Brewer doubles on success


New equipment could allow Saugatuck Brewing to produce as many as 13,000 barrels in 2015. Courtesy Saugatuck Brewing Co.

When new leadership took over Saugatuck Brewing Co. in 2009, the brewery was producing approximately 500 barrels of beer annually.

Since Ric Gillette and his team took the reins of the company, Saugatuck Brewing’s production has seen significant growth. The brewery, situated near the lakeshore in Douglas, has quietly become one of West Michigan’s largest, as production doubled for four years straight before jumping from 4,000 barrels in 2013 to 7,500 barrels last year.

That production could be nearly doubled again by the end of this year.

Last May, the brewery transitioned from a 10-barrel brew system to a 40-barrel brew system with two more major steps forward in production capacity in 2015. This month, the brewery is taking delivery of two 120-barrel fermenters and accompanying brite tanks, with another pair of each scheduled to arrive in May. The additional tanks will essentially double production capacity, according to Kerry O’Donohue, Saugatuck Brewing Co. vice president.

An upgrade in packaging ability came with the addition of a new bottling line. Prior to last year, the old bottling line filled about one case of beer per minute but did not label the beers. The new bottling line fills three cases a minute, complete with labeling.

Still, 60 percent of the products that left the site went into the markets in kegs. Continuing to saturate its current markets of Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois — mostly Greater Chicago — and northern Ohio and Indiana are also at the top of Saugatuck’s to-do list.

“The next step is filling out Indiana and Ohio,” he said. “We’re planning that relatively soon — by mid-2015,” he said.

O’Donohue also mentioned new product development, including two new packaged beers that soon will be ready to leave the production facility. Both Starburst Wheat and Backyard IPA will hit the shelves in the near future.

Those two beers already have done well in the market when kegs were sent out, so O’Donohue said the packaged products should be an easy sell. He said the constant innovation and creation of new products is key to growth.

Saugatuck Brewing also will expand its barrel-aged product line in its markets. A barrel-aged beer festival is on tap — tentatively set for March 7, with more information to be released later. O’Donohue said a variety of styles will be available to taste and purchase.

“The barrel-aged movement is growing a lot,” he said. “Those beers are becoming more popular and sought after.”

Despite new products and the growth of barrel-aged beers, one of the brewery’s most trusted brands continues to be its Neapolitan Milk Stout. The seasonal stout is nearing the end of its yearly run, having increased from 1,500 cases last year to more than 8,000 this year.

Neapolitan Milk Stout also had a big year in terms of awards in 2014, winning silver at the World Expo of Beer; Best in Midwest Stout; and the National Grand Championship for Stout at the United States Beer Tasting Championship.

“It’s a wildly popular beer,” O’Donohue said. “Even though it’s only available for part of the year, people really associate Saugatuck Brewing Co. with Neapolitan Milk Stout.”

Other beers, such as Bonfire Brown Ale, have grown in the past couple of years, as well, and garnered several awards including a Gold Medal at the World Beer Cup in 2014.

There are no plans to slow down, O’Donohue said, noting the expected output for 2015 will near 13,000 barrels. He said there’s still plenty of market share for craft beer to take away from cheap macro beers, and part of the way to grow that is through consumer education.

This will be the sixth year Saugatuck Brewing hosts a beer education series meant to help consumers refine their palates. For example, one class is using 10 single-hopped pale ales to help refine a drinker’s taste buds. In previous years, the pale ales class used more mainstream hops, but this year it will venture into more exotic hops from places such as New Zealand and Japan.

With all the planned growth, one small problem could present itself in the near future: The company is running out of space for production equipment. O’Donohue said the company is looking at options for expansion and could do so either onsite at its current location in Douglas or at another location.

“Generally, that’s our philosophy,” he said. “We want to grow and we want to be as big as we can.”

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