HUDSONVILLE — Because Bill White doesn’t have what he calls a “real job,” he has plenty of time to sit back on a Friday and talk about beer.
He seems like the kind of guy you should trust about such matters, a man whose stocky build suggests that he can drink, and indeed has drunk, a formidable quantity of beer. The mug he drinks from dwarfs our pint glasses. Also, the beer he is drinking, as well as the beer we and everyone else in the room are drinking, was made by him.
Bill is the founder, owner, and brewer at Hudsonville’s White Flame Brewing Company. But despite those titles, and despite the labor he’s invested in his company, Bill isn’t quite willing to speak of his work as a job.
“My wife has the real job,” he says.
She works as a researcher for the Van Andel Institute. Bill used to work there too, in a way. He was a project manager, “a paper pusher in a trailer,” during one of the building phases at the Institute.
But after the project was completed, Bill didn’t want to transfer out of town, so he planned for the layoff he expected. Instead of working, he stayed home, spent time with his children, and pursued another longtime love: Making beer.
White was already an established homebrewer with two decades of experience.
“I brewed my first beers,” he admits, “before I was able to buy beer.”
His wife, another brewer, shared his love of the craft, and it soon became a family affair on a serious scale.
“When you’re married and you have a family, you can’t really go to the bar,” Bill says. “So we decided to bring the bar to our home.”
The Whites weren’t the only ones happy with the decision — their friends liked the idea, too. They came and partook and agreed that Bill’s beer was pretty good — good enough, in fact, that he should sell it.
And so, in February 2011, at one of the Michigan Brewers Guild’s festivals — “over a bunch of beers” — White decided to roll the dice. He used money from his 401(k) and began wading through the government paperwork.
Renovations on his taproom — formerly an office space — began in August with White at the helm. Because of his contracting experience, he was able to complete much of the work with the help of a few friends.
White’s influence shows; the taproom has a decidedly masculine feel. The bearskin (named “Growler”) that greets new customers seems at home next to the burnt red and piney green of the walls. The whole building has the modest confidence of a place known for the beer, not the in-crowd.
“Modest confidence” is an apt description of Bill himself. Though the story of his brewery seems to be one of risk and adventure — the man had no monthly paycheck and no entrepreneurial background when he started, and he staked his retirement on the place — White expresses little awe or admiration at what he’s accomplished.
He makes it sound as if he’s just doing what he’s always done: Drinking beer with friends. (His job, when he actually uses the word in reference to himself, is “to drink beer and to make beer,” in that order.) He seems proudest of the fact that he now has “two hundred really good friends who are mug club members.”
White Flame’s success has been both immediate and steady, which might explain how relaxed Bill seems about the venture. When Bill opened his taproom on January 28 of this year, he didn’t advertise: “We didn’t say anything to anyone; we just opened the doors.”
The place filled pretty quickly, and White Flame had hundreds of Facebook fans by the end of the night. White stands by his “if you build it, they will come” mentality, and his determination and the quality of his beer attract enough customers to fill the bar’s 60 seats three to four nights each week.
Perhaps because he now has over 1,800 fans on Facebook, White hasn’t changed his marketing strategy. He boasts quietly, “I haven’t paid a dime for advertising.”
When asked if any homebrewer could live this dream, White pauses. Ever-modest, he credits part of his success to the Hudsonville market. The city was dry until 2007, which means that most local establishments don’t have a liquor license. White is grateful that he doesn’t have to navigate the pressures of an over-saturated market.
“We’re in the right place at the right time,” he says. “If you could build a bar where there weren’t any bars…”
Because of the bar’s status as one of a few area watering holes, White estimates that his clientele is about half beer aficionados and half locals just looking for a cold one close to home. That doesn’t mean there’s no crossover.
Bill relates the story of a customer who previously drank only name-brand domestics but now drinks exclusively IPAs. Indeed, there seem to be more dads than hipsters appreciating the fine brews at 5 p.m. on a Friday. The ability to please both crowds speaks to White’s ability to keep both balance and variety on tap.
While White credits the ready market for a large part of his success, his beers shouldn’t be overlooked. The taproom boasts a hop-heavy lineup for the summer season, and these beers are modest and likely to please, not unlike their brewer.
The most popular brew is the Super G IPA, which combines the bitterness and the citrus notes from early and late hops additions, respectively. Close behind is the Black Sheep, a black IPA with 8% ABV.
Whether crafting these libations is a real job or not, Bill White earns his livelihood doing what he loves. When asked at what point it really hit him that he could brew for a living, White smiles.
“I hired an accountant,” White chuckles, “and he told me I could go out for a few beers from time to time and write it off as ‘industry research.’”