After a long journey, Elk Brewing has finally opened its doors to thirsty beer lovers in Grand Rapids. To owner and headbrewer Eric Karns, the road to open was a trying one that took three years, but it only made the opening and the following success sweeter.
Like many breweries' beginnings, Elk Brewing came from Karns' passion for homebrewing. The name happened when he served his beer at his wedding to wife, Lisa. Guests nicknamed the beer “ELK” by combining the couple's initials.
“We kept talking about using 'Elk' as a brewery name, and Lisa came up with the logo shortly thereafter. It was just one of those things that stuck,” Karns said.
Karns knew opening a brewery was in his future after he brewed his first batch, a porter, nearly nine years ago.
“It was excellent. The first time I tried it, it was amazing, and I thought 'I could sell this,'” Karns said. “Once I realized that, I moved on and went crazy with it, trying to perfect every recipe.”
Because of the rapidly growing area, Karns chose to open Elk on Wealthy Street in Grand Rapids. Being from Sparta, Karns was encouraged when he saw smaller communities supporting breweries and bars.
“We saw that area of Grand Rapids really becoming that way,” Karns said. “It became a no-brainer for us. You saw what Wealthy Street was doing with the Winchester, Art of the Table, the bakery – you could see that things were happening there. We found the property and it was perfect.”
With investors backing the project, the equipment was brought in and internal renovation began, prompting Karns to leave his job at St. Mary's to dedicate all his time to Elk. With an opening date set and the wheels in motion, his sights turned to the start of it all: brewing.
“I don't focus on standards, I focus on flavors,” Karns said. “None of my beers meet the alcohol standards, I meet the style a little, but not always, and that's the way I want it to be. The focus on the beer is to make strong flavors in drinkable beers. If my porter is chocolate-ier than most, that's the way I wanted it to be.”
The month before the brewery's opening date was focused on brewing and stockpiling for the inevitable onslaught. The preparation helped, because Karns said they didn't run out of beer during the first week.
“Opening day was surreal, because it took so long to open,” Karns said. “We had a line out the door — people were so excited because they'd been waiting so long, too. They came in and everyone wanted everything, and you couldn't beat the smile off my face.”
Elk recently added more taps, bringing the total to 11. The brewery features mainstays, specialties and seasonals in the taproom. The mainstays include ESB, IPA, porter and Scotch ale. Other beers at the time of my visit included a hefeweizen, black IPA and a hopped amber.
According to Karns, future plans include limited distribution and possible internal expansion.
“We have really good beer, we have knowledgeable staff that can explain everything we have, and our beer isn't always the standard,” Karns said. “It's a comfortable atmosphere, in an up-and-coming neighborhood that's great to walk around.”
Elk Brewing is located at 700 Wealthy St. SE, Grand Rapids. facebook.com/ElkBrewing, (616) 238-5227
Hours: Mon.–Thu.: 3 p.m.–midnight, Fri.–Sat.: 11 a.m.–2 a.m., Sun.: noon–11 p.m.
BEER OF THE MONTH: Latitude 42 Lil' Sunshine Golden Ale 4.8%
This beer pours a brilliantly clear gold with a bright-white head that boasts great retention. The aroma is light with subtle tones of malt and faint hops, while the body delves into a dynamic presentation of light-malt complexity along with a restrained-hop presence, which contributes minimal hop flavor and a very relaxed bitterness that rides into the finish, a great easy drinker.
Michigan Brewer's Guild U.P. Fall Beer Festival takes place Sept. 6 from 1-6 p.m. in Marquette. Join more than 50 Michigan breweries, hang out and drink beer on the shores of Lake Superior. For more info, visit MIBeer.com.
On Sept. 12 from 6-11 p.m., more than 50 Michigan breweries, cideries and meaderies will convene at Beerfest at the Ballpark in Lansing. Beer might be the main event, but Beerfest at the Ballpark also features live music and great food. Visit beerfestattheballpark.net for more info.
Experience Beer presents Grand Rapids' First Beer City Round Table at the Pyramid Scheme on Sept. 17. At the event, 13 Grand Rapids brewers will be on stage discussing beer, brewing and culture, all while taking questions from the audience. Drop by pyramidscheme.com for more info.
Weko Beach Brewers Festival takes place Sept. 27 from 1-7 p.m. in Bridgman. The festival features only Michigan beers, as well as great music along Lake Michigan's shoreline. Find more information at wekobeachbrewersfest.com.