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G-Sync: The Art in Craft


Put down that beer and back away from your vino: a new community spirit is about to take hold in West Michigan. G-Sync's Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen talks with members of the spirits distillery movement who are brewing up a storm.
As I stood at the bar with its slightly rustic unevenness, my hand ran along the smooth, well-oiled surface, confirming what my trained eye could see: that it was not perfectly level.

In any other setting, from, say, an airplane to a doctor's office, this uneasy and honey stained surface might have sent me to the nearest exit. Instead, as I looked up and around, letting my eyes take in the space adorned with rusty exposed HVAC and plenty of reclaimed wood from farms and a neighborhood factory, I watched as tiny glasses emerged from behind the counter the way they routinely do in pubs all over the area.

But instead of beer, clear liquids were carefully poured into the glasses that were then set on the wooden serving board embossed with the word "Coppercraft." The spirits still has become the next big thing for our region as folk's tastes begin to mature (and waistlines expand under the weight of what appears to be a bottomless craft beer movement).

This dawn of a new craft here in our region is actually the rebirth of an old process where, with careful sourcing and a critical ingredient of time, it looks like we are about to spark another movement. And it is not just a West Michigan thing because, with a little care and artistry, it could create another opportunity for outsiders to bestow awards and accolades like we've seen for our beer and wine industry.

The trend toward craft spirits is happening all over the country, as a few clicks of the keyboard reveal that more than 900 craft spirit products are currently under production in the U.S. and are growing at a rapid rate.

And what many do not know is that if you have been in the business of making beer, then you are already well-versed in the early stages of spirit production. With just a few added steps, your beer-familiar process hits a new height once you cook it down even further. This probably explains best how New Holland Brewing Company (NHBC) was able to get a head start locally and is already winning over fans of spirits.

Recently NHBC's New Holland Artisan Spirits were awarded three medals at the American Distilling Institute's (ADI) 2014 Spirit Conference for their Zeppelin Bend (single malt whiskey two years or older, bronze medal), Beer Barrel Bourbon
(straight bourbon, silver medal), and Bill’s Michigan Wheat Whiskey (wheat whiskey under two years, Best in Category medal).

As with any new thing, it does not take long for others to enter the field. Holland's Coppercraft Distillery will celebrate on May 22 with a birthday party for a barrel of bourbon that they laid down on this same date in 2013, when they sealed up their first batch of bourbon that will not be ready to serve until May 2015.

Touring the Coppercraft facility, it is very clear that what is happening within the distillery movement is going to be great for West Michigan in many ways.

For starters, Coppercraft's co-founders Walter Catton and Mark Fellwock, both former finance guys, have embraced a from-the-bottom-up commitment to sourcing as many local suppliers as possible in building their business. The result from the build-out is an elegantly rich earthiness from craftsman/artist Dirk Nykamp, who sourced much of the reclaimed wood from area farms and the local Heinz plant. The old processing containers from the Heinz factory, made of the now illegal-to-harvest white cypress trees, have been repurposed for many of the structures and walls of the 9,000-square-foot distillery and 50-seat tasting room that opened to the public in November 2013.

"We made a commitment as a member of Local First to source heritage grains locally because of the rich tradition of farming in this region," says Fellwock. "As a result we have been able to source 95% of our raw materials from area farms like our main supplier, Holland farmer Don Boersen."

Coppercraft's current product line includes gin, vodka, citrus vodka, and rum, with plans to add a line of aged bourbon, whiskey, and applejack for distribution at a later date.

And while malted barley could also be sourced locally, a new distillery opening this fall on the west side of Grand Rapids knows that ingredient is in high demand, though they have a plan to fix that shortage.

"When we open Long Road Distillers, we understand and appreciate the need to source as much as possible locally," says Jon O'Connor, who is the co-owner of LRD with business partner of Kyle Van Strien. "We will be sourcing locally as we are able and look forward to contracting with area farmers for hard-to-get items like our barley malt." Presently, due to the shortage of malt locally, others claim they must import to our region from places like Wisconsin.  

And since Rapid Growth reported on LRD in March, the dust has been flying from the rapidly advancing remodel in anticipation of its still (being built in Germany) being delivered in a few months. Long Road Distillers will be offering gin as well as many flavors of vodka that reflect the fruit crops of West Michigan, including a blueberry vodka that will reflect our region's reputation as the blueberry (and apple) capital of the state.

It's exciting to be around both companies in their infant stages, since it points out what we have been highlighting here for a long time: West Michigan is a place where you can rapidly advance through your beta stage.

It is also worth praising their "local first" approach as they talk of expansion and, in the case of Coppercraft, of the excitement of being able to hire creatives in our market to present their brand and other materials necessary to evoke the public's excitement for their product. It is this commitment to our local living economies that should be getting others attention as well as they consider entering the market.

But not everything should be easily handed over to any firm or business just because they are flashy in their advertising. This was never clearer than when journalist and author Wayne Curtis addressed the TEDxGrandRapids audience earlier this spring.

According to Curtis, things begin to get really thorny when someone thinks they can capitalize on this emerging trend. In short and for the sake of brevity, not all those who call themselves craft distilleries are created equal.

Curtis, who has made a career out of visiting the many places around the world that produce fine spirits, called out those craft distillers who simply "finish off" product on site and then slap a label on it. To Curtis, this act cheapens the art of craft. (Curtis is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.)

With the craft distilling movement about to take off here, the gold rush drive of clear liquor (and a few darker ones, too) will mean that locals will need to become well-versed on what is -- and what is not -- defined as craft or run the risk of being gouged on their barstools.

So how does a person determine what is craft?

According to the ADI, who is attempting to catalogue the rapidly expanding field of American distilleries and independent bottlers of American spirits; craft distilleries are defined as companies with a maximum annual sales of 52,000 cases where the product is physically distilled and bottled on-site. (It sounds a lot like the craft beer movement.)

The community of distilleries is already growing and, with the loosening up of our state's standards on on-site distilling as well as the ability to sell at the source and distribute, it's about to grow even more.

In fact, after touring the future home of the Long Road Distillers on the west side of Grand Rapids, next door to The Mitten Brewing Company, a Chicago style Gyro stand, and a soon-to-open BBQ joint, I was entertained on my ride home with a Michigan Public Radio podcast of another new distillery, Detroit City Distillery, opening soon in the Eastern Market.

My hope is that we will see a coming together of distillers of our region like we did when Founders opened more so many years ago. In an earlier interview with Rapid Growth, Founders' Dave Engbers says, "There was a point in our early years that we decided that in order to grow our beer market, we had to start talking to each other."

In this spirit, each month Coppercraft gathers their friends and family members together to host a bottling and labeling party. With the addition of state-wide distribution (commencing effective March 31, 2013), I am quite sure after my tasting of their spirits (and hand-crafted bitters) that it's only a matter of time before this monthly event has to expand. In the coming weeks the distillery will add a brand new 750 gallon still.

I may not be family but it becomes abundantly clear after my time with Coppercraft's small staff that we have become fast friends, so the invite to return to their tasting room for the birthday party of a one-year old bourbon keg is back in conversation.

"We were not sure what was appropriate for a one-year old's birthday party, so we asked a few parents with young children," says Jenny Grant, Coppercraft's bartender and owner of the soon-to-open Leisure Craft Coffee. "They all said, 'The birthday party of a one-year-old is all about the parents, so get drunk.'"

On the occasion, Coppercraft will be serving cake and, of course, one of their many spirits. The big question still remains: Who will blow out the candles? One-year-olds can be so temperamental, but it's abundantly clear that this combination of wood and spirits is exactly what is needed to produce the best-rounded of bourbon babies in our region. Happy birthday, indeed.

So put down that beer and back away from your vino, a new community spirit is about to take hold in West Michigan.

The Future Needs All of Us.


Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor



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