17 January 2016

Microbrewery profusion around Grand Rapids, Michigan



Around 12:30 p.m. on a sunny and relatively mild January 2nd with memories of the New Year's Day (Friday) fresh in mind and now faced with the weekend and perhaps family or friends still on hand from the year end holidays, the microbrewery had all seats filled with a dozen people near the entrance waiting for a table. Since this one is the grand-daddy of downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, established in 1997, and with a statewide distribution for its bottled beers alongside its local license to serve directly to retail customers, the reputation is wide and well established. But even at the other two city center locations on today's 4 hour beer tour later in the afternoon there seemed to be a steady steam of diners and drinkers coming and going, despite the slightly higher price (about $5) per ?16 oz. serving, compared to ordinary domestic nationwide brands available on tap or in bottles.
     Several questions came to mind which were answered in the course of the 4 hour tasting tour (3 sites, 2 production tours, 12 samples):
  1. Business climate: many of the 9 microbreweries in the city center date to the past 3-4 years. How do they get along: more cooperative than competitive, according to production guide at Harmony Hall. Each offers different foods to go with their somewhat overlapping beer varieties, both the main flavors and the seasonal 3-6 week availability and trial basis recipes. For example fancy soups and sandwiches; wood-fired (or brick kiln) pizzas; German sausages cuisine. Some feature live music nights; others have a happy hour. Interstate highway billboard in the Lansing area (70 miles east and south of Grand Rapids) says "Beer City" come and visit Grand Rapids. Less than 100 yards beyond this one is "River Cit" come and visit Grand Rapids, too.
  2. Production cycle in outline: prepare the mash (bath the roasted grains to extract the sugars and other flavors) and introduce the yeast (brewer's yeast versus peculiar varieties to bring specific flavoring of its own derivation). Pig farmer collects the spend grain for his animals to consume. Then monitor the conversion from grain sugars to alcohol. Refined sugar can be added as necessary to sustain the life of the yeast, but due to its difference to grain sugar, this added sugar is not converted. It merely sustains the yeast cells until the process is complete and hops (one or more of the 200+ commercial varieties) are added for flavor, filtering, and anti-bacterial effects. Now the long wait begins: about 3 weeks or more for lager, a shorter time for ales, and for sturdy stouts 4 more days than with lagers.
  3. Genesis of a microbrewery: siblings or friends or successful business person(s) fulfilling a hobby or dream get together to make business plan and secure a facility and equipment, financing and license. Then production needs testing and consistency with reserves readied for opening day. The whole thing from decision to commit to the creation of a brewing company open to the public could take 6 months or a year or more.
  4. Most risky or delicate stage in the recipe of brewing: home brewers using kits with malt extract rather than source grain or grains have fewer variables and smaller scale, so there is relatively less risk of contamination or ruining the beer. But commercial production has several steps that need consistent handling, uniform treatment and careful control (temperature, ingredients, timings).
  5. Experimenting: smaller equipment can be used to trial new recipes, then another location can do mainstream production at higher volumes (example: retail beer keg is equal to 1/2 barrel, experimental production line uses 3 barrel vessels for the warm work and then 7 barrel vessels of stainless steel for the cool process of maturing/finishing the process; but the production of tried and true varieties that are in constant demand uses 20 barrel vessels).
  6. Training to brew beer: some learn on the job (apprentice), others learn by experience (home brewing taken to vocational level of expertise), others specialize in the coursework and lab experience at colleges or university.
  7. Demographic profiles of customers and brewers: servers, production staff seem to be 22-45 for the most part. Customers on this Saturday afternoon included couples or groups of couples, in at least once case a couple included a little one in carseat/carrier. Then groups of female friends 20s-30s, and some male groups 20s-30s or 50s-60s. As for that day's tour group of 12 plus guide/driver/buyer consisted of couples in 20s, one couple in 50s, father - son.
  8. Speculating on microbrewery life cycles: Surely there is a limit to the number of establishments that can attract local and visiting customers in the city center, especially given the fact that other towns have one or more of their own, and the fact that the surrounding Kent County has at least 14 more. So it would seem that a strategy for a small place with high quality product in limited volumes would want to attract a base of regular, returning or subscribing customers (for example Beer of the Month club or "buy a mug and receive a discount") and then seek to attract newcomers who have reached drinking age, and to partner with surrounding restaurants to sell the beer there, too, if licensing allows this sale outside the production premises. In other words, rather than to expand infinitely and get into the world of bottling and distribution contracts, the nature of the beast is to cultivate steady customers who appreciate good beer.
  9. Range of flavors: all three sites seemed to showcase their IPA varieties - many seemed to seek to be more extreme than the previous, always ramping up the hoppiness to a point of excess possibly. All seemed to have made one or more variety of stout and/or porter, but not all were constantly in stock. Ordinary pilsner/lager seemed to be just one or two of the choices. The guide commented that Michigan is fifth in some regard: either per capita consumption or production of micro brewed beer, or number of enterprises. And he said that prominent use of hops is one characteristic of (Michigan?) microbrewed beer in USA. Naming of each brewer's creations and the accompanying sentence or two of adjectives lends itself to creative expression. Examples (Founders) include 'Dirty Bastard' and 'Old Curmudgeon'; or (Mitten Brewery) 'Triple Crown Brown' and 'Relief (session IPA)'; or (Harmony Hall) 'Erste Lager' and 'Los Conejos' (stout with cinnamon, chili, chocolate hints) available in regular (CO2) or Nitro (60% CO2, 40% nitrogen bubbles for silky texture on tongue).
 --see also http://experiencegr.com/brewsader [booklet with single page entries for each of Kent County's 23 establishments]

Upshot: Who are the people choosing to spend a sunny, mild Saturday at beer brewery to enjoy treats to eat and drink? Why do they come and not content themselves to bottles at home or with friends off site (a handful of big craft brewers bottle theirs: Bells, Founders, Shorts).

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