Grand Rapids Living: Building a Brewing Business

Posted by David Ringler on Aug 16, 2017 10:00:00 AM

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I had witnessed the brewing industry evolve from the late 80’s, when the U.S. had hit a low of 44 brewing companies in the entire country, as a few small operators began to sprinkle the landscape. By the time I had become involved in brewing professionally in Germany in 1994, there were a handful of breweries in Michigan. I knew the proprietor at Kalamazoo Brewing, now Bell’s Brewery, and a few others had started by the time I moved “home” from the state of Bavaria, in Germany, in 1996. I had thought about starting a brewery in those days, but was often told “it would never work in West Michigan” at the time and I figured someone would open a German or Bavarian themed brewery in the area. By 2013, despite the local reputation as “Beer City, USA,” no one had done so.

Cedar Springs Brewing Company is Born

The concept that became Cedar Springs Brewing Company was both unique and historical. The history of West Michigan brewing had been German. In the 1870’s, there were nine breweries in the area and all of them were owned by Germans and brewed German-style beer. A handful of them merged to form the original Grand Rapids Brewing Company, which thrived to become one of the largest brewers in the nation by the eve of Prohibition. Alas, the sentiments of the Great War (World War I) and the wave of The Great Experiment (Prohibition) had decimated the local industry until very recent years. The entire “craft beer” or micro brewing wave had been based on English style beer, such as Pale Ales, IPAs, Stouts and similar style beers. As a brewer, there were financial, production and quality issues for avoiding German styles, but I was determined to take on the challenge to produce these beers consistently and authentically.

group shot.jpgOne style had become a favorite while living in Bavaria: historical or original-style Weissbier – or Bavarian style wheat beer. While there are many interchangeable names, including Hefeweizen or Weizen, the style had evolved in the late 15th Century. It had been brewed exclusively by the royal brewer of the Bavarian court for nearly three hundred years. In fact, the sales of Weissbier amounted to nearly a third of royal revenues for the then-independent kingdom during the height of its popularity and financed much of the Bavarian military campaign against the Swedes during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). As other brewers were forbidden from brewing Weissbier, other styles evolved in the region, which led to Munich brown beers and eventually lagers.

As other styles evolved, the popularity of Weissbier waned. The royals, under Maximilian I, eventually allowed others to brew the style by the latter half of the 19th Century…and only a handful did for nearly one hundred years, saving the style from extinction. In the mid-1960’s, the style regained at least a niche status again, but in a paler, modern version that most beer fans probably identify as “hefeweizen” today. While I enjoyed the modern version, I was intrigued to focus on the antique style, which was a little darker and had some nutty notes.

A New Destination for Kent County

At Cedar Springs Brewing, we have created a new destination in northern Kent County. While we’re only a few minutes north of metro Grand Rapids, we are a little taste of the Vaterland and part of the Renaissance in Cedar Springs. Our Küsterer Biers pay homage to the German brewing pioneer in West Michigan, Christoph Küsterer, who began brewing locally in 1844 and whose family was part of the Grand Rapids Brewing Company merger five decades later.

Our Küsterer Original Weissbier (the antique version) was recognized in 2016 at the Great American Beer Festival as the finest example of its style in the country. Our Küsterer Heller Weissbier (the modern version) and Küsterer Weizenbock both took gold medals at the L.A. International Beer Competition – over well-known Bavarian breweries.

We were also notified of three more internationally recognized beers at the World Beer Awards announced August 10 in London. Our Küsterer Original Weissbier was named "Best Bavarian Hefewess" in the U.S., our Küsterer Märzen was named "Best Seasonal German Pale" in the U.S. and our Küsterer Weizenbock was named "Best Strong Wheat Beer" as well. 

Rockford LIving 2017.jpgOur dining menu and new Biergarten have drawn rave reviews, both for our American smokehouse favorites and our authentic Bavarian kitchen. WOOD Radio named our Bier de Brussels Sprouts the “best in the area,” MLive ranked both our Famous Fried Chicken and our Flannel Fries among the best in the state. They also named us one of the “Top Ten Breweries in Michigan,” for any who have opened since 2012. WZZM 13 named us “Best Brewery in West Michigan” as well. Our German menu is taken from the Upper Bavarian region and draws destination diners for the authentic giant pretzel to the array of traditional and creative Schnitzels, soups and sausage platters. We have also created our own sodas, Old Cedar Creek Sodas, and wines…with our small distillery spirits coming very soon.

We are further delighted at the positive impact we’ve had on our community. Our Community Give Back program, fund-raisers and sponsorships have amounted to tens of thousands of dollars we’ve been able to give back to worthy causes in our backyard. We employ more than four dozen hard-working people, most of whom live nearby, and we’ve been a catalyst for economic development in our neighborhood in the short time we’ve been open.


JDQ_8608 crop.jpgAs mentioned above, I had spent a decade in the brewing and hospitality world as I was working my way through school, earning a degree in economics and finance. Along the way, I had been part of several restaurant and brewery openings in various roles. After having the good fortune of playing a professional sport briefly in Germany, I embarked on a career in the financial world for fifteen years, where I built a successful small business before the sirens of the brewing industry called me back to my roots. I’d always spoken of starting a brewery “someday,” and with the support of my family, I began to pursue that dream and while I negotiated the sale of my existing business to my partners.

As this new venture came into focus, I reached out to many banks and financial institutions for funding, ultimately discussing this project with 33 different lenders. While some were distracted by terms like “start-up” or equated breweries with restaurants - despite a vastly superior track record - ChoiceOne Bank was different from the start. They listened and saw the vision I had in mind.

From my initial discussions with my Commercial Banker to longer conversations with the local decision-makers, they took a personal interest in my story, the “big picture” concept for this project, and the impact that we were seeking to create in our community.

Once we decided to partner, those lines of communication proved invaluable as we quickly addressed several of the inevitable obstacles that presented themselves during a significant demolition and construction project. As we began to grow, those lines of communication made it simple and efficient for us to be nimble and take advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves.

In short, my relationship with the people at ChoiceOne Bank began as a business venture but has become one of genuine friendship…and it’s rewarding to feel that “a bank” has become a true partner in our success story.

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Topics: Living in Grand Rapids, Commercial Loans