Even taking into account the old guard craft breweries of the east coast and the alluringly hip beer scene of the western United States, Michigan is a crown jewel of beer, both nationally and for the midwest/Great Lakes region. When I first got into the stuff, you couldn’t go out to eat without someone ordering a bottle or two of Bell’s Two Hearted. And Founder’s Breakfast Stout is a regular in the rotation for many here in central Indiana. Newer offerings like Greenbush Brewing Co. in Sawyer, MI are established as one-stop, must-see destinations for tourists and aficionados alike. Of the states that border our own, Michigan is the undisputed heavyweight champion of craft beer. This fact was not lost on us when we were hired to brand a new brewery in Benton Harbor, MI.
Jay Fettig, from neighboring St. Joseph, is an avid traveller and closet death metal fan (though you wouldn’t suspect it given his mild, observant demeanor). Along with friends and family, including head brewer Steve Distasio, by way of Rogue Ales in OR, had the ambition to create a family-friendly, Belgian-focused destination brewery in their home town, adjacent to a PGA golf course and mere minutes from the beautiful shores of Lake Michigan. So, that’s what they did. Enter North Pier Brewing Company.
Driving up to Benton Harbor from Indianapolis is a little like time travel. You pass small, struggling towns without two gas stations to rub together. You skirt the Notre Dame campus in South Bend. You cross the Indiana/Michigan border and arrive in a sprawling burg that’s seen its share of hard times, evidenced by weathered little out-buildings and decades-old advertising signage. Benton Harbor has flashes of charm: mortar work, stone and tile, industrial architecture — all the stuff that interior designers love to fetishize and reproduce. Here and there are storefront properties that are white-boxed and ready to be inhabited. The duality of decay and charm makes sense: Benton Harbor was once a grand tourist destination, drawing visitors from all over the midwest to enjoy the local amenities. If you visit long enough today, residents will reference the town’s history of social strife in hushed, serious tones. At first glance, the community reads as rugged, maybe a little dodgy in places, but defiant. Resilient.
(Oh, and celebrated 90’s comedian Sinbad was born in Benton Harbor. Feel free to don your loudest silk button-up and affix your most stunning dangly earring before you finish reading this. You know, to get in the mood. Go on. We’ll wait.)
Just minutes from downtown, we met Jay and his co-conspirators to tour the building that was to become North Pier Brewing Company. At that time, it was a dusty old auto garage with a tacky office frankensteined onto the side. Very little renovation was done at this point, so it took some imagination to discern the true potential of the space. However, we’ve toured enough pre-development properties to recognize it immediately. Beyond the property, idyllic suburban single-family developments flank an internationally recognized golf course. Go just a bit further and you arrive at Jean Klock Park and the shore of Lake Michigan. It was still too cold to get our toes wet, but the low rhythm of water lapping sodden sand provided a serene, new-agey pause to our day trip. Here we observed the St. Joseph North Pier Lighthouse, which lends North Pier Brewing Company its name, and serves as something of a symbol for the area.
“The impetus for starting our brewery in Benton Harbor wasn’t necessarily about the area lacking something, it was more about adding to what’s already here. It’s a unique place that’s in the midst of a revitalization and we wanted to be a part of that. Benton Harbor has so much to offer and a key part to the revitalization is getting more and more people to cross the bridge and see what it’s all about.”
– JAY FETTIG ON WHY HE CHOSE TO LOCATE NORTH PIER IN BENTON HARBOR
We grabbed lunch directly across the street from the soon-to-be North Pier Brewing Co., at a little dive bar called North Shore Inn. Once ensconced in North Shore’s dim confines, your eyes wander across stools occupied by sassy middle-aged regulars. Your gaze settles upon a full-color painted mural of a Spanish bullfighting arena on the wall. “Why does the bull on the mural sport such lovingly-crafted plaster testicles?,” you wonder privately, stomach growling. You scan the menu — a no-frills lineup of burgers and sides. Wait, so why do the coasters say “Authentic Mexican Food?” See, on the weekends, North Shore Inn converts to a Mexican joint. Everyone knows that. Never mind the fact that Spanish bullfighting has very little to do with Mexican cuisine; we don’t care about that here. You won’t care either, when the quintessential bar burger (the kind that leaves you in a blissful grease coma) is presented in front of you, hot, juicy, and flavorful, alongside a basket of fresh pork cracklins that sizzle and contort on the surface of your tongue. Perfection. Make no mistake: This joint gets the coveted CODO Seal of Approval®.
We hold casual meetings at venues like these to make sure we’re on the same page as our clients. Over more than one beer, Jay outlined his desire to reference the actual North Pier Lighthouse somewhere, somehow in the logo itself. After all, there is a romantic sense of guidance associated with the image of a lighthouse. At the same time, he recognized that this imagery might be cliché: crappy clip-art lighthouses are often used in logos for churches, financial services and medical offices. Yuck. Ultimately, in the final identity, we chose to eliminate the lighthouse entirely, and focus on the light itself. Paired with rugged, hand-rendered industrial typography, those harsh angles and beaming rays begin to tell a story of a community that exudes an elusive charm, in spite of a history of hard times. That may seem heady, but I implore you: visit Benton Harbor and tell me I’m wrong.
Perhaps you’ve had an experience like this: you’re out to dinner with friends, and you happen to see a new brewery on the tap list. You don’t really know much about it, but you figure, what the hell, I’ve heard of these guys, I better see what they’re all about. You order it, try a sip, exclaim, “Yep. It’s beer,” and then promptly forget what it tasted like, because you’ve tasted beer like it a million times before. Or how about this one: A new brewery opens up and you just happen to be in the area. You hop on your phone to check their tap room hours, but their website isn’t responsively designed — you can’t find what you need. You weigh the possibility that the place won’t even be open. You finally get there and the space is confusing. You aren’t sure if they serve pints, you aren’t sure where to order, and the service staff (if there is one) is aloof and indifferent to your presence. You stand around feeling like a complete idiot. “Yep, it’s a brewery.” You finally taste their stuff. “Yep. It’s beer.”
We’ve met a lot of folks who have the intention to open a brewery, and you can generally sort ‘em into a few different categories. There are the “money guys,” who see the impressive growth of craft beer purely as a business opportunity. With these types, the actual craft of brewing is often an afterthought. Alternatively, there are the spartan, boot-strapped brewers with a headstrong DIY outlook, who dream of doing what they love for a living — but as a result, often neglect the finer touches that comprise a pleasant customer brand experience. And then, there are people who love to consume craft beer themselves; who love the culture, the variety, and the experience of trying styles both familiar and experimental. These people love to travel all over the world and absorb all the nuances and foibles of craft beer culture. I would definitely put Jay & Co. in the latter category.
Ultimately, your intentions will shape the outcome of your brewing business. If you only care about money, your beer might not turn out so great — if you’re cynical and think people don’t know what great beer tastes like, trust me: you are wrong. If you aspire to be the aloof guy with a beard who exclusively brews balls-to-the-wall small batch ÜBERBRAU, more power to you, but keep in mind: You may wind up alienating potential macro converts, warding them away from the craft beer market through sheer intimidation.
HOWEVER, If you approach the field with a genuine love and knowledge of craft beer — not just the stuff that goes in the glass, or into your wallet — you will have the perspective you need to deliver a great experience to your customers. ALL of your customers. Of all the nice things I can say about North Pier Brewing Company, I would say this: It feels like a brewery that anyone can enjoy. If there’s to be a craft beer bubble, it will be the result of too many breweries offering unremarkable products and lackluster experiences for their would-be customers. Thankfully for us, and for the formidable Michigan beer scene, North Pier is notone of those breweries.
Jay and the team behind North Pier grew up in the area, have had a chance to travel and absorb different brewery experiences, and understand at a fundamental level how compelling a craft brewery space can be. They’re coming at things from a holistic approach: yes, they’ve got good beer, but it isn’t enough. They’ve also got solid branding, a consistent public image, a purpose-built ‘third place’ setting that people in the community are already flocking to hang out in, and a business model that is flexible enough to weather changes in the market. They’ve got a responsive website that people can actually use. You can’t drag your ass in Michigan when it comes to selling beer, after all.
So, there’s another brewery open in Michigan. It features a friendly staff plus some nice, clear way-showing signage. There’s a cool taproom with garage-door style windows and a patio. It’s close to the beach, so you can grab a growler and go enjoy the weather. Bring the whole family. There’s nitro coffee on tap, a freshly waxed shuffleboard table and some wicked t-shirts for sale. The beer is well-made and tastes great (fantastic, actually). If you don’t feel up to driving all the way to the Grand Rapids area, it would make a nice little day trip. Be sure to stop by North Shore Inn and grab a burger. You’ll thank us; that is, once you regain your wits.