Founder Chat: Tim Suprise of Arcadia Ales

KALAMAZOO, MI

To wrap up our West Michigan beer tour, we had to the chance to meet up with one of the state's craft trailblazers. Tim Surprise has been part of the beer scene for well over two decades, and began Arcadia Ales 18 years ago in 1996 out of Battle Creek (even giving nod to the city's cereal heritage). 

Meanwhile, Kalamazoo is no stranger to great brews either; it's already finished near the top of a few annual 'Beer City' lists. So, it wasn't a huge surprise when the Arcadia team chose the city as their location to expand into a sparkly new 30,000 SF facility. Influenced by British-style ales, the brewery has long been practicing open fermentation. But now, not only will they have the space and equipment to explore other brewing processes – but also other styles, products, yeast strains, and of course: up production. None of this a small feat for a brewery, who despite their regional presence, was still bottling and packaging manually. Amid this expansion and during the week of their grand opening, Tim took time out of his busy schedule to welcome us in to see how it's all coming together... 

This is quite the space you have here. What made you decide to expand beyond Battle Creek? Why Kalamazoo?

We've been making British-inspired beers for 18 years now. They're sold throughout what is now eight states. In 2011, we identified the need for more space, more capacity. We were quickly coming up against our physical space and brewing capacity in Battle Creek. So, we began a process of investigating where we could expand. We looked in the city of Battle Creek where, obviously we'd already been maintaining operations. We also looked at Grand Rapids, and then here in Kalamazoo. This property was one of the properties that the city Economic Development team really felt strongly about for our particular project. After about a 90-day process of reviewing various options in those three communities, we selected this site.

Was there anything here before?

No, this'd been vacant pretty much since the 1970's. For about 70 years it was a coal-burning electric plant, generating electricity – and a lot of pollution. This was a really challenged ground-site for that reason. After the city took over possession of it in about 2000, they did about a 1/2 million dollars worth of work to clean it up. It had been vacant and the city had passed on a couple different projects that had been slated to come in here. Then, we came along and we officially broke ground in July of 2012 – but didn't really begin construction until March of 2013. We ran into a lot of issues when we got into the ground ourselves, based on the existing infrastructure and the below-grade mess that we had to address. It took us about six to nine months longer than we anticipated. But at the end of the day what you see here is a 30,000 SF facility. That includes about a 5,000 SF pub and eatery, and about 400 ft. of Kalamazoo Riverfront. We're going to turn that into a big beer garden. We'll have an outdoor venue that will include a stage, outdoor cabana for food and beverages – and everything from an outdoor fire pit, a Bocce court, a putting green for disc golf, and raised flower and vegetable beds.

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What about the interior? There's a lot of character here.

The bar was custom-fabricated by a local craftsman. And the wood planks that you see sunk into the floor of the bar space have also been used in the construction of these drink rails; and the trim on the front and back bars. Those've also been used to make a couple of the tables in there. They were the original floor joists from the City of Kalamazoo's first city hall; then known as Cooperation Hall. We reclaimed them, and after three trailer-loads and hauling to a storage facility, we found a way to put'em into use in our facility. We've got a little bit of the city's history in our building.

But anyway, let's take a walk through the brewery...

This system is huge, and absolutely beautiful. How does this differ from your setup in Battle Creek?

The Peter Austin system we have in Battle Creek is old school. It reflects 250+ years of brewing heritage. Everything is completely hand-operated valves. The most automation is a central panel for pump 'on' and 'off' switches. When the mash lauter tun has to get emptied, it's physically dug out by our brewers. Every bag of grain gets emptied into the hopper by hand. But we're still brewing and it's still making great beer for us.

On this project we wanted to add some modern technology to become a little more efficient. And along the way if it helped us produce consistently higher quality product, then that's what we're after. What we have here is a 50-barrel Sprinkman brewhouse from Wisconsin. We're very happy with the work that those guys did for us. This is an over-sized mash lauter tun. It's sized for about 62 barrels but it's over-sized purposefully to give us the full volume that we're looking for, particularly on some of higher gravity beers. If we get a beer that's in our existing system that's big gravity, we can hit the gravity, but our volume is low. We don't quite get the full 25 barrels on that system. Here, we'll be able to get full volume on even our bigger gravity beers because we have enough room to put extra grain in there and get the full volume.

Overall, it's a classic three-vessel brewhouse; meaning: mash lauter tun, brew kettle, and whirlpool. We anticipate being able to turn this brewhouse with two people, four times in a day – which would give us the equivalent of about 200 barrels production daily.

We'd read that you practice open fermentation. How can that change a beer, if it was being brewed as 'open' versus 'closed' fermentation?

Open fermentation is quite distinct. And it's typically done in coordination to a particular strain of yeast, which is in and of itself conducive to open fermentation. Our yeast strain that we use here and in Battle Creek – the only yeast strain that we use, actually – originated in England in 1971. That's the Ringwood Yeast. And, uh...we're on generation eight, maybe ten or somewhere abouts. We found a particular niche with that specific strain, and it works very well with open fermentation.

Here, we've got three 100-barrel open fermenters (by the time of publication, four 50-barrels from Battle Creek were added). Once the others are added, it will give us an initial capacity, in this brewery, of about 20,000 barrels. With room to grow, this place is sized to accommodate up to 60,000 barrels eventually.

Here in Kalamazoo – for the first time – we’ll have the chance to actually develop a little inventory

Was the purpose of this new space mostly to up production, or was it also to experiment a bit?

Well, the purpose of this facility was definitely to give us extra capacity. Now that we have two brewing systems, it affords us a lot of flexibility that we didn't have in the past. One other element to this will be, as we grow and add additional tanks, we'll probably be adding some unitank fermenters. And that will be closed fermentation. That would potentially enable us to add a second, or different, strain of yeast. So, we'll continue to grow our core line of products. And for now, we'll be sticking to the same original yeast strain and open fermentation. But here, we can move from fermentation to conditioning – in a second room, this way. In this conditioning room we've also got room to grow. So, this is where the unitanks would go if we ever wanted to expand product line, and make, say a German Hefeweizen...or a Belgian Golden, or even a lager. So, we could maintain our open-versus-closed fermentation integrity, as well as the yeast strain integrity.

And how often are you brewing here already?

Well, like I said, we're just getting started here. So, maybe twice a week right now, because we've yet to commission the entire packaging line just yet. But we do have the keg cleaner/filler here that is capable of filling 60 half-barrels in an hour. This will probably give us all the keg-filling capacity that we'll ever need. It's a nice piece of equipment that we're really excited about.

And, for the first time in 18 years, it's not the Laverne & Shirley show here at Arcadia. We've got a fully-automated bottling and packaging system. It will de-pallet the glass then come across the conveyor. They'll then get sanitized, dried, labeled, date-coded and dropped into the package. Also, we've now got the size and space to keep not just our kegs cold, but our final packaged product cold.

How quickly have you had to turn-over your packaged product in Battle Creek to make room for the next?

Well, thankfully, we've been selling as much beer as we could make over the last couple years. So, I don't know if anyone's had fresher beer going on the distributors' trucks than us. Often times, the beer's getting bottled, palletized, and loaded on the truck in the same day. So, here in Kalamazoo – for the first time – we'll have the chance to actually develop a little inventory!

So, we see you guys in the local bottle shops around Chicago, and obviously all over Michigan. But where else is Arcadia?

Yep, we're currently throughout Michigan. And we're primarily in the metropolitan Chicago area. We're a little bit down south in Southern Illinois, and in Missouri. We're in Kentucky. We're in Northern Ohio and also in the Pittsburgh and Philly markets..and also in New Jersey. But we've just recently added Indiana – which has been great for us – and also Kansas. So, we'll be very very measured and deliberate about how we add a geographical footprint. Because, I'd rather sell it all, and as close as I can, to the Midwest where the beer will stay freshest; as opposed to sending it to all four corners of the U.S. and hoping for the best. Although, we will still look at a couple other select markets, given the new capacity – but that will be after we guarantee our current markets get their fill.

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You have a very strong consistency and brand here with Arcadia. The illustration alone has become so identifiable. Is that something that you've been particularly conscious of building over time? 

Well, I would be remiss if I didn't give credit to our graphic design 'team'. They're actually out of Chicago – Grip Design. So, all of these 'brands,' or labels, had images similar to these when we engaged Grip. But they're the ones that came up with this fresher interpretation that you see now. And that was within the last few years. They're a really great group. 

Alright, we ask everybody – if you're not drinking Arcadia, what's in your fridge?

Ohhh, that's a tough question. Hmm, well, I feel like most of us in this business spend a lot of time drinking 'our own' – whether at the brewery or out promoting our product. It's not often, at least at my house, that you won't find just Arcadia in the fridge. But I will say, I have been really fond of Belgian Ales. And over the years I've become very familiar with the Unibroue products, out of Chambly in Montreal. So, I guess if I'm not drinking an Arcadia, I'm likely drinking a fine Belgian – maybe La Fin Du Monde or something like that.

Ever done any collaborations?

Yea, ya know, we actually did one a few years ago. In fact, our Rapunzel was originally a collaboration we did with the guys from Redwood Lodge, a brewpub over in Flint. We brought that beer to the Craft Brewers Conference in Chicago a few years ago and it was a hit. So, now it's part of the regular lineup. That's the beer that will, almost-exclusively, this year be made with Michigan hops. That was the only collaboration beer we've ever done. I'm kinda holding out. We have a couple buddies in the industry – now that this facility is here – might be able to explore some of those opportunities with us. I can't tell you much more than that right now, but we're hoping at least to have one more at some point this year...

Well, we will definitely be on the lookout for that! And thank you again for meeting us on-the-fly and showing us this beautiful new space. We're certainly excited to see Arcadia and this Michigan scene grow. A we'll let ya get back to work – we're gonna tackle some of these flights...

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Cheers to Tim for fitting us in last minute, mid-grand-opening, to chat and give us the tour. If you somehow were not familiar with the brewery before, be sure to keep an eye out for their beautifully-illustrated bottles on shelves around the Midwest. Or, make like us and get on over to Kalamazoo for a beer weekend.

Stay on top of the brewery by following them on Facebook and Twitter. Visit them in person at their new facility & taproom at 701 E. Michigan Avenue in Kalamazoo, Michigan.