By Robert Allen
Detroit Free Press
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) “Witch’s Hat Brewing Co.” might never have existed if Erin and Ryan Cottongim hadn’t both lost their jobs in 2010. The Mich.-based brewery was a hit from day one, opening in a 1,600 square-foot former coffee shop in a strip mall.
The kegs are iced in buckets, and high-powered beer flows through plastic chilling coolers, known as “jockey boxes”, to emerge from the taps at just the right temperature.
A Witch’s Hat Brewing Co. crew member takes the first foamy taste from a small plastic cup. “Damn is that good,” he says.
The beer is Dragon Traxxx Night Fury, a big, hearty, bourbon-barrel-aged stout with peanut butter, coconut, vanilla beans, cocoa nibs and a hefty kick, as in 13.5 percent alcohol by volume. It’s the complete opposite of what common sense says you should drink outside on a hot summer day. But this is a Friday night at the highly anticipated 2018 Michigan Summer Beer Festival in Ypsilanti, and this is a beer that fans cheerfully wait in line to taste from small plastic cups.
“You have to bring your A game,” brewery co-founder Ryan Cottongim said of the festival experience, after they’d been preparing for months. “It’s terrifying, because it’s the first impression a lot of people are having. At the same time, it can lead to great reward. And then you’ve just got to figure out, every year, how to do it again.”
Witch’s Hat might never have existed if Erin and Ryan Cottongim hadn’t both lost their jobs in 2010. She’d been a secretary at a plumbing company and an accounting student at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. He’d been a construction worker installing underground gas lines.
“I’d been home-brewing since 2004, 2005,” said Ryan Cottongim, 38. “When we got laid off, it was kind of the perfect time for us to just dive in and build a business plan and make a run at it.”
The South Lyon, Mich.-based brewery was a hit from the day it opened, in a 1,600 square-foot former coffee shop in a strip mall with seating for 38 people.
“We opened up the day after Christmas in 2011,” Ryan Cottongim said. “Had a line out the door and just kind of never looked back.”
In 2014, the brewery moved a mile up the road to a 10,000 square-foot building with seating for 99. Last March, its beers started appearing on store shelves across Michigan. And the growth continues for the brewery and its roughly 20 employees.
“Honestly, it’s kind of the American dream,” said Erin Cottongim, who’s in her early 30s.
A festival of more than 1,000 beers
At times during the Ypsilanti festival, the line for Witch’s Hat had more than 30 people in it, snaking back farther than any others nearby, including top names like Founders Brewing Co. of Grand Rapids.
Abu Yousufzai, 31, of Ann Arbor, Mich., has a mug club membership at Witch’s Hat. Nevertheless, the brewery was his first stop at Summer Beer Festival. He wanted to taste the Rye Whiskey Night Fury variant.
“They make some of the best stouts in the state,” he said. “They’re just a cool organization. They run it well. They do a lot of charity work. They’re a good company.”
For Katie Caryl of Waterford, Mich., it was stop number eight. She got the Treat Yo Self (3.8 percent ABV), a raspberry Berliner weisse.
“You’ll never be disgusted by anything they brew,” she said. “They do a great job.”
The festival is a big deal for newer breweries in Michigan. And for Witch’s Hat especially, it’s a valuable marketing opportunity. It’s where the year’s Night Fury imperial stout variants, such as Boysenberry Ghost Pepper Night Fury and Cinnamon Coconut Night Fury, are launched ahead of the bottle release at the brewery’s annual Fury For a Feast festival Aug. 25.
If people like them, demand will be that much higher.
“The week before (Summer Beer Festival) is very stressful,” Ryan Cottongim said. They empty their aged stouts from bourbon barrels, finishing them in tanks and making sure the beers and all their special ingredients are up to tasting standards.
“That whole week prior, we’re pretty much just nerding out, stressing out, making sure the beers are as good as they can (be).”
The barrel-aged stouts are made by aging the beer for months in used bourbon barrels. It’s a tricky process with a number of variables. This year, they had to dump four of the 30 barrels because the flavors weren’t up to par.
That’s a normal challenge to any barrel-aging program.
“They’re living creatures,” Ryan Cottongim said of the barrels. “I mean, you just kind of never know what you’re going to get. … . It’s exciting and frustrating at the same time.”
The Michigan Brewers Guild is a statewide trade organization that hosts four festivals each year, and Michigan Summer Beer Festival draws the largest number, with about 11,000 people expected over the weekend _ and more than 1,000 beers available to sample from about 150 breweries.
Cottongim serves as vice president on the guild’s board. The guild’s executive director, Scott Graham, said he recalls the Cottongims’ appearances dating back several years, how they were eager to learn how they could build their brand.
“Our festivals are first and foremost about promoting our member breweries and their beer,” Graham said. “That’s our primary goal, is to get them a platform.”
The number of breweries in Michigan more-than doubled from 2014, when there were 159, to 330 in 2017, according to the Brewers Association, a nonprofit national trade organization for craft brewers. This means all the more pressure for breweries to impress at events such as Summer Beer Festival.
Yousufzai, after his first taste of the Rye Whiskey Night Fury, said he’s already planning to buy bottles when they release at Fury for a Feast.
Why the name ‘Witch’s Hat’
The Cottongims’ oldest daughter Marielle (now 8), was born shortly before they lost their jobs in 2010. Before the brewery opened, the couple tried odd jobs to support the family.
“I was a telemarketer for 60 days, and I think it killed a part of my soul,” Erin Cottongim said. “Worst job ever. People were so mean.”
She stopped college six classes short of her degree. And she and her husband both credit the Michigan Small Business Development Center at Washtenaw Community College for helping them get the brewery up and running.
In need of a loan before they could open, they went to seven different banks, “denied every single time,” Ryan Cottongim said.
“We eventually got someone to take us seriously, which is very hard when you’re unemployed, to get a business loan to start a business that you’ve never done before,” he said. “It was bare minimum. Not a huge loan. And we pretty much had to raise exactly what the bank would loan us, which was ridiculous. But we eventually got it. It worked.”
They put their house on the line. And at one point, he wrote a check in Ypsilanti for three fermenters when the money hadn’t yet come through.
“Like, this is just it, we’re going to write a check that’s not going to cash because we know we have to do this,” he said. “So we literally went down there, did that, and lucky for us, two days later the bank loan went through.”
The brewery isn’t resting on its stout laurels. It became one of Michigan’s pioneers of the juicy-tasting, hazy, hop-loaded but not-so-bitter New England IPA style. Most Michigan beer drinkers by now will recognize M-43 (6.8 percent ABV), the widely popular beer from Old Nation Brewing Co. in Williamston. But a few months before that beer became available to the public, Witch’s Hat released This Guy (8 percent alcohol by volume) in July 2016, Witch’s Hat sales manager Jon Cole said.