In our West Michigan brewery scene, we've just about seen it all. And if there's one thing you need when opening a new brewery in this climate, it's a niche; something to help you stand out and separate yourself from the other breweries — and Gravel Bottom (418 Ada Dr., Ada) has done just that.
Owner Matthew Michiels began homebrewing in 1997 with dreams of eventually opening his own brewery. His wife achieved medical residency in Seattle, so he went with her and continued to homebrew for the next eight years, until another opportunity arose for his wife and the DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids called them back to Michigan in 2004. Upon returning, he had discovered the craft beer scene had exploded and West Michigan was producing some truly amazing beer.
Michiels thought this was the perfect time to develop his project. He wanted to open a brewery, but also had the desire to open a homebrew shop to provide for local homebrewers – and, at this early stage, his niche was found. Not only a brewery and homebrew shop, but a place where you can buy kits of the beer on tap and tweak as you like.
"What it ended up being was a three-tier setup," Michiels said. "First is the tasting, then the knowledge transfer side and then the retail supply on site."
Knowledge transfer, or open information, allows the public to see the recipes and process of every beer on tap, including the homebrewer feature tap. If you like the brew just the way it is, you can purchase the kit and take it home to brew yourself – or, if you'd rather, you can tweak the recipe how you like (more hops, more chocolate malt, etc.) and brew that one instead. Gravel Bottom is dedicated to not only providing equipment and ingredient services to the homebrewing public, but also offering lectures and seminars (beginner and advanced) to anyone interested in coming.
"We're just trying to be different," Michiels said. "There's a lot of us popping up right now, and there's a lot of great beer out there."
Gravel Bottom pours six taps, three of which remain flagships, and the other three are one-offs and homebrewer features. Flagships include Grapefruit IPA, DIPA, Pale, Stout, Dry Stout, Black IPA, Wit, Porter, and RYPA.
"I said 'I want to start from scratch'," Michiels said. "I don't want to pull out our old recipes and tweak them, I want to go from the ground up."
Gravel Bottom opened to the public in September with five beers on tap, and quickly ran out of beer. The public hasn't let up since.
"It was chaos," Michiels said. "The last four weeks were just a whirlwind. These few weeks since open have been the same way, scrambling to keep up with people that are coming in."
Having just opened, there are minor plans for the future, including internal expansion and possible distribution. For now, Michiels is happy with Gravel Bottom just the way it is: "Lifestyle over huge growth," as he put it.
"I want to keep it smaller and keep it beer focused," Michiels said. "Let people come in and be a part of the brewery, be a part of this community. If I can just get to that point, and do that for the next five years, I'm going to be a really happy guy."
Beer of the Month: Vander Mill Totally Roasted Cider (6.8% ABV)
When the weather starts getting chillier, hard cider is a great alternative to a brew. Lucky for us, Vander Mill has three varieties on the market in tall boy cans: Hard Apple, Blue Gold (blueberry) and Totally Roasted. The latter is made with homemade cinnamon roasted pecans, cinnamon and vanilla beans.
The cider pours crystal clear and is very bright (both in carbonation and presentation). The cider is refreshing and juicy with a bit of balancing dryness, while the pecans and vanilla and cinnamon undertones complement the presentation without overpowering it.
- On Nov. 2, HopCat (25 Ionia Ave., Grand Rapids) hosts the Unibroue Beer Dinner. For $25, diners get four courses paired with beer from Unibroue, a brewery based out of Quebec.
- Traverse City doesn't limit beer celebrations to a day, or even a weekend. This city goes all out with a Beer WEEK. From Nov. 8-15, Traverse City will host beer-related events around the local establishments. Enjoy beer-and-food pairings, get to know the local brewers and, most importantly, drink beer.
- Drink for a cause! On Nov. 9, the DeltaPlex Arena hosts BRU Fest, with all proceeds going toward Children's Leukemia Foundation of Michigan. Tickets are $39 and include four tokens for burgers and wings. Designated drivers get in for $19. Bell's is the beer on tap and will be pouring favorites, as well as seasonals and specialty brews just for the event.