Local bar taps into Michigan-made spirits

Northwest Michigan Second Wave writer Julia Woehrer chatted with The Mitten Bar co-founder Megan Payment about the process of creating a true Michigan experience, served up by the glass and enjoyed with every sip.
Northwest Michigan Second Wave: How did you first come up with the idea of opening a bar that only sells Michigan-made beer, wine and liquor?
Megan Payment: While traveling around the state, Brian (The Mitten Bar co-founder) and I would stop at as many breweries and wineries as we could. We loved the diverse and incredible selection our state offered as well as the culture that had been established at each of those places. We totally loved the warm, welcoming and friendly demeanor each place emitted. Because of the culture and demeanor each became a wonderful community gathering space.
While in Bell's Eccentric Cafe in November 2010, we were sharing a flight; while staring down at the flight shaped like the state of Michigan, it just hit us. Why not create a place with the same vibe as the breweries, which served great Michigan product? Nothing made more sense to us.
NMSW: What obstacles did you encounter when working towards the opening of the bar?
MP: We had several challenges, but two really stand out.
Our largest obstacle was pleading the case to my family, who owned the space in which the Mitten now resides. It was a lot for them to take the chance on our dream. My family has owned a traditional family restaurant bar since 1955 and when we approached them with this completely new idea, they were skeptical on whether it would be successful. After several months of research and explaining our case, we convinced them and began serious work on opening the Mitten in late February 2011.
Securing product quickly became a strategic challenge from the get go. We soon found out that we would have to work with at least three separate distributors in order to secure a diverse selection of beers and wines that would represent the state as best as we could. None of them were really used to a bar that offered that many draft beers as well as the diversity of beers we wanted to offer, so it took a lot of work with each one to get them on the same page.
NMSW: What type of planning went into opening the bar?
MP: We spent months visiting renowned beer bars, breweries, and wineries, in and out of Michigan. We also reached out to friends and individuals within both the beer and wine industries.
NMSW: What is your most popular beer? Most popular wine?
MP: The most popular draft we serve is by far hard cider. The most popular beer is hard to determine because we change the lineup constantly. Anything on our beer engine generally goes quickly. That being said, the most-asked-for beers include Bell’s Hopslam, Bell’s Two Hearted, Shorts Soft Parade and Founders KBS or CBS. The most popular wine is by far Grand Traverse Late Harvest Riesling.

NMSW: You have 12 Michigan beers on tap plus a beer engine. What’s a beer engine?
MP: A beer engine is basically a pump for beer. We serve cask-conditioned ales, also known as firkins or real ales, and the beer engine is the mechanism that pumps the beer from the cask into the glass.
NMSW: How many types of bottled beer and types of wine do you generally have?
MP: We usually have a pretty large selection of bottled beer that spans most styles. At any time we can have up to 30 to 40 different bottled beers. As far as wine we have usually five to eight different wines by the glass.
NMSW: What types of reactions have local brewers and wineries had when they learned about your business venture?
MP: Within the first week of opening, the owners of Arbor Brewing, Matt and Rene, stopped by to congratulate us and let us know that we were doing something they'd wished someone would have done for a long time.
NMSW: What does the interior of the bar look like? Is it decked out in local brewery and winery signs and memorabilia?
We kept things pretty simple. When we were doing demolition, we came across the beautiful original brick and maple hardwood floors, so we just kind of let those two features shape how things turned out. In addition, we have some historical photos of the Ludington downtown, a map of Michigan that a local artist did for us, and a beautiful triptych photo of a stormy Lake Michigan.
NMSW: Not only do you have Michigan wine, beer and liquor, you also serve Michigan snacks and have live music by Michigan bands and artists. What kind of crowd does your bar generally bring in?
MP: We have an incredibly diverse crowd in The Mitten at any given time. Everyone from kids (who love Faygo) to older people come to check out what we are doing. I think the overall shared trait people have is an appreciation for quality, and the support for our home state.
NMSW: Tell me about the Mitten Unplugged series.
MP: The Mitten Unplugged is our version of an open mic night, with a small twist. Instead of being a free-for-all like most open mics, we have a few artists lined up ahead of time that have 45 minute sets; between them we fit in anyone who shows up to play.
NMSW: How was the idea of The Mitten Bar received in the community?
MP: It was split pretty much right down the middle. Many that we talked to were extremely supportive and excited about the place, our Michigan theme and the excitement we had in opening it. They watched us as we made progress from the start and many have now become some of our best customers. We also had people who doubted us and said we'd make it through our first summer and then fail. They didn't believe we could make it without having something like Bud Light or Miller Light.
Editor's Note: This interview was edited and condensed.
Julia Woehrer is a freelance writer and photographer. She attended the School of Art and Design at Northern Michigan University where she concentrated in photography and minored in journalism. She volunteers at a local no-kill cat shelter and enjoys spending time with her cats, Bella and Macy.

Photo by Dustin Kunkel.
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