Note: This profile originally appeared in issue 72 of BeerAdvocate Magazine
With its high-arching ceilings and stained-glass windows, the pub at Brewery Vivant looks more like a cathedral than a home for a Belgo-Franco brewery, and for good reason – it used to be one.
Rather than start fresh in a warehouse space on the edge of town, co-owners Jason Spaulding and his wife Kris repurposed an old funeral home livery stables and chapel to house their small, niche brewery in the East Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids. It would have been easier, and cheaper, to lease space in an industrial park, but the Spauldings chose to purchase and renovate the historic building because it fit with their desire to build a business with environmental and economic sustainability in mind. And the neighborhood location worked best for a very simple reason.
“We wanted people to be able to walk to the brewery instead of drive,” says Jason Spaulding.
This is not Spaulding’s first foray into the beer business, as he was a co-founder of the New Holland Brewing Company in Holland, Michigan during the 1990s. But this experiment would be different, as his green-minded wife came on board for Brewery Vivant – which opened in December, 2010.
She brought along her expertise in the sustainability field after working in that department for the Herman Miller furniture brand, and the desire to fit the brewery into an environmentally- and socially-conscious model became an integral part of the business plan.
“She kind of brought that passion, and of course she liked beer – that’s why I married her,” says Spaulding. “When I left New Holland, I had some things figured out, but it took a while to sort everything through. We were writing this business plan together and figuring out what we wanted to do, and more importantly what we didn’t want to do, but within that the sustainability piece was really crucial and important to us. “
The brewery boasts myriad ecological talking points – including water-efficient landscaping, low-flow toilets, rain-water runoff cisterns that take a load off the city’s water treatment plant, an oversized glycol cooler that efficiently cools the fermentation tanks as well as the draft beer system, and a canning line among others.
These considerations helped Brewery Vivant become the first-ever brewery to garner Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (although Spaulding readily admits that there are many other breweries in the U.S. that share Brewery Vivant’s commitment to sustainability).
In addition to environmental concerns, the well-thought out plans have also led to a more cost-efficient system that allows the brewery to operate at a profitable level by cutting out waste at every possible level. It is the kind of attention to detail that has pulled in highly-dedicated employees, such as bartender Jon Ward, who has been with the brewery since it opened.
“I think that a lot of people come there because they know it’s going to be something different,” Ward says. “They know its’ going to be owners that care about the neighborhood, care about you, won’t be looking to expand infinitely and want to do stuff that will be good for you and good for the brewery.”
Although Brewery Vivant, which operates as a packaging brewery with an attached pub separated by a thin wall, recently expanded into the Chicago market, it has no desire to grow with unchecked abandon.
The plan is to produce no more than 5,000 barrels of beer a year and to maintain a focus on its niche market – which is Belgian-style farmhouse ales. This strategy would have been laughed away when Spaulding first got into the industry, but times have changed.
“When we started New Holland, we had to explain to people what a Pale Ale was; what a Red Ale was,” Spaulding says. “Fast forward to where we are now, people are a lot more developed. We kind of took a read of where we saw craft beer going, and decided to focus on a smaller slice; a little more niche. It gave us an opportunity to focus on what we are really passionate about.
“We’ve always loved farmhouse-style beers. And when we were opening the brewery we were considering what people would be able to accept that that’s what we exclusively make. I remember talking to bankers that thought it was a risky move, but we thought it was going to be fine and people would be excited to try the beers. I think craft beer drinkers are far enough along that it did work and people are excited about it.”
Tradition With a Twist
Head brewer Jacob Derylo didn’t grow up in rural farmland in the South of Belgium. Nor did he spend much of his prior brewing career focusing much on Farmhouse-style ales. Yet he revels in the chance to experiment with traditional styles in ways that others might not consider.
“We just kind of think about what we want to drink and what we want the beer to be,” Derylo says of the creative process at Brewery Vivant. “We’re not trying to brew to style at all – we’ve kind of thrown the style book out the window. I tell myself, ‘Focus on the flavor.’ We’re not necessarily creating Belgian beers because we’re putting an American twist on it using American hops. We’re fusing styles together and having fun with it”
Derylo brews Triomphe, a Belgian-Style India Pale Ale that smacks of citrus aroma and bitterness from American hops to complement the complexity of the Biere de Garde yeast. Then there’s Zaison, an Imperial Saison Ale that clocks in at 9% ABV.
There are also traditional ales such as Solitude, an Abbey-Style Ale brewed with tradition in mind and Vivant Tripel, which is described simply as a classic Tripel.
Then there is Trebuchet, a 9.7% Double IPA brewed with candy sugar and copious amounts of hops then fermented with a Belgian yeast. It is the kind of beer that a traditional Belgian brewer might scoff at, but keeps curious customers coming back for more – not to mention the employees.
“I wouldn’t be there still if I didn’t look and see that we were straddling the line between the evolution of beer as well as looking back at the tradition of beer and knowing the heritage that we’re coming from,” Ward says. “It’s a place I believe in and I’m passionate about”
In addition to finding a fusion between Belgian and American styles of beer, Derylo is constantly tinkering with new ways to add depth and complexity. Like so many American breweries has a small barrel-aging program with spirit and wine barrels that frequently see inoculations of brettanomyces and lactobacillus cultures. There are no limits to his experimentation, and if he wants to brew a beer with loads of hops and dark candy sugar then throw it into a cognac barrel for aging, then he does it.
Through experimentation and innovation, Brewery Vivant has found balance between creativity and tradition, as well as environmental responsibility and profitability. Yet the remarkable thing is that it was not accomplished through delicate tip-toeing around issues, but through a sort of ideological collision that resulted in an harmonious fusion visible in everything from the restored architecture to the diverse portfolio of beers.