Back in 2008, E.T. Crowe’s neighbor, Trevor Thrall, plunked down some bottles of beer on Crowe’s dining room table. He and his friend Matt Roy had brewed it, and they wanted her help marketing it. A couple years, a lot of hard work, and one head brewer later, Wolverine State Brewing Co. opened in the former Big George’s warehouse.
Crowe says “a lot went into the thought process” of locating the brewery on the west side. Though partially hidden from view, it’s on a main drag a mile from U-M stadium. Trivia nights, live music, foosball, darts, and a party room that holds up to sixty people bring in an “eclectic mix,” says brewmaster Oliver Roberts–from families to grad students to older customers.
For its first three years, Wolverine had no kitchen, though customers were encouraged to bring in takeout from nearby restaurants. Even so, the day they opened, “we had a long line of people outside the door,” Crowe recalls.
At first, Crowe says, she was “reluctant” to add food because she wanted to keep the focus on the beer. But she’s got a “learn as you go” philosophy: “You can have a business plan, a working outline of where you want to go,” she says, “but in the end you need to listen to the market.” Wolverine added a kitchen last year, and in December started serving sandwiches and daily specials.
Cofounders Thrall and Roy are still involved in monthly management meetings but now leave brewing to Roberts and the marketing to Crowe, a former Reinhart Realtor who is skilled at social media–her “A2 Beer Wench” blog with candid musings about life and beer has been visited more than 150,000 times.
The new food menu is the work of Matteo Melosi, a friend of Roberts, and tap room manager Josh Evans. They gave him two rules: no deep fryers and no grills. “It had 100 percent to do with Oliver and his clean, crisp beer,” says Melosi. “I knew we needed to provide a very healthy product–food that really complemented the beer.” No butter or oil is used in food preparation, explains Melosi, and he and sous chef Dylan Stockman use meats from Sparrow Market, fish from Monahan’s, and locally grown produce. Melosi says their best-sellers so far are the blue corn tortilla nachos and house-smoked pulled pork.
Since the kitchen opened, Evans says “business has tripled.” Plus, customers no longer need to dart across busy West Stadium Boulevard to bring back pizza to eat.
The Wolverine had another exciting end-of-year development. DRAFT magazine–“like the Vogue of beer magazines,” Crowe says–named the Wolverine’s Gulo Gulo India Pale Lager one of the “Top 25 Beers of 2013.” Roberts had fine-tuned his recipe for the lager–named for the genus and species of the wolverine–since first introducing it in 2011. After investing $20,000 in new equipment, last summer the Wolverine began bottling Gulo Gulo. “[T]his superb version floored us,” the magazine’s reviewer wrote–adding that Gulo Gulo “immerses the senses in electrifying honeydew, peach, watermelon and orange before concluding with a classic, refreshing lager snap.”
Crowe says she’s getting calls from distributors in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia who want to represent the brand but says that for now, the team is busy “managing growth” regionally, starting with the Detroit market, and balancing the brewery, tap room, and kitchen.
Gulo Gulo will account for 45 percent of the Wolverine’s 2,200-barrel capacity in 2014, Roberts says. And there are at least a dozen other lager varieties available in the tap room on any given day–with a long list of rotating seasonal and special editions and always “our gateway–or lawn-mowing beer, I call it,” Crowe says: Wolverine Premium Lager.
Because “we make in a year what Budweiser spills in a month,” Roberts says, and because brewing a lager is a much slower process (it takes an average of six weeks) than brewing an ale, “there’s no way to rush it.” Keeping customers in the tap room happy and meeting demand for bottles is a balance. “It’s not pleasant when we run out [of Gulo Gulo],” says Evans. “People come out just for that.”
Wolverine State Brewing Co., 2019 W. Stadium, 369-2990. Mon.-Thurs. 4 p.m.-midnight, Fri.-Sat. noon-1 a.m., Sun. noon-10 p.m. (kitchen closes one hour earlier). wolverinebeer.com