‘We brew with a purpose’

Alpha Michigan Brewing Company keeps the community in its beers

FROM LEFT, OWNERS Stu Creel and Mike and Mary Bjork stand in front of the Alpha Michigan Brewing Company that opened earlier this year at 303 E. Center St. in Alpha. Not shown is co-owner Julie Creel, Stu Creel’s wife. (Theresa Proudfit/Daily News photo)

ALPHA — The new Alpha Michigan Brewing Company definitely is a home-grown operation.

A local farmer supplies barley and oats and they incorporate the local grain into the beer.

“We try to use local products in our beer if we can. Almost all of our hops come from the Michigan Hop Alliance that helps support the Michigan growers. We just brought in local hops from less than a mile away,” co-owner Stu Creel said.

Fifty pounds of Michigan blueberries went into a special blueberry brew made in conjunction with the local End-of-Summer Blues Fest this past Saturday.

“We brew with a purpose. Whether it’s the name of the beers, what we do for events, it’s all geared toward helping the community. We can brew until we are blue in the face and drink all the beer, but if you’re not doing something good with it, what’s the point?” Creel said.

Creel of Maggie Lake in Crystal Falls, and Mike Bjork of Buck Lake in Alpha, along with their wives, are partner owners in the new brewery “on the circle” at 303 E. Center St. in Alpha.

For the past three months, the partners have been working tirelessly “brewing, kegging and drinking” at the Alpha Michigan Brewing Company. In addition to other daily tasks, Mary Bjork is the control of the fermentation process and Julie Creel takes care of administrative/accounting duties and memberships in the brewery’s clubs.

The initial inspiration for the business came about eight years ago, when the men were sitting around drinking beer in the old Porter School.

“I owned the school for a period of time. The building was just so neat and I was looking for different things to do with it. I made the comment that this would be a neat place for a brewery. Then we all started bullsh—ing about it,” Creel said.

Because the school was more than 100 years old, Creel quickly realized it wouldn’t be cost-effective to house the brewery in that building. However, the former bus garage next to the school would be a viable option, as it had already been upgraded.

“We had the general store for about 10 years. It was a bus garage for the school, then the township fire hall. It was meant to be, because there was so much already done in here. We had the handicapped-accessible bathrooms, big walk-in cooler and everything had been commercially upgraded for power,” Creel said.

However, the store would need a few changes. “We up-purposed as much as we could,” Mary Bjork said.

The countertop was repurposed to make tables in the brewery. A pew from the old St. Edwards Catholic Church in Alpha was added for seating. Picnic tables were built.

They also found a historic, solid mahogany bar that originally was part of an 80-foot buffet in Alpha Inn. When the inn closed, the counter was split into pieces and a portion went to the Alpha Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

After the VFW site closed as well, the building’s new owner let the Alpha Brewery inherited that relic of the old Alpha Inn.

“It’s a hundred-and-something-year-old bar with a lot of history, and we refurbished it for next to nothing,” Mike Bjork said.

They went forward with the brewery despite having almost no experience in beer-making. “We started small, with a one-barrel brew system, so that means we brew a lot, three or four times a week,” Bjork said.

Still, they almost always have eight beers on tap. “We turn it over really fast. There is always brew in the process and the beer is always fresh,” Creel said.

Some of those include the Kallawalla Wit, a Belgium-style spiced with orange peel and coriander named after a trail in Crystal Falls; the Bears Cave IPA, named for a popular location where kids gathered in high school; and the most popular brew, the Naughty School Girl, a cream ale made with locally grown raw barley, flaked corn and honey malts.

Other local talents also have been enlisted in the new business. The brewery sign was created by Randy Peterson of The Crystal Steel House in Crystal Falls. The brewery’s artwork was done by Tracie Wayman, who owns a local tattoo shop. T-shirts and sweatshirts were ordered from Logo Sports in Iron Mountain, and Signature Design in Iron Mountain embroiders the hats.

As well as using local products, the business promotes local restaurants. Because they don’t serve food, they invite customers to bring in their own and supply menus from local businesses.

“We also want to host fundraisers. If other organizations want to come in and barbecue brats, and burgers or steaks, and sell it, they get all the profits. And then what we will do is give a donation — in most cases, a buck for each pint we sell, It a way to give back to the community, but also help other organizations that need a venue,” Mike Bjork said.

“We have only been open for three months, but we bank money every month into a donation fund. As things come up that we want to participate in, we can,” Creel said.

The brewery recently purchased a hog from one of the kids at the Iron County Fair, and they are working with The Curious Pig in Crystal Falls to host a pig roast this Saturday as a fundraiser for the 4-H and Iron County Friends of Livestock.

“Anything that can benefit the community, we are going to try to get involved in,” Creel said.

The business is also family friendly. They offer free pretzels and popcorn and free soda for kids and designated drivers. There are several in-house board games to play and “if anybody is ever musically inclined, we have a guitar and keyboard,” Creel said, adding, “the people that come to a tap room like this are almost always in a good mood; they are here to celebrate something. The atmosphere is completely different. We have people driving down from Marquette, people from Iron Mountain, Iron River, of course. It’s neat to see the different groups that come in.”

Patrons and businesses can purchase club memberships at the brewery in the Mug Club, Growler Club, Mastodon Brewers Club and ALPHA Club, which offer merchandise and discounts year round. And the business participates with the “On Tap” app that finds and rates local breweries.

The brewery is open 4-8 p.m. Fridays, 2-8 p.m. Saturdays and 2-6 p.m. Sunday. “We are not open that often. People say that’s great marketing, but it’s not marketing — we’re just tired,” Bjork said with a laugh.

For now, they are starting out slow and focusing on bringing in business.

“We are incredibly lucky and blessed that we are able to produce some of these beers with no formal training. Not even to the point that we can say, ‘I’ve made 50 home-brews in my lifetime.’ Never did that. It’s just working out. We are very meticulous. We do research before we do something, so we don’t go into it totally naive. Once we do come up with a successful brew we follow the recipe to the T,” said Mike Bjork, adding, “We do have quite a few establishments that would like to carry our beer, but right now we are brewing just to keep up with serving in the tap room.”