Mitten Brewing Company LLC plans to significantly expand its beer production capacity with a new facility on Grand Rapids’ west side.
Based on “off the page” results in the micro brewery’s first full year in business, Mitten’s owners are in the midst of a $550,000 expansion to bring online a new production facility and more than triple the seating at its existing restaurant.
The additional 10,000-square-foot production space at 540 Leonard Street, kitty-corner from the current brewpub at 527 Leonard, would allow Mitten to expand to a 20-barrel system from its existing three-barrel system, co-founder Chris Andrus told MiBiz. The brewery leased and plans to combine two adjacent 5,000-square-foot suites at the site and hopes to have the equipment installed and running by the first of July, he said. The first product could begin going out the door in August.
“This will allow us to make enough of the beers we sell the most of, and be consistent and do them well — rather than brew around the clock like we are now,” said Andrus, who started Mitten Brewing with long-time friend Max Trierweiler.
Mitten’s plans for the facility go before the Grand Rapids Planning Commission on Thursday.
The company plans to invest $300,000 to add new plumbing, HVAC and brewing equipment at the site, which would be solely used for production. The beers it produces will be served at Mitten’s brewpub and or distributed to other off-site locations. Canby, Ore.-based JV Northwest Inc. is building the brewing system using all American-made components, Andrus said.
Mitten’s offices would also move to the new location.
Andrus said the company is financing the projects internally and with existing investors and is not seeking bank financing.
The brewery hopes to produce about 1,000 barrels from the new site in its first year of operation and then potentially scale up with other new equipment, Andrus said.
Mitten’s expansion could also result in some incremental new hires for the company, but it plans to stay lean on the brewery side for the first year. They plan to be brewing once a week at the new site to ensure Mitten’s pub keeps its portfolio of mainstay beers on tap at all times, he said.
The brewery will use its existing three-barrel system for brewers Rob “Wob” Wanhatalo and Jason Warnes to make experimental beers and seasonal offerings while the new line will be used for Mitten’s most popular brews such as its Country Strong IPA.
The goal is to have eight beers on tap at all times in the restaurant, Andrus said, noting the demands on the current system have the brewers struggling to keep up. Adding capacity, he said, was “an inevitability.”
“We’ve grown so fast,” Andrus said. “We’ve been brewing around the clock.”
With the added capacity, Mitten will be able to ship about 30 percent of its output across the street to its pub and the remainder will be distributed by Alliance Beverage Distributing LLC to select outside accounts. Andrus said Mitten plans to target the minor league parks within the state as well as a few chosen craft beer bars and high-end restaurants. The company plans to keep all its beers within the state of Michigan.
“We want to be noticed on the tap handles,” Andrus said. “We want to be in good, high-end restaurants with good beer on tap and food.”
Mitten Brewing had shipped kegs to select accounts in the past, including Fifth Third Ballpark in Comstock Park, the home of the West Michigan Whitecaps, but given the company’s limited production capacity and the in-house demand, it was hard to part with the product, he said. Additionally, the cost of shipping kegs outside of Mitten was basically “a wash,” he noted.
While Mitten will focus on distributing its beers in kegs to bars, restaurants and other venues around the state, the company also looks to start canning two or three of its beers on a limited basis, Andrus said.
“We’re also getting into canning sooner than we thought,” he said, noting the brewer will likely use the services of Michigan Mobile Canning LLC to start and not add its own canning line.
As the production space plans take shape, Mitten is simultaneously renovating the second floor of the old firehouse that houses its pub and restaurant to make way for additional seating. The renovation work started in February and will allow the restaurant to expand from 65 seats to 204, including 77 seats in the second-floor space, as well as another 40 seats outside in a new second-story deck and street-level porch.
Plans include adding a second bar upstairs and incorporating some of the existing firemen’s lockers into the decor, Andrus said, noting the extra seating capacity should come online by May.
The company, which started in November 2012, has been overwhelmed by the positive reaction and outpouring of support from the neighborhood community, Andrus said. In its first year of business, the company sold more food and beer than it had ever anticipated, he added.
“We’re where we thought we’d be in three to five years,” Andrus said. “It’s very exciting. We’ve been able to get out the freshman jitters and improve our quality and we’re starting to get good feedback — comparable to the best beers out there. And we’ve had good support in general from the west side and the city.”
The expansion plans have been buoyed by recent announcements for new developments in the city’s west side neighborhood, including Rockford Construction Co. moving its headquarters to First Street NW and planning a handful of redevelopment projects in the area, as well as Orion Real Estate Solution’s project with a Canadian investor to convert the former Israels “The Other Store” location on Seward Avenue into high-end residential condos. Given those and a string of other nearby developments, the brewery isn’t alone in serving to attract people to the neighborhood, he said.
“What we’re seeing is that the west side is the next development area in the city,” Andrus said of the area around Mitten Brewing. “Our area is becoming a district, not an oasis.”
Mitten Brewing’s expansion comes on the heels of a string of craft brewer expansions across West Michigan in recent years. Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, New Holland Brewing Co. in Holland, Short’s Brewing Co.’s operations in Bellaire and Elk Rapids and Bell’s Brewery Inc. and Arcadia Brewing Co. in Kalamazoo are in the process or have recently completed multi-million investments in capacity expansions.
Additionally, scads of smaller new breweries such as Gravel Bottom Craft Brewing in Ada, Big Lake Brewing LLC and Our Brewing Co. LLC in Holland, Unruly Brewing Co. LLC in Muskegon and Latitude 42 Brewing Co. in Portage have cropped up around West Michigan over the last year.
Mitten Brewing’s Andrus doesn’t think the new local craft breweries will saturate the market for at least the next five years, but it does put pressure on each operation to differentiate itself to be competitive. For Mitten, that means staying intensely focused on supporting the surrounding community and local nonprofits and continuing to deliver quality pizzas at its baseball-themed pub, he said.
“Breweries don’t compete,” he said. “Craft beer drinkers are not loyal to an establishment, so the more the merrier.”