Community impact on tap: The story of Midland Brewing Company’s revival

It all started with an oversaturated industry, nearly bank-owned equipment and a next-door neighbor that lacked any brewing experience.

Midland Brewing Company has historically deep roots in the city. First established in the 1930s, the brewery was reborn in 2010. Midland Brewing Company stays true to the 100 years of its legacy by paying homage to the industry that put Michigan on the map – lumber.

The road to revival had a few bumps to navigate initially. A touch-and-go scenario after opening a decade ago, the brewery struggled to find its footing and was just days away from the bank selling off its assets and officially closing its doors.

The hard work has paid off, in the form of industry accolades.

Enter Dave Kepler, who had recently purchased the Cottage Creamery in 2014, a local fan-favorite for ice cream that sits adjacent to the brewery.

After retiring from Dow, brewing wasn’t initially on Kepler’s list of projects to tackle – but as he and his team looked at the building and talked through options as the assets neared auction – running it as a viable business once again came up. In the end, that’s the option they settled on.

Kepler’s career had been multi-faceted, which came in handy even though he didn’t have any brewing or restaurant management experience.

Dave Kepler behind the bar at Midland Brewing Company.

“We needed to invest both in quality practices for the long-term, as well as build a brand with a new restaurant. We had to get the right management team in place as well,” says Kepler.

“There were certain things we invested in for the long-term and for community impact that couldn’t be measured in financial return,” Kepler explains of investment. “I felt that it was important to construct a high-quality facility, hire a good management team for the restaurant, and invest in the manufacturing side for the future.”

Plus, growth in the brewing industry, both in Michigan and nationwide, had already plateaued at that time, so that provided more than a few challenges as well.

Midland Brewing Company's goal is to create connections within the community along with making great beer.

“We probably picked one of the worst times to invest in a brewery, because the last period the industry saw limited investment followed by considerable growth and scale were years before this, so that played into much of our strategy too,” Kepler says. “Which is why it was important to form a good local base for the beer.”

With community impact investments, Kepler knew it was about picking the right people first, and the financials would follow.  

After extensive renovations, Midland Brewing Company re-opened in February 2017 with a new indoor and outdoor dining experience along with a polished interior. “Our view was and still is, that we wanted to provide people with a destination, and we wanted to have more impact than just the business,” Kepler explains. “We wanted to leave something behind that was greater than just measuring by cash flow for the next five years.”

With community impact investments, Kepler knew it was about picking the right people first, and the financials would follow.  

In a competitive industry filled with combinations like microbreweries, taprooms, gastropubs, you name it – Midland Brewing also had to plan and invest wisely to stand out in an over-crowded market.

“We worked our way up, partnering with Fabiano Brothers Distributors in 2016 and they’ve helped us connect with other distributors so that we now have a presence in every county in the state,” Kepler says.

With that approach has come incremental and sustained growth, and an investment in people.

Sanborn and another employee discuss tasting notes of a beer.

Case in point, Kyle Sanborn, Midland Brewing Company’s head production manager and long-time home brewer, who was enrolled at Siebel Institute of Technology, the oldest brewing school in the U.S.

“I started brewing in college, in my garage, because I realized it was cheaper to make beer than buy beer, and because I didn't like the beer my college budget could afford,” says Sanborn.

“From there, I just fell in love with the science behind it all – the flavor profiles and biochemistry behind it,” he says. “So, I went back to school with a focus on microbiology and chemistry, and that's when I started working at MBC.”

 “When I do fruit in a beer, I add fruit. If I'm using a spice, I'm using the spice.​​​​​​," says Sanborn.

“I’m in the process of working on a master certification and currently, I hold the Advanced Version Theory Certificate. Throughout the process I have learned so much,” says Sanborn.

When asked his vision for what will be flowing through Midland Brewing Company’s taps next, Sanborn is quick to call out innovation as his goal for beers on deck in the future.

“I like to experiment with different brewing techniques and how I can use ingredients in different ways,” says Sanborn. “Some of those experiments turned into our BRUT IPA that very quickly became a top seller.”

MBC's Theresa Wasinski, Evan Westervelt and Kyle Sanborn at the Great American Beer Festival Awards with Charlie Papazian, founder of the Association of Brewers.

“The infamous One Night in Bangkok Smoothie IPA – I’m very proud of that beer. It's a tangerine and Thai basil IPA, so it’s fruity and spicy and I love it.”  The IPA Sanborn refers to is not just any beer, it’s a Great American Beer Festival award winner.

Brewing for quality also means things can get a little more expensive in the process, as real ingredients are more expensive than extracts and you need much more of them in the brewing process.

“I refuse to use extracts in our beers because it does compromise quality,” says Sanborn. “When I do fruit in a beer, I add fruit. If I'm using a spice, I'm using the spice. I don't like compromising because it doesn’t result in as good of a beer, so I’d rather use the real ingredient. Often that means using hundreds of pounds of say, fruit, versus a few ounces of extract.”

Kyle Sanborn, head production manager at Midland Brewing Company, pours to test a beer in the works.

That quest for only real ingredients has presented some challenges itself – such as the case with a chestnut beer they did previously in partnership with Maple Grille in Hemlock.

“We teamed up with owner Josh Schadeing and he had a ton of chestnuts, so he wanted to do chestnut beer with us. He brings us this huge bucket of chestnuts, and of course, they’re raw, so you have to roast them. I look up how to do it, and you have to cut each one and shuck them first. We didn't want to use the shells because that inherently is going to add a really deep bitterness, so we had a big shucking party, and we just sat in a circle and shucked chestnuts all day. Our efforts did not go to waste though, because that beer turned out amazing and it was super cool to use fresh, local ingredients.”

The hard work has paid off – in the form of industry accolades.

Midland Brewing Company re-opened in 2017 after extensive renovation, including adding a kitchen.

“We typically get anywhere from three to six a year at the World Beer Expo,” says Sanborn, including award-winning recognition for One Night in Bangkok.

While Midland Brewing Company’s beer can be purchased at local stores and taprooms throughout the state, inside the taproom the beer list has steadily grown. From the original flagship series, the brewery has expanded to include many seasonal rotations.

Midland Brewing Company expanded in 2019 to include the 2,500-square-foot Red Keg Barrel House Event Center – encompassing the site’s outdoor setting and offering unique event space to the community. Investing in not only the main building but developing an accessible outdoor space has certainly benefited the business, locals and travelers alike

 Donna Reynolds, Restaurant General Manager at MBC.

“We have seen growth in our parties here and people love to utilize the indoor, outdoor space of this room,” says Donna Reynolds, Restaurant General Manager. “We utilize our yard for outdoor music and events and in the summertime, people love to just sit out there by the bonfire.”

Each investment has been carefully curated to build a more connected community. Capitalizing on the natural features of the property and creating an easily accessible path to and from the Pere-Marquette Rail Trail, the brewery now functions as the space to have a date night, share the woes of the workday with colleges, grab a pint and sit by the fire or discover your new favorite local band.

“We typically get anywhere from three to six a year at the World Beer Expo,” says Sanborn.

“The value of a business like this is having a local footprint but also getting a statewide presence for Midland,” says Kepler, discussing the importance of quality and innovation for the brewery. “Our challenge is to make sure we have a family of beers to share with the locals and create an innovative experience to bring in more of the community.”

Midland Brewing Company’s tagline is to brew historically great beer, but the passion to brew high-quality beers complemented with a distinctive experience is driven by creating connections and impact within the community.

All we can say is that we are excited to see what they brew up next.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.