At some point in most craft beer drinkers’ lives, they move from the stale kegs of pale fizzy mass-market beers in young adulthood or college to something with more substance. For craft brewers around the state, that first experience of brews beyond the stale set them on a sometimes circuitous paths toward brewing beers to their liking. For some, it was foreign beers not frequently distributed in the Midwest, for others it was some of the first craft breweries in the nation or state.
For this writer, the catalyst was two beers: a properly poured pint of Guinness and a pint of Smithwick’s Ale at Angler’s Rest Pub while studying abroad in Ireland. Sure, Guinness could be found stateside in 2001, but it had either been on a container ship for weeks or was brewed in Canada. Whether the (Guinness-mandated) ritual of pouring half a pint, letting the amber bubbles cascade within the glass, pouring off the head and topping it off really affected the taste of final product, I don’t know — but it did mark a shift from my mass consumption of beer to something that was fresh, with culture behind it. Revue spoke with six regional brewery owners to discuss the drink that set them on their careers.
For David Ringler, founder of Cedar Springs Brewing Company, it was a job at a party store that first turned him on to craft beer through Anchor Steam, the iconic regional San Francisco beer.
“When I started going crafty, Anchor was the first that was my go-to beer. I went to school in Kalamazoo, so there was Two Hearted, and Sierra Nevada, my first big hoppy beer,” he said.
Then, a post-college stint playing football in Europe afforded “a lot of downtime” where Ringler took day trips to small towns to explore.
“I discovered some really awesome places and entered an apprenticeship in brewing,” Ringler said. “It was a little, small fourth generation brewer east of Munich making the most interesting Weissbier.”
After undertaking a two-year apprenticeship in Germany, Ringler returned to the U.S. and attended the Siebel Institute of Technology, a Chicago-based technical school, for brewing science. After leaving brewing in the late 1990s, he looked to others to bring these styles to American craft drinkers.
“When I got out … I always felt someone was going to come along and do this (brew German styles) someday,” he said. As craft brew drinkers started to seek out more of the traditional styles of brewing, Ringler found an audience for his passion. “The styles we have done are classics that have been around forever for a reason. Sure, we do IPAs and those styles, but Weissbiers are a misunderstood style by most people. Having fallen in love with that 20 years ago, that is something I wanted to share with folks who I thought would like (it) as well. We are fortunate we get to do that now.”
Kris Spaulding, co-owner of Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids, remembers Bell’s Amber Ale fondly as the first craft beer she drank in college. Friends in her apartment building gave her a bottle of the ale and she was hooked.
“My first real beer love was Bell’s Amber — it was a good one to have as a first,” Spaulding said. “I definitely drank a lot of Bell’s Amber.”
When she was introduced to her husband Jason, who was a co-founder and brewing at New Holland Brewing Co., it was a somewhat inauspicious first meeting.
“The first memory he has of me is my telling him their amber was not as good as Bell’s,” she said, laughing. “We didn’t go on our first date for a few years after that — it apparently took a few years to wear off.”
When the Spauldings looked to open their own brewery, they wanted to bring styles of beer that few people would have had fresh.
“There is a natural artistic style that comes with Belgian and French style beers,” she said. “There’s a lot more you can do to pair (food) with different flavor profiles.”
But the beer would be one aspect of what would become Brewery Vivant — the other piece would be that it reflects the community in which it resides. After a trip to France and Belgium, “We liked how small breweries integrated other voices, not just in how they made beer, but how they included other voices from the community,” Spaulding said.
Joel Kamp, Pigeon Hill Brewing Co. co-founder and CEO, credits three beers with starting him on the path toward opening the Muskegon-based brewery.
“Three beers: Leinenkugel Creamy Dark, Guinness Stout and Sam Adams Boston Lager. Those were my gateways into craft,” Kamp said. “Like most people, I started looking for more flavorful beers. I didn’t know homebrew was a thing until … I starting drinking those beers that set me on the craft beer track.”
Thornapple Brewing Co.’s Eric Fouch and Jeff Coffey both credit European beers and discontinued regional styles with sparking their love of craft.
“Two beers opened my eyes to there being more than just bad keg beer: Guinness and Coors Extra Gold,” Fouch said. “They’re not craft, of course. But Guinness was a completely different beer than what I was drinking.”
Coffey remembers the regional beers in Wisconsin and the Midwest that disappeared into mergers, such as Old Style Dark, as well as the ESBs and ales he found while traveling in Europe. Recreating those beers became his hobby and, eventually, his business.
“I started brewing because I knew they were out there, and I couldn’t get them here,” Coffey said. “If they were here, they’ve been bottled months ago and been sitting on the shelf.”
Meanwhile, growing up in upstate New York, Arcadia Brewing owner Tim Suprise said it all started with tasting a smoked porter at one of the shrines of American craft brewing, Greg Noonan’s Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington, Vt.
“It’s an easy question for me — it was the Vermont Pub & Brewery. Greg was a trendsetter and pioneer of craft beer,” he said. “A buddy and I stopped in 1989 and tasted a smoked porter for the first time — it changed my life forever.”
Noonan actually wrote some of the books at the core of American craft brewing. Suprise and a partner worked to build a business plan to open a brewery in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., but the venture fell through. In 1996, Suprise realized his dream, opening Arcadia Ales.
“We kept trying to put our heads together, but couldn’t get it done at the time,” he said. “I wonder sometimes how things could’ve been if it worked out and we could’ve been that far ahead of the curve.”