The coast of Lake Michigan is home to some of the best-kept secrets the mitten state has to offer. From Muskegon to Holland, Grand Haven to St. Joseph, its beach-centric towns draw thousands of tourists each year during the summer months. In addition to the breathtaking views, these towns harbor some glorious breweries, many of which have helped put these communities on the map.
Greenbush Brewery is nestled in the small town of Sawyer, Michigan. Located right off of I-94 at Exit 12, the brewery has become a staple for visitors driving along the coast.
Owner Scott Sullivan took his love for home brewing to the next level when he opened Greenbush.
“When we started in June 2011, the only thing that was happening in the area was the gardening center behind the brewery,” Sullivan said. “People couldn’t believe there was finally something to do. The locals started coming over from far and wide. Our mug club is 4,800 strong in a town of 800 people. I find that quite incredible.”
The craft beer industry has transformed over the past 10 years, developing into a billion-dollar industry with over 6,000 breweries in the U.S. alone. When Greenbush opened, just over 80 breweries were part of the Michigan Brewers Guild. Today, there are almost 300.
“The industry is moving rapidly, and existing breweries need to be nimble to remain top of mind for the Michigan beer drinker,” says Jon Sutton, beer category manager at Imperial Beverage. “Consumers are hearing about Brut IPAs, Fruited Kettle Sours, and Milkshake IPAs and are wanting to taste for themselves.”
Imperial Beverage distributes Greenbush beers statewide, making it possible for consumers who found their new favorite beer while visiting the brewery to also find it close to home.
Visiting breweries has become a Michigan pastime, helping stimulate local economies across the state. While beer is the purpose of the trip, the food on the menu keeps tourists coming back. Greenbush started off small, but as the love for its beer has grown, so has its food menu.
“When the taproom opened, it only sat 32, and we served pretzels with mustard,” Sullivan said. “Then we moved to sandwiches and soups. We opened up the taproom to 68 seats, and then, just two years after we opened, we built out the kitchen we have today. [Our offerings] include salads, barbeque, and hot sandwiches. Now it’s our biggest thing; it’s as big as our beer. Food is now 61 percent of our total sales in the taproom. It’s crazy!”
“Diversification is part of our business model, and to me, it is what separates Greenbush from the beer scene in general,” Sullivan continued. “I have always viewed us as more than just a brewery. The brewery comes first. The brewery populates everything [we] want to do. We are a multifaceted thing, and none [of the other things] would have existed without the beer. I want the beer to be the engine for the other things we do.”
This year will bring further changes to Greenbush, including a big step—moving from bottles to cans for its entire line of beers. First will come its flagship Star Chicken Shotgun IPA, along with Sunspot, its traditional German Hefeweizen. Another big change: The taproom is going to get a beautiful refresh for the years to come.
“Greenbush has always had a clear identity through their brewing and their branding,” said Sutton. “With that comes a loyal consumer base. Greenbush is committed to taking other steps in 2019 to add new members to that fan base.”
At the end of the day, it all comes down to the nectar in the glass, and Greenbush has been producing some of Michigan’s finest for years with no sign of stopping anytime soon. As it keeps pushing the craft beer envelope, enthusiasts expect it to keep growing and innovating, one good beer at a time.
“We have a long-standing reputation of quality and hospitality that will transcend anything that ever happens,” Sullivan said. “So [I tell myself], ‘Let everything come and go, take your time, and keep making good beer, just keep making good beer.’ That’s all I care about.”
Chaz Parks is events and donations coordinator at Imperial Beverage, a long-standing member of the Michigan beverage distribution community. Established in 1933 after the repeal of prohibition and purchased by Kalamazoo’s Cekola family in 1984, Imperial has grown from a one county beer distributor to a top 10 statewide beer, wine, and spirits wholesaler. With 390 employees and four locations in Kalamazoo, Livonia, Ishpeming, and Traverse City, Imperial provides statewide coverage that serves every Michigan County, every week, all year long.