Something in the Water
Two of Michigan’s best-known breweries — New Holland and Founders — are celebrating their 20th anniversaries this year, but that isn’t all they have in common. They both brew high-quality, unique beer. They’re both known, at least in part, for their bourbon barrel-aged stouts (Dragon’s Milk and KBS, respectively). And they were both founded by Hope College alumni.
Turns out there are more than a handful of craft breweries owned by Hope College alumni. Our latest count? Seven of them. There must be something in Hope’s water — and it isn’t malted barley, yeast and hops.
It’s not an easy industry, but many of Hope’s alumni brewers credit an unexpected element for their success: a broad knowledge base and their experiences at a small liberal arts college.
First to open and closest to campus was New Holland Brewing Company. Founded in 1997 by Brett VanderKamp ’94 and Jason Spaulding ’94, the brewery has grown from its modest beginnings in a shoebox pub by the soccer field on Fairbanks to a regional powerhouse with a taproom in Holland, a new restaurant in Grand Rapids (The Knickerbocker, opened in 2016) and a leading position in the up-and-coming craft spirits industry. Hope alumnus David White ’98, New Holland’s first employee, is now a partner in the company and vice president of retail operations.
“The Midwest has always been behind,” said Mike Stevens ’91, who co-founded Founders Brewing Company with Dave Engbers ’93 in nearby Grand Rapids, also in 1997. When they started, “nobody cared about craft beer,” Stevens said.
Craft beer is generally characterized by small production quantities (relative to large beer companies like Anheuser-Busch/InBev and MillerCoors), independent ownership and a commitment to traditional styles, ingredients and methods. Even today, after decades of growth and with more than 5,000 craft breweries in the United States, craft beer is still a small share of the total American beer market. In 2016, craft beer sales were 22 percent of the overall market by dollars and only 12 percent by volume. Twenty years ago, those numbers were far smaller.
“There was an allure to the fact that it wasn’t very popular,” Engbers said. “Quite honestly, even after we got up and running, the first 10 years there wasn’t a huge demand for craft beer. We were trying to push this boulder up a hill.”
It wasn’t easy. Founders limped along for more than a decade before making a profit, and the company flirted with bankruptcy more than once, sticking with it only because there was no way out.
New Holland struggled in the early years, too. “We all had a rough go,” VanderKamp said. “I remember one Saturday when we didn’t have any customers at all.”
Things didn’t start to change until the mid-2000s. “The light switch just came on with consumers,” said Stevens. “Oh-eight’s when the world woke up and decided craft beer was cool.”
Now, 20 years after New Holland and Founders poured their first cold ones, West Michigan is front-and-center in the national craft beer scene. Grand Rapids was voted Beer City U.S.A. (2012 and 2013) and earned both Best Beer Town (2014) and Best Beer Scene (2016) in USA Today Reader’s Choice polls. A Beer City Ale Trail map distributed by Experience Grand Rapids boasts 76 breweries throughout West Michigan (and that doesn’t include distilleries, wineries and cideries like Vander Mill).
All this success is thanks in no small part to the longneck-shaped footprint created by Founders and New Holland. But don’t call them pioneers — at least not nationally. Regionally, sure, but not nationally.
“I consider some of those others who’ve been at it for 30 years to be the real trailblazers,” said Engbers. Here he’s talking about breweries like Boston Beer Company, which makes Sam Adams; Sierra Nevada in Chico, California; Anchor in San Francisco. “They did the hard work of paving the trail for breweries like us to come along.”
“I think we were pioneering from a West Michigan standpoint,” VanderKamp said. “I’d consider us more of a second wave.”
“It was still really early, but the true pioneers were the first wave,” said Spaulding, speaking of his time at New Holland. (He left the company in 2005.) “When Founders and New Holland started, Michigan wasn’t ready. But we just stuck it out and did it anyway. We were kind of on the front edge of that.”
As the front edge of craft beer in West Michigan — and among the second wave of the broader national industry — New Holland and Founders did a remarkable job of clearing the way for other Hope alumni to enter the brewing scene. Following hard on their success is a host of breweries: Saugatuck Brewing Co. in 2005, Brewery Vivant in 2010, Osgood in 2013, Beaver Brewing Co. in 2015 and Bière de Mac in 2016.
“Founders and New Holland went for it before it was trendy. Everyone else is in their wake,” said Mindy Chamberlain ’01 Denning, co-owner with her husband, Ron, of Osgood Brewing in Grandville, Michigan. They opened their brewery in no small part because of their love for Grandville, and they named it after the city’s first bar, Osgood Tavern, founded in the 1830s.
A community scene
“Grandville has this really interesting history, and we just wanted to bring that back to life and be part of all the community activities that happen right outside our front door,” Denning said. “We have a personal connection to the community.”
This community focus is a common refrain for many brewers.
“The great thing about craft brewing is its impact on the community,” said George Ranville ’78, president of Bière de Mac Brew Works in Mackinaw City. Opening in late 2016, Bière de Mac is the youngest of the Hope-alumni breweries, but it’s already having a local influence even outside of the busy tourist season. “We have 40 employees,” Ranville said. “When you drink our beer, the money stays in the community.”
Jason Spaulding is similarly proud of making a difference. Spaulding founded Brewery Vivant with his wife, Kris, in 2010, five years after he left New Holland.
My wife and I partnered on this together so it was really a co-dream. We wanted to build a sustainable brewery, a unique niche. We continue to focus on being better stewards of our neighborhood and giving better things to our employees.Jason Spaulding ’94, co-owner of Brewery Vivant
Brewery Vivant is the first LEED-certified brewery in the country and the first brewery in Michigan certified as a B Corporation, which measures positive business practices like employee benefits, healthcare and other markers of social and environmental performance.
Vivant specializes in brewing Southern Belgian-style saisons or farmhouse beers, which are based on the types of beer Spaulding drank while touring French-speaking Belgium. His travels didn’t just inspire a European beer style — they also influenced his understanding of what a healthy beer culture could be.
The Belgian tour wasn’t Spaulding’s first time experiencing Europe’s positive beer culture. A Hope trip with VanderKamp “was really influential, just seeing how proud people were of beer in Europe and coming back to the United States where it was so much more commercialized and there was really no craft beer scene — especially in the Midwest and especially in Michigan,” Spaulding said.
Hope College’s commitment to global education has had an impact even for students who weren’t quite so inspired by the beer culture. George Ranville was shaped as a business owner by what he saw behind the Iron Curtain on a May Term to Yugoslavia with history professor Mike Petrovich. “The sort of free market stuff we’re doing right now is a good thing,” he said. “I know Petrovich would love what we’re doing.”
Dave Engbers remembers Vienna Summer School as pivotal in shaping Founders’ approach to beer. He traveled to Austria and throughout Europe, where he saw beer as a normal part of daily life. “It was community. There were men and women and children and dogs, and it was just part of their culture,” he said. “Beer was a social beverage. It brought people together, and it was something that people could talk about life, politics, religion, daily struggles. Pubs were just an outlet for people to gather together.”
The craft scene isn’t about binging. It’s about community, about social bonds, about laughter and family and good conversation. It’s not uncommon to see whole families — infants, toddlers and all — in a brewpub. This summer, for example, New Holland hosted a weekly kids night with free crafts and activities.
When Founders opened its new taproom in 2007, some customers grumbled about seeing kids in the pub. Engbers was firm. “It was really because of my experience during Vienna Summer School, going to pubs and seeing kids and families,” said Engbers. “I said, ‘No, I want kids here. I want to be part of our community.’”
Back to Europe
If a distinctly European approach to beer culture influenced several of Hope’s alumni-owned establishments, a distinctly American approach to beer-making is starting to have an impact on European breweries in return.
“It’s actually interesting because the American craft beer movement is influencing Belgian breweries, too,” Spaulding said. “They’re actually importing American hops to make IPAs and traditionally that never would have happened.”
David Beaver ’98 is bringing the craft scene back to Europe in the most literal sense. In 2015, he opened Beaver Brewing Company in Vienna, Austria, to provide American-style ales and food.
Beaver initially went to Vienna as a teacher, decided to start a tiny nanobrewery (nanobreweries brew very small batches of beer and typically don’t serve food), and quickly started thinking bigger. He found a location with a kitchen, so now he has a restaurant, and he’s exploring contract brewing to expand production and is looking at opening a new bar.
“The big difference with the craft market here is that many of the macro-beers in Europe aren’t bad beer,” Beaver said. “There’s not as much room for, ‘Oh, this is what beer can taste like,’ except for the fact that it can be different styles.”
Most of the beers brewed in Vienna are lagers, but Beaver Brewing Company primarily brews ales (lager yeast ferments at a lower temperature than ale yeast and creates distinctly different types of beer). “We focus on craft beer styles, fresh and cold and at a good price,” Beaver said. “You might say ‘nontraditional,’ but they’re all traditional beer varieties that just haven’t been made here in Europe for a while.”
Founders is bringing its beer to an international market, too. In 2014, 125-year-old, seventh-generation Spanish brewery Mahou San Miguel bought a 30 percent share of the company — in part to help with international distribution (Founders beer is currently sold in 26 countries) but primarily because of Mahou San Miguel’s knowledge base and skill set.
In a less formal sense, partnerships among breweries — in which they share their know-how, grain or equipment with other brewers — are common. The craft industry has something of a reputation for being less competitive than is typically expected among industries fighting for the same market share. It’s understandable when you consider that craft brewers aren’t exactly fighting each other for market share, they’re still fighting Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors.
“We’ll certainly help any brewery that wants help or needs something, and they with us,” said Ric Gillette ’76, president and CEO of Saugatuck Brewing Company in Saugatuck, Michigan. “If Ron miscalculates on his grain, he can run up to New Holland and get some.”
Saugatuck Brewing Company has made its mark on West Michigan (and beyond) with its first-rate beer, but also as a destination for people who want to try their hand at making their own on its brew-on-premise system.
When Brewery Vivant was first opening in 2010, the startup brewery’s keg washer was delayed. Spaulding called Mike and Dave at Founders: No problem. “They let us come in and washed our kegs for us so we could open,” he said. And he’s eager to pass it forward. Spaulding recently fielded a bunch of questions for a new brewery in Grand Rapids, helping them with advice on beer tax reports and other business insight.
“There’s an overall friendly community of breweries and brewers because someone else’s success doesn’t mean another person’s failure. If somebody does well, everyone does well,” Denning said.
These ties extend across borders, too. The first thing David Beaver did when starting his brewery in Vienna was to visit two of his fraternity brothers, David White at New Holland and Paul Vander Heide of Vander Mill Ciders. They were happy to share their advice and encouragement.
Still, there’s a sense that things are starting to get tense. It’s hard to break into taps at local bars, and shelf space for craft beer is getting tight. Gillette agreed that even though things are still positive, it was more collaborative when he took the reins at Saugatuck Brewery in 2009.
“There’s starting to be some tension between breweries just because there are so many now,” Spaulding said.
So what does this mean for the future? If space is getting tight, is there still room in craft beer for the next round of Hope graduates who want to elbow their way in?
The answer seems to be a qualified yes, depending on the business model.
“There’s a large difference between manufacturing breweries and restaurant breweries,” Stevens said. “I see the growth of distributing breweries, manufacturing breweries, slowing. I see on the retail side, the pub breweries continuing to open and grow. I don’t want to say there’s not an end in sight, but there’s a lot of runway there because restaurants open every year.”
“You’d be better off starting a brewpub than a microbrewery in today’s business,” Gillette said.
Up in Mackinaw City, George Ranville echoed the same sentiment: “I wouldn’t go into it right now if you’re not focused on taproom sales. I’ll distribute, don’t get me wrong, but you’ve got to be able to make money in the community.”
So what’s the trick? Brew good beer. Serve quality food. Stay small. Be part of your neighborhood. Be a gathering place. Build community. Give back.
But Dave Engbers has a word of caution: “It looks romantic, but it’s a lot of work,” he said. He would know.
Liberal arts and entrepreneurship
“Liberal arts education opens you up to everything,” said Gillette, who was one of the first investors when Saugatuck Brewing Company opened in 2005; back then, he saw it as just another entrepreneurship opportunity: “I had other businesses, and had no intention of getting involved in the brewery.” In 2009, he took over management. “I invested in the company and ended up running it,” he said. “I love what I’m doing.”
“The liberal arts background certainly gave me an advantage,” said New Holland’s VanderKamp. As a geology major, the multidisciplinary science set him up to “know enough to be dangerous about a lot of things.”
Mike Stevens identifies Hope’s size as another factor. “It really allows you to become a leader and it breeds leadership,” he said. “It was easier to be somebody there. It builds confidence at a very critical point in your life when you’re trying to figure out who you are.”
“Hope College in general, for whatever reason, has a really good entrepreneurial mindset. There are a lot of businesses that get started,” Spaulding said. “It just so happens that it also coincided with this rise of craft beer. That’s probably the practical reason why there are so many breweries owned by Hope alumni.”
That, and the determination, grit and character of the school’s students and graduates — a quality Brett VanderKamp refers to as “scrappiness.”
“Hope College is a difficult college,” said George Ranville at Bière de Mac. “You have to work hard to get through your classes. We successfully get through Hope and translate that diligence to whatever we’re doing.”
Osgood’s Mindy Denning sees it the same way: “When I was at Hope, my character and my resilience were strengthened. I became tougher. I had to go after something if I wanted it; it wasn’t just going to come easily,” she said. Part of it was her experience as a moraler in the Pull: “You can’t give up. You don’t quit. There would be every opportunity to say, ‘This is way too hard and it’s not worth it, let’s throw in the towel,’ but that’s just not an option.”
Photos by Steven Herppich