Big Lake Brewing founders take slow approach

It was never the intention of craft-beer buddies Nic Winsemius, Greg Mackellar and Travis Prueter to start up their own little microbrewery and go up against an established operation such as New Holland Brewing Company right in the heart of downtown Holland.
AP Wire
Sep 8, 2013

Far from it.

The three friends, all from engineering backgrounds, just wanted to have a place where they'd be able to experiment with brewing up some suds, provide a relaxing atmosphere for like-minded folks to enjoy a mug of ale and, perhaps, turn that shared passion into a profitable business, according to The Holland Sentinel.

"It was sort of surreal when we first opened," said Winsemius, one of the co-founders of Big Lake Brewing LLC, which debuted July 5 in the Family Fare shopping center on Butternut Drive. "It's our dream to open our own place, but it still takes a little while for it to set in."

The initial success of Big Lake has been a pleasant surprise for the three equal partners.

In the first month, they did well enough to add a third fermenter, sticking to their strict plan of putting the modest profits from the sales of craft beer, hard cider and wine back into the business.

Big Lake is producing a modest three barrels of beer per week at its 3,000-square-foot taproom and production facility. It's more than enough, however, to satisfy their patrons' thirst, but still carve out a niche on the local scene dominated by New Holland and others.

The goal from the start has been to operate debt-free beyond their combined original investment of $100,000 — since none of them has plans to quit their regular jobs to make beer full-time.

"I'm glad we took the slow approach," the 33-year-old Mackellar said. "We're not businessmen, we're engineers. We're still learning how to do this. We wanted to start out small."

It's a plan that not everyone else wanted them to follow.

Winsemius, 29, said the three partners formed Big Lake LLC in February 2009 and looked into securing investors for their project. Those external forces were pressuring them to find a prime downtown site to compete head-to-head with New Holland and Our Brewing, both located in the heart of downtown Holland.

It just didn't make sense to be overly ambitious at the outset, he insisted.

"We watched Our Brewing do it," Winsemius said of owner Trevor Doublestein's competition with New Holland. "We met Trevor. We reached out to him before we opened. We fired a lot of questions at him and tried to learn as much as we could from him. We were looking at other downtown locations, but we really always just wanted to start out small.

"We didn't want to let that get out of control to get started."

Instead, the Big Lake partners realized they must pay their dues and learn their craft the way New Holland, the third-largest microbrewery in Michigan, and Founders Brewing of Grand Rapids did.

"Both New Holland and Founders provide a lot of inspiration for us," Winsemius said. "Both of them didn't get there overnight. They put in the long hours and hard work to get there. They paved the way for small breweries in West Michigan. We couldn't be happier to be where we are."

It is the only microbrewery located on Holland's North Side.

"It fit everything we needed," Mackellar said of the Big Lake location. "Our demographic is the local neighborhood. A lot of our customers tell us, 'I live right around the corner.' You can get a pizza or takeout (food) and bring it in here and get a beer.

"It's a lot quieter in here than the places downtown, although it gets a little noisier on Thirsty Thursdays," he added with a laugh. "You just don't have to go across the river to get a craft beer."

It took more than four years to put Big Lake on the local map.

The three partners, including the 29-year-old Prueter, endured a lengthy delay in acquiring their liquor license and spent a lot of time carefully considering every possible detail.

And they're satisfied with their progress just two months after opening.

"Is this still the honeymoon period? I don't know," Mackellar wondered.

Winsemius understands Big Lake ultimately will be judged on whether it makes superior craft beer.

"It has been a lot of fun," he said. "I try not to compare us to other places. I'm satisfied with what we're making right now, but we know there's still a lot of room for improvement.

"I don't know if there's room (enough for three microbreweries in the Holland marketplace). We're just trying to figure out where we're at next month, let alone next year."



For an more local connection, Nic is a 2001 Spring Lake Grad.



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