Barrel + Beam opened its doors in Marquette in January 2018 with a clear vision. Seeming to come out of the gates sprinting, the brewery emerged with a well defined brand, a suite of farmhouse and barrel aged ales and an ambitious self distribution plan.
None of that happened overnight.
“It took a decade for that to become a clear vision,” said Nick VanCourt, brewer/owner at Barrel + Beam.
That vision started roughly the same way most breweries do. VanCourt’s homebrew recipes were receiving a warm reception from friends and family. He told his wife, Marina, that he’d like to start a brewery. She told him that he ought to get an education and some experience first.
He did. He graduated from the World Brewing Academy and garnered professional experience working at Wisconsin’s The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company, Tyranena Brewing Company and Milwaukee Brewing Company. Most recently, he was the head brewer at Marquette’s Ore Dock Brewing Company.
During those 10 years, the vision for Barrel + Beam gradually became more specific. VanCourt decided he wanted to focus solely on bottle and cask conditioned farmhouse and barrel aged ales, which set Barrel + Beam apart from every other brewery in the Upper Peninsula. VanCourt was drawn to the styles’ rich, complex flavors and dry finish.
“I just personally think it’s where the pinnacle of the best beer experience can be,” VanCourt said. “You have this beer that is rich and really strikes a note in your mouth. But then when you swallow, it goes away.”
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Barrel + Beam’s tap list has become a case study in the ways traditional and modern brewing techniques express themselves in beer. The brewery’s old-world line uses ingredients imported from Belgium and France, and its new-world line uses all Michigan produced ingredients. The tap list also features ales soured over months in barrels, a traditional technique, and kettle soured beers, a modern way. Tasting Barrel + Beam’s brews offers an opportunity to study exactly how these techniques impact flavor.
One example comes in the two saisons on the tap list: the French-sourced “Terre a Terre” and the Michigan-sourced “Terroir.”
“Side by side, they’re very different beers, even though they’re not different in formulation at all. It’s just the ingredients,” VanCourt said.
It’s a study in the effect of terroir—the environment in which the ingredients are produced—on a beer’s flavor.
“People know it in wine, but in beer nobody seems to talk about it. That’s the point to us with these ingredients,” VanCourt said.
Choosing to become a niche brewery in the Upper Peninsula came with its risks. One that VanCourt anticipated was the need to distribute to be successful.
“It wasn’t just going to happen here in Marquette,” VanCourt said. “We were going to have to get out there and bring our beer to our market.”
The brewery’s first full-size batches were produced for distribution. VanCourt started self distributing to bottle shops in Marquette, then throughout the U.P. and Northeast Wisconsin. The footprint has since expanded to include Northern Michigan, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor.
VanCourt said self distribution is a challenge and ultimately unsustainable. With his van, he’s only able to get 30-40 cases to his locations at a given time. It’s inefficient and costly.
“We can’t do this forever,” he said.
But he’s grateful for the opportunity to get to know his stockists, and he knows that when the time comes to hire a distributor, the relationships he’s built in these first months will only make things easier.
Barrel + Beam’s home base is set in the building that once held the famed Northwoods Supper Club, a popular dining destination in Marquette that opened in 1933 and operated for 75 years. The supper club closed in the midst of the 2008 recession and sat untouched on the market for years. Getting it up to standard to host the brewery took a $2 million renovation, which VanCourt said was worth it for its size, location and unique history.
“The family that started it, you know, they were as crazy as we are—to show up here when it was the middle of nowhere and build a supperclub. And it worked, wonderfully,” VanCourt said.
VanCourt and his wife, Marina, worked hard to maintain the wooden beams that gave the building its original character. They’ve turned it into a cozy space to enjoy Barrel + Beam brews, either after a day of shopping in Marquette or hiking, biking or snowmobiling the nearby Iron Ore Heritage Trail.
Word of mouth is spreading about the brewery, and VanCourt is optimistic about what the future holds.
“There’s two things that you can’t screw up: one is the quality of your product, two is the customer service you provide,” VanCourt said. “We just know that if we make the product the best we can and we get it to where our market is, then we have a chance.”