He stands behind the bar – an intimidating presence with his large stature, tattooed body and beard-wrapped face. He leans heavily against the pine surface between us as he sips his beer, visibly tired from his work day. “I just really don’t like people,” he scoffs as he discusses the gentrification of his hometown – he himself a native of southwest Detroit. However, beyond this rough exterior you will find, with a little liquid encouragement, the softer side of a roll-up-your-sleeves style businessman with an enormous heart, using the very beer he creates to reinvigorate the Detroit community and beyond.
Meet Jason Williams. He and longtime friend, Stephen Roginson, are co-founder and founder of Batch Brewing Company in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. The small-batch brewery is housed inside an old building that was formerly the Porter Street Station restaurant where in the 1980’s, Tigers great Kirk Gibson was known to sneak in through the back door for a hot meal after finishing a game just up the road. If you walk through the brewery today, just beyond shelves of brewing supplies, you’ll find standing, alone and battered, the very metal door that Gibson used to duck in through to abscond the crowd. The old building is much like the story of Detroit itself – a once great place, thought to be abandoned and failed for good, only to resurface as an excitingly unique version of its former self, one small step at a time, or, in this case, one small batch of beer at a time.
Batch Brewing Company opened in early 2015 after raising money via crowd-funding and winning a $50,000 prize through a contest put on by Hatch Detroit – an organization that seeks to support independent local Detroit businesses through funding, exposure and mentoring. Recognizing how fortunate they have been to receive this level of support, Williams and Roginson have since had an objective to return every single penny they were given, right back into the community that made their inception a reality.
Enter: The Feelgood Tap initiative.
Roginson had a vision in the early days of developing his business plan for Batch Brewing, that along with his goal of success in the nano-brewing industry, it was equally important to build philanthropy into his business model.
“We were the recipients of a lot of good will and resources to get ourselves open so we wanted to give back to the community in a significant way,” said Roginson, whose hope is to give more money back to non-profits by the end of 2017 than Batch Brewing has received in support of opening its doors.
Roginson saw other non-food industry businesses doing what he calls a buy/give program, where a portion of a sale automatically goes toward the betterment of a non-profit. He recognized that this could easily be translated into the craft beer arena and so began the Feelgood Tap – their very own conduit for turning a small beer sale into a major contribution to nonprofits throughout the state of Michigan. The concept was simple: a customer purchases a glass of the rotating Feelgood Tap beer of the month and $2 of that purchase instantly benefits the coinciding charity of that month. By encouraging high-frequency, small-scale giving, the program would create significant impact without any major marketing.
So far, the results have been astounding.
After raising $27,000 last year off of their single monthly Feelgood Tap alone, other Michigan bars, restaurants and breweries caught wind of the concept and immediately jumped at the chance to join the initiative.
“We currently have 30 establishments involved, most notably Jolly Pumpkin, Slows, all the Hopcats (in Michigan) and a number of others as far north as Charlevoix and as far west as Grand Rapids,” said Roginson. “We refer to it as altruistic capitalism. We believe we can be wildly successful and give back to the community, simultaneously.”
Hopcat spokesman, Chris Knap, thinks the program is an ideal means by which Hopcat can focus on local and unified state giving. “It is a great way for customers to feel like they can do something good for the community by drinking Michigan craft beer.”
To date, proceeds have gone to such organizations as the Michigan chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS); a cause which is dear to Roginson whose mother, cousin and a number of friends suffer with this often disabling disease of the nervous system.
Elana Sullivan, President of the NMSS Michigan Chapter, can’t speak highly enough of the initiative. “We will be able to benefit from this from all of the different involved micro-breweries and restaurants in perpetuity. We’re just so grateful (Batch Brewing) has raised thousands and thousands of dollars for us already through this.”
The Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation is another recipient of proceeds from the Feelgood Tap, with the money going directly to their Summer Youth Program which engages Detroit youth, ages 11-18, with recreation, community service and a week-long camping trip out of the city. Older youth are even eligible to gain work experience and training at employers throughout Detroit while earning a stipend.
This particular initiative has great meaning to Williams who explained, “The reason I choose the DHDC and specifically the camp program is because growing up, I lost a number of friends to gang-related violence. The program takes young people out of their neighborhoods and shows them a part of life that they might not ever have access to without it. Sometimes just changing your surroundings for even a tiny bit will change your way of thinking a ton.”
Ultimately, Williams considers Batch Brewing, a “culture of serendipity,” and is amazed at how they have seemed to receive the right opportunities and hired the right staff members along the way to achieve the fortuitous success that at one time they had only dreamed of. However, spend a few minutes on a quiet weeknight in Detroit at 1400 Porter Street, chatting with the big man behind the bar about the very intentional ways his business is extending kindness to others…and it becomes very clear why luck so quickly knocked on that old, battered metal Kirk Gibson door for the guys at Batch Brewing Company.