewery, and by 1907, it expanded to a three building complex. In 1908 an old school house was purchased for storage, leading to this gem in the Grand Rapids Herald: “Its location has also been the source of a long standing pun. On one corner was the school, on another was a church, while on the third was a saloon. In consequence of this combination, the saying has grown that on three corners were located education, salvation and damnation.

The German monopoly on Grand Rapids brewing came to an end, when, in 1904, a Detroit promoter opened up the last brewery in town before Prohibition named Furniture City Brewing.


The well goes dry

Grand Rapids joined the rest of the nation in a the large temperance movement and saw Prohibition dump a lot of alcohol down the drains in 1920. Grand Rapids Brewing Co. was liquidated and transformed into Grand Rapids Products Company, making soft drinks, industrial alcohol and by-products instead, as Silver Foam turned into a soft drink. Meanwhile, Furniture City Brewing Co. started making near beer called Nu Bru, before George E. Ellis foreclosed on the building in 1929.

Following the end of Prohibition, most beer came into Grand Rapids from Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee, but several breweries tried to make a go of it in the 1930s. A short-lived operation was called Great Lakes Brewing Co., and GRBC merged with Furniture City Brewing Co., and the beer was made at the Muskegon Brewing Co. building and shipped to Grand Rapids.

The last brewery, a franchise-type operation from Chicago, Fox Deluxe Brewing Co., closed up shop in 1951, leading to a massive dry spell in Grand Rapids beer history, culminating with the urban renewal projects in 1964 that saw most of the old brewery buildings torn down.

The before the early 1990s, the idea of brewing in Grand Rapids was “nonexistent” according to Founders President Mike Stevens.

And that was almost a national sentiment, when breweries in the United States dropped to fewer than 100, the lowest total ever, aside from Prohibition.

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