SCOTTVILLE — Maybe it’s the way his cowboy mustache moves up and down when he laughs. Or maybe it’s the way he talks about beer — his obsession and career. Then again, maybe it’s the way he listens to Ghost, a Swedish metal band, while sipping on a juicy IPA.
Either way, Andy Thomas, 38, is not your garden-variety farmer. Actually, if you told him a month ago he’d become a Scottville hops farmer, he’d laugh — again, that Spaghetti Western mustache moving up and down.
Thomas’ recent special land-use victory in Mason County will allow him to open a tasting room near his microbrewery, Starving Artist Brewing Co. LLC, a request that was denied in April from the Mason County Zoning Board of Appeals.
Now, he can finally focus on creating that 400-square-foot space full of picnic tables and barstools for patrons who want to consume 2 pints of craft beer, while starting a hops farm called Anarchy Hops.
“We were taken aback, surprised, (and) extremely thankful when we heard the news,” said Thomas on the Mason County Planning Commission’s decision to allow him to rezone and expand his agribusiness. “I did not think I was ever going to be a farmer. I can barely keep a plant alive, but we are going to figure it out. We have the help of our neighbors who are farmers and who have a lot of the equipment ... to help us get up and running.
“With Anarchy Hops Farm, we want to open up something that’s a little bit unconventional.”
Through the long process of petitioning for an agri-tourism spot, Thomas said he was looking for the silver linings.
“It’s a frustrating process; it’s a complicated process; it’s a confusing process,” he said. “To see the community support, the statewide support — our senators’ support — the Farm Bureau's support, it was the pinnacle of this. ... From the bottom of my heart, I believe that kind of support made the (special land-use) decision a possibility.”
In 2019, Starving Artist’s three-barrel system will churn out roughly 250 barrels of beer, doubling production from 2018. According to Thomas, Starving Artist has 10 taps “that are always full,” adding that the brewery’s known for a double IPA brew called Blood Forge.
Come June, Thomas will serve pints in the new tasting area, or beer garden. He said this space will have roughly a 20-person capacity. When not brewing, Thomas will plant dwarf hop varieties in the fall at the 2.5-acre farm.
“You get a little taste of what we do, a little taste of our area,” Thomas added. “We were dead set against (opening a tasting room) for four years ... but the time was right for us to do it. If you break it down a little further, the landscape of Michigan breweries or import breweries or any of the nation's breweries — is getting more filled. We are all going to be fighting for a smaller piece of the pie, so opening a taproom instead of securing tap handles or shelf space, it gives us a different outlet.”
According to the Brewers Association, a Boulder, Colo.-based trade association, the number of craft breweries operating per year in Michigan is growing. In 2016, the Brewers Association charts roughly 200 craft breweries in Michigan. That chart ballooned to more than 300 craft breweries statewide last year.
With more players in the industry, Thomas and other Michigan brewers must diversify offerings.
“How do we separate ourselves from other farms? What makes us different? What makes us unique,” Thomas said. “So, the dwarf hop variety came up in a conversation with our neighbor. It seemed like a good idea, so we ran with it.”
According to Matt Kapp, governmental relations specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau, Thomas’ case is an example of Michigan’s growing agritourism industry that serves as the intersection between agriculture and tourism.
“Starving Artist is known throughout the state for their creative, unique craft beers, and their tasting room helps promote the Mason County area as a tourist hotbed,” Kapp said. “We applaud and thank the planning commission for being open-minded on the possibilities of linking agriculture and tourism, which can help lead to economic development. We encourage other local governments to allow for agritourism activities in agricultural zoning districts.”
For other farmers or brewers experiencing planning and zoning issues, Thomas said, “Don’t give up.”
“If you have your mind set, there's a way,” he said. “Rely on your friends, rely on your community, and rely on your resources like the Farm Bureau to find that certain way to do your business.”