G-Sync: Brewing a Better City, USA

"Behind the Beer City, USA pomp and circumstance is something else - a city quietly attempting to brand itself as a new innovation center for startups to feel welcome here." - Tommy Allen, Lifestyle Editor and WMPRSA's Media Person of the Year (2014). Find out how our local craft brewers are steadily transforming startup and sustainability culture in Grand Rapids just in time for Earth Day.
It is no secret to those close to me that while I loved being named Beer City, USA in 2013 for the second year in a row, once it became clear how we came to be awarded this much-lauded and publicized title – simply through the act of getting the most people to hit "Vote GR" -- I've been suspicious of what it meant beyond the obvious boosterism fun of getting a title.

Even after a few tweaks to the voting system, it became clear to the craft brewer and author Charlie Papazian, who created the Beer City, USA contest, the system had served its purpose of raising awareness of the modern craft beer movement.

So in 2014, the Beer City, USA contest party is over. With the last few years' voting controversy behind us, we (who have long had to listen to our beer snob friends in places like Austin, Boulder and Tampa) will always be reminded of the asterisk next to our epic voting wins. We need a new game plan, and one that is sustainable at every level.

But the solution is rather simple if we can just peer behind the Beer City, USA pomp and circumstance, as our city has quietly been attempting to brand itself as a new innovation center for startups to feel welcome here.

Moving forward, the last thing we need as a culture is to cling to a title we earned simply because we were able to get the most people to vote via their phone, computer, tablet, or store kiosk. I, for one, want more for us and I know many others who do too.

So on the eve of Earth Day 2014, I decided it was time to check in with a few of our breweries to unearth a story about what is underway locally and what is turning heads outside of our community. I was thinking about sustainability, and I thought our local craft breweries might have a thing or two to teach us about how to brew a better city.

Founders Shifting

Checking in first with Dave Engbers of Founders Brewing Company, who I last spoke with on the eve of their fifteenth anniversary, it's clear that they have been very busy with big changes -- and I am not just talking about that massive build-out of their new 9,000-square-foot addition that enables them now to produce about 340,000 barrels of their much-desired beer per year.

In 2012 Engbers, along with an entourage of fellow brewing firms that included New Holland Brewing, Arcadia, Bells Brewing, and Brewery Vivant, went to Chicago to attend the Great Lakes Water Conservation Conference. (The next conference is to be held in Grand Rapids on October 21-22.)

Immediately after attending Engbers realized that, while Founders was committed to brewing with the finest ingredients and contributing bold new entries to the craft brewing industry, they needed to form a team within the brewery to ensure they were doing the best they could in the area of sustainability practices.

This led to the formation of their employee-based committee the Founders Green Team, who were key players in getting the brewery to its present and impressive 93% recycle rate of everything that comes into the building. It also meant that when it came time for their fourth expansion in just five years, including the increased square footage of their tasting room, they would need to find ways to reuse materials in an exciting fashion.

This remodel came with more skylights allowing more natural light into the facility, low flow toilets, automated facets and water bottle refilling stations, but also provided an opportunity for another old friend to be brought back into use.

Not only did the remodel include repurposing the ceiling in the new rooms by using recycled wood from their former Brassworks Building location on Monroe Ave. NE, but they also brought the original Founders wooden bar from their first home to the newly renovated Grandville Ave. location.

Connecting With Harmony

Another firm in town that is keeping folks inspired is the tiny Eastown craft beer house of Harmony Brewing, where they've found a creative use for old materials that others would have just shipped to the landfill.

"I have been a part of the Eastown community for more than 20 years and wanted to find a way to enhance that connection," says Heather Van Dyke who, along with her two brothers, founded Harmony Brewing Company. "The pub is the nexus point of many communities around the world and we wanted to find a way to honor that connection to this history, even in our building out of this space."

To this end, Harmony was able to reuse many repurposed materials from our region, from the flooring of the former Western Michigan University's women's gymnasium to the old doors that once lined the hallway of the now-razed Ottawa Hills public school building.

Even the tanks that they use to make their beer were once used for some other purpose. The brewing system is actually a former dairy tank with a fermenter unit fashioned from a yogurt proofer. These days, Harmony is using truly inventive materials to match the adventurous spirit of its beers, which are more like limited edition art pieces with a few open runs (i.e. always on tap like their 7.2% India Pale Ale Fiddlestix and Crossroads Red Rye IPA).

And the partnerships within the community do not stop there as Van Dyke shares very openly about their deliberate partnering with area farmers via the West Michigan FarmLink program, where any local chef or restaurant can go online to connect to any one of the many farmers within our region.  

And while their kitchen might be tiny, it's not the size of the kitchen but how you use it that matters. Harmony was recently awarded the coveted Snail of Approval certification from the local chapter of the international Slow Food organization. Harmony also won placement on MLive's Best Pizzas in Michigan (2013) guide. Harmony, ranked fourth out of ten, was the only Grand Rapids establishment to make the list.

The Good Life

Another craft brewing company who has placed sustainability at the top of their business plan is Brewery Vivant – the creation of the wife and husband team Kris and Jason Spaulding.

Taking a cue from their French namesake "bon vivant" which translates to English as "the good life," the Spauldings have in place some of the most radical of all changes in our brewing culture. They not only seek harmony with their beers and their food menu, which are deliberately paired to create an unequaled dining experience, but the two have enacted policies that truly make them worthy of the attention this brewery is getting here and around the world.

"Right from the start we knew that in order to maximize our limited space, we had to think about the product we wanted to create and how we would package it," says Kris Spaulding. "Lucky for us is that cans were coming into vogue within the craft brewing movement as we were opening so we were able to take advantage of this growing trend right from the start." (Note: Founders Brewing Company recently added a canning line to their bottling facility.)

Not only are cans less likely than bottles to allow light or oxygen in, but the light-weight and stackable properties of a canned product also means it can be stored at higher heights and easily transported without a lot of extra fuel needed to truck a glass product.

Cans will also get in to places where bottles are often not welcome, like those poolside parties or sneaking a can into that concert venue with an $8 beer. According to Kris, cans are the most desirable of all the sustainable containers because they hold their raw material value throughout the recycling process.

Vivant also has a firm commitment to its employees. They offer living wages and health care – a big deal to their employees, who are polled annually as to how the owners are doing. Employees also get to partake in profit sharing and can read (as can the public) the company's annual report, posted online.

They have even extended their sustainable practices into the area of charity, with 10 percent of profits donated to area nonprofits (and of that donation amount, a whopping 25 percent is allocated for groups right in their East Hills neighborhood).

Even the employees get in on the action by volunteering collectively more than 200 hours a year as a group to area organizations like the GRPS' Congress Elementary, where they contribute to the building and upkeep of a new community garden on the nearby neighboring school's campus.

"Jason and I just returned from the Craft Brewers conference in Denver where we got to share our sustainability plan to this international audience of beer makers," says Kris who was joined by her husband for the packed-room session topic of "How to Build a Culture Around Sustainability."

Kris, a former employee of Herman Miller who worked her way into their sustainable office, now finds herself on the stage presenting to the world just how this brewery in Grand Rapids was able to create a solid sustainable model for its community.

"It was a remarkable moment listening to the questions from the attendees. It really reminded me that it's easy to take for granted what we do at Vivant because it's simply part of the fabric of what we set out to do at the very start," says Kris, "It's a nice reminder that (what) we have experienced locally in Grand Rapids, others are just beginning to (take) those critical first steps."

Exporting Local Policy

When Grand Rapids Brewing Company opened up in downtown, owner Mark Sellers was seeking to conduct a new kind of challenge. Already a successful bar and restaurant owner, Sellers was chasing his goal of opening the Midwest's first (and, to date, only) organic brewery where every beer would be certified organic.

And let me just say it is not cheap when you consider the organic ingredients one must seek and secure to make the more traditional beers that stand out as unique in our region.

Their trial-and-error methods have led to some failures (both from the taps and in the kitchen), but this just-over-one-year-old establishment has made some incredible strides by producing a few award-winning mainstays that were the result of that wonderful startup culture where failure is welcome. We have all been there and Sellers, who was sleeping on friend's couches less than 20 year ago, has been a man not afraid to be off his game in the pursuit of something new.

For the brewing team at GRBC, the sourcing of organic raw materials has meant that certain experiementation needed to take place. For example, the Rosalynn Bliss Blonde (an American Blonde Ale) originally called for organic mangos as an ingredient, which was simply not environmentally prudent due to the rareness of this item on the planet. The solution was to substitute organic mango tea into the brewing process. Bingo! That was the winning combination that led GRBC to land their top-lauded and most popular beer.  

According to Gary Boyd, the "ringleader" and managing partner at BarFly Ventures, "GRBC is committed to making sure that they are contracting and sourcing local organic ingredients whenever possible." But for those times when the organic raw materials are not able to be sourced locally, they will import them.

For example, one way that GRBC has managed to source what they need for production while remaining profitable is to contract with New Mission Farms, a small farm in Leelanau County. Located on a beautiful peninsula, this Michigan farm is one of a few in this world who are growing the organic hops that GRBC desires. (There are many different styles of hops and each master brewer, much like a chef, has their favorites.)  

The sustainable result of this contract is that GRBC last year secured 95% of the farmer's crop. News of the product is getting out there and due to the increasing demand for more organic items, in 2014 this farm is securing the extra money needed to expand its acreage,.

Recently, GRBC has began a new series of community-focused events that seek to instruct our region much like Founders did when they rounded up a few breweries to attend the 2012 water conference in Chicago.  

For starters they have secured the rights to show the award winning films Gasland, Parts I & II. The rights allow them to preview the film in their pub and within other brewpubs around the region in the hopes of raising a community's awareness about the critical importance of protecting our fresh water from unsustainable practices.

Boyd is candid about GRBC's accomplishments as well as its failed efforts, and he has a disarming ability to turn failure into a learning laboratory experience within the BarFly Ventures organization (and without the annoying and crippling judgment of some venues I have experienced in my life). Next, I turned my attention to Autumn Sands, who sat quietly throughout our meeting.

Sands began to recount her past, which included a major disappointment with her last employer - a Phoenix casino, where Sands attempted to enact the smallest of policy changes with no success. With no one willing to take seriously her environmentally sensitive policies, she finally admitted defeat and decided to quit.

Instead of heading to another market like Austin or Portland, Sands got in her car and just drove across the country, landing in Grand Rapids not knowing anything about our place nor that we were about to open an organic brewery in our downtown.

But after taking a job behind the bar, one night she found herself serving Sellers and the two began to talk. And before a day had passed, Sellers was so impressed with her ideas to make GRBC more sustainable in how they conduct their business in the front of the house, he quickly informed his restaurant management team, BarFly, that he wanted to create a position where she could begin to test out these new ideas.

As a result of her beta testing these policies within GRBC, they are now making their way down Ionia Avenue into BarFly's other eateries and brewpubs. More astoundingly, they are being exported to other cities, much like so many other breweries in our region exported other pieces of their sustainable plans to other cities around the world.

Maybe this kind of willingness to experiment, innovate, and work together for good is Beer City, USA's most genuine export. Engbers admits that at the core of their business right from the start, they were taking a leap of faith when they started Canal Brewing Company, which would go on to become the dba known today as Founders.

"We have found that over the years that the survival of our industry had to be based on the fact that we need to be communicating with each other as a group of brewers," said Engbers in 2012. He admits as things have progressed it is even harder, "but we are committed to this model of not showing you what we do but providing a road map along with others to ensure our community's commitment to excellence continues to sustain into the future."

It's an important lesson to remember during Earth Day, when a lot of us may choose to celebrate by planting a tree or picking up trash within our city parks or river banks. Those things are good, but we should never lose sight of the daily, year-round opportunities to innovate a culture committed to beta testing new ideas, to stretch a bit in our own firms and organizations, and to seek better practices that will not only make us a city worth cheering about, but one that will surely have the world high-five-ing what we were able to accomplish. Cheers to Earth Day in Beer City, USA.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor
[email protected]

This week's G-Sync Events: Let’s Do This! Check It.

Editor's Note: Founders Brewing Company's proceeds from the KBS ticket sales this year allowed them to donate a check of $11,190  to the Grand Rapids Whitewater project. Also, Grand Rapids Brewing Company recently revisited their menu and took a decidingly tasty new approach with their beer and food pairings. In short, the "carpet now matches the drapes" with a new pub-style menu that pair quite nicely with their beers.

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