Calvin grads create unique atmosphere in brewery

Photo courtesy Harmony Brewing.
Photo courtesy Harmony Brewing.

Harmony Brewing hopes to deepen its ties to the community this year through Black Squirrel University and other local involvements.

Three Calvin graduates, Heather, Barry and Jackson Van Dyke, started an Eastown brewery with the intention of providing a café atmosphere — but with beer instead of coffee.

That brewery opened last February, but according to Heather, “We’re just now getting the point where we’ve got a really really great general manager in place.”

With that manager handling the bar’s day-to-day demands, the Van Dykes now have more time to organize events and focus on other aspects of running a brewery.

Black Squirrel University stands out amidst a host of recent and upcoming Harmony events. Every other week, a guest speaker will share about his or her area of expertise: poetry, barefoot running, brewing, philosophy, the eclectic — almost everything is fair game.

“If you’re not interested in their topic at the beginning, you probably will be at the end,” said Heather, ‘97.

Black Squirrel University is meant to offer a type of communication that is often absent outside of a college setting.

“You guys [at Calvin] get to hear from somebody who’s an expert in their field all the time — that’s normal for you, you know?” Heather said. “It’s not something that’s normal once you leave school. One thing that we miss is just sitting and talking about ideas.”

This Sunday, Oct. 7, Black Squirrel University will feature two nationally-touring poets. On Oct. 16, Daniel Jesse, a philosopher, will speak on “Contemplating Leisure: Beyond Mere Amusement.” A presentation on barefoot running will round out the month on Oct. 30.

Past presenters have included the Great Lakes Barbershop Chorus and REVUE’s Beer Dude, Ben Darcie.

“I hope that Harmony Brewing Company can become a nexus point for a new community of artists and thinkers,” said Barry, ’05.

The Calvin grads hope to connect with the community through other events and activities as well. Harmony donated free pizza to Creative Youth Center’s fundraiser at The Meanwhile two weeks ago and served as host for mid-September’s 40th precinct pub crawl.

According to Heather, Harmony is a place for a range of people with a range of purposes.

“When we were thinking about this place, we were like, ‘yeah, we want people to come in the afternoons and write a paper and have a beer,’” she said. “We’ve got wi-fi.”

Harmony also has a basket of kids’ books, and their staff is trained to deal with families. All three Van Dykes have children of their own, and they took care to create a family-friendly establishment.

“If a family comes in, they get apple slices right away,” Heather said.

The Van Dykes also try to use as many local ingredients as they can at Harmony. Their families helped them pick sour cherries by hand, for instance, for use in the brewery’s recent cherry beer.

“It’s all about relationships,” said Heather. “When they find out their product’s going to be used in a beer, people are generally so excited about that.”

Jackson and Barry are Harmony’s co-head brewers, and although their brewery is still less than a year old, the brothers have over a decade of homebrewing experience under their belts.

Due to size constraints, Harmony has only six or seven beers on tap at any one time, but that lineup changes often. A few mainstays, such as Black Squirrel Porter and Crossroads Rye Pale Ale, will always be in some part of the rotation, though, whether on tap, being brewed or being fermented.

“We’re always messing around and trying to do something new,” Jackson said. “Even if you can’t get your one favorite, you’ll have something similar to it.”

The brothers are currently crafting a chai pumpkin ale for October, as well as their own batch of the White House’s home-brewed beer that will incorporate local honey.

Harmony uses recycled dairy tanks and old yogurt containers to brew and ferment its beer — just one example of the repurposing that characterizes the brewery.

The building itself sat for over a decade as an abandoned liquor store before the Van Dykes renovated it. Before its liquor store days, the building was a 1920s house connected to a convenience store that was added in 1933.

A repurposed pew — thankfully a cushioned one — offers seating in the back section. Wood slats from Western Michigan University’s old gymnasium decorate an adjacent wall. Even the bathroom doors — leftovers from a Grand Rapids Christian school — are local relics.

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