Cheers to 25 years

New Holland Brewing celebrates a big anniversary in October with an eye toward the future
New Holland Brewery courtesy photo

Brett VanderKamp is steadfast in his push to make New Holland Brewing Company one that lasts for the ages.

It’s already fair to say few Michigan breweries have impacted the brewing world like New Holland has in its first 25 years. The brewery’s Dragon’s Milk Bourbon Barrel Aged Stout helped define a category as the first to hit shelves year-round.

Founded in 1997 in Holland, New Holland has spread its beers to more than 40 states and opened a massive facility in Grand Rapids and soon will have an outpost in Battle Creek, as well.

To celebrate, there will be a big party in October at the Holland pub, 66 E. 8th St., but VanderKamp is ready to keep exploring the possibilities for the company.

In its first 25 years, the craft beer industry has exploded and changed course multiple times as the new “it” styles shifted. VanderKamp said it will continue to evolve and he’s ready for the challenge of navigating the waters.

“It’s a never-ending journey,” he said. “It’s interesting to look

at brands that are navigating and, I don’t mean, it’s hard to check ego out of it, but if you look across the spectrum of breweries, it’s interesting to observe the landscape as opposed to 10 years ago and the people who said I’ll never sell, to a point of marketing it that way and get loyal followers.

“There is something to be said about a founder-led organization. I’m not going to say I’ll never sell, but we’re building a company for 100 years.”

Plenty of breweries popped up after New Holland made its debut and then grew larger. Some of those breweries now are owned by multinational conglomerations. Others are closed.

New Holland’s growth has been more measured, a bit slower paced to keep tabs on the product heading out into the market.

That also has allowed the company to keep shifting its offerings. The strategy involves pushing Dragon’s Milk to the current status of 75% of the overall beer portfolio to make it the keystone of a growing portfolio of beers, as well as touting more products from its distillery — another branch of the company’s growth over the past quarter-century.

And while its products can be found in much of the country, VanderKamp said he believes the future of the company might return to its roots.

“I am really excited about the on-premises business again.

The reason we started it 25 years ago was it was a desert of establishments to go hang out and have a beer,” he said. “These are strange times, there is a bizarre mood out there. But when I reflect on 25 years and where we were, it’s really back in those four walls that gave us stability and the ethos for what we’re trying to do.

“On-premises is an exciting place to experiment and get direct consumer feedback.”

As it turns out, that consumer feedback is accepted and acted upon by the New Holland team. One of its long-time flagship brands, Mad Hatter, was put to bed.

It was a difficult decision for VanderKamp to kill one of the brewery’s iconic brands. But it was a read on the massive market of Centennial hopped IPAs in the Midwest.

“The challenge was the beers we were competing against with that beer, like Two Hearted, the Founders portfolio of Centennial IPA and All Day, Huma Lupa from Short’s, not to mention Goose Island IPA,” VanderKamp said. “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 gaining traction in the market.

“It’s hard. There are people out there, my wife included, who, it was their favorite beer. But the numbers tell a different story.”

In Mad Hatter’s place in the portfolio, New Holland elevated Tangerine Space Machine, a citrusy, hazy IPA that is growing nearly 50% this year, according to VanderKamp.

The New Holland restaurants also give a hint to what could be coming down the pipeline. VanderKamp said the tasting rooms allow New Holland to spot trends before they’re fully in the commercial mainstream — and that is where he said people are simply drinking more spirits.

“I would not have foreseen that when we started to be open to that idea,” he said.

Between the success New Holland sees with its spirits and the dominance within its portfolio of Dragon’s Milk and its variants, VanderKamp said that information leads the way in how the innovation team looks at products.

“I always want to give oxygen to things, things they think might never scale,” he said. “I can always point back at Dragon’s Milk. We never thought that it was going to be what it is. If you help create a market, you can be the market.

“People releasing beers, they’re doing it in such small quantities the consumer is trained to look at what’s next so (brewers) don’t give a brand the time to get a toehold. And honestly, I think we’ve missed on some brands by not giving it time.”

Keeping that in mind, VanderKamp said he thinks Dragon’s Milk can keep growing — even beyond the Origin Small Batch Bourbon that launched this spring.

Oddly enough, he said he believes its potential lay dormant in consumer minds. “There is such rich storytelling behind Dragon’s Milk, even the term predates modern English,” he said. “So somewhere, in our generational memory — and I really believe that — it evokes much more than the liquid inside the bottle.

“And I don’t think we’ve explored all of where that brand can go. It can go further with what is in the consciousness of our friends.”

Along with continuing to grow current and future brands, VanderKamp said he also believes New Holland can help some of the societal issues communities are suffering from today.

“It’s interesting where we’re at as a society and we seem so divided and it never feels like we’ve been more polarized,” he said. “For the next 25 years, I think we have a role to play in bringing people together within our four walls to facilitate conversation in a disarming way.”

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