$50K pitch winner is on a mission


For Andy Thomas, owner of the Scottville-based Starving Artist Brewing Co., supporting and raising awareness of the arts is part of the brewery’s mission.

“The whole Starving Artist brand is who we are,” said Thomas. “We are artists — artists with a new medium now, with beer being our medium.”

Starving Artist officially opened the doors of its retrofitted barn for business last June on Thomas’ home property near Ludington. A couple of months later, he participated in the inaugural Momentum Business Plan Competition held Aug. 20 and was awarded $50,000 in start-up funding to support the continued growth and sustainability of the small-batch brewery.

Since winning the entrepreneurial business competition, Thomas said the brewery has expanded its square footage for production, purchased new equipment, and is planning to launch a five-day week production schedule as of Jan. 25.

“Construction is more or less finished on our addition,” said Thomas. “We were able to double our square footage of the brewery, and we were able to double our capacity also.”

Starving Artist Brewing added about 420 square feet to its retrofitted production barn to have a total space of nearly 900 square feet. Once production expands from two or three days to five days a week, Thomas said the brewery will up its production.

“We are still a very tiny brewery. We are pumping out a lot of beer for that small of a space,” he said. “Now with all the extra fermenters we bought and the upgrade in our glycol chiller, it is allowing us to kick out about 500 gallons a week.”

As part of the requirements for winning the Momentum Business Plan Competition, Starving Artist Brewing has been meeting quarterly with the board to support the brewery’s next phase of operations.

The competition awards the prize money during a period of up to three years, with $25,000 awarded upon announcing the winner, $15,000 upon completing Phase I of the business plan, and the final $10,000 after implementing Phase II of the strategy.

“I’ve been dealing directly with Kathy Maclean at the (Ludington & Scottville Area) Chamber, too, and they have been a huge asset,” said Thomas. “They are basically building an impenetrable foundation for us that we never would have been able to do without them, I don’t think. We have been able to really get our business structure solid, which has been awesome too.”

Starving Artist Brewing has partnered with Grand Rapids-based Alliance Beverage Distributing, and starting in mid-February will launch some of its inventory for Grand Rapids Beer Week. The brewery also plans to become a member of the Michigan Brewers Guild, launch a growler club, and introduce its first hand-bottled beers by the end of February.

“We are just getting our sea legs with Phase I, so now Phase II is up and running,” said Thomas. “We have a lot of exciting plans. We are launching a growler club for people to join up, and have special in-house, exclusive beers that are only available for them,” said Thomas.

“We are launching hand-bottled beers probably within six weeks. Those are going to be really focused on our branding with the art and making them an artisan series, so they are going to be really unique beers, tending to be higher in alcohol by volume. It is more of a specialty market,” he continued.

The brewery has also partnered and contracted with local restaurants and bars in the Ludington area, such as Blu Moon and the Mitten Bar, to feature Starving Artist beer, host brewers’ dinners and participate in tap takeovers.

Although Starving Artist Brewing has produced up to 15 beers, Thomas anticipates the company will scale back the number of beers this year to focus on four to five standard brews and a couple of seasonal specialty beers throughout the year.

“We are going to kind of dial it back a little bit and really focus on honing our craft and dialing in our process,” said Thomas. “We will have anywhere from four to five standards that people will come to see and recognize over the next year, with a couple seasonal and specialties that will pop up. We will surprise people … and we’ll have a better selection of in-house.”

As Starving Artist Brewing continues to build its brand recognition and presence in West Michigan, Thomas said the company is staying true to what it is. At each festival the brewery attends, Starving Artist commissions a local artist to create original work to give away to the first 50 customers at its booth.

“Part of our mission is to make an impact and support and raise awareness of the importance of art and its components, and really to support the starving artists, if you will,” said Thomas. “We basically give (the artist) free reign to do just about anything he wants … and so far we have a couple of really fun prints with different subject matter that all somehow ties back to beer.”

Prior to joining the brewing industry, Thomas owned and operated an art gallery, A.M. Galleries, in Ludington. He recently sold the gallery to a Grand Rapids-based photographer who had ties to the Ludington area.

Starving Artist has commissioned Ludington artist Charles State to create original works specific to each beer festival, which are then printed on a 1950’s Heidelberg press run by Ludington Letter Press.

“They are all hand-carved, all printed by artisan printers, and from the point they are done to the point that the beer fanatics are going to get them in their hands, it is true art the whole way,” said Thomas.

“What makes them unique is the whole idea behind art and what makes it appealing and valuable. When you have a print that has run out its edition, it becomes more sought after.”

The tie-in with original artwork provides individuals with a unique print associated with a specific festival and Starving Artist Brewing’s craft beer, and gives the brewery a chance to know which festivals customers have attended.

While the small brewery has experienced sustainable growth in the last four months, Thomas said, as artists, the No. 1 goal during its first full year of operations is to do the industry proud by creating “good-quality liquid.”

“To have a quality presence in the Michigan brewing world, I think, is our No. 1 goal,” said Thomas. “So for us to make other brewers in the state proud that we are new and we are doing it right would make me feel like we had a successful year. If we are doing that, I think the sales will follow.”

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