Food Service & Agriculture, Small Business & Startups, and Sustainability

Rockford Brewing finds a niche in local produce

Local, fresh and timely are the bywords for its beer ingredients.

July 31, 2015
| By Pat Evans |
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Rockford Brewing fruit
Rockford Brewing’s Permaculture Series adds local fresh fruit as an accent flavor in a base beer, including Strawberry Erdbier, Raspberry Duality and Rhubarb Radler. Courtesy ©Thinkstock.com

Seth Rivard and Jeff Sheehan are using their love of all things natural to carve out a niche for Rockford Brewing Co. in the West Michigan brewing industry.

The two owners were at a screening of the documentary “Exported from Michigan” at Wealthy Street Theatre when they first heard the word “permaculture.” The word resonated with the pair: They had found a name for a series of beers they were brewing using locally grown produce.

“All we’re doing is following our values,” Sheehan said. “Seth and I both like the natural world and the fruits of the natural world. We really started following our personal values of sourcing local, sourcing fresh, and we like to try a lot of different things as they come available.”

Permaculture is the system of utilizing agriculture as seen in natural ecosystems.

“It’s basically how all farming was done until the advent of industrial farming. It uses nature as a tool and an ally,” Rivard said.

The Permaculture Series follows three rules for beers that fit into the lineup: Ingredients must be local, fresh and timely. Much of the produce comes from nearby farms, such as strawberries and raspberries from Krupp Farms located west of Rockford. Rivard even sourced rhubarb from his neighbor.

“He was selling (rhubarb) on the road for years. He’s 80-some years old and I got to talking to him,” Rivard said.

The “timely” rule means Rockford Brewing uses fresh produce only during its respective growing season. “Fresh” and “timely” both apply to the fact the brewery doesn’t use concentrates or artificial flavorings and will not, for instance, use frozen produce to enable a beer’s release at the beginning of a harvest. The brewery owners point to the odd anomaly of pumpkin beers coming out earlier every year — some even showing up in June this year.

“Don’t expect our strawberry beer to come out at the beginning of strawberry season,” Sheehan said.

The cornerstone of the Permaculture Series is Rockford’s Paradigm Pale Ale, a year-round beer made with 100 percent Michigan ingredients, from barley to hops to water.

The rest of the beers in the series utilize a local agricultural product as an accent flavor in a base beer, such as Strawberry Erdbier, Raspberry Duality and Rhubarb Radler.

The flavors, however, aren’t overwhelming. The amount of fruit used in each beer varies, mostly with the intensity of the product being used. Sheehan said raspberries are used in lower quantities than blueberries, for example, because of their intense flavor.

Sometimes, consumers are disappointed with the mild flavors and suggest using more fruit or asking the brewers if they have tasted certain other, artificially flavored beers.

“We have a conservative approach. We still want our beer to taste like beer,” Sheehan said.

Sitting just down the road from a lot of farms makes the sourcing of some of the products easy, while others take a bit of work. But it all comes down to networking, Sheehan said.

For some sourcing, Sheehan turns to the area’s Department of Agriculture representative, who puts them in touch with farmers such as Trever Meachum of High Acres Fruit Farms for plums.

As Rockford Brewing expands, Rivard and Sheehan expect to see its use of local products increase. Recently, the brewery put out a posting for a kitchen manager as it’s about to install a kitchen.

Once the kitchen is up and running, the owners will step back to determine any further action to expand the business.

“We’ll have a breather and if the demand for our beer continues, we’ll start considering options for a production facility,” Rivard said. “That’s a whole different ballgame and challenge.”

Should Rockford Brewing expand to a larger facility for its brewing operations, Sheehan said it’s likely they would use a custom fabricator to create the brewing system, allowing for options to help scale up the Permaculture Series.

No matter how much the series grows, it’s provided Rockford Brewing with a niche — which is a growing necessity in the craft brewing world.

“Just being a brewery was enough at first,” Rivard said. “Now that there’s more, it’s nice to have a niche and be known for something. It separates you from the pack and it’ll keep you going that way.”

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