Ypsilanti is well-known for its craft breweries, including Corner Brewery, the Ypsi Alehouse, and 734 Brewing Company. But other Ypsi and Ypsi Township businesses are brewing up a variety of other increasingly popular adult beverages.
We talked with the owners of three Ypsi-area beverage businesses, one well-established and two new ones, about kombucha, wine, and mead.
Unity Vibration: Kombucha and kombucha beer
Unity Vibration is a small operation tucked between two auto repair businesses at 93 Ecorse Rd. But as it celebrates its 10th anniversary in Ypsi, it's making big waves at the national level.
Owners Rachel and Tarek Kanaan became interested in homebrewing kombucha, a slightly alcoholic fermented tea, when they were living in California. After moving to Ypsi in 2009, they began brewing out of a room in their home out of necessity, since jobs were scarce during the recession.
In 2010, the federal government began treating kombucha as an alcoholic beverage, requiring producers around the country to acquire liquor licenses in order to keep producing, so Unity Vibration rebranded as a microbrewery. In 2012, the Kanaans moved into the front half of their current building on Ecorse.
Tarek Kanaan says their location on Ecorse may seem unusual, and they've joked that they're operating as a "speakeasy" because their street signage is small and unobtrusive. But he likes that the business is helping to revive the Ecorse corridor while also being located in an area that's only a 10-minute walk from Ypsi's downtown.
"I was more of a Depot Town guy, but I'm growing to like (the Ecorse corridor) and see the potential," he says.
After the change in regulations in 2010, the Kanaans figured if they were being regulated like a brewery, they might as well increase their product's alcohol content. Kombucha is typically less than 1% alcohol by volume (ABV). The Kanaans began producing "kombucha beer," sometimes called "hard kombucha," in 2011 as well.
"The exciting thing about that was that we created a beverage segment right here in Michigan," Rachel Kanaan says. "There are eight companies producing it nationally now, including the Boston Beer Co., (which) makes Sam Adams beers. We're the pioneers right here in little old Ypsilanti."
Tarek Kanaan says kombucha beer grew 30 percent as a segment of the overall beer industry in 2018.
In 2014, Unity Vibration expanded into the back half of its building and opened up the Triple Goddess Tasting room, offering a social space to sample kombucha or kombucha beer, play euchre or board games with friends, and listen to live music Thursday through Saturday.
Rachel Kanaan says kombucha beer has great crossover appeal, because it's attractive both to those focused on the health benefits of probiotics in kombucha as well as to craft beer lovers.
Unity Vibration will celebrate its 10th anniversary in Ypsi in August. Just ahead of that, the Kanaans are making some changes, including plans to offer raw, vegan health foods at the tasting room. The business is also wrapping up a WeFunder campaign intended to help the business refresh its logos and labels, expand into new markets, and begin canning its beer.
Smokin' Barrels Estates: Unique Michigan wines
Smokin' Barrels Ranch hasn't even opened its winery, Smokin' Barrels Estates, to the public yet, but the Ypsi Township business' wines are already winning awards. Smokin' Barrels took three silver awards in the International Amateur WineMaker competition sponsored by WineMaker magazine. The three winning wines were produced in 2017, some of the first to come from the young vineyard.
Bob and Paula Sawitski bought an 11-acre farm on Swallow Lane in Ypsi Township in 2014 for their horses. Paula boards horses and competes in barrel racing with them, and the sport inspired the wine business' name. The Sawitskis noticed their property was overgrown with wild grapevine and thought perhaps the soil would be good for growing grapes for wine.
The couple knew nothing about winemaking or growing grapes, but threw themselves into the process by seeking advice from other local vintners. One of the first places they looked up was Flying Otter Vineyard and Winery in Adrian.
"We showed up and told the owner, 'We have this crazy idea. We want to start a winery,'" says Bob Sawitski.
The owner was kind enough to point them to online courses for viticulture and winemaking, and after getting a few classes under their belts, they planted their first one-acre vineyard in 2015. Since then, the couple has expanded with the purchase of an additional 31-acre plot on Stony Creek Road, just around the corner from their residence.
Bob Sawitski notes that most of the varieties of grapes they are growing will likely be unfamiliar to those who purchase wine at the supermarket. Varietals like Traminette, Marquette, and Marechal Foch may not be household names, but they have been bred to have all the flavor of French varietals while being able to withstand Michigan winters.
While still holding down day jobs, the Sawitskis planted their first vines on the larger property this spring, with help from family, friends, and neighbors.
"All the rain this spring was non-conducive, and it was hard to get the tractors through there, so everything was left to the last minute," Bob Sawitski says. "But we took a week of vacation, and in six days we had 2,400 vines planted."
Volunteers helped plant two-thirds of the vines in the first weekend of that vacation, and the Sawitskis completed planting with a smaller crew over the next four days.
"It was amazing, this incredible group of friends, family, and neighbors, all so excited about having something here. They keep telling us they want to be a part of it," Paula Sawitski says.
The Sawitskis hope to have licensing and zoning issues sorted out by autumn of this year, and to start producing wines for sale in late 2020. They also hope to have a public-facing business up and running at the Stony Creek Road property by late 2020, with production facilities in the basement and a tasting room on the main floor. Once the wine business is up and running, they plan to begin distilling spirits as well.
The Sawitskis suggest watching their Facebook page for updates on the launch of public sales and the progress of the tasting room.
Maniacal Mead: Making alcohol from honey
Patrick Echlin, one of the co-founders of 734 Brewing Company, didn't even think he liked mead before he met his business partner, Jeff Fraser.
They met while they were both working from Cultivate Coffee and Taphouse, and got talking about beer once Fraser found out Echlin was with 734 Brewing.
"The next thing you know, I was over at the brewery, which at that time had a dirt floor and no walls, and started talking about mead," Fraser says. "I said, 'We should open up a meadery.' And he said, 'Okay. Let's do it.'"
From there, the idea for Maniacal Mead was born. The two co-owners named the endeavor after an online group Fraser had created with friends a few years earlier to discuss homebrewing mead.
Echlin had tried mead once, seven or eight years before, but was unimpressed. He never bothered to try it again until he met Fraser.
"Jeff brought a bunch of bottles over the course of months, and we tried a bunch of things," Echlin says. "He opened my mind to the possibilities."
After they spent some time creating a business plan, they started looking for a location, and ended up in a small former pizza place at 1497 Ecorse Rd., attached to Ziegler Bros. It may seem like an odd place for a meadery, but in a lot of ways, the location makes sense.
Both owners live nearby in Ypsi Township, and launching a meadery in a building that had previously been used for food and drink meant it was already up to code.
The owners have just two tanks to begin with, and will brew about 100 gallons for their first commercial release, which they are hoping will happen this fall. They will start with a mail order and wholesale business while they continue to renovate the building, and hope to launch a full-scale bar sometime in 2020. The co-founders hope to take part in the West Cross Street Cider Festival in September as their first public event.
The owners plan to source as much honey as they can from local Michigan producers. Honey isn't cheap, so mead is a little pricey, but the owners are hoping to create meads that can appeal to a variety of palates while not draining the pocketbook.
"What will set us apart is that we offer a lot of different sweetness levels that appeal to different people," Fraser says. He notes that meads can range from quite dry to very sweet and fruity.
Early batches of mead will run from 14% to 17% ABV but they plan to also brew up some "session" meads with a more moderate alcohol level around 7% ABV.
Though it hasn't yet opened to the public, Maniacal Mead has about 100 supporters in a membership club who can suggest flavors and will get special perks like being invited to the release of new mead varieties once the business is up and running.
Updates on the business' progress are available on the Maniacal Mead Facebook page.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.