With its high-arching ceilings and stained-glass windows, the pub at Brewery Vivant looks more like a chapel than a home for a Belgo-Franco brewery, and for good reason—it used to be one. Rather than starting from scratch in a warehouse space on the edge of town, co-owners Jason Spaulding and his wife, Kris, repurposed the early-1900s funeral home chapel and livery stables to house their small, niche brewery in the East Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids, Mich.
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 Spaulding.
This is not Spaulding’s first foray into the beer business; he was a co-founder of the New Holland Brewing Company in Holland, Mich., 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, which she honed while working for the Herman Miller furniture brand in their Design for the Environment group. 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,” Spaulding jokes. “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.”
Among the brewery’s myriad of sustainable features is water-efficient landscaping, low-flow toilets, cisterns that take a load off the city’s water treatment plant by capturing 100 percent of the rainwater runoff for the entire site, an oversized glycol cooler that efficiently cools the fermentation tanks as well as the draft beer system, and a canning line. These considerations helped Brewery Vivant become the first-ever commercial brewery to garner Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the US Green Building Council (although Spaulding readily credits the many other breweries in the US that share Brewery Vivant’s commitment to sustainability, like UC Davis’ pilot system, which is also LEED certified).
In addition to environmental concerns, the well-thought-out plans have led to a more cost-efficient system that allows the brewery to operate at a profitable level by reducing waste. It is this 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 it’s 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.”
Brewery Vivant operates as both a packaging brewery and a pub; the two are connected by a glass hallway so pub-goers can watch the brewing process. Although they recently expanded into the Chicago market, Brewery Vivant has no desire to grow with unchecked abandon. “Our business model is to become a great small company rather than trying to constantly grow and get larger,” says Spaulding.
The plan is to produce no more than 5,000 barrels of beer a year and to maintain a focus on its niche market: Belgian- and French-inspired ales. This strategy would have been laughable 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.”
Tradition With a Twist
Head brewer Jacob Derylo didn’t grow up in the rural farmland of the South of Belgium. Nor did he spend much of his early 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.’”
Derylo brews Triomphe, a Belgian-style IPA that smacks of citrus aroma and bitterness from American hops to complement the complexity of a classic Belgian yeast strain. Then there’s Farm Hand, a French Farmhouse style of beer that uses a special Bière de Garde yeast. Farm Hand is a nod to the time when each family farm brewed their own beer for the laborers to drink, and was inspired by Spaulding’s trip to France and conversation with a small French brewer. “We’re not necessarily creating Belgian beers, because we’re putting an American twist on it using American hops,” Spaulding says. “We’re fusing styles together, and having fun with it.”
“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,” says Ward. “It’s a place I believe in and I’m passionate about.”
In addition to finding common ground between Belgian and American styles of beer, Derylo is constantly tinkering with new ways to add depth and complexity to his beers. Like so many American breweries, Brewery Vivant 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—if he wants to brew a beer with loads of hops and dark candi sugar, then throw it into a cognac barrel for aging, he does it.
Through experimentation and innovation, Brewery Vivant has found a balance between creativity and tradition, as well as environmental responsibility and profitability. From the restored architecture to the diverse portfolio of beers, the team’s organic creative process has yielded a harmonious fusion of ideologies.
–Three-vessel, 20-bbl brewhouse built by the WM Sprinkman Corporation
–Three 60-bbl fermentors
–Three 40-bbl fermentors
–Two 20-bbl fermentors
What’s On Tap
Farm Hand: A French-Style Farmhouse Ale modeled after the traditional style that incorporates unmalted grains.
Triomphe: A Belgian-style IPA that combines a spicy Belgian yeast with loads of American hops.
Solitude: An Abbey-style ale fermented with a traditional yeast.
Zaison: An Imperial Saison that clocks in at 9-percent ABV, with an intentional and noticeable alcohol heat.
Kludde: A Belgian-style Dark Ale named after a water spirit from Flemish folklore and brewed with green raisins, star anise and Belgian candi sugar.
Big Red Coq: A hoppy Belgo-American Red Ale brewed four times a year.
Vivant Tripel: A classic Belgian Tripel, 9% ABV.
Trebuchet Ale: A 9% ABV Belgian Double IPA brewed with candi sugar, Belgian yeast and a large dose of hops.
The pub also always offers at least one sour or wood-aged beer.
What He Said
“They’re all going to be Belgian ales, but we’re not afraid to put an American twist on it. We’re kind of a Belgo-American inspired brewery. We take the creative inspiration from both sides
of that.” – Brewery Vivant head brewer Jacob Derylo ■