Living the dream

BIG RAPIDS — Many people have dreams. Some people manage to live out their dreams.

A few people create their dreams, and see them come to fruition.

Adam Mills had an idea, created a dream, and now lives it daily.

“I loved what I did before and I love what I’m doing now,” said Mills, the head brewer at Cranker’s Brewery in Big Rapids.

“I guess I’m blessed,” he adds with his typical wide, wall-to-wall, smile.

Mills grew up in Evart; graduated from Evart High School; attended Franciscan University; got certified as a teacher; landed a good job teaching; found the love of his life and married; had four wonderful kids; and was doing quite well for himself.

Living the dream.

Then one day … he decided to brew a batch of beer.

“My wife and I had started holding an Oktoberfest gathering with some friends — just a reason to get together for a party,” he said. “With everyone we knew busy working and with growing families, it was hard to get friends together. So, we created the opportunity.

“One year a buddy suggested it would be great if we made the beer for next year’s party ourselves.

“It was a great idea. I drove to
Siciliano’s market in Grand Rapids, bought a starter kit, read the instructions, and did it.”

The first try did not turn out well.

“It was bad … a disaster,” said Mills with a laugh. “But I was hooked. I had to do just one more to prove I could do it right.”

Soon after, Mills lost his job with the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District when the school in which he was teaching closed. He picked up a teaching job in the Grand Rapids area. In the meantime, he was churning out beer in the kitchen.

“I started brewing and in short order got into the competitive brewing scene — turning out beer and entering them in judged home-brew competitions,” he said.

At the beginning, he just wanted to reach a degree of success at the state level. Maybe move on to a regional level of competition.

“I then reached a point in 2010 when I thought to stop focusing on the state level and begin entering beers in national competitions,” he said.

At that stage, brewing was still a hobby. A serious hobby, but a hobby
nevertheless.

Mills was still creating brews on the stovetop in the kitchen.

Some evenings he would wonder if he could do this for a living.

TALKING BREWS: Adam Mills (left), and Jim Crees talk craft beers at Cranker’s Brewery at the bar-side. The drink in front of Jim is an Old Siberian ale that is brewed locally by Adam. (Pioneer photo/Justin McKee)

“The first time you brew a beer that you’re confident enough to share with friends, you start wondering if this couldn’t turn into something more,” he said.

Over the years of home-brewing, Mills was basically banking a wealth of experience and storing away a lot of technical knowledge.

Not every batch turned out good. A lot of beer was shared with friends, but a little beer went down the drain … especially early on.

“I learned to brew different styles, and also learned to push to the edge and a little beyond,” he said.

“While I was brewing for competitions, I really stuck to the recipe book. I learned to brew classic styles reading and listening to the masters.”

He loved learning about different styles, and why brewers used different ingredients at different stages.”

There was almost a sense of alchemy. Brewing is like scientific magic.

Mills started enjoying competitive successes, but there was always the pursuit to do better.

He hoped to earn more medals; increase his judging rank; and continue being very active in the home-brew community — both competing and judging.

That was the cap — to reach the amateur peak.

There was little or no serious thought of going pro.

“Teaching was very stable,” he said. “And don’t get me wrong — I loved, and love teaching.

“Working in alternative ed was exciting and fulfilling. I still have a passion for education. Leaving education to begin brewing full time was a major hurdle I had to cross.”

Mills’s entry into the professional brewing world was somewhat
serendipitous.

GRAINS: A handful of malted grains, (above), a generous dollop of hops, and the appropriate measure of clear water blend together to create a finely designed beer.

Some friends  saw an article in the Pioneer discussing Jim Crank’s plans to create a brewpub operation adjacent to his Cranker’s restaurant in Big Rapids.

“I sent my brewing resume to Jim on his website,” he said. “He got hold of me and I brought a few of my beers for him to try. We talked beer and discussed my vision for what I thought a beer line-up should look like in a professional setting.

“The rest is history.”

The transition from teaching to brewer was … intense.

Lots of work. Long, long hours. Large scale brewing.

The brewery lay-out was all set up when he came on the scene.

“I walked in, and went to work. We started brewing,” Mills said.

“At the beginning, I was alone in the operation. Then I got Bill (Gerds) to work with me. That helped a lot. He knows his stuff and is really my go-to guy.

“Opening night was really, really stressful. I sat and wondered if the product of which I was so seriously invested was going to be accepted. I wondered if my standards for brewing would be what the public enjoyed.

“Only now am I starting to be able to relax a little.”

There are a lot of advantages to brewing beer on a large scale. Creating good home-brew beer often entails overcoming many hurdles that a professional operation may not encounter.

“Going professional, I found I needed to be a lot more reasonable and balanced in my thinking,” he said. “I needed to be a lot more careful with specialty malts, and levels of hops. I needed to consider how marketable a beer would be, and not just how unique I could make that beer.

“It became a lot more important to shoot for balance while still creating a unique brew.

“Ultimately, my charge is to make clean and balanced beer.”

As a brewer, Mills obviously hopes people will enjoy his beer. At the same time, he doesn’t want it to be “exclusive.”

HIGH QUALITY: With top shelf equipment and prize winning knowledge after years of brewing, Adam Mills and Bill Gerds (above) is helping Jima and Betsy Crank develop a first class brewpub presence in the Mecosta County area. (Pioneer photo/Justin McKee)

“At the end of the day, when all the competitions, judging and critiques are completed, I want my beers to be shared among good friends enjoying each other’s company,” he says.

“That’s what it’s all about. Beer is something that should be cherished and something to share.”

Craft beer should be part of an open discussion, and a way to invite and include others at the table, he said.

“No beer should be an elitist drink. It’s not an exclusive experience,” he said. “Beer should be enjoyed. It’s as simple as that.

“The best thing I can do is make beer that can be enjoyed.”

Mills loves what he does, and he’s still having fun.

“This was the right thing to do,” he said. “It was the right step for me to take in my life.

“As long as I can take care of my family while making beer, I’m a happy guy.

“This is it.”

Crankers will be entering Mills’ brews in competition during the World Expo of Beer in Frankenmuth this year — in April.

“I think competitions are important, but I seriously believe that what the people sitting at our tables think of our beer is ultimately much more important,” he pointed out.

“Our customers are neighbors and friends. I’m doing this for them.”

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Posted by Jim Crees

Jim is the editor in chief of the Pioneer, Herald Review and Lake County Star. He can be reached by phone at (231) 592-8360 or by e-mail at jcrees@pioneergroup.com.

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