Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Help Open Muskegon Brewing & Distilling Company

Sign the petition to help open Muskegon Brewing & Distilling Company. Here's an article I wrote last summer on the hopefully soon-to-open brewery -

Does the name Steve Buszka ring a bell? If not, how about Bell’s Oberon, Amber, Third Coast, Porter, and Two Hearted Ale? As a Bell’s brewer for 11 years, Buszka brewed some of Michigan’s most popular beers. And as head brewer, Steve accepted two medals at the Great American Beer Festival on behalf of Bell’s, for the Expedition Stout and Two Hearted Ale. Sound familiar now?

I had the pleasure of speaking with Steve Buszka and one of his business partners, Seth Rivard, on the topic of their new venture, the Muskegon Brewing and Distilling Company. These two beer enthusiasts are clearly thrilled to be brewing in Muskegon, and while they are far too humble to accept such praise, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Muskegon Brewing & Distilling Company is likely to be the savior of Muskegon, with Buszka and company rising the city from ashes and rubble, back to respectability, even prosperity.

Steve grew up on the shores of Lake Huron, in Alpena, Michigan, so he understands and shares Muskegonites’ affection for the Great Lakes coastlines. While brewing in Kalamazoo, he would drive along the shores of Lake Michigan, often stopping in Muskegon to visit his uncle. “Then,” he said, “we drove through one summer and it looked like a bomb went off. It was surreal. It was just empty,” referring of course to the demolition of the old Muskegon Mall.

Having witnessed firsthand the revitalization of Kalamazoo, with Bell’s playing a large role in that development, Steve is dedicated to making a similar positive impact on his new city, hopeful that Muskegon is about to turn the corner as well. “There’s only so much lakeshore left, so Muskegon is bound to take off,” Buszka said. “Making that shift from an industrial town to a resort town isn’t easy, but change is going to come and I want to be a part of that change. Sooner or later everyone is going to come back. It happened in Kalamazoo and it will happen here. Muskegon is the last affordable place on Lake Michigan,” and lucky for Steve, as he put it, “It’s a beer drinking town.”

Ripe for the picking, Muskegon proudly touts itself as “The Beer Tent Capital of the World,” but is the only major city in west Michigan without its own microbrewery or brewpub. This lack of quality beer is, in this writer’s opinion, the result of a few problems - a formerly nonexistent downtown, a lot of loyal Bud and Miller drinkers, and, as frequently discussed on Great Lakes Guru, a mass exodus of college graduates from Muskegon and the state of Michigan - the same WMU alums that grew to love Bell’s during college, now hooked on microbrews.

But all that’s changing. New downtown development, coupled with a growing demand for craft beer has created the perfect environment for introducing quality product to a city thirsty for interesting brews and desperate for successful new businesses. Thankfully, Buszka has plenty of experience growing a small business. When I asked him about the fame surrounding Oberon, he was modest as usual, but also displayed an expertise for marketing and a dedication to his profession -

“Writing the recipe for Oberon was not the hard part - reproducing it is where the art and science comes in. Larry [Bell] has marketed that beer to the utmost, and a lot of it is the label. When it was called Solson we would guerilla market it, driving in a van with 100 bucks through old town Chicago. We’d drink and cause a ruckus until we convinced the bars to put us on tap. If you tried to pull that now you'd get in huge trouble, but at the time we did whatever needed to be done.” Telling this wild west story, there was a fire in Steve's voice, the way a parent might talk about a child - proud, nostalgic, defensive, excited, and most of all, committed.

Muskegon Brewing & Distilling Company will be located on Pine Street, near the new Harley Davidson shop, anchoring the downtown proper. They’ve already secured 35 letters of intent from local businesses to sell their beer, and there is a lot of excitement among local restaurants to carry the product. More important, like baby birds waiting to be fed, Muskegonites are holding their mugs, wide-eyed, mouths agape. I’ve personally been praying for this to happen for years, so when I met Seth Rivard at Founder’s Fest in 2008 and he told me about Muskegon Brewing I nearly wept - new business and good beer in Muskegon - I chirp with joy. Just speaking for myself, Muskegon Brewing alone will bring me to the city at least two more times a year, so I guarantee it's good for tourism, to say nothing of jobs, tax dollars, downtown traffic, and culture.

So what can we expect from Muskegon Brewing & Distilling? When the doors open to the public, sometime in 2009 or 2010, Buszka plans to make a wide variety of beer right off the bat, and while they intend to pour unique, craft varieties, Steve promises plenty of “very accessible ‘lawnmower beers,’” as he calls them, for a client base that is sure to include tourists and locals, from the hardcore craft beer drinker to the newcomer.

Though I would like to puff out my chest as a hardcore craft beer aficionado, many of the intricacies are lost on me - I just know I like good beer - IPA’s are usually my favorite. So when I asked Steve to talk about his favorite beers, I expected an elaborate diatribe, way over my head. Instead, Steve’s down-to-earth response proved to me that he belongs in Muskegon. “Making a Budweiser,” he said, “is way harder than making a robust, heavy stout. When I go to a new brewpub, the first thing I try is the light beer, because if that's palatable, then the other stuff might be interesting too.”

In addition to producing delicious beer for the masses, in keeping with the spirit of Muskegon’s economic development, Muskegon Brewing & Distilling Company is also working with local artists to make sure the names of the beers and the images on the bottles are strongly associated with the city, with possible themes to include the lakeshore, the lumber industry, and the Hackley House, further displaying ownership’s understanding and appreciation of Muskegon’s culture and history. Could this get any better?

Yes - I haven’t even got to the best part yet - What really sets Muskegon Brewing & Distilling Company apart from other Michigan microbreweries is going to be their micro-distillery production, which, per new Michigan law, allows on-premise sale of a wide variety of spirits, including brandies, whiskey, gin, and, “if we’re lucky enough to get heavy juice,” according to Steve, “‘tequila,’ though we can’t technically call it that.” The spirit movement is relatively new to Michigan, but it’s quickly growing in popularity, giving Muskegon a leg up as the frontrunner in new business - could it be true? Muskegon, a frontrunner - I’m pinching myself.

Housed in a three story building, the brewery will be the center production, with a dining area, bar, and tasting room. There is also a plan to put in a beer garden to capture Muskegon’s one-of-a-kind natural beauty, creating a lakeshore beer drinker’s paradise. Initial production plans call for approximately 800 barrels per year, with bottling and local distribution to boot. There will also be a 200 person Mug Club, with discounts and exclusive tastings.

Steve and Seth are clearly excited about Muskegon’s economic development, and gracious to those that have helped them along the way, citing Larry Bell, their Michigan microbrew contemporaries, and Muskegon Mayor, Steve Warmington. Buszka is just what Muskegon needs - a man of business at the top of his trade. If this artist lets his beer speak for itself, the rest is sure to fall into place.

“Beer styles and trends are wide open,” Steve told me, “and while there’s a formula for making good craft beer, which I’ll be following, I’m also looking for new trends - expect some very good beers. I'm going to make craft beer that Seth and I like, and, worst case scenario, we'll have a lot of beer to drink.” Count me in too.