Michigan brewing company keeps growing

By Dan Nielsen
Traverse City Record Eagle

TRAVERSE CITY (AP) - Joe Short hopes his two sons will take over the family business. But it may be awhile - they're just 6 and 8 years old.

Short and his wife, Leah, own Short's Brewing Company. He spoke at the February meeting of the Economic Club of Traverse City.

"We've literally been under construction since 2004," Short said of the company's Bellaire Brewpub that now occupies five storefronts along the town's short main drag, and seats 460 customers. The company also operates a brewing facility in Elk Rapids.

The brewery so far has invested $5.7 million in equipment and $8.5 million in buildings in Bellaire and Elk Rapids, Short told the Traverse City Record Eagle. He projects $18.7 million in sales in 2018. That reflects 48,000 barrels of beer and 5,000 barrels of cider.

The company has experienced steady growth since Short set up shop in the former Bellaire Hardware Store in 2004. The company's business structure has remained informal. There's no official board of directors, Short said. He, Leah and the company's top managers make the decisions.

"I rolled into this town (Bellaire) without, really, much beyond a plan," said Short, who grew up in Rapid City and graduated from Kalkaska High School. "Maybe we've been running a little fast and loose because a board of directors couldn't keep up."

The company just recently produced its first quarterly report.

"We're gittin' growed up a little," Short said of the move toward formal business reporting.

Short's decisions have molded the company into one of Michigan's leading craft brewers. The road to business success has involved some curves.

Early on, the company lost a chunk of potential income when the Short's crew struggled to find the source of something that was unintentionally changing the flavor of its signature Huma Lupa Licious brew. They thought they'd taken care of the problem several times, but repeated batches still didn't taste right. After losing about $150,000 worth of product, Short said, they finally traced the problem to a leaking roof, which cost $90,000 to replace.

Though most of the affected beer was discarded, some of it was sold to a European distributor. The brew had a bit of a Belgian flavor, Short said.

The decision to sell beer outside Michigan was another curve thrown by Short when he reversed a longstanding commitment to sell only within the state. The move came after the company took a long, hard look at growth possibilities.

"You need to be nimble and smart and make good business decisions," Short said.

The brewery still sells 80 percent of its products in Michigan.

Another curve was the 2017 decision to sell 19.9 percent of the company to the much larger The Lagunitas Brewing Company, of Petaluma, California. The ownership share was chosen, Short told members of the Economic Club, because 20 percent would have triggered more complicated paperwork.

"We've got somebody who actually knows more about this than we do," Short said of Lagunitas. "It's been super helpful from a distribution standpoint."

The future looks bright for the company, Short said.

"My wife and me - this is a lifelong thing for us."

He hopes his young sons may grow to enjoy the business as much as he does.

"Hopefully in another 20 years, they'll be interested in this thing," Short said.

He said he has continuing enthusiasm for northern Michigan, and strives to keep his company involved in local issues.

"At the end of the day, there's nothing more important than water," he told the crowd.

"Love where you live," he advised. "Antrim County has just two stoplights. That's kind of cool."

Published: Mon, Mar 19, 2018