Jason Spaulding believes the success of a craft brewery lies in its neighborhood and not in the size of its production capacity.
The idea of making a career of beer has become an accepted premise in Grand Rapids, and few have done it better than Jason Spaulding.
Spaulding now has moved on to the second brewery in West Michigan that he has had an integral part in building into national prominence. When he started his journey in the mid-1990s, however, very few looked at making beer as a plausible — or lucrative — career.
It all started when Spaulding attended Hope College and played soccer. He jokes that he “majored in beer,” partly because he homebrewed and drank a lot of it in college, but also because his fraternity, Omicron Kappa Epsilon, also housed Founders Brewing Co.’s Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers, as well as his future partner in New Holland Brewing Co., Brett Vander Kamp.
Spaulding spent three years on the varsity soccer team at Hope, and that became another factor of his growing interest in beer when the squad went on a small exhibition tour in Europe. It was there that he saw beer and breweries as an ingrained part of the local culture and not just a commercialized industry such as America had long experienced.
It took a few years after leaving Hope to get together with Vander Kamp and make a business plan for New Holland Brewing Co. The dream of opening a brewery, which had existed since their college days at Hope, pulled Vander Kamp back from Colorado and Spaulding away from his pursuit of a career as a physical therapist, in which he earned a degree at Grand Valley State University.
The brewery opened in Holland in 1997, and made a significant impression on the public as part of the first wave of craft breweries in Michigan. New Holland opened a pub in downtown Holland and grew beyond all expectations.
Eventually, the differences in visions for the brewery took its toll, and Spaulding decided it was time to leave the company. He sold his shares of New Holland in 2005 and ventured into the corporate world.
“New Holland was doing really well, but there’s a way to simplify it. I always envisioned something I wanted to do, and (New Holland) started to go in different directions,” he said. “So to stick with what I wanted to do, I had to start fresh. I left without knowing what I wanted — besides another brewery.”
The business skills developed at a small brewery are just like those of other small businesses, and after eight years, Spaulding had become well versed in writing for business, working with the government and banks, raising funds, managing money and running a successful business.
His first move was to Lakeshore Advantage in Zeeland, where he was named vice president of business services. There he helped other businesses succeed. He spent nearly three years there, but in his heart he knew the 9-to-5 life was not for him.
So he packed up his things to attend the Doemens Brewing Academy in Munich, Germany. Doemens is part of the Seibel Institute, a world-renowned brewing program that allows brewers to become master brewers, learning about microbiology, business management and technology.
Following the end of his classes at Doemens, Spaulding and his wife, Kris, trekked through various towns in Belgium and France, taking in the variety of ways breweries were integrated into their communities. Whether located in farmhouses or monasteries, the breweries were a special part of the towns in which they were located. The Spauldings also fell in love with the styles of beer brewed there. Seeing the possibilities of what a brewery can mean to a community showed the Spauldings what they wanted their brewery to be.
“I like more of the personal connection and being in the community and in the neighborhood — keeping the creative aspect of the beer,” Spaulding said, noting that some breweries like Founders have done well in making the leap from small to big.
“I wanted to be small on purpose, so those things weren’t connecting well with what was (going on) at New Holland. I jumped off without having a set plan. I worked in some other industries and that gave me a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do.”
Next, Spaulding spent a year as bar manager at Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, where he learned how a renowned food company operated and what it takes to run a restaurant with good food and amazing customer service.
All the while, his wife, Kris, worked for 12 years at Herman Miller in a variety of positions, from product management to the environmental team.
Following a year at Zingerman’s, it was time to launch the dream of opening another brewery. The couple sought out the perfect location, looking in a variety of Michigan communities including Traverse City, Ann Arbor and Holland. The stars aligned when they walked into a former funeral home chapel at 925 Cherry St. SE in Grand Rapids’ East Hills neighborhood. Jason said the building felt very European and matched the vision for what the couple wanted their new brewery to be.
“We said when we walked in: ‘It already looks like a monastery, it just has to happen here,’” he said.
The timing wasn’t ideal, however: 2009 was a difficult year to work with banks and start a business.
“It was probably the worst time ever to finance something,” Spaulding said. “But we just decided to go for it.”
In the end, it worked out, and brewpub Brewery Vivant opened in late 2010.
The aesthetics of the space transport visitors to Europe — large wooden beams, communal seating at long wood tables with benches, light filtering through stained glass — and French and Belgian inspired beers and food on the menu.
Within its first year, Brewery Vivant was named to Draft Magazine’s 12 breweries to pay attention to in 2011. Vivant was one of the first breweries to focus solely on Belgian and French brews, which gave it a unique twist in the booming craft-brewing industry in Michigan.
It was also the first brewery in the nation to become LEED-certified, a pet project of Kris, who leads the company’s massive sustainability program that focuses on the triple bottom line: business, community and environment.
Each year, Brewery Vivant puts out a sustainability report. Last year, it donated 11 percent of its profits to charities, shared its profits with its employees, bought a majority of its supplies from Michigan companies and volunteered more than 130 employee hours. Brewery Vivant was named a B Corporation earlier this year as certification of its environmental, social and economic impact.
Vivant beer is distributed throughout Michigan and in Chicago, but its production likely won’t grow much bigger. From the beginning, Spaulding said he saw the brewery staying within a limit of 5,000 barrels per year. That size allows the company to focus on what’s truly important — the community in which it’s located, plus Spaulding says it is where he sees the industry going. He believes there won’t be many more new breweries with such large production capabilities as Founders, for instance.
“The reality will be that there’s only so much space for cases and taps (on store shelves),” Spaulding said of the future of the beer industry. “Breweries opening up will see it’s tough to get it in Meijer. That’s where it’ll be tough. You have to have a brewpub and a neighborhood that supports it. If you have that, you’ll be fine.”