This Ain't No Farm Team — New Belgium, Brewery Vivant and the Lubbers Take the Field

by Michael Kiser

Do not fall asleep on Brewery Vivant. The couple Jason and Kris Spaulding have been quietly, diligently working away in a little neighborhood of Grand Rapids for almost two years now, making intelligent, Belgian-inspired brews, incredible gastropub dishes and outfitting a space that’s a shade or two away from the setting of a mead hall in Beowulf. And they’re doing it all with a unique approach. They’ve prioritized their connection to the community, hired a team of brewers, chef and servers the way most of use would choose lifelong mates, and taken the time to develop their business with sustainability, compelling partnerships, and an impressive level of craft in mind. See my previous visit here.

Enter New Belgium Brewing. Anyone connected to Michigan beer culture heard the big news last week — New Belgium Brewing made serious in-roads here, extending their distribution and growth strategy into the upper Midwest. The combination of our burgeoning craft scene, soaring growth and ties to some of the country’s most ambitious brewers makes Michigan a clear target for craft breweries looking to go national. New Belgium, along with others, recently broke ground on a new production facility in North Carolina and aims to be up and running in 2015, making it possible to distribute more effectively to the east coast. In the meantime, they clearly intend to reinforce behind that advanced guard with some sustainable growth in the middle states. And Michigan has been largely receptive. 

But Michigan is more than just a growth strategy for one of America’s biggest craft brewers. Thanks to breweries like Vivant, it also feels a little like home. Before New Belgium pulled the trigger on the rollout, they sent a small group of brewers and salespeople on a tour of the state, bouncing from brewery to brewery, bar to bar, to get an intimate sense of Michigan’s beer culture. Understanding an opportunity is one thing. Developing relationships is another. Matt Gilliland, a production analyst and brewer recounts earlyier experiences of New Belgium reps touring the country seeking new communities to serve and realizing that some areas weren’t ready to welcome the brewery at first. “One bar owner literally slid our samples back across the counter and said ‘wrong state.’ Not exactly what we were expecting from one of the country’s biggest craft markets.” Many of those areas eventually warm to them. Michigan, on the other hand, seems to perk up at the mention of New Belgium. And Michigan has a unique way of making people feel welcome, while inspiring them to become important contributors.  

That’s how Matt’s group came to discover Vivant. A quick stop at the brewpub in GR turned into a long conversation with Spaulding and co. about shared values, Belgian-inspired recipes and company cultures. It’s no secret that New Belgium has strong internal morale — “Alternatively Empowered. Employee Owned” — but what most people don’t realize is that people like Matt have been working with the brewery for 15 years or more. And he was considered the “new guy” in the group that made this visit. After a few pints and stories were exchanged, a collaboration was born. Vivant’s head brewer, Jacob Derylo, and New Belgium’s head brewer Alex Dwoinen and brewer Bo Lytle (both Michigan natives) decided to create a beer together to welcome the brewery to the state. Vivant would serve as the gateway, and like-minded authenticator for their humble mission. 

Enter Escoffier. The collaboration between these Belgian-inspired craftsmen would go far beyond a beer recipe, developing a concept that showcased both the brewing and culinary talents of Vivant’s gastropub staff. Escoffier is the title of a famous French cookbook first published in 1903 by Georges Auguste Escoffier, meant to codify the higher order of French cooking. Equally rustic and haute, the cookbook has served as the definitive source for chefs around the world, and especially in the States since it was translated in 1979. Led by Vivant’s chef, Drew Turnipseed and sous chef Chris VanderMeer, the team set to work creating a pairing menu for both breweries’ portfolios, and ultimately toward the release of the collaboration beer to be named Escoffier in tribute. 

Enter the Lubbers Family Farm. Completing the concept of Escoffier, and Vivant’s connection to the GR community, the team decided to host their first-ever farm dinner at nearby Lubbers Family Farm just outside the city. The idyllic setting, with its lively animals, dynamic landscape and inimitable hosts in Jeff and Karen Lubbers more than rose to the challenge of the Escoffier concept. Because you see, farmers, especially here in Michigan, are beer geeks and food snobs as well. And nothing says rustic haute cuisine like an expertly curated and operated farm. 

The Lubbers have been operating their 120 acres of cheese and meat production like a Midwestern start-up for some time now, with small offshoot businesses named Cowslip Creamery and Little Roster Bread Company initially running with modest short-term losses in order to deliver on a more important, and profitable goal in the long-run. The farm, profitable and growing overall, is their most powerful tool for changing and supporting GR’s burgeoning food and drink culture and they aim to use it to its full affect. Getting people closer to their food and drink is the most impactful way to develop a healthy, proud community of customers. And to this end, the Lubbers host innumerable farm dinner for friends, local businesses and special events. 

But there remains a certain uncomfortableness with being this close to the food for some visitors. For most of us, we’re used to seeing our food as a product we buy, not a natural resource in the most literal sense. But at the Lubbers’ farm, the landscape is buzzing with cows and horses, geese and pigs. And they all have names. “Many people visit the farm,” says Karen, “and someone always asks ‘how to you kill an animal that you’ve named?’ Well, I always respond with the question: ‘How do you kill an animal if you haven’t named it?” Being close to these animals does’t preclude her from the hard work of farming. Her animals live a good, happy life, and they all serve their purpose. “We serve our purpose too,” she explains. “If we were’t so out of touch with our own mortality, we’d realize that we too will die some day, and we’ll also return to the earth in our own way. It’s all part of the same cycle and there’s no reason to hide that part of it. It’s just as beautiful and meaningful as the rest of life.”

I spent my first hour on the farm attempting to coax young calves toward the camera, getting run down by some moody geese and strolling through the Lubber’s personal garden. And as the rains started blanketing the landscape, we climbed into the barn loft were a table for about 30 people was being set up with flowers, hop trimmings and elegant dishware. We tapped the Escoffier collab early and often as we awaited dinner. The New Belgium crew had a chance to chat with other locals and share some samples of their more obscure reserve bottles as the rain pelted the thin barn roof and dripped over the slatted windows overlooking the pastures. 

Once the food started coming, announcements were short, and mostly focused on the appreciation everyone felt for each other’s role in the effort. A number of Vivant’s former staff members, both cooks and servers, re-joined their crew for just this night in order to ensure its success. Rick Muschiana, The Abbot of Vivant, did a phenomenal job of filling the table with an equally committed and inspiring group of locals. Brewers from both sides were proud of the Escoffier brew and thankful for the friendship in a new and challenging market. Escoffier’s slightly brett-forward nose with a strong malt base and amber color had a robust body to pair with our French food menu, but was also biting enough to clear the palate after each sip. A great food beer and a smart recipe that encapsulated both of these breweries’ unique points of view. Impressively, everything came together with the nuance and complexity I’ve come to expect from Vivant. 

New Belgium couldn’t have found a better partner for their entry into Michigan. And there’s so much more to their story. The Vivant website details their food and drink philosophy, commitment to their community, as well as some of their sustainability and business goals. It’s really inspiring stuff.  And if you find yourself lucky enough to join them on a future adventure — enjoy yourself. But also be mindful of just how authentic and appreciative these people really are. Being welcomed into their extended family is truly the reward.