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Beer Is Fun! Q&A with entrepreneur Mike Plesz

You can sum up Mike Plesz in three words: Beer is fun. Actually, you can switch out the first word with any one of his passions turned businesses, such as sustainability, restaurants, historical preservation. Those all constitute what the 40-year-old microbrewer (one of modern Michigan's first) and Rochester resident calls his "fun tickets."

Those fun tickets took him out west in 1994 to visit his sister working at a microbrewery. That inspired the creation of the Royal Oak Brewery in 1994, Michigan's sixth microbrewery, which led to the
Rochester Mills Beer Co (1998), the Detroit Beer Co (2002) and Mind Body & Spirits (a sustainability-oriented restaurant) in 2008.

"We just sort of bumped and rolled," Plesz says. "That's what's cool about the brewery business. It's not like a typical restaurant. It has a lot more soul, a lot more to it. The brewers put everything into the beer. It shows in the kitchen, too."

Plesz now owns just the Rochester Mills and Mind Body & Spirits in downtown Rochester. Rochester Mills is routinely neck and neck for the No. 1 brew pub production in Michigan, along with Ann Arbor's Grizzly Peak. Plesz manages 120 employees from the basement of the Rochester Mills' circa 1870 building he helped restore into a mixed-use destination.

That's Plesz' wheelhouse. From there he can tell you why Miller High Life bottles and cans are two different beers because light enters the clear bottle, how Budweiser creates the same taste everywhere by flash freezing its ingredients, how his basement office served as a sheep run a century ago, how $500 a month buys him single-stream recycling, and how he brews for smiles, not snobs.

"There are cult beer followers out there who say you have to drink beer a certain way," Plesz says. "That's not what beer is about. Beer is supposed to be fun. Even if you don't drink beer, I'll find a root beer, a soda or something that will make you smile."

The father of two young kids agreed to sit down for an interview with Metromode's Jon Zemke last week to talk sustainability, historic preservation, community building, and drinking real American beers.

Microbreweries have become increasingly popular. Is this a trend that is cresting or the beginnings of a craft beer tsunami?

It's bigger than a tsunami. It's only a matter of time before every city has multiple breweries in it. People are not going back to the mass beers that don't have the flavor profiles. They recognize that we don't have an American-owned mass beer anymore. Budweiser was the last one. Every person with a "Out of a job yet? Keep buying foreign" bumper sticker should think the same thing when they're cracking open a beer.

But craft beer makes up about 5 percent of beer consumption. There's a long way to go.

The reality is a brewery is a community. This brewery and every brewery in a downtown like it are their communities' breweries. There is no competition in it. We're all in this together.

So there is so much blue ocean for microbrewery growth that there isn't any real competition?

Craft beer industry competition comes from other breweries coming into Michigan. I am a big believer in regional beers. Our founding fathers of micro stood on the idea of regional beer. Now they are the ones distributing all across the country.

Will there be a day when we can't call Bell's or New Belgium microbreweries anymore?

Yes. It could be within 5-10 years. Bell's and Founders or New Holland will hit the 500,000 barrel mark in the next three years.

How friendly are Michigan's liquor laws to microbreweries and where do they need to change?

When we opened it was self distribution up to a certain barrelage. That doesn't exist right now. That's how Sierra Nevada and New Belgium got started. That really helps springboard these micros.

Mead is starting to peak into the mainstream of alcohol consumption. Is this a fad or another micro brewing niche?

It's not a fad. Mead has been around as long as beer.

True, but five years ago I would have been hard pressed to go into a grocery store and find mead. Now every local grocery store has B. Nektar.

Meads, ciders, go across the board. You will see a lot more meaderies and cider producers. It's all fun.

People often point to urban farming as a way for Detroit to feed itself. Do you believe the hype?

I am heavily involved in making sure we have a plan for sustainability with our food system.

Expand on that.

We need to have more and more people be a part of it. The best thing for Michigan is to get back to its agricultural roots.

Michigan is already one of the top states for agriculture.

We have sister farms all across the state right now. They know they can count on us and we know we can count on them. When more and more people do that, that's when you will have a dynamic shift inside farming. When you talk about urban farming in Detroit that is a beautiful thing that is hard to control right now.

It seems the future of urban agriculture is less Hantz Farms and more community gardens because you can't contain them.

The Slows guys support those urban farms. If you get more restaurants to support those urban farms you get more and more farms. The next thing you know you have a revolution.

You opened Mind, Body & Spirits with the idea of running a sustainable restaurant on local food. How has that business plan changed?

It's ever changing. The hardest thing about that restaurant is finding sustainable food year round. That place is hyper focused on organic, local, sustainable. That's the hardest project I have ever done.

Have you had to compromise any of your initial ambitions?

I didn't compromise. I put more money into it. It's a business right now that is not extremely profitable. When you have commodities in there that go up and down on you all the time, you have a depressed income and a hard time trying to price appropriately.

Our food-supply chain brings the cheapest consumables to us regardless of the distance. You're bucking that paradigm but is it realistic to think it can compete with the economic preferences of corporate restaurants?

Not right now with subsidies. That is the game changer. Until our government changes that, we will have the same exact system.

You have referred to restaurants as energy hogs. What's a piece of low-hanging fruit a restaurant could pick to make your eatery more energy efficient?

Stu, a chef at Rochester Mills who happened to be walking by, answers: The biggest thing is the to-go containers. Use something that isn't Styrofoam.

Geothermal is the Holy Grail of sustainable heating and cooling. Two years into using your system at Mind Body & Spirits, has it been worth the up-front costs?

No doubt about it. Hands down it has been our single-best investment.

Would you recommend it and if so to whom?

To anybody who lives north of Nashville. It's the best type of heating for your body because it doesn't dry out your air like a forced-air furnace. The first time we turned it on I said, 'Wow, this is awesome.'

Would you consider a building project green if it doesn't reuse an existing building?

It doesn't really excite me.

How can we switch public perception to reuse existing building stock in cities rather than to build disposable architecture in cornfields?

Show them the different funding vehicles to restore historic buildings. A lot of people don't realize there are funds out there to fill that gap.

Do you think that the bureaucracy of that system impedes it?

Sometimes. A lot of people complain about it because they don't want to take the time to learn it.
How would you make the argument for young people to stay here, beyond saying, 'Free beer, compliments of me'?

(Nearly snorts water through his nose laughing) I like that one. I just tell them find something somewhere that they love and go into it. It doesn't matter what city you're in. You can make it shitty or you can make it fun.

As an entrepreneur and small business operator, what makes Michigan the right place for you and what makes it the wrong place?

We make something that someone else can't make. We like to make something that isn't cars and launch it out of Detroit. Michigan sells a lot of beer out of state, a lot.

True. I can find Michigan beers in Virginia but I can't find Virginian beers here.

We have great water in Michigan. Anybody who surrounds the Great Lakes has great water.

So what makes this the wrong place?

Part of our problem is we have been beat down so much that we don't care what anyone else thinks. If it's good then people will recognize it. There's a reason you see Michigan beer everywhere.

Jon Zemke is the News Editor for Metromode and the Managing Editor of SEMichiganStarup.com. His last feature was Becoming Urbane: A Q&A with Eric Brown.

All Photos taken at Rochester Mills Beer Co by Dave Lewinski

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