Thirsty Thursday: Blackrocks Brewery

Michigan’s craft beer scene has had a meteoric rise over the past decade. Grand Rapids has won the title of Beer City, USA two years in a row. So how does the U.P. stack up in the ever growing industry? ABC 10’s Kevin Terpstra plans to visit all 13 Upper Peninsula breweries, and today he brings you the first of his 13-part Thirsty Thursday series.

At last count there were just over 150 breweries in Michigan. Thirteen of them are in the UP. One of the more high-profile breweries is located in Marquette, at the corner of Third and Michigan. Blackrocks Brewery opened in 2010 in a modest, re-purposed two-story house, and it has grown significantly since then. The first beers were brewed on a one-barrel system, which is small, yet very hands-on.

“You know, you’re hand-mashing everything in,” Blackrocks co-founder David Manson said. “You’re hand-stirring; you’re monitoring the transfer a lot closer. As we grew into the three-barrel, it became a little bit easier, but it’s still a hands-on process.”

Blackrocks still uses the one-barrel and three-barrel systems, but it also uses a much larger 20-barrel system. “There’s a little more technology involved to try and help make it easier so that a single brewer can handle that amount of mass, of grain or liquids,” Manson said. “It’s different; they’re all different in their own right, but they’re fun.”

Like many breweries, Blackrocks has beers that are almost always on tap, called mainstays, whose names come with a story like the 51K IPA. “The 51K is somewhat of a derivative of a combination of both the Noquemanon Ski Race and the Ore to Shore,” Manson said. “We always kind of joked around when people would swing around that they were able to do the last K from the (Superior) Dome up to the brew house and get a pint.”

Maybe even a pint of the Grand Rabbits Dry Hopped Cream Ale, which sounds a lot like a city south of the bridge. “We were down at Beerfest and we had a dry hopped cream ale,” Manson said. “And we just kind of started talking about how Grand Rapids sounds like Grand Rabbits if you say it real fast, and for some reason, it just kind of stuck with us and we brought it back with us and adopted it as our own.”

Not all breweries offer membership in a mug club, but many do and Blackrocks has one of the more attractive ones. A one-time payment of $40 gets you a tall ceramic mug hand-fired by local artist Ryan Dalman. There’s also a larger pour for the same price. “We started off with 50 (mugs) and I was a little nervous about that, starting a business cash outlay,” Manson said. “It was a little tough, and he (Dalman) said, ‘don’t worry; just pay me after you sell them’. Well, before we even opened the doors, we had to tell him to make another hundred!”

Last September, Blackrocks started canning their three mainstay beers, and they’re now distributed across the state. The canning process is very technical and the brewers must constantly monitor the line to prevent backups. While many breweries bottle their popular beers, Blackrocks opted for the canning process because the beer keeps better in a can. Even more recently the brewery renovated the house on Third, opening the upper floor to patrons.

“We really wanted to make sure that it was a continuity between the downstairs and upstairs to keep that connected feel,” Manson said. “Whether you’re listening to music or there’s just a lot of people and you have friends downstairs, upstairs, so we just took out the floor of part of the upstairs, and it seems to tie in really well together.”

Manson and the entire Blackrocks crew still have a few ideas they’re working on, and it’s a never ending process of investing in the business and the community. “We never really stop, much to my accountant’s chagrin, investing in this business,” he said.