Chelsea Alehouse, a year of lessons

It took three years of planning for Chris Martinson to transition from home brewing to running his own brewery, but he's still encountered some surprises since he opened the Chelsea Alehouse in early 2013.

The Grass Lake resident took his time planning his dream business, attracting the attention of five silent investors, securing an SBA bank loan and renovating a space in downtown Chelsea's clocktower complex. When the Alehouse opened, it had been nearly three decades since the closing of Chelsea's last brewery, the Chelsea Real Ale Company (which even predated state craft brew stalwart Bell's).

"With the brewing industry growing so much in the state right now, we got a lot of publicity on the front end," Martinson says. "So we didn't have any problem getting people in the door."

The initial "honeymoon" phase led to a bit of a tapering off and some challenges. Martinson says he initially struggled to find and maintain the necessary amount of reliable staff, forcing him to put in time making sandwiches and pouring beers himself. He was also surprised to find some customers were displeased with the pub's menu, which focused on deli sandwiches but not pizza or hamburgers. 

"There are so many breweries that are also brewpubs, where it's just like a regular restaurant where they have a liquor license," he says. "You can walk in and get a martini if you want to, and a hamburger...One of the challenges was just to make sure that people know what we're doing."

Martinson has since added sliders and cracker-crust pizzas to the menu, and obtained a winemaker's license to expand his alcoholic offerings. He says he's also solved his staffing problems, leaving him with more time to do the brewing and handle the managerial side of the operation. After the post-"honeymoon" slump, business has been building again. The Alehouse had its best month yet this May.

Through the whole process, Martinson has had the more pleasant surprise of support from several other area breweries. He's received guidance and advice from the owners of Arbor Brewing Co., Jolly Pumpkin, and Original Gravity. Liberty Street Brewing Company went even further in a mentorship role.

"They were showing me equipment, sharing numbers and expectations with me," Martinson says. "It was really open. If you're opening a restaurant on Main Street, Ann Arbor, you couldn't just knock on someone's door and be like, ‘Hey, what were your numbers on Tuesday?' They'd just turn around and walk away."

Martinson attributes that openness to beer aficionados' friendly personalities and the booming status of the craft beer industry.

"People like to drink beer and hang out, right?" he says. "That's just the industry that we're in. There is that sort of friendly, beer garden atmosphere in the industry as well, I think."

Martinson is plotting his next steps to take the Alehouse to the next level. He'll be increasing his distribution to offer Alehouse beers on tap at more area bars this fall, and he plans to beef up publicity for the pub's popular Wednesday and Sunday evening music events. He's also excited about the announced Jolly Pumpkin taproom in Dexter, describing it as another link in a "chain" for beer tourists heading outward from Ann Arbor. 

But Martinson expresses a bit of caution about the further expansion of the industry. He says at least three people have approached him in the past six months about opening new breweries in Ann Arbor. He says he's tried to provide helpful insight as others did for him when he was getting started, but he suspects the Ann Arbor brewery scene will "get tight pretty soon."

"There's always competition, but the industry is still in that growth phase where it's still the more, the merrier," he says. "I don't know how much longer we're going to be in that phase."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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