Ben Darcie’s interest in beer began with brewing but now has moved on to teaching classes about beer and hosting beer dinners. Photo by Jim Gebben
When Ben Darcie decided to leave his kitchen job at Electric Cheetah last year, he had no leads for a new job.
Since he was 15, he had relied on cooking to make money, but eventually the workload and pressure built up, forcing him to leave his 10 years of job experience behind.
“I put in my two weeks. I didn’t have a job to go to — I just knew I couldn’t do it anymore,” he said. “I just said, ‘Whatever happens, happens.’”
Luckily for Darcie, he had a hobby that paralleled his culinary career: brewing beer. The time that his cooking took away from his time for brewing was a deciding factor in his future. And he hasn’t looked back since the decision to leave his last kitchen job.
His beer networking has paid off, first with his beer-tasting classes, then with a job at JY Distributing, and now with the job he starts this week at Brewery Vivant.
Darcie wants jobs that come after him — that’s something he’s always stood by, although he acknowledges it doesn’t always work out.
“Ever since I was little, I wanted someone to want to hire me,” he said.
“I don’t want to be another application in the pile — I want my application next to the pile.”
He started brewing soon after enrolling at Grand Valley State University and continued to make beer from 2006 to 2009. But as his cooking jobs took up more of his time, his brewing fell by the wayside and he took up reading about beer instead, which led to his interest in achieving beer judge certification.
Then he took a beer class from Adam Mills — a home brewer turned head brewer at Cranker’s Brewery in Big Rapids.
“That class spiked my interest in public education,” Darcie said. “Adam has this fantastic beer brain and is super passionate. I felt like I was watching a movie,” he said. His thought was that “if I’m sitting here enjoying this that much, there has to be other people around who would enjoy this type of education.”
So he put together his own “Grand Rapids Beer Tasting Class,” an in-depth look at beer, from brewing to tasting and everything in between. The class strays from those normally put on by breweries, which generally cram their content into a single hour-long session.
Darcie’s first 10-week beer-tasting class, held at 25 Kitchen & Bar, launched in 2011 while he was still working at Electric Cheetah. He subsequently taught two more sessions at Harmony Brewing. He spends the first several sessions focused on the brewing process, giving students an opportunity to learn where flavors come from. Then Darcie teaches his students about types of beers — from light to dark, weak to strong, good to funky — accompanied by a panel of professional and home brewers and going on occasional field trips.
“If I can help people experience beer better, then I’m going to do it,” he said. “If it was a one-day thing, it’d be 12 hours long. Beer is such a big topic, and you have to let it be big.”
His place in the Grand Rapids beer community was quickly developing, aided in no small amount by his gaining the beer editor position at Revue Magazine.
In his last two weeks at the restaurant, a distributor friend with Blue Moon asked Darcie to join him for beers at Harmony. Another person, Nick Humphrey — fresh off purchasing Hideout Brewing Co. — was there and alerted Darcie to the fact that his distributor, JY Distributing, was looking for a representative.
Eventually, Darcie went to all the breweries in town represented by JY, including Schmohz, Hudsonville’s Pike 51 and White Flame Brewing Co., to see if he could drum up support. Before long, all the breweries were lobbying for Darcie.
Still, there was no action to hire Darcie, and he went back to Humphrey to make a call to put in a good word for him. Finally, Darcie talked to Wob Wanhatalo, who was then head brewer at Hideout. A call from Wanhatalo set things in motion, and soon Darcie was working for JY Distributing.
“That was the call that did it,” Darcie said. “It came down to the tiniest string that almost broke.”
His third session of beer-tasting classes finished this year, and he’s now on to training servers at bars, including HopCat, and hosting beer dinners with organizations such as Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park and Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.
“I’m just freelancing at this point. I don’t swear allegiances; nobody is doing what I’m doing,” he said. “I like to think I provide the community with a unique, informed and passionate perspective. I want people to get it, to understand it.”
He’s become a figurehead of sorts in the local beer industry. When Asheville, N.C.’s Adam Reinke made his way to Grand Rapids to check out the co-winner of Examiner.com’s 2012 BeerCity poll, Darcie was the choice to show him the town. The Grand Rapids Chamber asked him to lead a beer dinner geared toward minority professionals coming to the area.
This winter, he said he’d like to hire on three to six employees for his beer-education business, Experience Beer West Michigan. He hopes to have three branches in Michigan — West, East and North — and already is in discussions for branches in Asheville and New York City.
“There’s an immense calling for education,” he said. “With the current movement, there are so many people who want to understand beer better.”
As his training classes at HopCat indicate, there’s a whole segment of servers who need educating, as well. Educated servers help increase sales, bumping up tips and making everyone happier, from customer to server to owner, Darcie said.
When he quit his job at Electric Cheetah, Darcie had no idea what his future held.
“I’m just a guy with crazy ideas and I want people to love beer as much as I do,” he said.
He’s a friendly guy who makes friends easily. Those friends have helped him get to the point he’s at now, and he looks back on his experience humbly.
“I am where I am because of my passion for the community and the beer, the breweries and the owners,” Darcie said. “I was just a kid who loved beer and wanted others to love it to. That was it. It all comes back to the community around me. It all kind of happened on its own accord, and I take comfort in that.”
Since the beginning of the year, several new publications have asked him to write about beer, and he recently secured a job on the production side of the industry. His new position as brewery representative at Brewery Vivant will keep him at the center of the beer community. The brewery has positioned itself as a neighborhood anchor in the East Hills Business District on Cherry Street.
One of his good friends is a brewer there and, just a few weeks before learning of his hiring, Darcie served as a mascot of sorts at the third annual Wood-Aged Beer Festival. He was dressed as a monk, mingling with attendees and having his picture taken. Now he’s officially a brewery representative, set to offer classes at the pub and host beer dinners across the state.
“They’re so community driven and love the neighborhood and the industry,” Darcie said of Brewery Vivant. “They want me to keep teaching and doing special classes. It’s just such a good fit, and I’m so excited for the future.”