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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

home brew league

If you heard the name “Home Brew League” you might think it was some kind of summer softball showdown or a group of guys playing fantasy football. But for Boyd Culver and Chris Musil, owners of Coldbreak Brewing Equipment in Cedar Springs, the Home Brew League is a revolutionary idea to test the skills and bring together some of the best home beer brewers in Michigan. The inaugural competition they’ve created is a one-of-a-kind brewing challenge that stretches the skill of the participants and has them producing beer that rivals your local microbrew favorites.­

“The way we do it, it’s the only one like this in the country,” proclaims Musil. “There’s 32 teams and each division has 8 teams. Each team has 4-6 homebrewers.” Unlike other brewing competitions, all 32 teams submit the same style of beer for each round of the tournament. Culver adds, “There’s homebrew competitions all over the place all the time, but there’s definitely not one like this. There’s 32 teams all brewing the same beer.”

The league’s “season” stretches from the beginning of May through the end of October. Throughout the season, there are seven different events where teams compete with a new variety. The teams who rack up the most wins during the season then move into the “playoffs,” where one set of talented brewers will be crowned the first ever Home Brew League Champion.

This unique setup quickly captured the interests of local brewers who are anxious to see how their beer measures up. “Having these monthly competitions is really helping me refine my palate when I’m drinking a beer and what to look for when I’m creating my recipes. Plus, I’ve been brewing like crazy. It’s keeping me on my toes,” says John Wesorick, a member of a team known as “The Brew-Tang Clan.”

The idea for the Home Brew League came to Boyd and Chris as they were looking to create a fun promotion for their store, Coldbreak Brewing Equipment. They convinced three other local brewing suppliers, Siciliano’s Market, O’Connors Homebrew Supply, and Gravel Bottom Brewery and Supply, to sign on as sponsors. They were overwhelmed when it was time for brewers to sign up. “We didn’t think we were going to fill it up at all, and then it sold out in 24 hours,” said Culver. “The Siciliano’s division sold out in just 8 minutes.”

Although the event has already proven to be a winner for the stores business-wise, Musil explains that it’s not just about creating revenue. “It’s not all about us. It’s about getting everybody together. It’s about the community.” Culver adds, “That’s the cool thing, there’s four stores that are essentially competitors, all joining together for this great event.”

The way the league is organized isn’t the only unique aspect. The Home Brew League is also putting its competitors’ brewing knowledge to the test with some uncommon beer varieties. The first event in May required each team to brew a British Golden Ale. If you’re not sure what that is, you’re not alone. Brewer Rick VandeKopple says he had never even heard of it before. “There’s a lot of reading done online to find out, O.K., what’s this style like? It was all a new experience to try and build this recipe. It’s kind of a cool way to be forced to branch out,” said VandeKopple.

home brew league

Even the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) judges for the event were entering new territory. “This was a new style for me,” said Jim Halliberger, a judge who volunteered to offer his expertise. “I’ve been judging beers 20 years, and I’ve never seen a competition like this. To do a single style every month for several months…it’s just a really different idea.” The other beer varieties for this season include Scottish Heavy, Dunkles Weissbier, Pre-Prohibition Porter, Marzen, White IPA, and Foreign Extra Stout. “The styles are all something that people usually wouldn’t brew,” Culver explains. “And every month we have one mandatory ingredient, and most of them are Michigan ingredients.”

There are prizes for the winning teams after each event, but the last team standing in December will get to brew 15 barrels of their championship beer at Cedar Springs Brewing Company and have it served on tap. That’s an enviable prize, but some competitors say they’re only doing it for fun and for the expert feedback to help them become better brewers. “We thought it’d be kind of a fun way to take our beer making to the next level,” said Rick VandeKopple. “The judges let me know about a little bit of an off flavor they found, so that helps me get my brewing level up so that I can brew a better beer.” One of those judges, Mark Thomson, believes their feedback and these competitions are doing exactly that. “I expect there to be a lot of good beer. I think overall, the quality has gone way up in the ten years I’ve been tasting home brews,” said Thomson.

Culver and Musil agree that the entire homebrew community is on the rise, both in terms of sheer numbers and in terms of quality. And with the public’s appetite for craft brew rising right along with it, any one of these competitors could become another successful brewing entrepreneur. “The majority of brewers at one point were homebrewers,” claims Culver. “Brewers are like guitar players. We don’t know who the greatest guitar player is to ever hit the big stage, and it’s the same concept with homebrewers. I know a guy who won’t leave his basement who makes the best beer I’ve ever had.”

To learn more about the Home Brew League or Coldbreak Brewing Equipment log on:

www.coldbreakbrewing.com

www.homebrewleague.us

 

GRAND RAPIDS — Siciliano’s just is, and always seems to have been. Many people will agree with that. One of West Michigan’s longstanding and premier bottleshop and homebrew supply spots, you can walk in and easily see why so many call this place home.
Doug Dorda, Homebrew Specialist and wearer of many other hats, shares what draws folks in and what keeps him there.
“A glorified interpretation of what we do could be ‘Purveyors of Passion. Fermented Passion.'”
A longtime customer and an employee for six years, Dorda knows the store and his customers well. In fact, any of the staff — and often that staff is Barb or Steve Siciliano, the owners of the market — know their clientele and know their merchandise.
“You can saddle up to the counter and talk with people, people who know the product, and give you not just a scripted answer from the back of a bottle, but a full answer. ‘Oh yeah, I’ve had X last week and I drank it with this, I really liked so and so because…’  [Our employees] are really passionate people,” said Dorda.
Walk in and enjoy the sight. Liquors align back counter shelves, beer is, well, everywhere. There is plenty of wine for your more sophisticated types and even loose leaf teas as well. Homebrewing and wine-making supplies are available in abundance, with the skilled staff to help you with your purchase.  Enjoy the mom and pop environment Dorda describes, smile at Steve Siciliano when you stop in, and share your beer love too.
“I love coming here just as much as our customers. When other people come in I can get their opinion on something too. We all just feed on one another,” said Dorda.
“We are all part of this weird, magical thing that’s happening all around us, and [Siciliano’s] is one of the places where people come to talk and enjoy it.”

GRAND RAPIDS — Siciliano’s just is, and always seems to have been. Many people will agree with that. One of West Michigan’s longstanding and premier bottleshop and homebrew supply spots, you can walk in and easily see why so many call this place home.

Doug Dorda, Homebrew Specialist and wearer of many other hats, shares what draws folks in and what keeps him there.

“A glorified interpretation of what we do could be ‘Purveyors of Passion. Fermented Passion.'”

A longtime customer and an employee for six years, Dorda knows the store and his customers well. In fact, any of the staff — and often that staff is Barb or Steve Siciliano, the owners of the market — know their clientele and know their merchandise.

“You can saddle up to the counter and talk with people, people who know the product, and give you not just a scripted answer from the back of a bottle, but a full answer. ‘Oh yeah, I’ve had X last week and I drank it with this, I really liked so and so because…’  [Our employees] are really passionate people,” said Dorda.

Walk in and enjoy the sight. Liquors align back counter shelves, beer is, well, everywhere. There is plenty of wine for your more sophisticated types and even loose leaf teas as well. Homebrewing and wine-making supplies are available in abundance, with the skilled staff to help you with your purchase.  Enjoy the mom and pop environment Dorda describes, smile at Steve Siciliano when you stop in, and share your beer love too.

“I love coming here just as much as our customers. When other people come in I can get their opinion on something too. We all just feed on one another,” said Dorda.

“We are all part of this weird, magical thing that’s happening all around us, and [Siciliano’s] is one of the places where people come to talk and enjoy it.”

GRAND RAPIDS — Sometimes, siblings are so inseparable the only thing that comes between them is one particular beer.

Chat with Jacob and Sarah Derylo, brother and sister separated by three years, the friendship is obvious. There’s a natural bounce to their conversation, mostly supported by Sarah’s tendency to speak for Jacob. But when Brewery Vivant’s Tripel is brought up, a nerve is hit.

Jacob brews it, and it is often cited as one of the best American-made tripels. Sarah, however, is the first to criticize it as the style is one of her personal favorites.

“He knows what he wants to do and how to do it,” she said, explaining she doesn’t give him beer ideas. “Will I completely break down his tripel? It’s my favorite style of beer and every time he makes it I say he’s this close. It’s never good enough. I love his tripel; it’s constructive. It could be a little lighter. It’s too sweet.”

Sarah goes on to explain that tripels are awesome because the style is so simple, but also incredibly hard to make. The coolest part, she said, is all the beer needs is pilsen malt, beet sugar, a dusting of hops and Belgian yeast.

“That’s all it should take, but it’s very hard to do it right,” she said. “It should be dry. You don’t want to taste the booze and you don’t want to taste the sugar.”

The beer is the only thing that comes between the siblings, who insist a sibling rivalry has never existed and they’ve been close their entire lives. Their lives, too, have grown beside fermentation, but not beer.

“I remember, [when I was] 12 or 13 years old, helping my grandpa in his garage make wine with all his brothers,” Jacob said. “It was a family thing, a reason to get together: the old dudes are making wine today.”

The pair were constantly around wine — which is why Sarah declared wine her first love. A love she said all beer lovers should explore as it helps expand palates and open up new ways of tasting beer. She also conceded to Jacob’s thought that beer might be a more complex creature, since it’s more than just grape juice.

The pair were truly introduced to beer while working at their uncle’s shop: Siciliano’s Market. Through desperation, Steve Siciliano began selling home brew supplies at the shop and 21-year-old Jacob tried it out.

From batch No. 1, he was a natural, Sarah said.

At a point, near the turn of millennium, Sarah was managing the New Holland Brewing Co. taproom when owner Brett Vander Kamp said they needed a brewer. Sarah chirped up and Jacob was a professional brewer at 26.

“Once I started home brewing, there wasn’t much else I wanted to do,” Jacob said.

At New Holland, he worked with Jason Spaulding, a co-founder of the brewery who left in 2005. The pair stayed in contact and eventually Brewery Vivant’s idea came about. He was on board from day one, but kept the idea secret until Spaulding was ready to launch the new venture in 2010.

“Belgians are great, you can do all sorts of different things,” he said. “Belgians are fun to work with. But, lagers are fun to work with. Beers are fun to work with. You can put your own fingerprint on it and make your own kind of gig.

“I’m sure if I was making Budweiser, I’d be having fun it. Not nearly as much fun, of course.”

The Belgian topic brought up the initial mention of tripels, as Sarah said there are no rules for Belgians. The conversation quickly digressed into how they don’t argue, instead they said they likely hangout too much. They play Scrabble every Thursday.

The pair also go to a lot of concerts. So many they’ve lost count: at least 15 Allman Brothers shows, 15 Bob Dylan Shows, The Grateful Dead and many more. Sarah recounted her favorite Jacob concert story, which didn’t include the actual show.

“I’m falling asleep in the back seat, and I see a sign that says, ’12 Miles to Mackinac Bridge,'” she said. “The show was in Detroit. I think we got back at 5:30 in the morning. I was in high school. My mom wasn’t pleased.”

There’s a lot of things to love about the beer industry, but both Sarah and Jacob bring up people as the reason it’s so great.

Sarah, who works at Siciliano’s now, said she loves that customers will choose two IPAs now over a 12-pack of Natural Light. She enjoys that the market has regulars who come in and kill a lunch hour chatting with the staff and leave without buying a beer.

“It’s beyond a hobby, it’s more than a passion,” she said.

Jacob likes his fellow brewers. The idea he can go almost anywhere and be invited into a stranger’s literal and figurative home and be offered a beer is a great feeling.

Seeing Brewery Vivant packed on any given day is pretty neat too, he said.

“It’s very fulfilling at the end of the day to go home feeling good about what you did that day,” he said. “No matter what happened that day, it’s worth it in the end knowing you did something to hopefully make someone else’s day a little bit happier.”

Being around beer their entire adulthood has seen many memorable beers. Jacob’s was time he spent in a brewery in Bamburg, Germany. It’s where he first fell in love with rauchbiers.

“I didn’t speak the language, but I knew how to order a beer,” he said. Otherwise, he drinks what’s available and PBR around the campfire.

Sarah took a different route. She was in China, and wasn’t drinking, but her bus driver was.

“He’s driving us along the mountains and drinking a giant rice beer,” she said.

There was a story Sarah wouldn’t share, the one that gave her the nickname “Cheetah.” There is, however a beer named Cheetah at the Brewery Vivant pub which is named after her.

“[Jacob] texted me and said ‘tapping a new beer tonight,’” she said, adding she didn’t really want to go down and initially thought it was the tripel. “I walk in and look on the board and I see ‘The Cheetah.’ I thought it was the sweetest thing, because I think that’s how he said I love you.

“Then I saw 14.2 percent alcohol.”

For more of our interview with Jacob and Sarah, listen to our podcast below via Soundcloud. Look for it on iTunes soon!


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