How Chelsea became Michigan's latest one-stop craft beer destination

It's not the first place people think of when they hear "craft beer," but for Don Smith, the gateway to home brewing was the door leading into a Jet's Pizza.

The franchise's Chelsea location offers a selection of Michigan beers on draught, and Smith and friend Mike Vanderspool made a point of sampling them. Shortly after Jet's opened, the Chelsea residents' hometown got its own microbrewery in 2012, and their interest grew.

Following some other friends' lead, Smith and Vanderspool eventually got some equipment and started making their own beer for fun. More than 120 batches later, the friends are turning their hobby into a business with the launch of Plow Point Brewing Co.

"We started to think about taking it to the next level, mostly due to the fact we love to brew and share our creations with friends," Smith says. "Our friends have always enjoyed the beer, and we would love to share to larger audiences."

While it won't be Grand Rapids, or even Ann Arbor, anytime soon, Chelsea's strong home brewing scene, good land for growing hops, Michigan-friendly taps in local restaurants and bars, and anchor brewpub are quietly making the small town a new destination on Michigan's growing beer scene.

Next month, Chelsea Community Kitchen will give enthusiasts the lay of the land, as the nonprofit local food business resource provider leads a farm-to-tap tour. SAVOR: A Local Hops and Beer Tour includes stops at Groovy Hopster Farm and Chelsea Alehouse Brewery, as well as a brewing demonstration and tasting presented by Plow Point. Discounted tickets are available to guests who also sign up for this week's Dinner and a Movie at Robin Hills Farms event.

Chelsea's home brewing scene has been bubbling for the last several years, according to Jane Pacheco, program coordinator for Community Kitchen. As with Smith and Vanderspool, she says many home brewers work together on small batches and then get together to swap stories with others.

"Beer is something that folks have always been interested in," Pacheco says. "This tour just gives us an opportunity to share a 'behind the scenes' view into the products and the people who make it possible."

For now, the Plow Point guys are focused on being a resource to other home brewers. They offer classes and use of their equipment, instructing students through the process of brewing, fermentation, and bottling or kegging. The business partners are looking for a permanent home in Chelsea to set up shop and hope to start distributing their own beers within the next few years.

That's certainly not a far-fetched goal. Chelsea Alehouse founder and owner Chris Martinson credits Chelsea's home brewing community with fueling the town's craft beer scene overall. He should know; Martinson made the leap from home brewer to brewpub proprietor himself.

Times have changed since the town's first microbrewery, Chelsea Real Ale Co., closed down more than 30 years ago. Martinson says area bars and restaurants have kept up with the rest of the state on craft beer offerings, and Alehouse beers are now served at several Chelsea spots, including Smokehouse 52, the Common Grill and the Inverness Inn.

While IPAs are still king, there's a thirst for other varieties as well, according to Martinson, who cites the success of a brown session beer the Alehouse served over the summer.

"If you can brew a thoughtful and flavorful low-alcohol beer, there is definitely a market for it," Martinson says, noting that barrel-aged beers are also a favorite.

Also seeding Chelsea's beer scene are local hops farms, including Washtenaw Hops and Groovy Hopster. The Alehouse's Harvest Ale is brewed with fresh hops from the latter, and the brewery is working toward sourcing all of its hops from Michigan.

"Having a brewery in your town has now become a badge of honor," Martinson says. "[It's] exciting to see the industry promote the growth of other businesses."

It's a sentiment that pairs well with recent efforts to make downtown Chelsea a destination town, offering programming like its successful Sounds and Sights on Thursday Nights summer event series, which includes "local brew" in its list of attractions.

With numerous shops, a professional theater company, and close proximity to two state recreation areas, Martinson says Chelsea is the perfect place to spend a day browsing stores, watching a play, or exploring nature – "And, of course to stop by and have a pint afterwards."

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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