(Future) Patron Saint of Ales: Jason Spaulding of Brewery Vivant

Allegedly, the founding father and vast repository of wit, Benjamin Franklin, once remarked: "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

Jason Spaulding, 36, embraces this aphorism wholeheartedly. In fact, Spaulding believes in beer so much that the brewer recently built a microbrewery and pub so beautiful it blurs any distinction between tavern and tabernacle.

Spaulding's beer cathedral is named Brewery Vivant (925 Cherry St. SE), and aptly so, considering that the new establishment resurrects a dead spot on the otherwise vibrant Cherry St. (In French, vivant means "alive" or "lively.") Spaulding teamed with Locus Development, Orion Construction and Studio Wise Design in the $3 million renovation project, which converted two defunct buildings into a 5,000-sq. ft. brewing facility and a 120-seat taproom. Outside, a Euro-style beer garden will provide seating for an additional 65 patrons in warm weather.

A cursory look behind Vivant's arched double doors reveals stateliness customarily reserved for royalty and religion: stained glass windows, oak-paneled columns, 19-ft. long barnwood tables, a vaulted ceiling with exposed pinewood trusses and a limestone archway exposing cabinets filled with golden-rimmed goblets and the taps installed back in the apse. One half-expects to see a monk shuffle past, lost in his flowing robes and ethereal chanting.
 
Such an apparition wouldn't in the least upset Spaulding, who finds inspiration in the Trappist Order of Monks. Drawing on traditions dating back four centuries, these famed monk-brewers not only support themselves on their craft beers, but routinely top critics' lists of best beers in the world. (Need proof? Check out here, here and here.) While enrolled at Doemens Academy, a traditional brewing academy just outside Munich, Germany, Spaulding had time to steal away and visit their monastic breweries in Southern Belgium and Northern France. He fell in love with their artful approach to brewing and their willingness to experiment with beer recipes.
 
"When it comes to beer, the Germans have ideas of purity and put strict parameters on their brewing. To them a Weissbier is a Weissbier is a Weissbier," says Spaulding, comparing the different brewing cultures of Western Europe. "The French and Belgians are much looser, much more hands-on and more likely to innovate with local ingredients and explore taste and flavors. It's more of an artist's approach than a scientist's."

Tying together the artist's passion, the scientist's know-how and the monk's discipline, Spaulding's already attracting national limelight for the twists he's putting on some Franco-Belgian classics. Examples include his own bière de garde, dubbel and roundly acclaimed Zaison, a Belgian ale brewed with telicherry black pepper, orange peels and Wallonian yeast. Draft Magazine recently spotlighted Vivant as one of 12 breweries to pay attention to in 2011.

In spite of the hype, Spaulding is trying to keep beer in its proper place -- alongside the food.

"We're going to treat beer as food, meaning we consider it just as carefully as you would a side dish in terms of how it enhances the meal," says Spaulding. "We really want to tie food and beer together."

In order to achieve perfect marriages of food and beer, Spaulding is challenging his head chef, Drew Turnipseed, and his head brewer, Jacob Derylo, to create for each other.

"I'm not afraid to say to my chef, 'Make a dish that pairs well with this beer,' or to say to my brewers, 'Make a beer with the properties of this dish,'" says Spaulding.

Spaulding says Turnipseed, who co-captains the kitchen along with his wife, Lauron, favors the cuisine of the French countryside and aims for high quality with simple, local ingredients. Hence, hungry stomachs can expect to find Michigan customizations of such options as duck, pâté, pommes frites and artisan cheeses on the menu. Food will run in the $10 to $15 range with dinner entrées around $18 to $20.

Crowning his already laudable business plan of artfully produced and thoughtfully paired food and beer served in a classy setting, Spaulding adds his environment- and community-minded aspirations to Vivant's prospectus. He's already limited Vivant's future production capacity at 5,000 barrels-per-year and expects to hire between 35 and 50 employees who will share in the profits together. He's pledged 10 percent of Vivant's profits to neighborhood charities. He's using recycled materials wherever possible. For instance, the old growth walnut in the taproom is salvaged fence wood and some of the 20-barrel kettles in the brewery are recycled dairy tanks from Wisconsin. And he's promised Vivant will send zero waste to landfills, instead sending all superfluous material to various secondhand users or recycling agents.

"We don't want to be a huge company," reiterates Spaulding. "We just want to be a great one."

If it seems like Spaulding has the brewing business down pat, it's because he does and should -- it's his second time around. Spaulding first "got his suds on" straight out of college in 1996, when he and his buddy Brett VanderKamp co-founded New Holland Brewery Co. But after 10 years, their visions forked and Spaulding decided to sell his shares in hopes of starting afresh.

"We were naïve enough to do it," Spaulding says, reminiscing. "If we had known what [commercial brewing] involved -- all of the business hassles -- we would have probably never started."

But by now, as with the Trappist Monks, it's become both Spaulding's passion and his means of provision. And it's way too early to canonize the Grand Rapids brewmaster -- he's nowhere near dead yet -- nonetheless, with two knock-out breweries to his credit, Spaulding is well on his way to a haloed existence within the beer world.

Pending final inspections and permits, Brewery Vivant should be open to the public before the end of the year.


Mitchell Tepstra writes, landscapes, and renovates houses in the Grand Rapids area.


Photos:

Jason Spaulding (2)

Brewery Vivant (3)

Brewmaster Jacob Derylo

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved

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