Arcadia Ales celebrates 20 years


Tim Suprise still is passionate about Arcadia Ales 20 years after entering the market with a traditional English single-strain yeast and open fermentation brewing method with a 25-barrel brew setup from Peter Austin Brewing in England. Courtesy Arcadia Ales

A proud Tim Suprise walked into his boss’ office in 1995 with what he claimed to be good and great news.

“The good news is you don’t have to look any further for a vice president of international sales, because he’s right here,” Suprise told the owner of Kalamazoo’s Durametallic Corp. “The great news is I come at a bargain.”

Suprise felt confident walking into the owner’s office and asking for a promotion. When he came to West Michigan from upstate New York in 1991, Durametallic did $600,000 in sales of its pump seals to paper and pulp mills. As Suprise walked into the office, the company’s sales had surged past $6.5 million, thanks in large part to his salesmanship.

Had the owner accepted Suprise’s offer, Michigan might be without one of its pioneering brewers in Arcadia Ales, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this month.

“I felt pretty clever,” Suprise said. “We had just secured the biggest pulp mill in the world and opened up China in 1994. But he found a way to tell me, without telling me, that he had something he couldn’t share and prevented him from doing that.”

What the owner couldn’t tell Suprise was the company was in negotiations to be sold, and in 1996, Durametallic was acquired by Ohio-based Duriron Company. As the decision fell to Suprise whether to continue on at a company where his upward trajectory likely was limited and kept him away from his family nearly two weeks per month as he traveled, he began to think back to a dream he had in the previous decade: to open a brewery.

“It just felt like when you’re working for that man, at any given time, someone can walk up to you and say, ‘Thanks for the hard work, but we’re not going to need you anymore,’” he said. “I saw the writing on the wall and decided if I’m ever taking a shot at doing something on my own, I need to do it now.”

Instead of waiting to see if the sales and marketing jobs lasted through the acquisition — most of them didn’t — Suprise decided to be his own boss and started Arcadia Ales. He wasn’t a homebrewer as so many early brewery founders were, but he had fallen in love with the beers he was able to seek out on his travels across the United States and the globe.

Prior to moving to Kalamazoo for the sales job, he had almost started a brewpub with a restaurateur in Saratoga Springs, New York. The initial dream to start a brewery stemmed from his love of his New York-based regional Genesee Cream Ale from his high school years in 1974 to his infatuation with Guinness in college at St. Bonaventure.

His sales career found itself in the way of his entrepreneurial dream until the 1995 wakeup call.

When Arcadia opened its original location in Battle Creek in 1996, there weren’t many breweries in Michigan. Stroh’s was winding down its time in Detroit, Frankenmuth Brewery was soldiering on and Bell’s Brewery was entering into its second decade of operation, while some microbreweries were getting their start following the change of a state law in 1993.

Michigan was about to undergo its first major wave of brewery openings, just as most of the nation was. Within an 18-month timeframe, some of the best-loved breweries in Michigan opened, including Founders Brewing Co., New Holland Brewing Co., Dark Horse Brewing Co. and Atwater Brewery.

The same time, Rex and Mary Halfpenny were bringing the community of brewers together to form what is now the Michigan Brewers Guild.

“The industry was so young, and we wanted to find areas we were in agreement, as we didn’t want to compete with each other,” Suprise said. “It was the rising tide lifts all boats, which I still believe today.”

Arcadia entered into the industry with a different array of beers than many of the other startups, a traditional English single-strain yeast and open fermentation brewing method with a 25-barrel brew setup from Peter Austin Brewing in England.

The style was one Suprise already was fond of from his travels but also was the chosen style of the brewer who taught him how to brew, Alan Pugsley, who founded Shipyard Brewing Co. in Maine. Surprise met Pugsley during a family vacation while he was building his business plan.

Suprise’s initial stock-raising endeavors — he attempted to raise $1.7 million to build a brewery in Kalamazoo — fell short, but an investor and the state came to the rescue and helped open the brewery for a little more than $1.3 million in Battle Creek. Arcadia has since opened a new headquarters, production facility and taproom in Kalamazoo — in 2014 — while keeping the original restaurant in Battle Creek.

The production facility will allow for incremental growth up to approximately 50,000 barrels of beer, a substantial increase from Arcadia’s expected output of 15,000 barrels this year. The growth will keep Arcadia among the state’s midsize brewers, but it’s a plan Suprise is happy with moving forward.

“Particularly, starting in Battle Creek, the most diverse product in that city was a Natty Light,” he said. “Just like a lot of us at the time, we had to do quite a bit of foundational building of knowledge, awareness, exposure and positive experiences with the diversity of appearance, body, flavor and aroma of craft beers, to say nothing of the diversity of alcohol by volume.

“That can be a challenging process if you don’t have fun with it.”

Arcadia’s growth has been slow and deliberate, Suprise said, as he watched many breweries from the mid-1990s fizzle prior to the modern boom. He’s concerned some startup breweries are growing too fast to be sustainable in the long run.

“If you’re trying to be the next Founders or Bell’s, good luck,” he said. “If you have a bit more modest expectations, then you have a shot of making it.”

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