Happy Hour in the Mitten with Rick Muschiana

Happy Hour in the Mitten with Rick Muschiana

On the eve of final voting for BeerCity USA 2013–a title Grand Rapids would win outright–I went to visit Awesome Mitten favorite, Brewery Vivant to chat with their Abbott of Beer, Rick Muschiana.

 Anyone who hasn’t visited the Vivant’s Grand Rapids brewery is missing out on the most visually appealing bar in the area.  Housed in a converted funeral chapel, the space lends an old world charm that fits with the brewery’s Belgian-style beers.

Rick proved to be one of the best interviewees I have encountered, providing answers that sounded like perfect soundbites without being dull or vague. While I enjoyed our waiter’s recommendation, Midnight Wheat, a darker beer with a good deal of smokiness and earthiness to it, Rick spoke to great lengths about his past, his place at Vivant, BeerCity voting, and what we can expect in the future from Vivant, among other things.

Rick Happy Hour - The Awesome MittenJake:  So what do you do?  Like, what’s your job title, job description, etc.?

Rick:  Well, my job title is the Abbott of Beer, which is a bit of a comedy piece for a lot of people.  It’s tongue in cheek, but a lot of us who work in the back end doing different operational stuff, we try not to take ourselves too seriously.  So I’m “Abbott of Beer,” but I basically take care of sales and marketing, branding, and I do some of the design work for Vivant.  Events, festivals, coordinating, stuff like that. It truly is a different hat every day.

J:  Are you from Grand Rapids originally?

R:  No, I’m from the east side of the state.  I grew up in Frankenmuth, famous for chicken dinners and Christmas decorations.  I’ve actually met a few people who ask me, “Real people live in Frankenmuth?”  Like they think it’s run by elves or something.  I couldn’t wait to get out when I graduated high school because it’s a very small community, but being a little older now, I can really appreciate the value of that kind of small town mentality and a lot of people know each other.  It’s almost like a big family there.

J:  What brought you over here?

R:  I came over here to go to school.  I went to Kendall College of Art and Design.  I graduated from there in 2006, I met my wife there, and after I graduated and we got married, we picked up and moved to the West Coast, to Los Angeles.  It was a big move for us.  We didn’t really want to stay there after staying in downtown L.A.  It really wasn’t for us.  When I was there, there were a lot of great independent startup businesses, a lot of really cool bars, a lot of indie kind of hipster spots out there that were just fantastic.  Still, it was a very desolate place.  When I first moved out there, I didn’t have a car.  I used to ride my bike literally through skid row.  You’ve heard about skid row and the tent cities and people living on the streets?  It’s still a problem with this transient society out there and the place that I worked just happened to be on the other side of that.  I was waiting tables and bartending and eventually moved up to a management position at this really cool gastropub.  But at the end of the night, I’d put my tips–about $200–into my sock and I’d skeedaddle on my bike and ride as fast as I could through the neighborhoods, just trying to get the hell out of there and get home.  It was an interesting time, for sure.  Your eyes really open to the different ways, even in our own country, people are used to living.  Even in a city that large, the different pockets in different neighborhoods–it’s amazing how different they can be.  That’s really where my eyes were opened to the world of beer.  This place that I worked at had all these amazing beers and I got my first taste of true Belgian beers.  They had Chimay white on tap, Unibroue, a few others that were really influential when I first started getting into craft.  This really great guy was working there, and he was my beer mentor so to speak.  He’d be like, “Here try this, try that! Let’s open this crazy bottle.”  And I really developed a taste for Belgian beers, so thank God I work for a Belgian style brewery here in Michigan.  It’s worked out pretty well so far, pretty fortuitous.

J:  So what kind of stuff can we expect to see coming from Vivant in the near future?

R:  We’re coming off of a really great year last year, and this year, as far as the beer goes, we’ve decided to go towards a specialty program for our beer releases.  So, you know, there’s always the spring, summer, winter, fall “tried and true,” follow the course of nature, and make beers appropriate to the season, which we’re going to keep doing some of that stuff. But we don’t necessarily want to term it that way.  We want to say, “this beer is for the spring and early summer, but we don’t call it our spring seasonal or summer seasonal, it’s just the specialty beer that’s out right now.”  So really, with the exception of one or two months, we have a beer release almost every month of the entire year.

J:  Wow!

R:  The Zaison just came out.  Before that we had the Trippel and this month it’s been all about the Big Red Coq, which is one of those beers that because of–or in spite of–it’s name, it’s kind of risen up through the ranks.  And it’s a really excellent beer, and at the end of the day we say, “Well it is our mascot, a giant red rooster.”  We like to have fun with that.  It’s a great example of a beer that started off as this really small, pub-only batch, and Jacob, our head brewer, he does some amazing stuff with our beer. He got these really cool, rare hops in for this beer and what he thought was a one-off has now become our fourth year-round staple and one of our most sought-after beers.  That’s kind of a cool example of the life cycle of a beer and where consumers can really drive what we’re trying to do.  We’re trying to listen to people, what they want, what they’re drinking, what they’re interested in, how much fun they have with the name.  It’s all in the spirit of the brewing industry.

J:  Speaking of the brewing industry, do you think Grand Rapids is going to retain it’s title of “Beer City”?

R:  I think we’re going to come close.  I think there’s much more awareness this year, not only in Grand Rapids, but I think other cities are starting to sit up and pay attention.  I was looking at the comments before you came in; there’s a fierce battle going on there, like a verbal debate.  It’s almost become too much, but may the fairest brewery win, I guess.  I mean, it’s a popularity contest.  It’s supposed to be fun. It’s largely symbolic, I mean, we don’t get a prize or any money with it.  It’s just kind of bragging rights, “Beer City” for a year.  You know it’s all about turning out your people, your beer fans, to vote.  Grand Rapids is creative in the ways they do that, they’re following the guidelines, they’re not cheating–which I don’t know how you can cheat.  They’re just encouraging people to vote on multiple devices, which is totally in the parameters.  Anyone can do that, they’re just doing a great job of promoting it and making sure people are coming out in full force.  They had a great pub crawl that they organized the last three days.  I got to ride along with the mayor on Tuesday.

J:  Really?

R:  Yeah!  He comes in and he’s got a very prominent voice when it comes to walking into a place and he starts clapping, yelling “Beer City, USA!”  People sit around and pay attention.  And we in turn had all sorts of swag and flair to hand out to people.  You could scan a QR code and go right to the website, so I think we’ve got a pretty good shot at it.

J:  I’ve been surprised by how so many people have really embraced the Beer City title from last year.  It’s really just an online poll, and for this city it’s meant a lot.  I mean, the public museum had an exhibit on beer!

R:  Yeah, you never know what the impact would’ve been had we just ignored it or had we not tied, and that’s why people are so passionate about it this year.  They realize how much positivity has come out of that.  Grand Rapids has been growing its presence on the map on a national scale for a while, even before Vivant was here.  West Michigan really, on a wider scale.  It’s just kind of icing on the cake.  Jason got interviewed by Grand Rapids Press or MLive on the effects that he’s seen, and it’s been a real tangible difference, and who’s to say it’s because of Beer City USA title or not, but it definitely helps, right?  All the promotions, all that attention? It all helps.

Happy Hour Rick Muschiana - The Awesome Mitten
Photo courtesy of TheRapidian.org

J:  Why do you think Vivant is having so much success?  So many people come to Grand Rapids for Founders, but everyone I know in this city has the attitude of, “Well yeah, Founders, but you gotta go to Brewery Vivant.”  A lot of people from out of town are still getting to know it, but what do you think it is that’s really drawing this attention?

R:  Yeah, I think that there’s this great mixture of ingredients that our owners Jason and Kris Spaulding have put together and it’s all been super conscious on their part from the beginning and I think that they’ve let the community and the employees really own that.  The people who live and work around Eastown, East Hills, Cherry Hill, this is their community brewery, and that’s the way Jason and Kris wanted it from the beginning.  I think that’s part of the larger appeal of what’s not only going on in Michigan, but our country.  It’s a return to locally mades, a return to artisanal products, knowing who the person is who’s working in the back who made your beer or butchered your steak or whatever.  They can tell you exactly where it came from.  I think that the mixture is there.  The timing is right, the concept has been outstanding, us as employees have tried to execute to very high standards for them and for ourselves, and the product is good!  The beer that these guys are making is absolutely world class.  The food that we’re doing is unique in and of itself and I think it really compliments a lot of the other really cool restaurants in Grand Rapids and what they’re doing.  It’s making people seek out better food, more interesting food.

J:  Why did they put Vivant in this neighborhood [Grand Rapids’ East Hills neighborhood]?

R:  That’s actually an interesting question because Jason was one of the previous owners of New Holland (Brewing Company)–we’re not affiliated or anything, he left the business years ago–but he’s been brewing and involved in the industry for a long time.  I think when he left there (New Holland) he knew he was going to start a brewery again, but the cards had to be right in order for him to do that again.  So he took a number of years off, did various different things, and he did some travelling.  He ended up going to Belgium and Northern France and it seems like that really solidified it for him, to come back and do something in that French/Belgian origin.  So, from what they have said, he came in here and saw this building and just instantly knew that Vivant had to be inside this old funeral chapel where we’re sitting right now.  It just goes so well with the tradition of Belgian brewing.  There’s a lot of monks, monasteries, abbeys–it’s part of the heritage of that genre of beer.  The architecture here, the feel just really recalls that old world tradition, the great beer halls of Germany and Belgium.  We try to bring that to life here, I guess.

J:  I love this space, it’s very awesome.

R:  You wouldn’t believe how many people think it’s a church, and when we tell them it’s a funeral chapel they get a little bit freaked about it.  I was giving a tour to a group about two or three weeks ago, and this girl was on the tour, kind of doing her own thing on her phone or something, and when I told the group it was a funeral chapel for a really long time, she started to freak out, saying “Oh my God!  If I would’ve known that dead people were brought in here I never would have come in…”  There’s people that get a little bit freaked out by that, but we’ve had some really cool kind of experiences with that, too.  One of the first days we opened, this guy comes in here–and he still comes in here to this day, he’s a regular–and he said this was the last place that he ever saw his father.  When he was fourteen or fifteen his father passed away and he was at the funeral here and that was the last time he was in this building until it opened up as a brewery.  So he came in and had a beer.  He was by himself and he raised one to his dad.  And he was thrilled that we had made new on this building and renovated it. Your question was “why here?”  and it was part of also revitalizing the neighborhood.  A lot of the shops and businesses on this street have been here longer than we have.  It’s been great seeing and being part of the blossoming of the neighborhood.

§

Happy Hour Rick Muschiana - The Awesome Mitten
Photo courtesy of Brewery Vivant.

J:  So what are your favorite things to do around town?

R:  I don’t know, that’s tough.  I’m really divided in this, because when my wife and I moved back to Grand Rapids after living in Chicago for two years between L.A. and moving back here, we lived on Cherry Street really close to Vivant.  But now we’ve moved over to the west side of Grand Rapids, and I’m really torn because there’s a lot of cool stuff on both sides of the river.  I think Putt-Putts is a really interesting place to drink, you get a really huge mix in there but they have a lot of great beer.  The Monarch’s Club is kind of one of those low-key places where you can get a really quality draft and awesome Grand Rapids-style hot dog.

J:  I’ve never been there.  No one I know ever suggests going to the west side.

R:  Like “No one ever comes back from the west side…”

J:  I mean, I went and tried Mitten Brewing, but other than that…

R:  Yeah, Mitten Brewing is a fantastic new place to drink.  It seems like just in the last couple of months they’re really getting their sea legs, really establishing their draft list.  The menu is nice and simple.  I mean, who doesn’t love pizza and good craft beer?  So they’re definitely on my list.  I try to make it out there at least a couple times a month.  This side of town, I really love Logan’s Alley, they’ve just been huge supporters since we opened.  Those guys always have a phenomenal draft list, and it just has that pub feel that you want.

J:  It’s so small in there!  It’s nice and cozy.

R:  Yeah, it’s small, it’s kind of dark, they’ve got that great beer garden on the side.  I don’t know how they built that, with so many beers and that type of clientele.

§

R:  I forget what the statistic is, but craft beer is a segment, all craft breweries, all the microbreweries, they’re still just a section of what domestic beer is.  So that’s another reason why people can really attach themselves to what’s going on and try craft beer when they’re on vacation, try craft beer when they’re out west or out east.  No matter where you go, you’re helping out the local community.  I mean, Budweiser is no longer owned by an American company; they’re owned by AB-InBev in the Netherlands, or Belgium. But they’re a huge multinational conglomerate.  They’ve got so many other things going on, and that’s really who we’re up against.  Going back to people bitching about Kalamazoo or Grand Rapids for Beer City, I mean, at the end of the day, we’re all really in it together to raise ourselves up and level the playing field with the Budweiser, the Miller, or the Coors of the world.

Tagged , , , , , .

Jake Cagle is a contributing writer for The Awesome Mitten. Born in Adrian, Michigan, he has been a longtime resident of Grand Rapids. He graduated from Grand Valley State University. Jake's work has also been featured on The Rapidian, MittenBrew.com, Visit Detroit Blog, and Pure Michigan's blog, as well as his personal website, jacobcagle.com.