As we're all well aware by this point, Detroit has been colorfully painted as the decrepit, overgrown, fallen-from-grace wasteland. But just as trendy as it was to share ruin-porn photos of the Motor City in recent years, it's now just as hip to cover it's recent resurgence. Detroit is encountering a bit of a renaissance period. Full of reclaimed spaces, new infrastructure, renovation like you wouldn't believe and a distinctly bohemian spirit. Among these entrepreneurs looking to bring new life to the neighborhood is Stephen Roginson, founder and brewer at Batch Brewing Company in Corktown (an enclave once famous for housing Tiger Stadium).
As a corporate marketer turned homebrewer, Stephen found himself in a position of great opportunity when he was awarded the Hatch Detroit small business grant to begin buildout of his brewspace. After a successful crowd-funding campaign, second space relocation, and recruitment of an old friend (Jason Williams) back to the city to become a partner – Batch has been pushing full steam to open their doors, in Detroit's oldest neighborhood. We were able to coax Stephen and Jason out for a couple beers after a day of working on their buildout, to talk about the support and tribulations they've had along the way, as they aim to become only Detroit's fifth brewery.
How did you get started?
Stephen: I've been homebrewing since I was about 19, and I moved from the suburbs [Royal Oak, MI] to the city. Homebrewing in the city is difficult when you live in a loft. So, I started looking for a place to create. I found a co-working space for displaced homebrewers, because there were other people like me that didn't have a place to brew.
What part of town were you setup in?
Stephen: Up in Midtown. After poking around and looking into the legal and logistics behind it, I was going to have to get a brewer's license regardless so I said, "Fuck it, let's open a brewery!" – and I started looking for a location. I was introduced to a great individual and we started making plans for our [previous] location. I launched a crowd-funding campaign, and we raised about $25,000 on IndieGoGo. About halfway through the campaign, my old buddy Jason here reached out. We'd known each other for years...
Jason: I was living in St. Louis at the time.
Stephen: In the crowd-funding campaign he reached out and said, "I want to come back to Detroit. I'm sick of my job in St. Louis, I want to be a part of this." He came back and we entered Hatch Detroit – which is a business incubator contest, for new brick-and-mortar storefronts specifically. Two hundred businesses enter, and after that it's a crowd vote. So after that it was a hustle. It was a long summer.
Jason: I was out in front of Tigers games handing out stickers with the information on how to vote on the back. We hustled about as much as you could hustle.
Can you talk more about Hatch?
Stephen: Yea it's a business incubator contest sponsored by Comerica and the Detroit Lions. It is an organization that creates a fund to help new small businesses to launch in the city.
Jason: It started with two guys who basically were sitting around having a drink one day and they said, "How do we help spur growth in Detroit? How do we bring small businesses back?" They said they wrote the Hatch business plan on a napkin that night. "This is what we want to do, this is how we want to improve people, this is the kind of thing we want to do" – and they executed it. They're great guys. Outside of gifting us $50,000, and a host of other things that come along with that, they're just good guys.
What did you do the night you won?
Stephen: We went out for a couple of drinks...
Jason: ...drove down Woodward with the radio blaring, windows down – very loud. That was a surreal moment. It was one of the moments when you can't relive how great we felt. We went to the Bronx, had a beer, and that was it.
You killed it with the Detroit Tigers hat in the Michigan Beer Film.
Stephen: We genuinely are Detroit dorks. We are dorky about the community we are a part of – everything that's happening down here with the entrepreneurs, the new restaurants, and the new scene that's been happening for a lot of years. We're newbies compared to some of the people that have been planting roots down here but we are planting deep roots in Detroit. [Jason] moved back here, he's living in southwest Detroit. I've been in Midtown for four and half years. I'll spend the balance of my life in this city. It's awesome to be a part of this town as it's reinventing itself.
Jason: Detroit is in a renaissance period. It's artistic, It's beautiful, it's creative, and we're happy here. The people who want to be here are here for a reason. There was a joke back in the day that even the cockroaches had left Detroit. Like there was nothing left to see down here. And it's sorta true; so now it's a blank slate and you can tear, and rebuild it, and do whatever you want with it.
What's the biggest obstacle you have faced during this process?
Jason: Moving from the other location we had planned [in Corktown on Michigan Avenue]. The owner of the property had some problems with what he had to do, and we came to a point where we could either keep waiting, and waiting...and waiting – or go get this operation open. We have obligations to Hatch, our crowd-funders, and a lot of other people. The crowd-funding campaign ended nearly a year ago. [Stephen] had a crowd-funding party and he made beer and invited them all in. But that's not what they funded it for. They funded it for the location. They want to go there so you have an obligation to these people to produce.
Where are you guys now?
Stephen: We're at 1400 Porter, still in Corktown. It's an old building called the Porter Street Station built in the 70's. It was a bar that used to be where the 80's Tigers hung out, it was a disco. It was a bar and restaurant. After old Tiger Stadium left it faded out of existence. It's been shut down for a couple years, so we found the place in a pinch when we lost the other location. We purchased it on a land contract, and we're in the middle of building it out right now. We are shooting for a late fall opening...
Have you run into any zoning issues?
Stephen: The only zoning issue we are running into is the "Special Land Uses". Right now it is supposed to be used as a bar/restaurant. Since we want to use it as a brewery, we are asking for a slightly different use. We have to go for a hearing. It's already zoned as a "Controlled Use," a place where it's licensed. The city looks at number of licenses in a concentrated area, they actually have been using our building as part of that equation so we don't have to worry about concentration.
So they are pretty accommodating?
Stephen: You know what, everyone talks shit about how hard it is to work with the City of Detroit...
Jason: They are adapting to change, they understand what is going on in the city – they have a good grasp of it. They're changing laws to make it easier.
Stephen: I've had nothing but luck. Tonya Stapleton in the zoning office has been amazing. Jane Murphy over there as well. They're trying to come up with all these new lean policies, like really streamlined. Like, "this is what I want to accomplish," – there's a clear path on how to get your paperwork from A to B so it doesn't sit on someone's desk for six months. We won't have that process for us, but we are fortunate enough to have advocates helping us.
Do you think Hatch has helped that process a little bit?
Stephen: Certainly that's given us some notoriety but we haven't tried to yield it as any kind of political clout but people have become aware of what we wanted to accomplish because of it. Half the battle is awareness, people have to be aware that you exist and what you do. Otherwise, you have no chance of getting them to your door.
We've been pretty fortunate with the amount of attention we've gotten. Mashable did a piece on us [mini-documentary series called Setting Up Shop], that was great. And, along with Hatch, we are going to have a lot of local and national coverage while opening. Most businesses aren't that fortunate. What business that's not open yet has that much awareness as we do? It's crazy.
Jason: I don't do well with interviews and a camera in my face...Stephen is the guy for that. Mashable did an interview with me and I don't even know what I said. They would say something and I would just take that and run with it – and they'll cut it however they want to I guess. [laughing].
Being a nanobrewery in Detroit just starting out, how are you building relationships? Have you had help with breweries that are already here?
Stephen: I come to the beer world as an enthusiast, as a fucking beer dork. I've been into beer since it was not cool to go to beer festivals and go to breweries and sit and annoy the brewer. I've been doing that since I was old enough to drink. I was fortunate enough when I started drinking beer that it was craft beer.
Jason: [To Stephen] Ironically, when I used to see your band play you played at Bell's [Eccentric Cafe]!
Stephen: We used to play in the beer garden in the back and in the winter we played inside. I'm just a beer dork, so I've spent time in a lot of breweries just getting in people's way. Picking their brains and talking to people and building relationships. I worked with this beverage company for a while where I got to sponsor the Michigan Brewer's Guild Festival for a couple years – and I was just fortunate. I got to be around beer as an enthusiast and get an all-access pass. So I've got a lot of support. Right across the park from us, Brew Detroit is a huge contract-brewer and their brewer worked with Atwater forever. I've known him for 15 years. The owner of Atwater, Mark, has been really generous with us. Motor City Brewing Works has also been really generous with us.
Beyond that, throughout the state, Tim Selewski at Royal Oak Brewery is a buddy of mine and someone I consider a mentor. We will be doing a lot of collaborations. I hope to bring in all these brewers that I've known for years to brew a beer together and throw events. When you're a "nano" you need to be doing different stuff to keep people talking about you and thinking about you.
Can you describe your beer lineup?
Stephen: We're focusing on session beers actually. We will do a couple big beers, too. We will do some big IPA's as well; people love a big sticky, flowery, aromatic, stinky, 8% IPAs. But everyone does that. We're kinda doing the antithesis: 4-6% ABV beers. Clean, quaffable, easy-drinking– the kind you drink when the beer is so fuckin' awesome, ya wanna to keep drinking it. And then the next time you try something else, you say this beer is so fuckin' awesome I want to keep drinking it! That's what I want to have a lineup of: beers that are drinkable and when you drink one, it just makes you want to drink another.
Jason: Stephen makes a beer I'm obsessed with. He wants to make it a seasonal beer and I'm not happy about it. I think I'm going to stockpile it at the house [laughing].
How do you go about naming your beers?
Jason: Something hilarious.
Stephen: Humor is certainly part of it but I also really think that putting the actual style and ingredients in the name so people know what they are drinking is a lot of fun. While I get down with all the hop puns out there, I would like to come up with a hop pun name that makes fun of all the hop pun names. But I'm just not clever enough to figure it out yet...but I'll wordsmith something that's gonna make fun of all the "Hoptacular"s.
Stephen: We will do events where everyone names a beer. Everyone has that flash of brilliance and I'd like to have people flash their brilliance on the beer. We have a brown ale that used to be called something else that's now called something else even. Names are up in the air right now. I'm not worried about it.
Is there any story on how you landed on the name Batch?
Stephen: I was a homebrewer and I knew I was going to open a very small-batch brewery. I was planning on brewing 10 gallons at a time, and that was it. That's where it came from. Turns out there is another Batch Brewing Company, in Australia. We know each other now because I will get tweets from them and they'll get tweets from us, funnily enough. So we are going to do a collaboration beer together. That will be lots of fun to do something across the pond. We could do a blend of Michigan hops and Australian hops – and we share the same yeast strain. That would be fun.
If you're not drinking what you're brewing, what's in your fridge?
Stephen: I tend to buy as much Michigan beer as I can, especially stuff that I haven't heard of. If I walk into a good beer store that has Michigan beer, the first thing I look for is something I haven't tried. Honestly, my fridge is pitifully bare right now. The last I bought was an OddSide beer I think... Paw Paw Brewing is great. Darkhorse is great. Actually the last 6-pack I bought was Dark Horse. It was the Smells Like a Safety Meeting.
Yea, we're lucky to get a bunch of Dark Horse her win Chicago, too.
Stephen: Yeah those guys are great.
Jason: Greenbush is one of my favorites in Michigan, too. My favorite part of the Michigan Beer Film was the coverage of their story. It made a lot of sense to cover what they were doing. They started smaller and they actually showed them being able to expand.
Stephen: There is an exploding scene in Traverse City right now and the Northern Michigan area. Right Brain Brewery... We are pretty spoiled for beer in Michigan but we are not in Detroit. There's plenty of beer distributed here but there are only four breweries in Detroit. We are going to be the fifth brewery. Detroit has an amazing history but right now it's just: Motor City, Atwater, Brew Detroit, and Traffic Jam & Snug.
Because of that, there will be some interest – and we will be able to grow.
Since the interview, Stephen and Jason have been luring at several Michigan Brewers Guild events, as well as teamed up on a collaboration beer (a barley wine named "2 Biggie") with Greenbush Brewing. Batch has been pushing full steam on the renovation and are planning to open this Fall.
They've no doubt had their share of logistical hurdles along the way, but it'll just make Batch that much sweeter when they open their doors. Thanks to the guys for meeting us, impromptu, at Green Dot Stables for a few beers earlier this summer to tell their story. Stay up to speed on Batch's growth on Facebook and Twitter.
Photography provided by Batch Brewing Co.