Of all the towns that speckle West Michigan’s coast, Muskegon has perhaps struggled the most with cohesion. Its beaches and state parks are world-class but distanced from the city proper. Moreover, some could argue that a city proper has been lacking for a while. I remember a visit to Unruly Brewing Company a few years ago: loved it, but noticed a scarcity of surrounding places to be. While rounding the main drag’s cul-de-sac, it seemed like the city was still loading.
Today, it looks much different. Following the initial throes of the Watch Muskegon campaign — a push to position Muskegon as a hub for art, nature and small business — fruits have come to bear. Cranes are swinging, high-rises are flying. Business is booming. Citizens can take pride in this muscle laid on bone.
Enter Rake Beer Project, the newest brewery on the block, poised to add texture to Muskegon’s thriving beer fabric. Originally conceived as a blendery with a small taproom at max, the buildout now occupies the entire basement level of Northtown 794, a renovated furniture store set to contain two restaurants and a coffee shop. The subterranean vibe spills outside into what will eventually house an outdoor beer garden and music venue booked with local and regional acts alike. Only a couple weeks until open remain. The ribbon cutting should feel like a culmination of teamwork, celebrating this new connective tissue uniting Muskegon.
As a local, Josh Rake, owner and brewer at Rake Beer Project, appears equal parts thrilled and surprised by the city’s transformation.
“It’s mind blowing,” Rake said. “No slight to Muskegon, but I never thought I’d want to move back. I didn’t see a future for myself here.”
It hasn’t been the simplest journey — for him or the city — but the good ones never are. It began with Rake doing what all youth do when they grow tired of home: He split.
Rake spent years as a sponge, distilling the wisdom of his idols through hands-on study. His resume is impressive, featuring stints at legendary institutions like Jolly Pumpkin, New Holland and Old Nation. For a guy looking to brew hazy, farmhouse and barrel-aged beer, it’s hard to picture a better group of Sensei.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky every step of the way to learn something important from each business,” Rake said.
The lessons stuck, but it would be unfair to write off his brewing style as a hodgepodge of inspirations. Judging from the pilot-batch list, his portfolio outlines a bold and fresh take on farmhouse beer.
Progressive farmhouse ales are what Rake has taken to calling them, saying, “It’s about taking traditional methods and ingredients and using them to make modern styles.” The mission statement beer is Marley, his pup’s namesake, a 100-percent brett-fermented table beer. Lightly tart and nuanced, its beauty is in its simplicity. As a sour aficionado, Rake likens the style to bracing yourself against the elements.
“No matter how good you think you are at brewing them, you’re still at the mercy of bacteria and bugs,” he said.
Rake poured Whispered Mantra for me, a sour session IPA that tasted delicious — think All Day IPA backpacking in Belgium. The kicker: 3.8-percent ABV. Several of Rake’s beers limbo below 4 percent, challenging the notion that you can’t enjoy quality beer in quantity. But don’t fret, stout drinkers. Rake will dish the boozy barrel-aged goo just when the season calls for it. Keep your eyes peeled for plenty of canned New Englands on par with M-43 too.
At this point, hopefully it’s clear the name Rake implies more than leaf-scratching.
“Family runs deep here,” Rake said. “My parents are partners. My second cousin is a partner. My grandparents are involved. It means a lot to have that name on the building overlooking the new Muskegon skyline.”
On any given day, Rake can expect three quarters of a family reunion. The circle widens to welcome more.
“We also look at the community as a family,” he said. “Anybody who lives here knows that the city is doing its best to support new businesses getting off the ground.”
The scale of Muskegon’s rallying cry creates this collision of bliss, where the community merges its talents into a larger mosaic. Whether it’s collaborating with a local illustrator for killer can art, hosting Black Circle Radio to spin records, or gathering boots to form a hiking club, Rake takes fostering a relationship with his hometown seriously.
“Next to trying the beer we’re making, that’s what I look forward to most,” he said. “To see people interacting, using this as a shared space where everyone has some ownership and feels comfortable.”
Rake realizes it’s taken a village, so he’s throwing the village a party. Dubbed the first annual Rake Awakening, the grand opening will take place Sept. 6 and 7 with a two-day beer and music festival. Twelve bucks gets you in to see Flexadecibal and Desmond Jones headline, a ton of specialty beer tappings, can releases, food vendors — above and beyond the requisite hullabaloo.
Ultimately, Rake tips his hat to nature.
“I talk a lot about changing the narrative of Muskegon. The number one thing I like to stress is the nature we’re surrounded by, and being stewards of that as business owners,” Rake said. “The city is growing because we have such a beautiful landscape around us.”