For craft brewers, there is Hope
One college fraternity produces the area’s biggest names in beer-making.
(As seen on WZZM TV 13) For a small, conservative school with a “dry” campus, Hope College has produced an unusual amount of brewery owners.
More specifically, the fraternity Omicron Kappa Epsilon, or OKE, was the early ’90s collegiate home to four of West Michigan’s most prominent brewers: Dave Engbers and Mike Stevens from Founders Brewing Co., Brett VanderKamp from New Holland Brewing Co., and Jason Spaulding from Brewery Vivant.
Although the campus is alcohol-free, the school is proud to have successful business owners leading the charge in a growing industry, said Scott Travis, director of alumni and parent relations at Hope.
“They really put their education in business, art and science to use in a unique way,” Travis said. “It’s nice to be able to reference them as successful business owners, and we are proud of them.”
The idea of opening breweries goes back to parties held at the fraternity, where Spaulding said the group would often talk about the idea.
“Our fraternity did love beer,” Spaulding said. “Hope did not promote starting breweries out of college, but stars kind of aligned and we kind of egged each other on in the early days.”
A few years older than the others, Stevens left Hope one credit shy of a degree and attempted to start a variety of businesses.
“I’m flailing around, trying to be an entrepreneur and failing,” he said. “Dave and I had been home brewing for a year at that point, so I told my girlfriend that I was going to start a brewery.
“I had already started three failed businesses, so her reaction was, ‘Yup, OK, good luck with that.’”
Stevens spent a year and a half forming a business plan, reading books at the library for weeks at a time to understand the finer points of starting and running a business. Soon, Stevens and Engbers — who was teaching at the time — had enough capital to start Founders.
About the same time, Spaulding and VanderKamp teamed up to start New Holland, and sought out the business plan from their fraternity brother. VanderKamp, who had moved to Colorado, was soon back in Holland and ready to work.
Stevens made sure to set a rule when he handed his plan over.
“I basically said, ‘OK, we do it in Grand Rapids and you do it in Holland,’” Stevens said. “And I gave him my business plan, and it was the base to their business.”
Spaulding remembers the exchange a tad differently. He said he and VanderKamp had never written a business plan and sought out the “legendary” business plan written by former brothers at the fraternity, but most of New Holland’s plan already was in place.
“We were like sponges, taking ideas and leads from everywhere we could,” Spaulding said. “We sought it out and they were cool enough to show us what they had done. After reading their plan, we determined that we just needed to stay the course with our own thoughts in our own voice, so it did not really change in direction afterward.”
New Holland opened in early 1997, a few months prior to Founders. Now both are thriving in an industry with more than 120 breweries in Michigan. Founders distributes to 23 states and was named the No. 2 brewery in the world by RateBeer.com. New Holland distributes to 16 states and has opened a line of artisan spirits.
In 2005, Spaulding left New Holland to explore new ventures, and in 2010, he started Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids. The fraternal brotherhood stayed strong as he met with Stevens to ask permission to start the brewery in the city.
“He called to grab lunch and wanted to do the right thing and be upfront and honest,” Stevens said. “Honestly, it only builds the industry when a good guy — a guy who knows what he’s doing — starts up.”
They all laugh now when their connections to Hope are brought up, knowing their partying ways weren’t exactly what the college planned. Spaulding cites a recent incident on Twitter, where a fan of Brewery Vivant noted that a bar in Holland changed the brewery’s Big Red Coq brew to Big Red Rooster on its menu.
Hope does hold events at New Holland and has had the brewers back to speak on entrepreneurship at the school. The Hope-owned Knickerbocker Theatre holds events for New Holland on a regular basis.
“On a micro level, they don’t hide it,” VanderKamp said. “Maybe on the macro level they haven’t pushed it; we’re not on the cover of the alumni magazine. I haven’t lost sleep over it, but maybe that’s something they should do, maybe they’re missing an opportunity there to promote themselves and some of their alums.”
Travis said the school does promote the success of the brewers in the growing industry, but it plays to the bigger message that 6,000 West Michigan alumni have helped contribute more than $76 million per year to the local economy.
Stevens said the entrepreneurial spirit must have been in the beer at OKE.
“We were drinking, doing what college kids do,” he said. “But that frat bred a lot of entrepreneurs. Look around Grand Rapids and you’ll be amazed at how many there are.”