Farm to Taproom: Brewery Terra Firma

Farm to Taproom: Brewery Terra Firma

By Beth Milligan

In the midst of a brewery boom in northern Michigan, entrepreneur and brew master John Niedermaier is plowing new ground.

Brewery Terra Firma is the state's first "farm brewery" which will use the surrounding land to cultivate crops and ingredients – including berries, herbs, hops, grains, honey and vegetables – for its beer. The microbrewery's 10 acres of farmland sit on the corner of Hartman and Dracka roads in Traverse City.

Niedermaier said the concept for the business came to him almost 20 years ago when he was a commercial brewer at the now-defunct Traverse Brewing Company in Elk Rapids. The company’s bucolic setting inspired him to think about using a farm as a "support mechanism" for a brewery, but his contentment with his position at the time – and with his subsequent position as head brewer at Right Brain Brewery – caused Niedermaier to put off the project.

"People kept asking me, though, when I was going to do my own thing," he said. "And I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Finally, the timing seemed right to go for it. But I knew if I was going to do it, I was only doing it once. And I was doing it right."

Niedermaier had specific criteria in mind while he went on a nearly yearlong search to find the perfect property for his project. It had to sit on at least 10 acres of land, had to have existing buildings or structures on-site, and had to be less than a 15-minute drive from the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce – a spot he had pinpointed as the heart of downtown.

"We had almost given up, and then found this place," he said of Brewery Terra Firma’s Garfield Township location. The parcel – which used to house a bed-and-breakfast in the 1980s – features multiple structures (including a barn, farmhouse and carriage house), two fields, an artisanal spring-fed pond and a creek.

"It will be an incredible place for people to sit on a patio and have a beer, overlooking this scenic backdrop," he said.

Niedermaier is now hard at work with his team preparing for just such an influx of visitors [as of press time, the brewer was hoping to open by July 1.] Construction is nearly complete on the brewery’s 2,000-square-foot, 90-capacity taproom, which will feature high ceilings, exposed beams, a finished concrete floor, multiple airy windows, 40 beer faucets and a custom audio system and bar.

An energy-efficient heating and cooling system will reroute excess heat produced in the 5,000-square-foot brewing facility into the taproom’s floors, heating them in cooler months and reducing energy costs.

In the adjoining facility, Niedermaier is prepping barrels of Manitou Amber Ale and Gladstone APA (American Pale Ale) – formerly two of Traverse Brewing Company’s most popular recipes, the rights to which Niedermaier owns – for distribution to local restaurants and bars. The brewer hopes to average annual production of 2,300 barrels over the next few years, distributing throughout the state.

Already approved for expansion, Niedermaier envisions incorporating bottling into his operations as soon as a few years from now.

In the taproom, customers will be able to enjoy draft beers and buy growlers or kegs for take-home consumption. Niedermaier is keeping the list of taproom brews "top secret" until the company’s opening, but says he has "hundreds of recipes" in his head for possible flavors to try out. The brewery will not have a kitchen, but will offer local snacks and allow customers to bring in outside food.

While the marketplace looks very different now than it did 20 years ago when Niedermaier first dreamed of opening Brewery Terra Firma – he was one of the only brewers in the city at the time, compared to the dozens operating here now – the entrepreneur is confident his model is as groundbreaking, and primed for success, as it was then.

"With the amount of attention we’ve already received as a start-up, I’m not worried about [any possible competition]," he said. "I think there’s room for everyone here. We’re doing something brand new – and I’m an old hand at the business. If we’re smart, grow in a careful way and above all keep in mind that this is about achieving a high quality of life, we’re going to be just fine."