Stormcloud Brewery a year-round anchor for Frankfort residents

Stormcloud Brewing in Frankfort has grown up fast. After seven years in business, it has an ultra-modern brewery that sports solar panels, charging stations for electric cars and the latest in lighting, heating and cooling technology.

The decision to make such a major capital investment isn’t something co-owners Brian Confer and Rick Schmitt took lightly.

“We didn’t take a dartboard approach,” Schmitt said. “Certainly, we’d enjoyed early growth and we had outgrown brewing capacity at the brew pub. We could have stayed with that. Or expand.”

The decision to expand meant bringing on expertise from outside the brewing industry, Schmitt said.

“They asked hard questions – ones we wouldn’t have thought of on our own. That’s important,” he said. “My advice is to always get the opinion of outsiders. Time will tell if it was a good move or not.”

Ultimately, they made the decision to go all in.

“It would have been easy to build a pole barn,” Schmitt said. “But we thought, if we’re going to do this, let’s do it right. So we took a 30-year approach instead of a five-year plan, and invested in an energy-efficient operation. Growth hasn’t come quite as fast as we’d anticipated, but we’re comfortable where we are.”

All of that production capacity and business savvy wouldn’t count for much if the beer wasn’t good. In his role as brewmaster, Brian Confer uses Belgian yeast, an unusual choice among northern Michigan brewers.

Like most brewers, he frequently develops new flavors. Frankfort fans get to try them out at Stormcloud’s downtown brew pub. Confer and Schmitt are also practical. They keep their business plan simple by canning, marketing and selling only their most popular flavors: Rainmaker Ale, Whiled Away IPA and Birdwalker Blonde Ale. Concentrating on that lineup for grocery and liquor stores has helped the company counteract some of the pandemic-induced effects of a lackluster demand for keg beer by restaurants and bars.

Still, Schmitt knows these are rocky times.

“We were the 90th craft brewery in Michigan,” Schmitt said. “Now there are more than 300. When the pandemic is over, there will be fewer.”

Despite that, there are reasons to believe Stormcloud will survive.

The brew pub, for instance, has become a year-round anchor for Frankfort residents. A wintertime, pre-pandemic visit revealed a full house – in fact, a waiting line – for the flatbread pizzas, sandwiches, soups and salads. This summer, customers can try new flavors such as Ror-Shock Stout, Gerald’s Talking Dog and a summer release that seems particularly well-named for the current situation: Another Day, Another Apocalypse.

“Craft beer brings people together,” Schmitt said. “It used to be that every town had its own brewery. Stormcloud reinforces that sense of place and community.”

That is apparent in the company name, which is a reference to the local habit of going to the lakeshore to watch dramatic Lake Michigan weather.

“When I look around the brew pub in the middle of winter and it’s full, I know people need a place like this,” he said. “And we help nonprofits raise money here. We are Frankfort’s brewery.”