Atwater hopes to fortify connection between Grand Rapids, Detroit
Downtown brewpub is just part of company’s massive expansion plan.
Atwater Brewery’s recent announcement of establishing a taproom at The Rowe redevelopment caps more than two years of searching for a Grand Rapids location.
The Rowe turned out to be the perfect site for Atwater owner Mark Rieth, who took ownership of the Detroit brewery in 2005, after an initial investment in 2002.
“We looked at some opportunities more in the center of town, but this just seemed right and hit all the things we were looking for,” Rieth said of The Rowe on the corner of Michigan Street and Monroe Avenue NW.
“It’s rebounding — the last part of downtown that’s coming back. It’ll be a great first year, but we’re looking five, 10 years down the road and how great that area will be.”
Atwater Brewery was pursued by CWD Real Estate Investment — the developer of The Rowe — and its managing partner, Sam Cummings, who is a fan of Atwater’s lagers.
“I couldn't get enough of Atwater’s lager and its Purple Gang Pilsner in my refrigerator, so I had to figure out a way to bring them to Grand Rapids,” Cummings said in the press release announcing the project.
“I think Atwater will be a fantastic addition to the Rowe project and to the Grand Rapids beer scene."
Rieth spent the first part of his career working with Toyota in southern California and Boston, following his 1989 graduation from Michigan State University. He moved back to Detroit in 1997 — the same year Atwater was started. He had developed a fondness for lagers, especially Sam Adams Boston Lager, while he living in Boston and enjoyed Atwater’s take on the style.
In 2002, he asked the Atwater founders about investing in the company, before taking control in 2005 and setting up a path for growth.
The $1 million-plus expansion into Grand Rapids is just one of many projects for Atwater planned in the next few years, continuing a fast-paced growth since Rieth took over a decade ago. Rieth wanted Grand Rapids to be one of the first projects outside of southeast Michigan to make a connection to West Michigan.
When Rieth took over the company, Atwater was a pub-focused brewpub making about 280 barrels a year. A barrel is approximately 31 gallons. That number was increased to 9,000 barrels in 2012, and last year the brewery saw approximately 40,000 barrels flow out the doors.
Atwater’s beer can now be found in almost 30 states. Michigan still makes up 65 percent of the company’s sales.
Rieth said in the next couple of years, he expects Atwater’s capacity to reach 300,000 barrels. The increase will come partly from a new, larger brewhouse for the Detroit production facility.
Also in the plans are production facilities in North Carolina and Austin, Texas, where beer will be produced and packaged for fresher delivery in the Southeast and Southwest markets.
Austin is a target market because of its similarities to Detroit, mainly in music, Rieth said. North Carolina offers easy access to an underserved beer market in the Southeastern U.S., he said.
“We’ve been studying the trends and looking hard at the markets,” Rieth said. “We’re not just jumping in. We haven’t even opened up Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. Those states haven’t realized the percent growth in craft beer and are a little behind.
“When they hit, we want to be a part of that.”
New brewpub facilities like the one Atwater opened last year in Grosse Pointe Park — and the one that will open next year in Grand Rapids — will find a home in approximately 10 markets in the near future, Rieth said. Among locations being looked at: Chicago and Boston, where Rieth lived for seven years in the 1990s.
“It’s managed growth — we could have grown a lot more than that,” he said, speaking to his knowledge of three-tier systems used in beers and his previous career in the automotive industry. He still owns a company dealing with extended warranties in the automotive industry. “It’s been organically; we’re not trying to grow fast.”
As the craft beer segment continues to advance into the overall beer market, more breweries are trying to gobble up as much share as they can. Companies such as Grand Rapids-based Founders Brewing Co. are establishing themselves as national brands with footprints stretching coast-to-coast to ensure a household name, so when an industry slowdown occurs, they’ll be a well-known entity.
Rieth said having brewpub/biergarten projects in various cities helps customers make a local connection to the brand and make it more than just an out-of-market export.
“We want to be closer to our customers,” Rieth said. “The farther you get from home base, the harder it is to penetrate a market because there is so much great beer. We want to bring Detroit everywhere, but we want to be a part of the local community, hire local people and help the local economy.
“Those things are things that resonate with people, and we can make unique styles of beers locally, have fun and grow the brand.”
The Atwater brewpub in Grand Rapids will differ in atmosphere from the Grosse Pointe Park location, which is in a former church. But the menu will be similar, Rieth said, and will consist of mostly German-style cuisine.
The brew system will be an identical four-barrel set-up that will make small batches for the taproom and local distribution.
Last week, Harmony Hall opened just across the river on Bridge Street. Nearby, even closer to The Rowe, New Holland Brewing Co.’s new location is underway.
The spirit of collaboration is high at Harmony Hall, and co-owner Jackson VanDyke said he hopes Atwater and New Holland will buy into the Grand Rapids beer community.
“Before we opened, we went to talk to the guys at the Mitten (Brewing Co.), and they said, ‘The more the merrier,’” VanDyke said. “We hope Atwater and New Holland will be the same way — friendly and collaborative.
“With all the beer tourism, it’ll probably draw people over here because it’s better to have three breweries than one.”
Rieth said that although there are a lot of breweries in Grand Rapids, being an established brand takes away some of the risk of entering the market.
“If we were a new brand, I would never do that,” he said. “We’re not a new brand, and with how great Michigan’s brewing community is, we want to connect the east-to-west dots.”