by MICHELLE SWIFT
featured in ROADBELLY
Transitioning from corporate suit and tie to a brick-and-mortar community builder, Matt Michiels, a self-declared extreme hobby guy, brings Gravel Bottom Craft Brewery & Supply—a place for beer lovers and brewers—to the Ada neighborhood. Matt greets me at the front door with a warm hello and a hug. Not a handshake. He’s not that kind of guy, and that’s fine by me. Hugs are more welcoming.
Down to earth, with great stories to tell and wow-worthy ideas brewing in his mind, Matt leads me on a tour of the soon-to-be-open space. Currently outfitted with a tavern, supply shop, and a grain room, plans for a beer garden (think lawn games and hops growing as far as the eye can see) are in the works. Obviously, our conversation turns to beer.
Q: Inquiring minds want to know, just what kind of a brewer are you?
A: I’m an all-grain brewer—been brewing for about 14 years. It all started when my wife, Erica, and I were driving through Charlotte, Michigan and stopped at the Happy Home Brewery, or something like that. We thought, let’s stop here, and [we] left with a couple plastic buckets and a big, stainless steel pot. That night, both Erica and I brewed up a batch of beer. It was a pale, and it was very good. We loved it. Back then you really couldn’t get the high-quality craft brews we get today. I was hooked, and for a while Erica would brew with me, and she loved it. And then I wanted to amp it up and go to all grain, and [this said with a hoarse whisper] I kind of lost her. [He smiles.]
Q: What marketing plans do you have that will set Gravel Bottom apart from other local supply stores?
A: We’re trying to create an environment where you can experience brewing. We want to give people a full view of what brewing is. When you walk in the door, you’re going to sit down at the bar and all of the equipment is right there. You want to talk about the mash tun and hot liquor tank and the boil kettle? They will be right there. [Points to an area behind the bar.] It’s as close as you can get to your beer. Everyone who works here will know how to brew.
Ingredients? We are trying to do everything that we can locally. There is a place just north called Tweed Farms—real nice family up there, young couple—they do a lot of different stuff, but they have this amazing honey. We will feature that in our beers.
A maltster—I didn’t even know we had one in the state! But Pilot Malt House contacted me. I’m looking forward to talking with them about getting some Michigan grains as well.
We’ve been kickin’ around the idea of doing classes here in the future. We’ll put together a curriculum, you’ll learn the basics, we will do different levels of classes; but on top of that, I’d like to do things in the future like ingredient-specific classes. We would talk about hops and the different types of hop oils, which ones are water-soluble and not water-soluble, and what type of characters those would impart on your beer. Really drill into different areas—yeast and the culturing of yeast and how you do that in a sanitary way so that you get a pure culture, and what’s open fermentation and how does that work. Maybe brew a batch that way once a month. We can pull in on the local community and knowledge base—I’m just crazy enough to give it a whirl.
Q: An experienced home brewer friend of mine wanted to know—do you plan to support the two emerging trends in micro brewing: experimental recipes and, one of my new favorites, sours?
A: [Eyes twinkle at the word “sours.”] That’s kind of the whole point! It’s a small system—I mean a three-barrel system is probably one of the smallest you’d want to go with in this market. Some people think I’m crazy to go that small, but I’ve tried to compensate by having eight fermenters. We have the small brew house. That’s going to be for pilot brewing as well as classes. I mean, that’s the beauty of it, right? I can do these 10-gallon batches just to try it out, and then we can scale it up—I can rotate through these all the time, and I plan to. We’ll have half a dozen flagship beers, and one or two of those will be on tap at any time; the other two or three ideally will be off-the-wall. Whatever we feel like we want to brew.
Q: The Gravel Bottom Brewers are kicking around some crazy beer ideas, huh?
A: We kick around some ideas about what to put into some beers, and I think that’s the other part of it. Eventually, we’ll start to reflect the local flavors and local tastes because we’ll be sitting here talking to everybody, and these brewers—hopefully we’ll get a strong brewing crowd—will come in and say, “You know, I heard about this new citron, and it’s great.” Then we’ll pilot it.
[Waxes eloquently on the grapefruit IPA he has brewing.] This is again something we want to do, and based on our scale, I think we can. A neighbor of ours that caught wind of what we were doing got a hold of me. I said, “Well heck, come on down to the shop, and I’ll show you around.” He shows up with four home brews. I had started breaking out all this concrete, and we cracked a beer, and he’s like, “I’ll help out.” And he literally picks up the jackhammer and starts breaking the concrete. We drank his grapefruit IPA, and I was talking to him about it. It was a really good brew. There’s actually NO grapefruit in it, it’s just the combination of hops he uses that bring out the grapefruit notes. The whole point is this: In the exploration of craft brewing, it’s the experience.
Q: And the community, right? You plan on going open-source with your recipes, correct?
A: The idea is that we’ll share most of our recipes to the extent that we can. When we come up with these exotic things, or a home brewer comes in and gives me one and says, “This is great,” we’ll say, “Come back next week and we’ll brew it big scale.” Those will be out on the web. Someone can come in here and try my Whit and say, “Wow, I like that but it’s a little too fruity for me.” Well, that’s because of the yeast strain that we used, and it imparts a lot of phenols. We’ll suggest trying another strain instead. You really can drill down to the individual—a brewery has to brew for the local market—but you try to drill down to brewing for the individual. That’s how we’ll do that through the home brew shop.
Q: Is there any way a home brewer get their beer on tap at Gravel Bottom?
A: Obviously, we won’t be able to get everyone’s beer on tap. But, who knows, maybe there will be competitions every so often, or one at the brewer’s selection. We’re going to try to do a lot of that stuff. It’s part of what makes me different. I don’t have a big brew schedule, and I don’t brew the same beers.
Q: What about the beer market here in West Michigan—the competitive market for all this great beer?
A: I hope to keep up with the quality that’s coming out of here. I lived in Seattle for eight years—talk about the mecca of craft brewing, right? As for Grand Rapids, the quality of the beer coming out of this town is just unbelievable. There is no city out there that’s got it, not Portland or Seattle.
A: I don’t think so! I haven’t lived there though. [Laughs.] I hope to keep up with the quality—the quality and creativity and craftsmanship that’s coming out of Michigan is just unbelievable.
One of the big reasons I’m doing this—I grew up in a small town where my dad had a local pharmacy. I always grew up active in the business community, even as a kid. Then I did the big banking, I did the corporate finance, but I just wanted to get back to that sense of community. Those are the people that your kids go to school with—they are the support. It’s been a long road to get here, 14 years. The amount of support from friends and family is great, but what keeps blowing my mind is the community support.
It was a big decision to move back from Seattle. But this is the beauty of Michigan, people are friendly and easygoing, it’s a warm and inviting state. I always knew that I would run a small business, it was just a matter of getting there.
Matt has certainly arrived. If you’re looking for the next big thing in beer, want to try your hand at a home brew, or simply enjoy a place where local community can collaborate, share, and enjoy life over a pint—get to Gravel Bottom.
Cheers to the Michiels!
Gravel Bottom Brewery & Supply | 418 Ada Drive | Ada, MI 49301
GravelBottom.com | facebook.com/GravelBottom