I recently sat down with Simon Rusk, owner of The Livery, to talk about Berrien County’s oldest operating craft brewery. The building, located in the Benton Harbor Arts District, is over 100 years old and was the site of the Palace Livery, a former horse livery. In the early 2000’s a group looking to help revive the downtown area embarked to restore the building and create a microbrewery. Simon, a former lawyer, held several positions at The Livery from bartending, to brewing and management before becoming the owner about one year ago. Under his leadership, and those before him, The Livery has become a staple in downtown Benton Harbor for great beer, delicious pizza and music. Find out what Simon had to say about this local craft brewery and why Southwest Michigan is becoming a popular brewery scene, below.
What can a visitor expect when visiting The Livery?
A great time. We serve a broad spectrum of beers, New York style pizza, and have a lot of local and national talent perform here. Overall, it’s a very friendly community of people. We provide bar service here, meaning patrons are free to focus on family and friends without interruption.
Music is a big part of what The Livery has been and we have been working on further improving the quantity and quality. A few years ago, I hired Brandon DeJaynes to handle the music booking and since that time the music performances have been at an increasingly high level. We have a lot of free live music; at least one free show every week and musicians love to play here. The sound is great, the feedback from the crowd is strong and the feel of the room is energetic. We like to have a mix of local, regional and national acts and we really enjoy supporting upcoming artists.
Our food has reached a new level also. We used to refer to it as a café but now we have a full pizza kitchen. We are lucky to have Becky Wehmer, a local glass artist and foodie, in charge of our kitchen. She strives to make sure that the quality of food is excellent. She uses spent grain in the crusts and beer in as many items as possible. Becky loves local produce and expresses her creativity through local ingredients, especially in the summer. In addition to hand crafted pizza, she serves oven-toasted sandwiches, salads and soups.
What styles of beer do you make?
We make a really wide range of beer. This is our 12th year and our recipe book is very deep and broad. One of the styles that I am most happy with and really sets us apart from other breweries is our wild ale/sour ale program. The fermenting of these beers is dependent on the local micro flora and we are very fortunate to have great microbes for sour beer in southwest Michigan. These beers take a lot of dedication and I really enjoy the craft of making them. The traditional souring techniques require the beer to age in oak casks for a year or more to develop the flavors in the beer. During our Funk Fest, we showcase a variety of these sour beers and have a limited bottle release.
We have also been growing our hop forward offerings, IPAs, double IPAs and pale ales. We’re working to create beers with a lot of hop flavor but not as much of the bitterness. Big Bottom, an Imperial Stout with espresso, cocoa, vanilla, cinnamon, and maple has also been growing in popularity with our patrons.
We live in an incredible place. Berrien county is a major fruit producer and we have an amazing amount of variety and quality. We work to embrace local ingredients in our beer making including local cherries, and raspberries in fruited sour beers and we have been increasing our use of locally grown hops. The water in our area also plays a big role in the quality of beer that we can produce.
Soon, we are looking forward to providing our patrons with melomel (a mead with honey and fruit) and hard cider. We have made these in the past but it is new for me. I think our customers will be thrilled to have this option; especially those who are concerned about gluten. We have such a wealth of fruit and honey here that it seems silly not to take advantage of that. Brad Jones (assistant brewer) and I are excited to learn new techniques to provide even more variety to our guests.
Tell me about your award-winning beers.
Most recently our Bourbon Barrel Aged Trippel Weizenbock has been recognized by Rate Beer for being a top-rated Weizenbock in the world. It is a very unique style of beer with a complex malt build, and is very strong. We ferment to about 14% and it is aged for about a year in Bourbon Barrels; recently we have been using Four Roses barrels. This beer is renowned for its rich character and depth and has a bouquet of toffee, caramel, fruit, fig, vanilla and oak. We only make one batch of this beer a year and it is released at our December Darkness party, which is a celebration of dark and barrel aged beers.
I love the firkins at The Livery. Can you tell me more about them?
First, I should explain what a firkin is. A firkin is just a small cask; what we make in it is an unfiltered, unpasteurized beer, which is conditioned and served from the cask without additional nitrogen or carbon dioxide pressure. We have one ready every Friday at 5:15pm and try to have at least one at every beer festival we attend. We make opening them a very fun and exciting event; we set the firkin on top of the bar and use a mallet to tap into it. It can be a very explosive event. When the pressure is released from the cask, at times, it sprays a lot of beer. People love to see it.
I am frequently asked if I know what it is going to taste like; I do not. Because of how they are made it is not possible to taste it until you open it. One of the things I love about making firkins is the challenge. Coming up with something new and fun every week, plus the ones for festivals, puts your experience to the test and keeps you thinking of new flavor combinations.
The firkins are a great way to start the weekend. If you have never tried one I recommend getting here as close to 5:15pm on Friday as you can. They tend to go quick.
I know you’re proud of being located in Benton Harbor.
We are proud to be in Benton Harbor and play a role in its rebirth. The Livery has grown side by side with the New Territory Arts Association and we are proud to partner with them in celebrating art and music being created in and around Benton Harbor. Artoberfest, Open Stage and the Art Hops that the NTAA sponsors help bring new people into the community. We are proud to now be surrounded by amazing art, wonderful restaurants and a world class golf course. It has also been impressive to see the increase in the demand by young professionals for places to live in downtown Benton Harbor.
The Makers Trail
Southwest Michigan is an incredible area for craft beverage. We have had a number of wineries in the area for quite a while but the breweries and distilleries are pretty new. As mentioned, with the access to fresh produce and clean water it just makes sense to have so much growth and so many high-quality products. We have been blessed to have such a supportive community of wine makers, distillers and brewers. The general feeling is that we all want each other to be successful. This spirit of comradery does not exist everywhere; we are very fortunate that the first business owners worked to nurture an area that is so welcoming to newcomers and ready to extend a helping hand. It is great for everyone. The more options there are in the area the more tourists will come.
We have been delighted by the number of new breweries that have been opening. My staff and I try to be at as many openings as we can. I think Kelly (Vega) has brought a growler of Livery beer as a welcome gift to just about all of the newly opened ones. I am proud of my staff for being mug club members of so many different locations. Diversity is a great thing and we are happy to celebrate it.
The Makers Trail is strengthening this relationship and I already see new faces coming into the Livery because of it.