Video Tour of River Saint Joe by Stephanie Fain
Restaurant Spotlight: River Saint Joe
by Stephanie Fain
Let’s face it, the word COVID is everywhere, it’s in the newsfeed, it’s in your colleagues’ mouths, it’s in this article, it’s drinking the last of your creamer and borrowing your car without asking. COVID has been crazy. Know what else it did? Stopped River Saint Joe from having their well-deserved grand opening last year. Despite that, business is not hurting, word has definitely gotten around! If you enjoy family-friendly events, premium organic hops, great food, camp fires, tetherball and you have not been there, you really owe it to yourself to check River Saint Joe out. It really is as laid back and tranquil as the name sounds. Named after a poem written by the famous Ben Franklin Jr., a large piece of artwork floats above it in their sleek, camp-chic open bar area.
It’s easy to get lost out there in the sun and all that fresh air. I imagine the workers feel the same. I did get the privilege of meeting a few of them on my tour with manager Brian Dougherty, CEO of River Saint Joe. That is one hoppy guy right there and looking around, there is a LOT to be hoppy about. (Sorry, I saw a bunny.) He has an obvious love and passion for the earth. When asked why it was decided to open at this location, Brian promptly responded, “Because Buchanan is beautiful and so are its people. The land in Southwest Michigan can also grow pretty much anything, including the ingredients for delicious local beer and food. It’s the perfect place for a plant-to-pint, sprout-to-sip brewery, and farm-to-table restaurant.” They even can their own 24 oz. beer can on sight (jaw drop) so you can safely and confidently take it home and enjoy it. (Brian canned my favorite beer, a frosty Celestial Saison, for me to enjoy while writing. )“This saison was brewed with a variety of grains, including rye and wheat from Granor Farms. Chinook hops bring hints of bubblegum with notes of banana and melon,” said the can. Delicious! I did have to toss out my first draft… it sounded too Celestial. (Get it?)
Now I know we are one lucky town, but just how lucky are we Buchanan? The average farm grows 1-2 varieties of hops, River Saint Joe not only grows 15 different varieties of hops on its 180 acres, but cleans, processes, brews, serves and cans on site! One can even witness from their eastern-facing bar, the future generations of social lubricants growing out in the golden, rolling hills, undoubtedly enjoying the view as we are. Marc Luff is responsible for the crops as Farm Manager for Flatwater Farms. As a certified-organic farm, River Saint Joe, part of Flatwater Farms, is not allowed to permit smoking on the property. “We are there to share our tasty food and beverages,” said Dougherty; I agree. It is after all, family-friendly, you are even encouraged to bring your dog out (as long as you let me pet them).
From the soil, to the people, to River Saint Joe as a business, it’s all about the details! Dyson hand dryers in the restrooms, purse hooks on the bars, glass sterilizers at the tap, nostalgia everywhere, heated outdoor tables, they even fertilize with their brewery and restaurant compost! River Saint Joe’s goal is to have a fully self-sustaining, environmentally-friendly, farm-to-table experience. Soaking up the sun’s powerful energy, solar panels coat the roof of their rusty-chic new building, keeping the place running on green energy. There is an electric car hookup in the parking lot. They haven’t entered any contests yet but have won a Bicycle Friendly Business Award for the bicycle lane up the road, which they are very proud of. They will be entering beer and food contests post-pandemic.
Brian and I strolled to check out the compost area, where they compost their spent grain and organic coconut wire among other organic recyclable material to become future soil for the farm. They use locally sourced water from their freshly dug wells and built their own waste water system. They use that purified water from the farm to make the beer. This is the very definition of drinking a beer responsibly. This beer will make you feel good in more than one way. Hoppy beer! (Ok I’ll stop.) We may have Josh Dixon to thank for some of this, as Head of Sustainability and Design, he monitors the company’s environmental impact. Another tasty detail is their alcohol-free alternatives. River Saint Joe partners with salt of the earth companies in the area to bring you tasty beverages for those it is not quite 5 o’clock yet for and food they haven’t gotten around to making yet like Bit of Swiss Bakery for bread, Rare Tea Cellar for their organic teas and Smoking Goose whom I assume, smoke geese.
Executive Chef Carly Bielecki tries to keep their seasonal menu as authentically farm-to-table as one can get. The menu is limited but amazing and for an indecisive eater like me, this place is perfect. They cut out all the riff-raff, I can’t go wrong. My hat goes off to Chef Bielecki, I went in and skeptically ordered the organic vegan chili, fully knowing I would never enjoy a chili without protein and I licked that bowl. (I will do it again if you let me, please bring it back.) Flatwater Farms is currently working on getting their own animals to compliment their Detroit-style pizza on focaccia, which I can personally attest is phenomenal. Future plans of cheese making are being dreamt up by Brian, I am told. I’ll have you know, Mr. Dougherty, I have that on record. Currently being grown is organic green beans that will be going to Meijer. I can’t wait to see what the chef does with them. Speaking of deliciousness, Flatwater Farms has their own bees and makes their own local, organic honey.
This is where Ann comes in also. I say also because Ann is described as the “Jill of all trades” from bee-keeping to book-keeping. It is true, The first time I saw her she was wearing an apron and sanitizing, she brought us our food and double checked the ID checkers, the second time she was helping out behind the bar, and this time she was in her overalls, smiling from ear to ear digging in the dirt, I presume. Brian said that the place couldn’t run without her. Come to find out Ann Tuite is a Co-Founder along with her sister, Fran Tuite. What a team! Fran is the farm owner and really the first visionary behind this all. This is really something to be proud of! Thank you Annie, Fran(nie may I?) and Brian, for managing to pull this together!
Brian showed me the process behind the produce that Farm Manager Marc Luff brilliantly oversees. Marc has 12 years experience raising vegetables and operating a CSA (14 years farming in total.) Brian starts off by showing me the seedlings that Marc keeps happily protected and nourished indoors in their own heated and lighted environment. I talked to them, they said they were hoppy, too. They then go outdoors to the green houses, also heated and naturally lit. They then are transferred to larger outdoor greenhouses where Dougherty pointed out the long beautiful rows of various degrees of greens, some destined for my spoiled tummy. This is the moment that I realized that this man absolutely loves what he does. I hope he looks at his wife the way he looks at those plants.
Let’s get back to the beer. Brian showed me around the property and explained the process the hops go through in order to create the 10+ different beers we so very much enjoy today. He showed me the hop yard where the perennial hops grow out of the eastward-facing window in their lobby. He then took me to the barn where he showed me dried whole cone hops that came from the hop yard. They cut the bine (it’s called a “bine” not vine”) down and then run it through the Wolf harvester, the large intimidating machine in the barn, whereafter a lot of hand-labor is involved in removing the stems and sticks resulting in what you see in Brian’s hand. He pulled one in half to reveal the golden substance called “lupulin” which is responsible for the bitterness and the aroma. It smelled exactly like an I.P.A. Then Brandon MacClaren, Head Brewer Extraordinaire uses one or more of those 15 different types of hops, along with lots of grain and yeast, to create the amazing full evolving experience of taste that happens as one of the 8-10 different types of beer they have on tap makes its way down the throat. Lisa Shanahan, Head of House, is responsible for the knowledgeable crew of bartenders serving it to you and doing what is necessary to make you happy.
River Saint Joe has been making lots of friends. They aren’t just hooking up other awesome local quality businesses, but they are forming great bonds and friendships with like minded companies. Watermark drops in to exchange beer. “They have been around long enough, they definitely know what they are doing, we are so grateful to have such supportive friends.” I have not been there yet but if Dougherty is bragging about them doing it right, they must be good people. He urged me to visit them and I will!
These guys are all fun and games! Cornhole, croquet, badminton, soccer balls, and soon-to-come 3 limestone bocce courts will summon the animated human yard ornaments needed to complete their scenic beer garden, making it the perfect place to have family reunions, celebrate birthdays, anniversaries or just get the crew together on a Friday night. Currently they have 7 outdoor heated tented tables, yes, I said heated. The outdoor tables are now capable of keeping a steady temperature of 70 degrees or more, keeping it comfortable in the winter for outdoor patrons. They balance that out with 7 beautifully constructed fire pits with plenty of seating and tables to set your drink(s) down (some of us were born with 2 hands.) Currently every Monday, this happening new spot is showcasing a different artist, again supporting local talent. River Saint Joe is now open for booking events. They offer multiple tiers with a price point for every type of party. They are also adding a semi-permanent tent structure that will be up during the non-winter months, that will be big enough to accommodate a very nice sized party. Next to it, a massive outdoor grill (insert happy dance.)
New this year, Flatwater Farms is offering an organic vegetable CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, where people invest in a plan and pick up 1-3 times a week of their tailored, fresh organic produce. The program promises flexibility to take what you need and leave what you don’t. River Saint Joe is also offering beer shares and plans! Those are cleverly called CSBs (Community Supported Brewing). Monthly scheduled tour dates of the property will soon be available too! River Saint Joe is such a gift, being such a new business, they have already shown such spunk, luring the community out of our dens this past winter with a new twist on a classic game to shake off some depression, River Rock, a game much like a cross between shuffleboard and curling done on a very large patch of ice. I imagine this is where the incredible Claire Luff comes in as Marketing and Events Manager. You can stay up to date with everything they do by following their Facebook page.
“And I live once again in the old summer time; for my soul it seems caught in old time’s undertow and I’m floating away, down the River Saint Joe.”Benjamin Franklin King Jr. 1894
I see a group of hard working people with a passion for quality and authenticity. A quest for a cleaner, healthier tomorrow. I see a company more focused on working with other great companies synergistically rather than competitively for a greater cause. River Saint Joe is looking to make a positive impact on the community and the world, not just by planting trees with their new “Tree Tap” program which they soon will be planting dozens of trees because of, but by leading by example. Bring the whole family, there is plenty of room in this beautiful weather, let them run around with the dog, spend their energy on tetherball while you sample their hard work. I am not a betting man, but I would throw down some money on this company. I also see a growing company, with a current staff of 16, they are currently accepting apps for front of house including bartenders. One can apply by sending a resume to email@example.com. They are going to continue to shake things up, I imagine this is where Tyler Thompson (“Doer of Things,” said the e-mail) comes in. He’s crafting a landscape that will constantly change to find new ways to draw you. It is going to sound good, it’s going to taste good, and it’s going to feel amazing. I’ll see you out there! Maybe we will see a bunny!
Never stop growing, Buchanan!