The new building is located at 3595 68th Street SE, Dutton, Michigan—next door to the brewery’s original location. It boasts two floors and an outdoor patio, and it will seat over twice as many guests as the original space.
The new location’s second floor will eventually be available for private events and beer dinners.
Hungry guests of Railtown Brewing previously had to bring their own food, but the new space has a kitchen that will serve American pub grub with some cultural flavor. Dishes will take inspiration from Chinese, Korean and Dutch cuisine, to name a few.
Exposed ceilings and duct work lend an industrial feel to the new building. It will seem familiar to those who visited the original location, said Justin Buiter, co-owner of Railtown Brewing Company. Popular dart boards will still hang on the walls, and the decor will follow a similar theme.
“It takes a lot of the feel from our current space, it’s just bigger,” Buiter said.
Buiter said the expansion was built by the local community—both literally and figuratively.
In the literal sense, much of the construction on the new building was completed by local businesses.
“Most everybody involved in the project is Michigan based, but we had a lot of trades that came specifically out of Dutton,” Buiter said.
Figuratively, the expansion was built on support received from the Dutton community. When the brewery opened in 2014, Buiter said he wasn’t sure what to expect. Dutton was a dry town until 2005.
“The support from the residents and businesses of Dutton has been absolutely unbelievable,” Buiter said. “Our growth thus far has really been fueled by the local community.”
The brewery’s growth will continue, Buiter said. Railtown Brewing has also doubled their production capacity with new equipment from Psycho Brew, a Michigan-based brewing equipment company. Sights are set on distribution for Railtown Brewing in the near future.
“As we get our feet underneath us and make sure we have our taproom taken care of, we’re going to start looking at opportunities within the distribution market,” Buiter said.
The brewery will celebrate its last hurrah at the original location on Saturday, July 14. The event will feature special beers on tap.
“All our staff will be present to reminisce about all the stuff we accomplished over here, and the future next door,” Buiter said.
Lansing, Mich. — The 6th Annual Lansing Beer Fest is coming back to REO Town, Lansing on Saturday, June 16th on Washington Ave. between South St. and Elm St. from 4-9pm, with special VIP entry starting at 3pm.
This year’s festival features live music, just like years past. Headlining this year is Heart of Jordan , a local Lansing Hard Rock/Alt-Metal band, with supporting acts by the Jonestown Crows and Handsome Pete.
In addition to great music, this year’s festival is hosting 25 different breweries, cideries, and distilleries with 80 different selections to choose from. There will be several beer specific vendors.
Like last year, there will be a Giant Chess and Checkers set for more entertainment, and a Giant Connect Four has been added for extra fun.
The food choices are to be just as excellent with options from Shove It Pizza Truck, featuring the hottest pizza options, Ms. K’s Kitchen, with gluten-free options, and From Scratch Food Truck, serving fresh Mediterranean options. There’s sure to be a delicious option for everyone.
General Admission tickets (4pm entry) can be purchased in advance for $32 and $37 at the door, and includes a Logo Sampling Glass as well as 10 Sampling Tickets. VIP tickets (3pm entry) can be purchased in advance for $42 and includes a Logo Sampling Glass plus 15 Sampling Tickets.
Must be 21 to attend. Designated Driver tickets can be purchased for $10.
The festival proceeds benefit the REO Town Commercial Association.
Grand Rapids, Mich. — Grand Rapids’s Harmony Brewing is expanding. The addition of a second kitchen and an indoor/outdoor beer garden has more than doubled the brew pub’s seating capacity at its Eastown location. The new space opens June 13.
“We will be able to welcome more people to Harmony,” co-owner Heather VanDyke-Titus said. “We’ve prioritized nice big tables. People will know if they want to come with a big group on a Friday, there will be room.”
The expansion will center Harmony Brewing at the “pinnacle of Eastown,” on the corner of Wealthy Street and Lake Drive. The new space promises to maintain the character people have loved about the original Harmony.
“We’re still working within the fabric of what was already there,” Barry VanDyke said. “What people love about that coziness of that side of town–it’s still going to feel that way.”
The expansion also comes with a new feature: pizza and beer delivery. Harmony Brewing will start delivering their wood-fired pizzas, craft beer and retail merchandise this June.
Alcohol delivery has become increasingly popular in recent years. Drizly, an alcohol e-commerce platform, started delivering beer, wine and liquor in select cities in 2012. A variety of Chicago craft breweries started delivering growlers in 2016. More recently, major pizza companies like Pizza Hut and Papa Johns have experimented with delivering alcohol with their pizzas.
But Harmony Brewing is unique in delivering its own craft beer alongside its signature wood-fired pizza.
Delivery will be first available to the neighborhoods surrounding Harmony Brewing, including East Grand Rapids, Eastown and Downtown Grand Rapids.
“We’re going to start fairly small with our delivery footprint until we get our wheels underneath us, so to speak, then we’ll hopefully be expanding from there,” co-owner Barry VanDyke said.
Customers will be able to order pizza, beer and merchandise over the phone and online through Harmony’s new website. Each order must simply meet a $20 minimum. Payment will only be accepted in the form of credit or debit cards and can be processed online or in person.
Harmony Brewing delivery drivers will be equipped with an app to check IDs. During the transaction, the driver will take a photo of the customer’s ID, and the app will store it with the driver’s name and the date and location of the delivery.
“This is a way to bring your whole Harmony experience to your door,” Barry VanDyke said. “Seeking Harmony? Have it delivered.”
If NewAir AB1200B 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.
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.
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.
The brewery’s new location at 329 Water Street will open on Friday, June 8. It’s located across the street from The Mermaid Bar and Grill, Coppercraft Distillery, Ridge Cider and just a few doors down from Coral Gables.
The small building is a pre-Civil War home that had been converted to a commercial space.
“We seem to have an affinity for choosing old buildings at the Mitten,” said The Mitten Brewing Co-Owner Chris Andrus. The Mitten’s original location is in an historic Grand Rapids firehouse.
Like The Mitten’s original location, the new space required some rebuilding—much of which Andrus and Co-Owner Max Trierweiler did themselves.
The new space will seat 80 patrons: 36 indoors and 44 outside on the covered patio and in the lawn on picnic tables Andrus and Trierweiler built.
Andrus and Trierweiler built the new bar from 1840s-era lumber—from back when Saugatuck was a lumber town and port. The wood was a gift from Saugatuck Brewing Company Founder and Former Saugatuck Mayor Barry Johnson, who Andrus said is a friend and mentor to The Mitten.
“That bar is pretty much the centerpiece of the building,” Andrus said. “It’s a neat piece from the former mayor of Saugatuck himself. We’re really excited to have that.”
In addition to a pub and restaurant, the space will host a small brewhouse that will focus on sour beer production. Apparel made by The Mitten State will also be available for purchase on site.
Adding another location was a natural next step for The Mitten Brewing Company, Andrus said.
“We’ve spent the last 5 years making our brand as strong as possible, and we’ve been reinvesting in our processes and our people,” Andrus said. “What we do best, in my opinion, is our taproom experience and the way our staff interacts with our guests. We wanted to bring that to a new place. Saugatuck was a natural fit.”
Andrus and Trierweiler hired 21 local residents to run the Saugatuck location.
Grand Rapids, Mich. — Thornapple Brewing Company will celebrate its first anniversary with a party featuring special releases, live music, games and more.
The event will take place Saturday, June 9 from 11a.m-midnight at the brewery’s location in Cascade Township, Michigan.
Attendees can look forward to 36 of Thornapple’s beers, ciders, and meads on tap, as well as a variety of wine and spirits. Among the options will be some old favorites from the brewery’s first days of operation, including an early version of Hoppy Saison, the first batch of Spicy Salted Session Saison and the first batch of Barrel-Aged Brown-Eyed Girl.
“There will be a few more surprises, for sure. We’re still pulling a couple of the extras together,” said Thornapple Brewing Company Head Brewer Sebastian Henao. “We’re going to have some fun stuff.”
The event will take place both inside the pub and outside in the parking lot, where there will be a 30-by-60-foot tent for cover. A variety of bands will play from 4p.m-10p.m and attendees can play games outdoors.
The party is a milestone for what has been an extremely eventful first year for the brewery.
Thornapple opened June 10, 2017, serving craft beers, wines and ciders. By September 2017, four new 15-barrel fermenters were installed, vastly increasing the brewery’s production capacity.
“We started out with just a half dozen ales, now we’ve got a great variety of lagers, ales and more experimental styles on tap,” said Thornapple Brewing Company Co-Founder Jeff Coffey.
Jeff Coffey & Eric Fouch
In December 2017, Thornapple introduced spirits to their already diverse lineup, including rum, gin, whiskey, vodka and brandy. At the same time, the brewery launched a Sunday brunch program featuring a bloody mary bar and dishes created by chef Sandra Keiser.
Since then, two of their spirits, a gin and a barrel-aged gin, won silver medals at an international spirits competition in New York. More Silver medals were recently won at GLINTCAP, the world’s largest cider competition, for Pear Eau de Vie (brandy) and their new Beet Heat cider with Michigan beets and just the right amount of habanero pepper.
“It’s been a great year getting to know our community and introducing them to our take on beer,” Henao said.
Holland, Mich. — New Holland Brewing Company will celebrate its 21st anniversary, as well as its beloved family of IPAs, with the annual Hatter Days party from Friday, June 8 through Sunday, June 10.
This year, the celebration will take place throughout the entire weekend inside the the brewery’s Pub on 8th and its back patio.
Attendees can look forward to live music from local performers, activities for all ages and special food features. And of course, a selection of New Holland’s Hatter IPAs will be available on tap, including Mad Hatter, Berry Hatter and Black Hatter.
“The Mad Hatter is turning 21,” said New Holland Brewing Company General Manager Shawna Hood. “We’ll be toasting to that and celebrating the New Holland fans whose support makes this all possible.”
The festivities kick off with the annual golf outing on Friday, June 8 at Ravines Golf Club in Saugatuck, Michigan. Live music starts in the Pub on 8th’s back patio at 5pm with the Moonrays, and Nashon Holloway will take the stage inside the pub at 10pm. A silent disco—where people will dance together to music playing through individual wireless headphones—will also start at 10pm that evening.
Saturday starts with a bloody mary bar featuring New Holland’s own spirits at 11am and gives way to a day filled with live music acts. Catch the likes of Coty Bouchard, Delilah DeWylde, Rachel Curtis and Rusty’s Big Ass Band inside the pub or in the back patio. At midnight, there will be a toast honoring the Mad Hatter’s 21st birthday.
Sunday will offer a variety of family friendly activities, including a cookie decorating workshop with Rachel from OoKalooKa Cookies. There will also be a bloody mary bar and live performances from Vinylicious and Kelli Boes.
All ages are welcome to attend, and there will be no cover charge.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The festival takes place at the base of the four-season resort’s ski slopes—a unique, outdoor atmosphere that keeps attendees coming back every year.
“Everyone is ready for summer to begin, there’s nothing more summer-like than beer and brats,” said Brian Lawson, director of public relations at Crystal Mountain.
Attendees to this year’s festival can look forward to a variety of twists on the age-old combination. Thirty-five Michigan breweries will be present along with over 100 of their craft beers. Those attending will be able to pair those selections with 24 different kinds of brats from local markets. Past favorites have included flavors like asparagus, morel mushroom and Roadhouse salsa.
Lawson said the festival has become a favorite way to spend the holiday for guests and brewers alike.
“It’s a big cook out, in a lot of ways. It’s like one big Memorial Day party” Lawson said.
He added that he is consistently surprised, and flattered, by how enthusiastic the Michigan brewers are about the festival.
“We’ve gotten a sense from the brewers that they’re just as excited to come here as the guests,” Lawson said. “We’re grateful and flattered to get such great participation from the breweries on a holiday weekend.”
A few non-beer beverage makers will also share some offerings at the festival. Iron Fish Distillery is a neighbor to the resort and the two often collaborate. They’ll be pouring drinks made with their craft spirits at the festival. Traverse City’s Brengman Brothers winery will also have some special offerings.
As is tradition, the festival will also feature a car show. The British Car Club will show a selection of vehicles. Lawson said this component of the festival started as a happy accident. Now it’s a favorite part of the festival. In the last few years, Tesla and electric vehicle owners have also brought their cars to display. As advocates of sustainable energy, Lawson said the resort is proud to host them.
Musicians Drew Hale and The Rock Show Band will provide live music.
Tickets can be purchased online. General admission tickets are $30 in advance and $35 the day of and come with a 9 ounce glass and five tokens. VIP tickets are $60 in advance and come with a 9 ounce glass, 10 tokens and access to the festival an hour early at 3 p.m. Kids are welcome to attend at the general admission ticket price, with tokens usable towards food and pop.
The Michigan Beer and Brat Festival takes place the day before the North Mitten Half Marathon, 10K and 5K. For those who’d like a taste of the action but don’t want to consume beer and brats the day before their race, the resort will host Micros on the Mountaintop that Sunday, May 27. The event features a chairlift ride to some of the Michigan brews celebrated at the Beer and Brats Festival. Tickets are $5 in advance and $10 the day of.
Michigan Beer and Brat Festival - See You in 2018! - YouTube
“Networking” is a cliché excuse to get a paid “vacation” and drink a bunch of beer with your industry buddies, but it’s clear that there’s sincere value in being able to look a peer in the eye over a cold one. We may be in the business of beer, but it’s the beer that makes the business worth the work.
The night before 10 Michigan breweries won medals at the 2018 World Beer Cup, the Michigan Brewers Guild hosted an at-capacity meetup at Nashville’s Hopsmith Tavern. With what seemed like even tighter camaraderie than last year’s party in D.C., we hung with a diverse crowd of industry contributors to get their perspective on what makes attending the Brewers Association’s annual Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) so special.
MittenBrew: On behalf of the Guild, how important is it to be at CBC?
We love to participate in some capacity every year. There’s so much content whether you’re a brewery or you represent a complementary business. For me personally, it’s a wonderful opportunity to network with my counterparts from guilds around the country, as well as connect with the Brewers Association. It’s nice to be in an environment that’s so supportive and recognizes the value of state guilds.
What’s your recommendation for breweries on the fence about attending?
This conference is an invaluable opportunity—one you should be budgeting for. I can tell you that one of the real benefits of CBC that’s not printed in any literature is that it gives you perspective. You get to step away from the hard work you do every day to learn how other people approach what we do. So often your nose is right in there that it’s good to take a break, come up for air, and put a renewed set of eyes on your business. It’s refreshing and invigorating.
When they return home from CBC, what can Michigan breweries expect from our Guild?
In a nutshell, we exist to protect and promote the craft beer industry in Michigan. Obviously, our beer festivals are the biggest promotions we do, but we want to be a resource, too. We work in a heavily regulated industry, and it’s the reality of our business that breweries are going to bump into regulation or have to deal with other parties who want to affect them. So, if we’re not paying attention to that aspect of the industry, it could cause grave problems. You don’t know when or where these things are going to pop up, but because of the growth of the industry we’re naturally going to be exposed to issues that have to be addressed. Certainly, there are nuances involved in making legislative change, so it’s critical to have a voice for the industry in that environment, and we take it very seriously in being a unified voice for our state’s breweries.
Advice for Michigan breweries that are either seasoned vets or fresh out of the gate?
Regardless of how long you’ve been in the game, from a legislative perspective, you have to make sure you know the people who are representing you. Whether those decision-makers drink beer or drink at all, they are very interested in your business. You’re employing people, you’re part of the community. If you haven’t met your representatives or senators, invite them down to the brewery to see how you work. They’re dealing with so many issues that I’m sure they’d be very interested to see what you do, and they’d be flattered that you took the time to invite them over for a beer. And when an issue does come up where you might need their help, it’s going to be a lot easier when you’ve already established a rapport with them.
Dave, this isn’t your first CBC rodeo. How many times have you attended, and what keeps you coming back?
This is my fifth year. I’m varsity letterman status. There are two reasons. One: To extract nuggets of information from the seminars, which I’ve found to be a success rate of about 50% of those I attend. Two: Networking here is big time. For most of us, we only see each other at the major festivals and conferences.
How do you approach the seminars?
I bring a notebook where I keep all of those nuggets, and I save them year after year. Three weeks ago, I actually went back to my notebook from the first time I attended because I remembered attending a seminar that addressed a problem we’ve been having, and those notes helped me navigate through the issue. So now, even if I attend a seminar that might not be completely relevant to where we’re at right now, I make it a point to still pay attention and document it because it’s likely going to be something that we’ll have to deal with at some point.
How many people did you bring?
We brought a bigger crew this time—five people. In the past, it started out with just me when we were in that startup phase. But as we’ve evolved we’re able to divide and conquer. I’m tackling distribution, marketing, and sales aspects. Our GM is working on brewpub management, and of course our brewers hone in on the technical side—yeast, safety, etc.
Advice for first-time attendees?
Talk to as many people as possible, and listen. The first time is always going to be a little overwhelming, but if you stay focused—and organized!—you’ll always get something out of it. And, remember, the World Beer Cup is every two years so you’ll get a lot more international exposure as well.
You’re in a pretty unique space. I image attending CBC is particularly relevant for you.
Absolutely. It’s essentially the entire industry concentrated in one city for an entire week. It’s super efficient for me because I’m able to get facetime in one location with my suppliers from across the country as well as my international buyers. In some cases, aside from Skype, we’ve never met so it’s really valuable to get to know them, their beers, and their goals all a little better.
Aside from the in-person meetings, what other value does attending CBC provide for you?
They have an education track for export-relevant issues, including seminars on the TTB [The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] and, particularly important to BrewExport, the intricacies in partnering with China, the UK, Latin American, Canada, all of which are great markets for me. There’s always new little tidbits of information I’m able to take away from the education track.
Anything in particular that’s been of notable success for you this year?
I was able to meet with the TTB and get a ruling on some of the legal interpretations that apply to me. They were great to talk to. They just made my life a little easier, so I’m a really happy girl right now.
For a brewery that’s distributed in over 20 states, what are you hoping to get out of repeat attendance at CBC?
Being my fourth visit to CBC, I’m focusing solely on the expo floor this year. Generally, you’ll see a lot of product repetition, but I try to look between the lines for something new—any detail that may spark a light bulb idea.
Have you found any needles in this giant haystack this year?
Yeah, what Crowler Nation is doing with their resealable twist-top lids, although I’m still a fan of Oktober’s small footprint designs. Personally, I’m over growlers—they’re heavy, awkward, and glass breaks. We’re trying to transition into being more sustainability-minded, so the ‘can route’ makes sense for us right now.
If you’re not attending any of the seminars this year, is there anything else that adds to your experience?
The expo floor here is just so massive, and it requires your attention. I do really enjoy the Michigan Brewers Guild’s annual conference—it’s definitely more manageable. But, when you walk the floor here, everyone you talk to is a networking opportunity. I try to learn from the practical applications of what other brewers across the country are doing. It’s honest feedback in real-time.
You’re here as an exhibitor promoting your custom jockey boxes. Tell the people how Coldbreak came to be.
We’ve technically been around since 2005 when we were just an eBay store. In 2012, we started producing a line of homebrewing equipment, but it wasn’t until 2014 when we turned out our first jockey box at the request of Matt, the owner of Gravel Bottom. Then it just took off from there.
What’s your experience been like at CBC? I haven’t seen many other jockey box vendors, if any, on the floor.
This is our fourth year here, and probably the most successful conference we’ve had to date. There’s not a ton of competition out there, so if we’re going to be one of few it’s important that we deliver a premium product.
What makes your boxes different?
We design them from the ground up, having gone through several revisions over the years constantly working to make the best version of what we do. What the brewers like is that we keep the inputs for all the taps and lines up front in one location. It’s a clean look from the guest’s perspective when they walk up to a booth, and the breweries really like that. We use only stainless steel—there’s no chrome. And, all of our coils are hand bent. They’re designed so that they won’t pop out of their shank. From the moment the beer enters the coils until it comes out of the fauces, its profile never changes. It chills the beer down to the proper serving temperature, and each coil holds 17 oz of beer so you’ll have a full pint everytime you pour a beer. All that being said, we also customize boxes with a brewery’s logo or branding. We partner with Premier Graphics in Grand Rapids, who wrap our jockey boxes with printed vinyl. They’re incredibly durable, and will hold up well during the rigors of festival season.
If there’s not a lot of competition, and breweries need jockey boxes, what assurances do you give them that they should choose Coldbreak?
We back up all of our boxes with a one-year manufacturer’s warranty. But it’s truly more about the relationships we want to have with our clients, who we have all over the world. We stand behind every one of our products, but if you do have an issue, all you have to do is let us know. We’re approachable, we care, and we’ll make it right. We’re not just trying to sell them a jockey box, we want to sell them better experiences for their beer and ultimately everyone who consumes it. The product we make is something that’s critical in helping drive traffic from a festival back to a brewery’s taproom, and it’s a huge honor that we get to play a role in that.
We manufacture chemical application and distribution equipment.
Unpack that. How does what you do apply to CBC?
Creating sanitary processes around beer production increases quality control and creates better beer. The reality is that every brewery has to be using chemistry, and we’re here to help facilitate those relationships with the people who are supplying chemistry to those breweries.
Do you have exhibitor booth?
No booth, but we value attending because 15 of our customers are exhibiting here. We’ve created strategic partnerships with them to get our equipment in their booths so it’s really important for us to get facetime with those who are advocating our products to the industry. The ultimate end-users are the breweries; our immediate customer is the chemical supplier that’s supplying chemistry to the breweries. The better we can be as a supplier to them, the better they can be in providing solutions to the brewer.
What message do you hope your suppliers are able to communicate to breweries?
The understanding that [a brewery’s] sanitation products don’t do any good just sitting in a bucket, and that chemical application is critical to the sanitation of their operations. Founders has been a customer for about 15 years, and they’re about as good of a testimony as anyone.
Yes. This is our second year here at CBC. We were here last year after our first crop year.
What’s been the reception like to your hops?
Increasingly positive! Breweries are being very intentional about sourcing and diversifying their ingredients geographically. Michigan’s been gaining a great reputation for sourcing and supplying hops.
Has anything helped your presence in the market?
Yes, resources like The Lupulin Exchange. It was originally established for brewers who had overages on their contracts and needed to unload their surplus. Then the Exchange opened it up to brokers and hop farms, so we’ve been selling on it for over a year, and have been able to reach breweries all over the world.
With only one previous year at CBC under your belt, have you had any standout successes?
Absolutely! Last year we met People’s Pint Brewing Collective from Toronto while they were still a brewery-in-planning. We’ve had the opportunity to work with them on recipes, and have been building a really great relationship. Since they opened, they’ve been awesome at promoting our hops to their network, and are proud to say they’re using Michigan-grown hops. That’s led to us earning the business from many other breweries in the Toronto area.
What’s been the most popular hop for you?
Definitely Michigan Chinook. We won the Hop Growers of Michigan’s Michigan Chinook Cup, recognized for the best Chinook hops grown in the state. It was judged by the Hop Quality Group, comprised of some heavy hitters like John Mallet, Jeremy Kosmicki, and Alec Mull. And, we’ve got two other brands, Copper and Mackinac, coming out soon that are becoming conversation starters because attendees here at CBC are looking for the next new thing.
Josh, this isn’t the first time we’ve talked over a beer, but this is your first time at CBC. What are you and Odd Side up to?
My targets for the last year or two have been on packaging, quality, and safety. We’re kind of at a tipping point where we’ve recently expanded and are likely hitting three new markets by the end of this year, so we’re scoping out what possible next steps are going to look like for us. We’re considering investments in software, process equipment, new packaging lines.
As a CBC virgin, what’s been your biggest takeaway so far?
Hands down, the camaraderie forged with people who might be randomly standing next to me when I’m looking at products, and the productive dialogue that’s come from it. It’s given me a lot of ammo in terms of ideas I can go back to the brewery with—what we can do to constantly refine and improve, and the things we can explore that might not have otherwise been on our radar.
Knowledge about the market overall. There’s so much room and so many beer drinkers for breweries to execute well, but there’s also finite real estate on shelf space—we all know that. So, if you get to the point where you’re considering distribution outside of your taproom, you better be prepared to not stop. If you do, you can easily become irrelevant.
How difficult is it to not stop and keep the quality and innovation on point—because it’s not as easy as just brewing more beer?
First of all, there has to be a place for that beer to go. Is there a market for your product? Do bars want your stuff? And more importantly, does the consumer demand your product? And if you’re ready to meet that demand, do you have quality assurances in place? In my opinion, there are two things that are really hard to catch up on—quality and safety. With rapid growth, there’s a lot of shortcuts you may want to take, but they will ultimately circumnavigate quality and safety, and can put your brewery and more importantly—your people—at risk that you could’ve avoided.
You’re a first-timer here. What’s captured your interest?
I came for the education track, particularly the technical side, of course. But, one thing that’s been a little frustrating is having to choose between two equally enticing seminar topics that are happening at the same time. It makes for a tough decision.
Did you have any expectations before you arrived?
I didn’t totally know what to expect. Everyone who says the networking is great is right. I’ve been able to draw on the wealth of knowledge not only from Michigan, but breweries that I’m a fan of. There’s something about being able to connect to and learn from people over a beer.
Any parting words for CBC?
Nashville is awesome. I think it’s cool that we’re all fortunate to get to experience an amazing conference in a new city every year.
Welcome back! Good to see you. Tell everyone why I’m talking to you.
Before I moved to Las Vegas last year, I covered the West Michigan beer industry for the Grand Rapids Business Journal and Grand Rapids Magazine, among others. When I left and told people where I was going, the general consensus from a lot of my beer peers was that the Vegas beer scene sucked. So, since I’ve been at CBC this week, it’s been a good opportunity for me to be able to spread the opposite message about beer from Nevada.
Why’d you come back “to Michigan” for CBC?
I missed it. Michigan beer is special. Covering it has allowed me to make a living. So, when I have an opportunity like this to dip back into the Michigan scene and reconnect with everyone I’ve spent the last few years writing about—and getting to know—I can’t not show up to continue to support our industry.
Okay, defend Nevada beer. If CBC ever lands in Vegas, where should we drink?