A brewery for Jackson (again)

Since moving south of Jackson, Michigan about two years ago, I’ve direly missed easy access to the craft beer scene. OK, so I was completely spoiled in Grand Rapids. Although I despaired when I first moved to West Michigan in 1995, I’m amazed to reflect on how cool, hip and desirable this region now is, due in large part (for me) to the booming brewing scene there. There’s my “brewery home,” the Hideout, where I also worked; Founders, with great beer, food, music, parties and atmosphere; and Grand Rapids Brewing Company, where I’m a “lifetime” mug member. HopCat (where I also worked) draws beer aficionados from all over, and the BOB also has a brewery. New Holland recently opened Brewery Vivant near Eastown, where I used to live, and Schmohz holds down the eastern fringe. More breweries are less than a 45 minute drive away from the city center, and Grand Rapids itself holds other establishments that don’t brew but that are outstanding places to enjoy craft beers from Michigan and across the world.

And then, there’s Jackson. Jackson’s got … bars. Sure, Ann Arbor (and her beer scene) is just down I-94, but it’s a full hour from my house. Not very feasible for a pint after work or a nightcap after dinner. Some joints here serve a seasonal Bell’s, if I’m lucky (and more often than not, servers will tell me they’ve got “Bell’s” on tap; when asked what kind, they give me a quizzical look, as if I’d asked them which kind of Bud Lite they carry). I’m just stating the facts here, and I understand why all this is. The social atmosphere in Jackson just doesn’t nurture or attract lovers of craft beer. This is the land of NASCAR and Budweiser — not that I’m knocking these things, and not to say these are mutually exclusive with microbrews, but there are definite, demonstrable demographic trends behind these generalizations.

However, microbrew lovers do exist here, just not in critical mass. Proving this point is the fact that a brewery’s been tried before: There is a brewery building that’s languished just east of downtown Jackson, the gleaming brewing equipment it contains earning an almost fabled spot within the brewing culture of Michigan. This is the site of at least two former breweries, but the darkened edifice has taunted local lovers of local beer for seven years now.

Wilcox's homebrew club: they brew to escape

Enter Phil Wilcox, a founding member of Jackson’s homebrew club, Prison City Brewers. Thanks to him, we have some good news: this building will soon open its doors once again. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Jackson’s Citizen Patriot ran an article on this budding business; the comments posted by local readers reveal the overall current in Jackson, which is not overwhelmingly positive. This proves my former point, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Breweries are big business these days, and many Michiganders are willing to travel a bit for good craft beer. So, although the new brewery may be called “The Local Pub & Brewery,” if this venture succeeds, my guess is that it won’t be thanks to local patrons. It will be the craft beer lovers from Dexter, Chelsea, Ann Arbor, Lansing and Kalamazoo, or from even farther away, who will keep this dream alive. Or maybe I’m wrong; prove me wrong, Jacksonians! Hey, I’m local, and I’ll be there.

*UPDATE: Brewery is currently set to open in June!*


Happy Fifth Anniversary, Hideout Brewing Company!

In honor of one of my favorite brewery’s fifth anniversaries, I’m posting the piece I wrote for the Michigan Beer Guide when the Hideout first emerged. This was originally published in the May 2005 issue of MBG as “Discover Grand Rapids’ Newest Hideout,” by me, Brenda Cooke. Some details may be out of date, but most everything still rings true! Reprinted with permission of MBG.

If you live in or ever visit West Michigan, you may get the sense that you’re still stuck in the days of prohibition, due to the conservative climate and curious laws dealing with the sale of alcohol. Fortunately, West Michigan beer lovers can now tip back a few pints at the new Hideout Brewing Company, a prohibition-themed microbrewery where the delicious beer flows freely.

Approaching Hideout BC, you may get a sense of an exclusive speakeasy due to the off-the-beaten-path setting and the drooping pines that silently guard the entranceway. Once inside, the brewery has an expansive feel, with the lounge and bar area downstairs and the second floor loft located just above the bar. Former patrons of the Hair of the Frog Brewery, which used to operate in this building, may remember the location. However, owner and brewer Ken McPhail has worked hard to change up the look and the feel of the new brewery. The comfy, homemade chairs and poured-concrete bar remain the same, but now there are rich red and orange walls set off by massive photographs of gangsters and bootleggers; the new décor promotes a laid-back and cozy feeling.

But of course, the beer is what I’m here for. I was quite happy to be living in these post-prohibition times as I sampled Ken’s six beers, and found each one to be satisfying and true to style. The 5.5% ABV Smuggler’s Hazelnut Stout is a dark, opaque brew with a strong hazelnut flavor accentuated by coffee and cream that finishes clean. Ken believes in keeping things local: this stout is brewed with Hazelnut Crème coffee beans from the Schuil Coffee Company in Grand Rapids. Ken’s second stout offering is the 5.6% ABV Cement Shoe Stout, dark as the bottom of Lake Michigan, featuring a good balance of hops and malts; full-bodied, yet clean and refreshing. The clear, deep brown 5.6% Nitro Stout is the Cement Shoe on nitrogen: it has a lasting, creamy head and boasts roasty notes with a hint coffee. In the traditional Pilsner style, the golden 5.2% Purple Gang Pilsner is hoppy and slightly sweet with a crisp finish. Hop lovers will want to try the 6.6% ABV amber-hued Bootleg IPA, and are sure to enjoy the classic, faintly oaky flavor complimented by a touch of creaminess and a long finish. Slightly cloudy, the Crusaders’ Weisen weighs in at 5% ABV and is crisp and bright with a hint of lemon. The beers are offered at the bar in pitchers, pints, 12 oz. glasses, or in a sampler of five; get them to go in growlers or kegs.

If by chance you’re looking for something other than beer, Hideout tenders a variety of different homemade libations. Sauvignon Blanc, White Zinfandel and Shiraz are all available on draught. A hearty ~13% ABV mead is not too sweet, and is made from honey gathered in nearby Hudsonville, MI. The lightly carbonated cider owes its crisp flavor to locally grown apples from Robinette’s in Grand Rapids. These selections are a real treat for West Michiganders; as Ken observes, “no one else in town offers homemade wines, ciders, and meads.”

The drinks served at Hideout Brewing Company are so tasty for good reason. Each one is hand crafted by Ken McPhail, who has a long and rich history in the world of brewing. Ken homebrewed for 10 years before getting into the business, and then worked his way from the bottom up, beginning in the packaging and cellaring area of the Kalamazoo Brewing Company. He worked for Bell’s in Kalamazoo in the mid-1990s, and remembers back when it was just “a hole in the wall.” At West Side Brewing, NY, where he got to meet with top representatives from Anheuser-Busch, he gained a perspective of the “other side” of the brewing scene. From 2000 to 2003, he brewed for Big Buck Brewery in Grand Rapids.

Ken explains that he’s “been tracking the industry for a long time” (so it’s not surprising that he has “read the Michigan Beer Guide since it first came out”). Over the years, he’s been able to form a good “sense of how breweries start out and grow.” Now the proud owner of his own brewery, Ken describes his business as a “throw-back, grassroots brewing company [that is] more comparable to a home-brewery than to a commercial brewery, or even a microbrewery.” Ken brews his beers in an old-fashioned system with a homemade, tilt mash tun and a 5-barrel kettle. The open top fermentation offers “a nice way to brew that supplies more flavor.” Ken comments, “it’s a nice thing that Grand Rapids actually has a brewing community. I want to carry on that grassroots brewing tradition.”

This brewery is Ken’s baby: he runs the show, from brewing beers to tending bar to dealing with vendors. “It began as a one-person operation,” remarks Ken, but is quick to add, “My wife’s been helping me a ton.” [Writer’s note: Boss Lady Laura McPhail is certainly an indispensible part of the business!] But Hideout BC isn’t Ken’s only baby…his 2-year-old daughter will be joined by a brand new bundle of joy by the release of this publication. Ken worked furiously to get the brewery up and running, and his hard work certainly paid off when Hideout celebrated its grand opening on June 11, 2005 with food, live music, and beer specials.

Visitors to Hideout Brewing Company can relax in the non-smoking bar area downstairs, or play darts and foosball and perhaps enjoy some live music in the loft upstairs (which is smoker-friendly). Available munchies include soft pretzels and free popcorn. Hideout Brewing Company is located at 3113 Plaza Dr. NE in Grand Rapids, just north of the intersection of Plainfield Ave. and I-96. From Plainfield, turn east onto Lamberton Lake Dr. (look for Hansen Collision on the corner), and then make the first right onto Plaza Dr. After the few bends in the road, the brewery (which shares the building with Blue Spa, formerly Hubba Tubba) will be on your right. For more information, give Ken a call at 616-361-9658, or visit the web site: www.hideoutbrewing.com.

Responsible consumption … of energy

The fourth installment in my Michigan Beer Guide series examines options for sustainable choices in brewing facility operations and the brewing process in general. This piece is reprinted with the permission of the Michigan Beer Guide. Cheers!

When it comes to running a successful business, breweries across the country are proving that being environmentally friendly and upholding the economic bottom line are the prefect complement. Specifically, striving to conserve energy and choosing energy sources that do not rely on fossil fuels are two practices that more and more US breweries are adopting, and reaping myriad benefits from, every year.

Just as the Western states were forerunners of the craft beer movement, they are now setting the bar high for the rest of the US in terms of running breweries that are energy efficient, or that rely on alternative energy sources.

For example, solar power is an ideal, sustainable source of energy that California-based Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. is pursuing with gusto. A large solar panel system over their parking lot combines with rooftop panels to provide nearly 40 percent of the brewery’s electrical needs. All together, the brewery’s panels represent one of the country’s largest private solar panel arrays.

Another California brewery turning to solar power is Stone Brewing Co., which recently invested in a large bank of solar panels that now blankets their facility. In Colorado, both Odell BC and New Belgium BC utilize solar power.

Yet the use of solar power isn’t limited to breweries in Western states. Just across Lake Michigan, a new solar water heating system enables Central Waters BC in Wisconsin to produce twice as much beer with no additional spending on natural gas. Purchased with the help of a state grant, the system will save the brewery an estimated $1.4 million over the next 30 years.

Although the expenditure may be recouped over months or years, the initial cost of solar panels can be prohibitive for smaller breweries. For many breweries, however, purchasing a share of their required energy from renewable sources may be a feasible option. For example, Roots Organic BC in Oregon purchases all the energy they need from renewable sources such as solar and wind power.

Wind power is a renewable energy source that some breweries are just beginning to explore, yet that others have relied on for years. Based on the standard of being “alternatively empowered,” New Belgium embraces environmentally-friendly practices across the board. And they’re not just following the trend, they’re proud to lead the way. New Belgium began purchasing electricity generated from wind power over a decade ago, and today is about 70 percent wind-powered.

On the East Coast, Brooklyn Brewery’s plant in Williamsburg, New York was the first building in New York City to be powered by 100 percent wind energy. Brooklyn Brewery estimates that each year, their use of wind power saves up to 335,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

In efforts to be more sustainable, breweries are exploring options for putting to good use what was formerly considered waste. Here in Michigan, Michigan BC generates power with biodiesel generators that run on fryer grease from Michigan State University cafeterias.

This innovation is the result of a partnering with MSU’s Bio-Refinery Training Facility, which produces the biodiesel and sends it to Michigan BC to be burned in their steam generator. While all this brewery’s beer is currently produced using biodiesel, plans are in the works to power the entire brewery with electrical generators that run on this fuel.

Utilizing anaerobic digestion to treat brewery wastewater and generate methane is becoming a popular method of promoting sustainability. Sierra Nevada uses their methane to generate electricity, thereby even producing surplus energy to divert to California’s power grid. This brewery is quickly closing in on their goal of running on 100 percent sustainable energy.

New Belgium is another brewery that collects methane from their wastewater, generating up to 15 percent of the power used by their facility in this manner.

Craft breweries may lead the way, but the big names of mass-produced beer are also beginning to jump on the alternative energy bandwagon. In 2009, Anheuser-Busch installed anaerobic digestion systems in 10 out of 12 of its US brewing facilities, including one in Columbus, Ohio and one near Syracuse, New York. Avoiding the costs of both treating wastewater and purchasing fossil fuels may be the economically-driven motives, but the result is a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Anheuser-Busch sends their recovered biogas to boilers for use in the brewing process, contributing up to 15 percent of the total fuel needs at a given plant. As Anheuser-Busch investigates utilizing local landfill gas, solar power and wind energy, a more eco-friendly face of this big brewer may continue to emerge.

Just as relying on sustainable energy sources is important, so is limiting energy demands to begin with. At New Belgium, motion-sensitive lights ensure that energy isn’t wasted, a closed-loop brew kettle reduces the consumption of natural gas, and the bikes given to employees on their one-year anniversary promote human-powered transportation.

Almost any brewery can embrace practices that promote decreased energy demands. These can just be little changes that add up over time. At Odell, for instance, skylights reduce the need for electric lighting, and the company encourages employees to bike to work or carpool. The use of energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs, recycling heat from the brewing process, using outdoor air for cooling purposes when possible and maintaining an efficient refrigeration system are just a few examples of what breweries large and small can do to reduce energy requirements.

“There’s really not just ‘one thing’ that businesses need to do to be sustainable,” emphasizes Rochester Mills Beer Co. owner Mike Plesz. “There are so many different ways to weave sustainability into a brewery.” Plesz is the CEO of Pleszure Food Group, a “sustainably practicing business” which encompasses Rochester Mills; Mind Body and Spirits, Michigan’s first certified organic restaurant; artisan cookie and snack bakery Inspired Treats; and a related school that educates youth about the importance of sustainability.

Plesz advises that breweries undergo an energy audit to pinpoint areas where energy is currently squandered. “Brewers are ingenious! They have engineering minds, and once they begin to think about this, they can come up with so many ways to reduce energy use and support long-term sustainability.”

Companies closely related to the brewing industry are also following the trend to go green. Last year, Briess Malt & Ingredients Co. received a U.S. Department of Energy award for achieving significant energy reductions. Briess, a name well-known by most brewers, manufactures specialty malt, natural sweeteners and more for the brewing and food industries. Reusing waste heat for space heating and initiating new operating procedures for producing roasted malts are among the measures that contributed to a 20 percent reduction of energy usage and CO2 emissions.

As a group, the Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association is committed to using biofuels and hybrid vehicles when possible, and Michigan distributors are reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by investing in energy efficient light bulbs and coolers, and by taking advantage of new building materials and designs.

Running a facility itself isn’t the only area that demands fuel. To transport in masses of brewing ingredients and transport out the resulting brew, large trucks are still the standard across the country. Yet today, trucks don’t necessarily need to run on diesel or gasoline. Stone, Odell, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Rochester Mills all have delivery trucks that run on biodiesel, a biodegradable fuel that results in a 78.5 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions as compared to petroleum diesel.

Dedicated to their mission to “Take, Make, Remake,” Ohio’s Great Lakes BC strives toward their goal of completely sustainable production in many ways, even running their delivery trucks on straight restaurant vegetable oil.

Great Lakes operates both a modified semi truck for beer delivery and a shuttle bus (affectionate named The Fatty Wagon) that run on this fuel, some of which comes from their own brewpub. According to a press release, since the semi only burns diesel to begin and end each trip, just two gallons of diesel are needed for one 100-gallon trip on the vegetable oil. The straight vegetable oil isn’t subjected to the chemical process required for making biodiesel, so it’s more cost effective and it burns cleaner.

In the world of brewing, the options for reducing reliance upon fossil fuels, from choosing wind power or solar energy to recycling heat to using energy-efficient light fixtures, are just the beginning. And, the breweries listed here are only a very small sampling of all the breweries across the country that are making a commitment to sustainable energy.

“The fact is that breweries demand a lot of energy,” concludes Plesz. “So in the end, financial and environmental sustainability go hand in hand.” Craft brewers have always been innovators, and the craft brewing industry promises to blaze the trail toward responsible energy use, one brewery at a time.