Q&A: Oliver Roberts of Five Shores Brewing

Q&A: Oliver Roberts of Five Shores Brewing

Questions & Answers with community faces

Oliver Roberts, 37, grew up in Ann Arbor, graduating from Pioneer High School in 2000. He then attended Western Michigan University for two years but ultimately transferred to Oregon State University to study fermentation science. As many young people today are realizing, however, hands-on job experience can sometimes trump the classroom, so he decided to work in a brewery instead of finishing his studies.

Roberts bounced around a bit for a few years: from Oregon to Colorado in 2002, then to Arizona through 2003, when he felt the call of the water—Roberts moved back to our Great Lakes state, in large part, because it was “too dry” for him out West.

Returning home to Ann Arbor, Roberts was brewmaster for a start-up brewery, which came to be known as Wolverine State Brewing Company, Michigan’s first all-lager craft brewery. He designed and spearheaded the opening and operations for Wolverine, Ann Arbor’s only production brewery, which in 2017 was ranked the 27th largest brewery in Michigan by volume.

Roberts has now been brewing beer for 17 years, and he spent the past 10 years as brewmaster in Ann Arbor. He has won major awards, including a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival, the largest beer competition in the United States, in 2016. That same year, one of his beers also won a bronze medal at the World Beer Cup, the largest and most prestigious beer competition in the world. In 2018, he added a silver and a bronze medal from the Great American Beer Festival, and his Gulo Gulo India Pale Lager was named a Top 25 Beer in the United States by DRAFT Magazine.

But all the while, Roberts had in the back of his mind that he wanted to open his own brewery some day, when the timing was right.

Fast forward to almost exactly two years ago, when Roberts met his future business partner, Matt Demorest, at a tailgate before a Michigan-Michigan State football game in Ann Arbor. As it happens, Demorest’s brother-in-law happens to be one of Roberts’ best friends, so it was odd that the pair had never met before, especially as Demorest also visited the brewery in Ann Arbor.

Demorest is the head of business operations and development for Five Shores Brewing, as he has an extensive background in finance: in 2014, with two young children at home and another on the way, he started a mortgage business, HomeSure Lending, with $3,000 in start-up capital. The business grew to seven-figure annual revenues in under two fiscal years. The key was solid branding and consistent, honest marketing and building systems to proactively manage the loan process. Moreover, Demorest has been recognized as one of the “most connected mortgage professionals” in the country and one of the “Next 40 Under 40” by National Mortgage Professional Magazine.

“Matt had a bunch of great craft beer from around the country at the tailgate,” Roberts recalls of the day they met. “We got to talking, made a man-date to talk about beer and brewing, and within a couple weeks, we had a company formed and the journey began. Matt is a huge beer nut, a homebrewer, a peer, and a great businessman. When you put our two skill sets together, it only made sense that we should start our own brewery.”

The pair met at a critical juncture—Roberts was ready to take his brewing career to the next level in Northern Michigan, an area he had grown to love, and Demorest had been searching for that elusive “perfect partner” to bring a decade-long dream to fruition. They purchased the historic Quonset building in Beulah in October 2018.

Known as the Firestone building, or “Kenney’s Service,” it is a brick structure with an iconic arched roof and lots of natural light from oversized windows that is located on a corner lot, with the Cold Creek pond just behind. Orville Kenney died in the 1990s and left the building to his son Tom, who also died shortly thereafter, leaving the building to a distant relative. It has sat mostly empty for decades, until a year ago when reconstruction began.

The community has been patiently waiting, and around 350 people attended a “sneak peak” event over Labor Day weekend with one ounce sample cups handed out of five different beers: Shoresy (a blonde lager), Slices (an orange wheat IPA), Norwegian Wave (a hazy IPA), Haze Rd. (a hazy IPA), and Benzie Original (an American amber).

The brewery hopes to open in October or November. Meanwhile, continuing with our interview series on impactful Benzie County characters, The Betsie Current caught up with Roberts while he was working to get the brewery open.

The Betsie Current: When did you first get into brewing? What was the appeal?

Oliver Roberts: I first got into brewing during my freshman year of college. My dad gave me a homebrewing kit for Christmas that year, and we made a couple of not terrible batches of beer. I fell in love with the process, and from there, the ingredients, and then scaling it up—from five gallons to 10 gallons to 210 gallons to 1,000 gallons.

Current: How long does it take to create a batch of beer from start to finish?

Roberts: A typical batch of beer takes anywhere from 10 days to three weeks.

Current: Who came up with the name of your brewery? What does the name mean/represent?

Roberts: Five Shores is in reference to the five Great Lakes. Also, just a large nod to all of the water surrounding the brewery. Water is the number one ingredient in beer, and it’s probably the top reason that makes Michigan—especially Northern Michigan—such an incredible place.

Current: What is the vision for the brewery? What do you expect it to be like? Tell us about the ambiance for patrons and/or staff.

Roberts: Our vision for Five Shores Brewing is to be your neighborhood hangout, where you can relax, get to know other craft beer lovers. And also a place that Beulah and the surrounding areas can be proud of. Or if you are just visiting Beulah, we want it to be a place that can be your go-to for making new memories year after year. We also believe the beer is going to be a pretty great part, too.

Current: How long have you been thinking about owning your own business? How much work needed to be done on the building? Why did you choose Beulah?

Roberts: A lot of people who get into brewing either at home or professionally have those dreams of starting their own company. Brewing is an incredible process where you get be left- and right-brained. The building needed a lot more work than what we had originally thought, and we decided after we started putting up walls that we weren’t going to skimp on details. We want to really make it special; the building and the future beer-drinkers deserve a space that is made for them. We saw Beulah for the first time in the dead of winter and weren’t quite sure it was a good fit; then we saw it in the spring, and we couldn’t stay away! This past winter, we got to spend more time here and really saw how great Benzie County is during the cold months. The folks who truly love this place stay all year, and we wanted to share that time of year with them.

Current: Why does Benzie County need another brewery?

Roberts: We do not believe that this area—Benzie, Leelanau, Grand Traverse counties—is a crowded beer market. Our company is based around people coming to the brewery to enjoy the beer and the atmosphere. The location of Five Shores in Beulah helps complete a great trail of breweries and other craft beverage makers in Benzie County. People tend to think that proximity between breweries creates competition; brewers tend to think about how much better it is that people will be drinking craft beer and not macro-beer, owned by overseas companies. And of course, more reason for people to make the trip out here and enjoy what we get to all year long.

Current: Tell us a little bit about how people can get involved with your brewery; you have some membership deals, right? Are you hiring?

Roberts: Our website went live about two weeks ago, which was really exciting. We have active social accounts on Facebook and Instagram, which is a great real-time way to keep up with construction and information as we get closer to opening. Right now, we have “early-bird pricing” for a lifetime membership to the brewery. The membership is a great way to get lifetime discounts on beer and other beverages, merchandise, can-releases, and lots more stuff. There is more detailed on our website, and you can purchase a lifetime membership on the website, too. We are not currently hiring, but we are taking applications and resumes via email only right now. We have an employment page that can be accessed at the bottom of any page of our website.

Current: What does a typical day of work look like for you?

Roberts: Well, right now it’s pretty exciting seeing the project move forward with the build out—but I wish there were more beer and more customers to work with! Which is coming soon. I am learning a lot about the trades in my first time as a “general contractor.” We joke about my role on the site a lot, because I am learning on the job. All the folks we are working with have been really helpful and patient with me. Breweries are not your typical building, so I do get to bring some expertise in that regard. Mostly though, my days can be sweaty and dirty with bumps, bruises, and cuts to round it out!

Current: How have you seen your work grow and change? How do you hope that it will continue to grow? What is next?

Roberts: My past experience of opening a brewery and then expanding it has helped to reduce some problem-solving time. It’s a lot of “a-ha!” moments—remembering past mistakes and then being able to avoid them. That’s from the build-out point of view. From a brewing point of view, I am really looking forward to taking the small batches I’ve been working on for the last five months and seeing them flowing out of the Five Shores taps. I brewed lager beers for 10 years, so I get to really change my thinking about beer for Five Shores. Pretty cool.

Current: You seem to have a lot going on—what, with a young family and a new business. How do you balance everything?

Roberts: I have an eight-year-old daughter in 2nd grade at Glen Lake Community Schools who has grown up in a brewery, so she understands the time and attention it takes. I can’t say I am able to balance it—can anyone?! This part of getting open is stressful, because the hours aren’t defined and days are unpredictable. Once we get open, having a schedule helps. I am pretty laid back, one of the reasons I love living Up North.

Current: What are some ways that you and/or your business plan to give back to the community?

Roberts: Five Shores has been approached by some great organizations in Benzie County, and we can’t wait to build some partnerships with as many as possible. Wherever Five Shores Brewing ownership or staff can get out into the community and make an impact, we will. Time is one of the most valuable assets when trying to make change, and when we start selling some beer, we would like to work with others to use our space to help their causes.

Current: What kinds of things do you do for fun, when you are not working? What other things are you involved with? How did you get involved with them, and why are you passionate about these causes?

Roberts: I am big hiker. I love hiking any trail that goes up so I can have a great view of the lake. In the winter, I love to snowboard, snowshoe, cross-country ski, and generally be outside. I’m looking forward to getting more involved with volunteer and community work as Five Shores gets open—right now that is most of my focus, and I think it will pay off!

Current: How have you seen Benzie County/Northern Michigan change since you first started coming here? What are your hopes for the area in the future?

Roberts: I don’t think I have been here long enough to say I have seen changes. I ask everyone I can in the community about how they see things evolving and what they would like to see change in Benzie. A lot of people say more affordable housing and more small businesses. Our hope is that Five Shores helps with part of that equation.

Current: What are the biggest challenges and rewards of living/working in Benzie County and in Northern Michigan, in general? What is the best or most rewarding part of your job?

Roberts: Brewing is a job that never feels like work. The fact that I get to do it in a place as beautiful as Benzie and Northern Michigan just sweetens the deal. Bringing a beer from concept to conversation while drinking it with our future customers is, by far, the most rewarding. Five Shores is extremely focused on the customer experience. Not just that the beer/product is great but that we can create lasting memories for customers. We can’t wait to open our doors.

Current: What could Northern Michigan do to attract more talented young people to this area?

Roberts: I can’t speak to the greater Northern Michigan area, but for my current areas of focus—Beulah and Benzie County—I can confidently say the following might help: better access to high-quality internet. Better cell phone coverage. More affordable housing. More willingness to change our ways of thinking about what types of businesses are needed to serve a broader demographic. The Village of Beulah has made some of the most incredible investments in the community. The Cityscape project and the water system are going to bring more people here.

Current: What else does Benzie County/Northern Michigan need?

Roberts: It would be a large investment, but a community athletic center would be a great addition to Benzie County. A place to exercise, play sports, an indoor pool for swimming and swim lessons, maybe even a climbing wall, so people can try new things involving fitness. Also, a place for kids in the summer to have camps and stay active.

Current: What are your favorite local events and activities? Any favorite dining, recreation, hiking spots?

Roberts: Arcadia Preserve has been my favorite so far for hiking. There are lots of different options for trails and paths to have a cool experience each time. I am a fan of almost all of the dining establishments around Beulah and Benzie. If you can recommend some, please let me know! I tend to go where the beer is.

Current: What is your favorite type of beer? Yes, we are making you pick just one!

Roberts: Right now, I am an IPA lover. All types of IPAs, but it’s a really fun style as brewer to be able to work and play with.

Current: What does your perfect fall day look like in Benzie County? How would you spend it?

Roberts: Jeans, hiking boots, maybe light jacket shell if there’s a chill in the air, and definitely a cold can of beer at the end of a trail. Don’t forget the bonfire at the end of the day, and if I can squeeze a sunset in there, I’d be a happy brewer.

Want to learn more? Check out FiveShoresBrewing.com or Facebook.com/FiveShores online for more information and updates on the opening date, slated for later this fall.

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Aubrey Parker

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