3 Things I Learned From the Great Lakes Hops & Barley Conference 2019

Our main source of sugar at the distillery so far has been unmalted wheat that we get milled for us not far from the distillery (thanks to the Cereal City down the street).  That means instead of having the dreamy relationship with the growers and maltsters that I once thought we would have, we skip a few steps (we can’t do everything, can we?) and buy flour when we need to make a new batch of our handmade spirits.  BUT the brewers have been using malted barley for eons (and we can learn a lot from the brewers) so I decided to apply for a scholarship from our beloved Fermenta, to learn more about barley.  I was one of the lucky winners of the scholarship (recipient bio here) so we packed our bags and headed due north to Traverse City for the weekend. 

Of course, I had a whole lot of ideas of what I thought I’d learn about and some preliminary questions to ask but was quite pleasantly surprised by the deluge of information above and beyond my expectations.  Again, this was a brewer’s conference, the keynote talk was given by the leader of the Michigan Brewer’s Association and there was a hop track to the conference as well (read: only brewers allowed).  But I basically brew beer, then I just pump it to my still to get at the ethanol, so why wouldn’t I go to learn more about how to brew (and taste) better beer, and ask some distilling questions along the way?  Here are a few things I learned at the conference:

  1. Community is everything.  One of the driving factors for getting into distilling for us was the warm welcome we received from the distilling community, even very early on when we were practically two goofy kids with a lot of questions.  At this conference, I quickly became singled out as one of the only distillers in the room, for better or worse.  Hands down, the best way to learn is to be among (and ask questions of) the scientists, farmers, maltsters, and other entrepreneurs and that is where I was.  One of my biggest surprises was all the agricultural understanding that I had been missing.  Another was the lack of presence of distillers at the conference.  I made new friends that I’d feel comfortable calling on when I run in to surprises (and we often seem to), and that makes me rest a bit easier.  Afterall, it takes a village, right?
  2. You have to go.  Make it work.  Having been awarded the scholarship lessened the financial burden of attending this conference, and the short distance away from the distillery/home plus it being a short twoish day conference lessened the time commitment burden.  But the time spent learning about innovative ideas that could help propel our small business forward was worth so much more to us than the dollars missed from not mashing/distilling/bottling/selling/thanking/blogging/creating analytical reports or the few hours we missed grinding away.  I wear more hats than I ever could have imagined as an entrepreneur but getting away to reset and talk to like-minded individuals (while it was not exactly a Caribbean vacation), felt like the best medicine to inspire a tired mind.  I’m now convinced that it’s ever important to make it work to attend conferences like these as we trudge forward.
  3. Learning helps you grow.  Even if a “bigger” business isn’t the goal, innovation, higher efficiencies, and creativity all make for a better work day and hopefully, a more successful business.  Some of that I just can’t learn without networking and learning from others.  There will always be more to read, more to be inspired by, more podcasts to listen to, more trials to run, but nothing really replaces sitting at a seminar and networking with others. 

They say that comparison is the thief of joy but I think connection and interacting with other like-minded individuals is one of the creators of joy.  So for me, attending this year’s conference was an eye-opening, extremely beneficial and truly enjoyable experience that I hope to repeat for  years to come. 

Available statewide

All of our spirits are available at the distillery, and we will have regular hours posted beginning in December.  Call the distillery line if you want to be sure to catch us before then (206) 376-0937.  You will soon be able to search on our Where to Buy page to see if your local bar/restaurant, grocery, beverage establishment carries us.  We are now available statewide so get out there and ask your favorite places to order Kalamazoo Stillhouse Spirits!  And thank you for supporting us.

Vodka release

It’s official, our first release is vodka!  As distillers, this is a big accomplishment for us because not all craft distilleries are equipped to make vodka, grain to glass, and we always knew we wanted to be able to, so here it is!  Our 100% wheat vodka is triple distilled and filtered, from locally sourced and milled grain with notes of butterscotch and vanilla (that’s just the wheat, no added flavors in our process).   This subtle-sweet spirit mixes well in a Mule, a vodka Martini, a Bloody Mary, or it can be used to make any number of liqueurs.  Some even sip it neat.

Na Zdrowie! Prost! Salute! A La Votre! Cheers!

Why ‘honest spirits. local people’?

Honest spirits. Local people.
That’s our mantra at Kalamazoo Stillhouse. We make spirits HONESTLY. That is, we start with Michigan grown grain, almost exclusively wheat, and complete every step of the process until bottling on site, using the authentic distilling techniques that our ancestors have used generation after generation. We are LOCAL people. We were born and raised here and there’s no place we’d rather grow our company than our hometown. We are not just locally “grown”, we also source and support local businesses as much as possible. Even our t-shirts are printed down the street.

Community-Earth day 2017

Our preschool family is one of the coolest groups of people in the world to us.  From birthday parties to “so what’s new at the Stillhouse today?” check-ins, to “where do I get one of those t-shirts?”, we’ve not felt more loved and supported by a group of people who were strangers just a few short months ago.  That’s one of the reasons why when the annual fundraiser showed up on our calendar, we worked out a way for the Stillhouse to be one of the sponsors of the event.   It’s still a little baffling to think of our business being a sponsor of an event but what a great time to foray into giving back via entrepreneurship in Kalamazoo, than the present?  I spent years going to summer camps at the Nature Center and then volunteering at the DeLano Homestead through young adulthood.  And Nic could spend all day outside whether tinkering with one of his many motorthings, installing car roof racks to carry fun adventure cargo at his “day job” or teaching our girls the basics of picking a great walking stick.  It seems quite natural to contribute to our preschool family by joining the fun this way.

Proceeds from the Earth Day event went to further the awesome early childhood development programming that our girls have had the privilege to be a part of since they were tiny.  Thank you to all of you who joined us Saturday April 22 (2017) to celebrate Earth Day, our beloved Kalamazoo Nature Center, and our community for some outdoor play and learning time.

 

The elephant in the room-inaugural post-welcome to the blog!

Nic on the day we were playing tetris with the equipment before finalizing some layout decisions.  In this picture, from left to right are the still, two fermenters and the cooker.

We have two “elephants” (six, if you count the fermenters).  These tanks are huge and heavy, they’re silver (stainless steel), they sometimes make loud noises, they even have funny feet.  See?  There really are  parallels between our equipment and elephants.  But that’s not really where the title of this post came from.  The title comes from the question that has been on repeat since we finally said outloud what we were planning on “doing with our time” and maybe even “making a living”: when is the grand opening?

One answer:  soon.  It’s not really that accurate now, nor will it be accurate in a few weeks because in truth, soon means within our lifetime, but not next week.

Another answer:  when the time is right and everything finally falls in to place.  Here’s a short list of some of the things we’ve accomplished:  buildings purchased, big time demolition and clean out of distillery and hospitality spaces, new entry side door in building, existing bathroom upgrade 85% completed, streetside mural completed, major distilling equipment and boiler 95% installed, had a successful Bronson Park Gin event last Fall, new fire-rated boiler room, permits and licenses all either approved or pre approved (pending final walk throughs), LOTS of branding like business cards, signs, t-shirts, packaging/label approvals etc., 4+ conferences attended to collect information/network, … And here’s a list of what we have yet to accomplish:  production, stockpiling sips so we don’t run out too fast, and opening our doors to share our craft.

SO, are we “open yet”? No.  And it sure pains us to say so BUT “doing it right” takes a while sometimes, building a business takes time, and so if we hadn’t chosen such a regulated business, the timeline might be different but here we are.

Signed,

Accomplished, Hopeful, Determined, and Trucking along.

 

Before we unwrapped the cooker, as it sat under the crude fluorescent lights (also replaced).