St. Clair Shores’ brewers pour their way through a pandemic

Two broke college kids, yes, but also two very resourceful broke college kids.

Baffin Brewing Company got its start in the college apartments at Michigan State University Roommates Joe VanderMarliere and Evan Feringa would eventually go on to start Baffin in St. Clair Shores.

“We started brewing in the apartments there at MSU,” VanderMarliere says. “We brewed our own because we couldn’t afford to buy beer. And then it became popular with our neighbors.”

Following graduation and a brief foray into other fields, VanderMarliere and Feringa reunited, along with third partner Joe Dowd, to form Baffin Brewing. The brewery opened in January 2015 and immediately ran out of beer. They had to shut down for two weeks until they had enough to re-open.

At the time, Baffin was the only brewery in St. Clair Shores. Their immediate success signaled the shape of things to come.

Joe VanderMarliere and Leon Traczynski at Baffin brewery.

Even in the face of COVID-19, the breweries of St. Clair Shores push on. While indoor seating and service have been limited to protect customers and employees alike, that hasn’t stopped this group. New products. Expanded outdoor seating. Food trucks. Plexiglass. Whatever it takes, the city’s breweries have accepted and adapted to each changing rule.

“We just have to juggernaut our way through this. We can’t stop because it’s rough. We can’t let that affect the quality of our product. If it did, we’d shut our doors,” says Spencer Channell, CEO of Dragonmead, the owner of Dragon’s Landing on Jefferson.

“If you can’t do it right, don’t do it.”

In five short years, the lakeside community of St. Clair Shores has gone from no breweries to four. First there was Baffin. And then there was Jamex Brewing Company. And then there was Copper Hop Brewing Company. And, most recently, there was Dragon’s Landing.

But don’t think that first-on-the-scene Baffin is upset about the competition. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

“Our whole view is that we’re craft beer guys, we’re more of a community. I think a little competition is healthy,” VanderMarliere says.

“The people at Jamex and Copper Hop, they were initially customers of ours. And we helped get them set up. When we opened, Dragonmead helped us get started. So we’re returning the favor and passing it along.

Jeff and Kat Kaye at Jamex.

“We’re all tied to each other.”

And despite the pandemic, the breweries haven’t adopted an every-man-for-himself mentality, Dragonmead’s Channell says.

“The breweries are sticking to a code of not cutting anyone under. We’re trying to maintain that community just as before.”

Channell says that the breweries owners remain in regular contact with one another.

“It’s about making sure that each is individually okay, because if you’re individually okay then we’re okay as a community,” he says. “We don’t want anyone to suffer.”

Rather than isolating themselves, St. Clair Shores breweries realize that more breweries can mean more business, with more and more people viewing St. Clair Shores as a craft beer destination.

All of the breweries stand to benefit from that.

“The craft beer community really enjoys trying new beers. More breweries here means more brewery tours, more visitors. People might not come to St. Clair Shores for one brewery but they might come here for four,” says Kat Kaye, who co-owns Jamex Brewing with her husband Jeff.

Jeremy Lewis and Ryan Balicki at CopperHop.

“If we can bring more people to St. Clair Shores by having more breweries here it’s good for everybody.”

St. Clair Shores as a destination for craft beer enthusiasts is a popular idea amongst the breweries. And fans of craft beer would be well served to take a tour around town. Each of the city’s breweries offers a unique experience. And each subscribes to different brewing philosophies, making a tour all that much more complete and enjoyable experience. If someone is uncomfortable drinking on-site because of COVID-19, each establishment sells its own products to go.

Working with a two-barrel system, Jamex is on the smaller side. But that’s just fine with them. Kat Kaye says that the system allows them to be more experimental and play around with different flavors and types of beers. While there’s always something for everyone, she says, there’s also always something new. In fact, she says that husband Jeff rarely brews the same beer twice.

Though it’s one of the newest kids on the block, having opened in December 2019, Dragon’s Landing is also the oldest. That’s because the brewery is a satellite location for Dragonmead, the popular Warren-based brewery that first opened in 1997. Fans of that well-established brewery will find the same beers and recipes at Dragon’s Landing that they would at the Warren location.

Baffin found its community through its popular Mug Club. While they specialize in IPAs, the brewery offers a variety of beers, never resting on its laurels and always checking for new trends. They also released their own line of hard seltzer drinks. And more drinks are in the works.

Spencer Channel at DragonsLanding

Copper Hop Brewing also opened in December 2019. The brewery sticks to more traditional beers says co-owner Ryan Balicki, and less experimental ones. The goal, he says, is to make a very good beer that everyone can drink.

Copper Hop was initially going to be located in New Baltimore. The owners are glad they ended up in St. Clair Shores.

“One cool thing, when we decided on St. Clair Shores, is we built relationships with Baffin and Jamex right away. We sat down with them and said, ‘Are you guys cool with us coming here,’ and they both said, ‘For sure. Let’s make St. Clair Shores a destination, the Grand Rapids of the eastside where people come to hop from brewery to brewery’,” Balicki says.

That respect demonstrates the convivial attitude amongst the brewers of St. Clair Shores. No one seems worried about losing business to the other. No one seems territorial.

Baffin sold brewing equipment to Copper Hop. Copper Hop asks Jamex for advice. Jamex has done the same with Baffin. Feringa used to work at Dragonmead, who then helped Feringa and friends open Baffin. Channell, CEO of Dragonmead, lives right across from Baffin and goes there all the time, he says. Copper Hop calls him for advice. He borrows equipment and ingredients from Baffin.

It goes on and on.

There seems to be a true community amongst the four. It’s the type of attitude that really could propel St. Clair Shores into a true destination for craft brew. It can help them endure the COVID-19 pandemic and thrive together once this whole mess is over.

“The goal in coming to St. Clair Shores was not to cut the pie into smaller pieces,” Balicki says.

“We want to grow the pie.”

 

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.
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