Latest breweries have a neighborhood feel

April 22, 2012
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The beer industry is no exception when it comes to the ever-growing Buy Local movement. Last year, 76 brewpubs and 174 microbreweries opened in the U.S., putting the current total at nearly 2,000 and signifying the soaring demand for craft beer.

Recently, Brewery Vivant, Harmony Brewing Co. and High Five Co-Op Brewery have entered the Grand Rapids market, and several more are in the planning stages.

Contrary to the culture in other industries, the owners of microbreweries tend to view fellow new guys not as competitors but as colleagues in the larger battle for the beer market volume share.

“Rising tides lift all boats,” said Jason Spaulding, co-owner with his wife, Kris, of Brewery Vivant, regarding his feelings toward new faces in the area. Housed in what was formerly the largest funeral home chapel in Grand Rapids, Brewery Vivant has an Old World feel, with communal tables, stained glass windows behind the bar and brews with a distinctive Belgian style.

The Spauldings drew their inspiration by touring breweries in Belgium and other European countries. They were inspired by the longevity of the breweries, some of which had been run by one family for hundreds of years using recipes never written down but simply taught.

The Brewery Vivant business plan includes being sustainability-focused and putting 10 percent of net profits back into the community through local charities.

“Part of our business plan is not to get bigger,” said Spaulding. “We decided the maximum size that we wanted to be was 5,000 barrels, and once we reach that, we’re going to stop there. We want to be a local brewery and support our hometown first and foremost.”

The idea of returning to the time of the neighborhood brewery is a common theme among the new generation of owners. Siblings Barry, Jackson and Heather Van Dyke of Harmony Brewery chose a highly walkable Eastown location and a reasonably priced selection of beers in order to create a diverse and comfortable community space.

“Our idea for this has always been to create a neighborhood hangout — a sort of second living room,” said Barry Van Dyke.

Local entrepreneur Dallas McCulloch is in the process of forming what will be the first co-op brewery in the Midwest: High Five. Inspired by Black Star Co-op Pub and Brewery in Austin, Texas, and with the momentum of winning local entrepreneurial competition 5X5 Night, McCulloch and other local beer enthusiasts recently began setting the project in motion.

Though the details are still being fine-tuned, the business model involves a consumer and worker co-op in which patrons have the option of becoming member owners by buying a share in the company. The benefits to becoming a member owner include the ability to vote on High Five business matters and to receive kickbacks based on patronage.

Profits from membership dues will be used to enhance the company and cover member owner benefits. Being a member owner is simply an option and not a requirement of being a customer, he said.

Part of McCulloch’s reasoning for this model is his belief in a better way of doing business.

“Democracy in the workplace and as a consumer is just as important as democracy in your political systems,” said McCulloch. “No one will ever become a billionaire being in a co-op, but, hopefully, there’ll be a lot of people making a decent living.”

Collaboration among small breweries has a long history in Grand Rapids. In the early 1900s, six local breweries came together to form Grand Rapids Brewing Co. in order to combat the large conglomerate that had just moved in: Anheuser-Busch.

McCulloch noted that with the rise in popularity of craft beer, large conglomerates are again feeling the pressure from the combined force of small distributors. Large brands are trying to tap into the microbrew consumer base by marketing themselves as craft.

“It used to be that people would go to their local place to get beer because that’s where the beer was,” said McCulloch. “People are starting to move back to that.”

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