Arbor Brewing Company Goes International
by Amanda Slater
Many patrons have fallen in love with Arbor Brewing Company and the Corner Brewery, owned by husband and wife team Rene and Matt Greff. The Greffs founded Arbor Brewing Company in 1995, modeling it after neighborhood pubs that they’d fallen in love with in England, Ireland and Germany.
“We loved the fact that pubs were the social hub of many neighborhoods and communities. Unlike the sports bars we were most familiar with at the time, these pubs were family-friendly. The pub was the gathering place for weddings and wakes and everything in between,” says Rene Greff.
In addition, the Greffs had a great appreciation for “good beer,” which Rene describes as “fresh, full-flavored beer, made with quality traditional ingredients.” This love was initially sparked during Matt’s time spent studying in Germany in 1987—which was before the craft beer movement swept the Midwest. When Matt returned to the states, he was unable to find any “good beer,” and decided to try his hand at homebrewing.
“He took to homebrewing like a fish to water. Within a couple of years, he decided that he enjoyed brewing much more than he enjoyed being a database analyst and decided that he wanted to be a professional brewer,” says Rene. “After exploring many options, from getting a master’s in brewing in Germany to getting a job at another brewpub, we decided to open our own place.”
Thus, the Greffs developed Arbor Brewing Company, an establishment deeply rooted in the community and steeped in the history and traditions of beer. Arbor Brewing Company’s environment, as well as commitment to buying local and supporting environmentally sustainable agriculture and business practices, are some of the components that have made it so successful.
“Through our travels, we had just begun to discover the amazingly rich variety of beer styles and their fascinating histories,” says Rene. “So we wanted our place to be all about the beer, but we also wanted it to be a friendly environment for beer novices to come and explore, experiment, and learn about beer.”
It was important to the Greffs that their establishment not only be a great place for patrons to hang out, but also a great place to work. Rene says that she and Matt worked to create an environment that rewards employee input, equips employees through training without micromanaging and values work-life balance—discouraging working more than 45 hours a week and offering flexible scheduling options.
“I love the camaraderie among our staff and with the industry in general,” says Matt. “I am so lucky to get to work with fun, close friends every day. We share jokes and beer and music, but when it’s time to get to work, I know I can count on them. And we are in the most open and supportive industry. People freely share not only best practices, but lessons learned the hard way, sourcing and technical information, and, when we all gather at conferences, it is something like […] a family reunion (or better yet, a family reunion with a kegger).”
Located in downtown Ann Arbor, Arbor Brewing Company is now a community institution.
“Ann Arbor is a wonderfully diverse and progressive community. I love that the people are so engaged and passionate. All of those factors together create an incredible energy,” says Rene.
“I love the vitality and walkability of the downtown and the diversity of the people in the streets, cafes and pubs on any given evening,” says Matt.
The success of Arbor Brewing Company inspired the Greffs to expand their business even more. One area for possible expansion that they identified was being able to sell their beer to retailers.
“Michigan law incorporates a three-tier system for alcohol, which means that there are manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers. Manufacterers sell to wholesalers who sell to retailers, who sell to the public,” explains Rene. Since Arbor Brewing Company has a brewpub license, they are considered a retailer—which means that their beer can only be sold directly to customers. Thus, in order to distribute beer to other bars and restaurants, the Greffs needed a microbrewery license. Thus, in 2006, the Greffs opened their own microbrewery in Ypsilanti called the Corner Brewery.
“We opened it in Ypsi because we’ve lived there for 20 years. We are committed to the city and wanted to be a part of its renaissance. There is such a great vibe in Ypsi right now with lots of artistic, creative and entrepreneurial energy, and a new generation is really starting to get involved and help shape the future of the community,” says Rene.
The Corner Brewery not only enabled the Greffs to distribute beer, but also to extend their family-friendly pub environment into Ypsilanti, making it an almost instant favorite local hangout that plays host to everything from art fairs to concerts and more.
Now, five years later, the Greffs are in the midst of an exciting new business opportunity—only this time they are upping the ante. Rather than delving into another neighboring town, the Greffs have opted to try selling their beer on an international scale and are currently in the midst of opening a brewery in India.
When the Greffs first opened the Corner Brewery, doing business internationally was not something that they saw in their immediate future. However, they were approached by an Arbor Brewing Company regular, Gaurav Sikka, about the possibility of expanding to India. Initially, they turned down his offer. However, he remained persistent, suggesting that Matt and Rene come to India to meet his family and hear more about the proposed project.
“Since we love to travel and have always wanted to go to India, we decided to take him up on the offer and figured that, in the worst case scenario, if nothing came of it, we at least got to take a great trip to India,” says Rene.
But, as the story goes, the Greffs fell in love with Gaurav, his family and the country. And they saw a great business opportunity.
“The laws in [Sikka’s] home-state of Karnataka have just changed to allow brewpubs, and [ours] could be the first, or at least among the first, to open in Bangalore,” says Rene.
The Greffs decided to partner with Sikka in a new company they called ABC India, which holds the rights to the Arbor Brewing Company brand throughout the Indian sub-continent, where it has the rights to open branches and license franchisees.
“Our role is primarily as consultants to design the brewery, help with the layout and design of the restaurant, install the brewery, hire and train the staff and assist with menu development,” says Rene.
Rene says that the brewery in India will, in many ways, be the brewery the Greffs always wanted.
“Cost structures in India make it possible to do a lot more customization than our budgets ever afforded in the U.S. So, in addition to designing the brewery to spec, we will also have custom furniture, shelving, lighting, etc.,” says Rene.
“Gaurav has included many of his favorite elements from Arbor Brewing Company and Corner Brewery in the design, so regulars from Michigan will feel right at home here. In terms of beer, we will be brewing a lot of the same recipes and will also be creating some special recipes for the Indian market. The food menu will also be similar to the menus at ABC and Corner, with some spicy Indian twists.”
“My guess is that there will be a lot of recipe sharing between the three breweries, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find a masala porter on tap at Arbor Brewing Company or Corner Brewery sometime in the future,” adds Rene.