The craft beer scene in West Michigan was completely different in the mid-90s.
Actually, the craft beer industry overall was different, and in comparison to today, fairly nonexistent. But like a big boom in the late 1980s (quick, read this fun story I did a few years back for Thrillist about the Class of ’88 breweries), there was a nice uptick in the mid-90s.
In Grand Rapids, a nice class of Hope graduates led to Founders Brewing and New Holland Brewing. For the rest of the year, I’m sure you’ll get plenty of 25th anniversary coverage from me and others about the pair of breweries that are incredibly influential to the Midwest beer world, but we’ll start today with a quick conversation with New Holland founder Brett VanderKamp.
I chatted with Brett for a more comprehensive New Holland 25th anniversary piece in the September/October print issue of GR Mag but figured I’d tease a little here in Drinks with Pat
New Holland recently launched Dragon’s Milk Origin Small Batch Bourbon, a new product in the Dragon’s Milk line of beverages and a delicious whiskey.
This interview was edited for clarity.
Pat: You’re 25 years in. There has been a lot of changes in the beer industry to come and go. How do you look back at how you navigated the ever-changing waters?
Brett: Continue to navigate. It’s a never-ending journey. … It’s interesting to observe the landscape today opposed to 10 years ago. … But we’re building a company for the next 100 years, and I have a great lifestyle, a beautiful family, a great company, and we can ride these waves through innovation and culture.
Fortunately for New Holland, we’ve never had it easy, and (we) work hard, and we’re not afraid of that. We like the hard work.
Pat: You recently brought Mad Hatter back at the pub, an IPA I very much liked, after putting it to bed, which I didn’t realize while I was living in Vegas. How was that decision made to retire that brand?
Brett: With Mad Hatter, the challenge was the beers we were competing against with that beer: Bell’s Two Hearted, a centennial hop-based IPA; the Founders portfolio with Centennial IPA and All Day; and Huma Lupa from Short’s; not to mention Goose IPA, from a regional standpoint. … I don’t want to say (the) world didn’t need another, but it was a beer that I felt was having a hard time getting draft. If you can’t get draft, it’s hard to build a following. We didn’t have the scale of other brands, the batch size, the purchasing power size. It was a difficult business proposition to make it. We still bring it back occasionally. That’ll be one every summer I could see bringing it back.
It was a very difficult decision, but we felt Tangerine Space Machine had better flavor profile and more runway for growth (Editor’s note: at a different point in the interview, Brett said it’s grown almost 50% this year), some great lessons for us there.
Pat: When you started the brewery, could you have imagined Dragon’s Milk, a 11% bourbon barrel-aged stout, would be your best seller and a keystone in a whole portfolio of products?
Brett: I never could have imagined it would be our No. 1 seller when we made it. We made a single barrel of it, and now it turns out it’s 75% of our beer volume. That’s just crazy to me. It’s awesome. That also has then informed me about our innovation team and how I lead them. I always want to give oxygen to things. If you help create a market, you can be the market No. 1.
We’ve missed on some brands by not giving it time. (Editor’s note: He said a lot more about this topic, and I left some out intentionally to make you pick up a print edition).
What’s Pat drinking?
Well, I’ve been in Boston and New York City the past week, so there was plenty of eating and drinking.
In Boston, I spent an afternoon at Trillium Brewing Company, indulging in their incredible selection of IPAs, stouts and sours. In New York, I didn’t try a ton of great beer, but I did get to finally eat at the historic Peter Luger Steak House and this awesome vegetable-only restaurant called Dirt Candy (two very different restaurant concepts, I know). I highly recommend both experiences.
Now, finally home in Grand Rapids, I might be trying out the “Drink of the Summer,” which I can’t believe took me this long to mention in this column: the Dirty Shirley.
Who hasn’t enjoyed a Shirley Temple at least once in their life? Well, throw some vodka in there and, boom, there you go (Humboldt Vodka was so kind to remind me that I should tell people about it).
2 ounces vodka
1 ounce grenadine
8 ounces lemon-lime soda
1 maraschino cherry
Fill glass with ice, add vodka and grenadine to the glass, top with the soda and garnish with a cherry. Easy and refreshing!