When you enter Atwater Brewery, behind their fabulous tap room on Joseph Campau in downtown Detroit, the scent doesn’t remind you of a walk through the botanical gardens across the river on Belle Isle.
In fact, it can be quite pungent. But, that means the hops and yeast are doing what they’re meant for ‒ creating award-winning brews that are taking the country by storm.
A mere stone’s throw from the emerald straits of Detroit, suddenly, but surely, what began as Mark Rieth’s hobby has become a rather big fish in a sea of craft breweries. With almost 400 brew houses operating in Michigan (and some 5,000 nationwide) Atwater seems to have risen to the top like the frothy suds from a perfect pour.
Credit Reith’s workmanlike manner and unique business acumen for that success. But credit also the unnerving passion for beer that he shares with every one of his employees at his three Detroit facilities. It’s a passion that has helped bring Bohemian-influenced beer back to the neighborhood near where Stroh’s used to brew. It’s also brought 100 or so jobs to the Michigan economy.
The once-small brewery has gone big time, as Atwater has gone from producing 250 barrels of beer in 2005 to the 40,000 barrels they’ll brew this year.
“The whole thing started when I was at Michigan State, when all we had for a beer option was mass-produced yellow fizzy beer at a very cheap price,” recalls Rieth. “Then, when I moved to Boston, I was able to taste Sam Adams Boston Lager and the Commonwealth Brewery opened. That experience gave me the chance to try fresh, handmade ‒ and different varieties ‒ of beer. And that’s when I started home brewing.”
Rieth moved back to Detroit in 1997 with the intention of opening his own business in the city. He stumbled upon Atwater which had already been having some success as a brewery and taproom. Rieth liked what he saw.
“It had just opened that year ‒ its first year ‒ and it was definitely ahead of its time,” Rieth said. “It was a little early. People didn’t quite understand it. But it was crowded.”
The fascination with craft beer and the development of its unique culture was in its infancy. The Midwest audience, however, had not caught the East and West coasts in discovering beer not mass produced. Rieth found himself in the right place at the right time. He recognized the brewery’s ability to thrive. He bought out the original partners in 2005 and took over sole ownership.
Ironically, as Rieth started to look at getting bigger tanks to produce more beer, the economy itself began to tank. The city began to buy up riverfront property in bulk, forcing 15-20 restaurant/bars out of business. And it became nearly impossible to operate the downtown Atwater tap house. But instead of packing it in, the team stayed the course.
“You define yourself during difficult times,” Rieth philosophized. “Winning’s easy. Losing’s hard. But, it builds character. You can stay down or you can get up and keep fighting. I poured every cent I had in my life into the building, into the people, into the brand and into the business. But, I like to come out and keep swinging. And that’s because I’m from Detroit.”
Fighting to stay viable, Atwater made a pretty risky move.
“At that time, we made a decision to go for distribution. And that cost a lot more money. So, we had to do a lot of capital raises. It was very thin times, from a cash flow perspective. It was difficult but we started innovating and came out with some new beers that were very different and unique. And that’s what set us apart,” Rieth said.
Innovation and the craft of brewing beer will be forever synonymous. Getting a frosty mug into the right hands requires that the beer is appealing on many different levels. Good packaging, a good backstory, a good name and, of course, taste, are all very important. But so, too, is the flavor of the brand. And innovation in the category begets brand recognition.
“We always talk about staying relevant and not losing your true identity,” Rieth said. “That’s key in the craft beer business. You can try to chase trends ‒ IPA’s are very popular right now ‒ but then you chase every trend and forget about what your true core is. The consumer is eventually going to figure you out and you’re never going to establish that ‘true’ identity with them. You have to stick with your identity, but also innovate.”
That delicate balance would require a marketing plan that would help facilitate demand. Atwater chose to capitalize on a popular strategy: celebrating its Detroit roots.
“Detroit’s been such a huge part of American history when you consider Prohibition. Whether it’s cars or music or art, we celebrate where we’ve come from as a city. We don’t brush it under the rug, we talk about it.”
As they began to diversify their offerings, Atwater began to brew 12-ounce tributes to where they came from: Grand Circus IPA (short for India Pale Ale), was named for the city center. Purple Gang Pilsner was a tip of the fedora to the notorious crime family from Detroit’s prohibition days. These days, while Dirty Blonde Ale and Vanilla Java Porter continue as the best-selling staples in the Atwater family, Rieth and his brewmasters keep concocting. Creating new flavors. Tirelessly trying to find secret formulas the people will love.
In the meantime, new labeling recognizes Detroit’s brewing past and celebrates our propensity for hard work. The logo itself depicts a hard-helmeted, mug-hoisting, blue-collar working man who looks like he came straight from third shift at the Jefferson Assembly plant just a few short miles from the brewery.
Atwater’s presence in the area (and beyond) is hands-on. The team hosts beer tastings, takes part in beer fests, and have even found a place among the domestic giants at Comerica Park, Ford Field and the Palace of Auburn Hills. They’ve increased the brand’s national Q-rating with a social presence that rivals a Kardashian. Locally, their commitment to the community is evident in every team they sponsor and every event for which they supply the beer.
“Hey, Bernhard Stroh was hand-delivering kegs in a wheelbarrow,” Rieth said. “That’s what you have to do. I love being the beer ‘milk man’, dropping off kegs on my way home. To be successful, you have to start hyper-local in your community and then build it out. We’ve established that and we’re just trying to carry on that tradition.”
As Atwater’s popularity grows, so has their reach as a brand. The first extension came in the form of a repurposed church in Grosse Pointe Park. Last year, they opened another location in Grand Rapids, a.k.a. Beer City, USA. They’ve even opened a bottling facility in Austin, Texas.
The key to such amazing growth is pretty simple.
“It’s the people,” Rieth said. “You have to have great people in any industry ‒ in any business ‒ for it to run correctly. Whether selling beer or T-shirts, you have to have great people and I think we’ve been able to get some of the best over the years.”