GRAND RAPIDS — Since its merger with Holland-based Roffey Brewing in July, Robert Thomas Brewing Company has become the largest microbrewery in Grand Rapids, with an annual output in excess of 55,000 gallons of brew.
Robert Kowalewski and Thomas Prame founded Robert Thomas Brewing in 1997 and serve as chairman and marketing manager, respectively. Jim Roffey, who founded Roffey Brewing in 1995, is now part owner and a board member of the blended company, which is locally owned and held by 38 private shareholders, including Kowalewski, Thomas and Roffey.
It’s the first merger of local breweries in Grand Rapids since the Prohibition era of the 1920s, Kowalewski pointed out. Before Prohibition, several local breweries merged production to become what was then known as the Grand Rapids Brewing Company.
Before the merger, Roffey Brewing was producing about 900 barrels, or 1,800 kegs, a year, which was slightly more than the original Robert Thomas was producing, Kowalewski said.
The merger doubled the company’s retail shelf space and production schedule, expanding both its customer and distribution bases, he said.
Customers include Meijer, D&W, Family Fare, Spartan Stores and more than 1,000 package stores and restaurant outlets throughout Michigan. Its distribution base is the Lakeshore, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Ann Arbor, Traverse City and Detroit.
The company produces eight Robert Thomas brand and eight Roffey brand original, handcrafted ales.
“It’s basically two breweries operating out of one location, both owned by Robert Thomas Brewing,” Kowalewski explained. “It allows us to increase production and gain cost efficiencies versus having the overhead of two companies for two brands.”
Make that three brands, as Robert Thomas Brewing also is parent company to the Michigan Soda Factory, which has been operating under the same roof for 18 months.
The Michigan Soda Factory produces five flavors of bottled soda pop — root beer, cream soda, orange cream soda, black cherry and wildberry. The draft root beer also comes in kegs.
The soda isn’t currently sold in any of the larger grocery chains, Kowalewski said. It’s more of a “boutique item” that’s distributed in Grand Rapids, Traverse City and on the Lakeshore, mainly to coffee houses and restaurants. Locally, it’s available at Bennigan’s and Shelby’s restaurants.
The acquisition of Roffey Brewing was a growth maneuver.
“Tom and I were looking at the way the industry was growing and it wasn’t growing at as quick a pace as it had been in the past,” Kowalewski said. “There’s still incremental growth but it’s not as high as it used to be.
“We looked at the opportunities in front of us and we considered either putting X amount of capital into internal growth or going through an acquisition. It worked well with Roffey because of the fact that they didn’t have a tap room.”
The tap room at the Robert Thomas production facility at 2600 Patterson Ave. allows the public to both sample the products and view their production six nights a week, and it doubles as a kind of social club. The brewery’s “Mug Club” has some 600 members who pay a one-time fee to join, which entitles them to discounts on pints.
It’s a comfortable environment, Kowalewski said, “kind of like drinking in your parents’ basement.
“What’s nice about the atmosphere is that a lot of friendships have been formed here. What I like is that a lot of our female club members feel comfortable coming in here by themselves,” he added.
Kowalewski and Prame met in graduate school while pursuing MBAs at the University of Notre Dame. Kowalewski wrote the business plan and opened a microbrewery while still a grad student.
At the time, Grand Rapids had the Grand Rapids Brewing Company and Big Buck Brewery, but there was no true microbrewery that was bottling and selling to distributors, Kowalewski pointed out. He was more interested in the wholesale side of the brewery business.
Robert Thomas is a lean organization. The company employs a brewer part time, Kowalewski is the sales staff for the entire state, and both he and Prame do the bottling. Distributors typically pick up the product at the site.
The partners expect to launch some private label products bearing Michigan’s state emblem soon. They’re also looking to expand distribution to the Ohio and Wisconsin markets.