Atwater rekindles the spirit of the Motor City

When cruising down Jefferson Avenue heading toward downtown Detroit, you’ll come across many businesses that line the Detroit River. Less than two miles from the main downtown hub, hang a left on Joseph Campau and there you will find the inconspicuous Atwater Brewery.

Located in Detroit’s Rivertown district, Atwater lies on the corner of Joseph Campau and Wight Street. The unsuspecting production facility and tap room have called it home since 1997. During that time, it has also grown into the largest brewery in Detroit and southeast Michigan.

Detroit Roots

Atwater’s original mission was to rekindle the spirit of Detroit brewing and the Bohemian style lager Stroh’s Brewery once created within city limits. Call it fitting, or maybe even fate, that landed Atwater across the street from the old Stroh’s headquarters.

During the early years, Atwater’s brewing efforts were accompanied by a restaurant. It wasn’t until 2005 when current owner Mark Rieth decided to change it all by shutting the restaurant down.

“I invested in 2002 and took it over in 2005 and really wanted to branch out,” he said. “We were trying to run a restaurant and not a brewery. We just wanted to concentrate on production.”

Concentrate is what they did, elevating production levels from 1,200 barrels in 2005 to 28,000 barrels in 2013. The brewery is poised to produce around 50,000 barrels in 2014.

With the restaurant closing, Rieth and company moved the taproom into the brewing production area. Comprised of just a few tables and a bar surrounded by large steel fermenters and brewing equipment, it’s an atmosphere fitting for Detroit and one that works for Atwater. Down and dirty. Bare essentials.

“We just do things a little differently, which has been awesome and set us apart a little bit,” Rieth said.

The city that gave birth to Stroh’s and inspiration to Atwater has a clear and direct influence on the brewery. Atwater reciprocates the motivation by paying homage to Detroit everywhere they go.

“We’re very proud of our heritage,” Rieth said. “We design all of our packaging with one of our mottos as we expand, which is, ‘We’re bringing Detroit everywhere.’ Yes we’re a Michigan brewery. But we’re a Detroit, Michigan brewery, which we’re really proud of.”

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Local Expansion

With the brewery expanding rapidly and the main location on Joseph Campau at full capacity, Atwater will look to build on a 15,000-square-foot lot directly behind it over the next year.

The expanded facility will house the majority of their keg filling in addition to their new venture in the spirits business.

“Our first mission is a Dirty Blonde vodka,” Rieth said. The first test batch was made in collaboration with Red Cedar Spirits located in East Lansing. The equipment used is owned by Michigan State University, which seemed to inspire another idea for Rieth and a local Detroit university.

“One of the things we’re working on with Wayne State, we’re trying to do a brewing and distilling curriculum,” he said. “We feel that it’s part of our responsibility of being here that if we can get people more educated earlier on in the brewing and distilling world, if we had some internships set up, then we can actually hire people right out of college who have already been working and have some hands-on experience. That’s great for everybody involved.”

Another recent venture has already proved to be fruitful for the brewery. Atwater in the Park made its debut in June.

Located in Grosse Pointe Park, the new biergarten was converted from an old church with a dwindling congregation. Rieth was approached by a local group attempting to revamp the area.

“They came to me and the first thing I said was, ‘No way,’” he recalled. “Then I took a look at the facility and what they were trying to do around there. And I saw the actual space, and more importantly, the beer garden and the actual church part of it was spectacular.”

Rieth said the reception to the new location has been “unbelievable.”

“Last Saturday we had over 1,000 people there,” he said. “We’ve had to double the size of the kitchen in the first three weeks.”

The menu is German-esque while also boasting brewpub favorites like burgers, pizzas and salads.

“With our German heritage, I go to Munich a lot,” Rieth said. “I love the Bavarian feel, the community aspect of sitting down at a table with people that you haven’t met before and you strike up a conversation. All of a sudden, you’re having a great time.”

While serving as a new location, Atwater in the Park also benefits the overall operations of the brewery.

“We now have our ‘test kitchen’ there,” Rieth said. “It’s a four barrel German system. It’s going to enable us to make a bunch of different varieties, sample them out with customers, see what else sticks and bring it back down to the production facility.”

Beyond Detroit

Even though Detroit is home for Atwater, the brewery has its eye on expanding distribution far beyond the Motor City and the current market.

According to Rieth, the brewery just closed on land in Austin, Texas in order to get a facility up and running and distribute to the west coast. In 2016, they will be looking to build a plant in Wilmington, N.C. to take care of the east coast and southeast.

Rieth said Austin has welcomed them with open arms.

“There are a lot of Detroiters who live there. So our motto there is, ‘Born in Detroit, Brewed in Austin,’” he said. “We keep the Detroit heritage while doing some unique things for that local market. We’re going to bring most of our people from Detroit to operate it.”

By having additional production facilities in different states, Atwater will be able to expand on its current distribution while cutting on shipping costs and continuing to grow.

“That’s kind of our goal. To do 100,000 barrels out of Detroit, 100,000 out of Austin and 100,000 out of North Carolina,” Rieth said. “And keep building Detroit. Detroit could balloon up to many more than that as we continue to grow.”

With all of the upcoming expansions and big plans for the future, Rieth knows it’s all about promoting craft beer and getting Atwater beers to a new crowd.

“We want to bring everyone into the fold. If you’re a Bud or Miller or Labatt drinker, we want you to try our lager. Try our Dirty Blonde and kind of ease into the scene,” he said. “Once you get into the craft beer portfolio, you’re not going back.”

For the month of August, Atwater Brewery is offering $1 off all pints while mentioning this article.

Mike D’Orazio

Mike D’Orazio

Craft beer, Detroit sports, food, music and Michigan. Mike D'Orazio is an avid enthusiast for all of the above. He is a Central Michigan University graduate born and raised on the east side of Detroit. Mike is also a stout lover and home brewer.

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