When Jennifer Brown and Chris McCleary, both 52, decided to open a taproom and brewery in their hometown of Battle Creek, they anticipated a typical number of challenges — but a global pandemic wasn’t one of them.
Handmap Brewing, located on the first floor at 15 Carlyle St., offers a subtle blend of hometown homage and revitalization, and a dash of speakeasy for good measure. The ceilings are tall, and soft lighting gives the space an airy, yet subterranean feel, while exposed bricks warm it up into a welcoming environment. In the initial plan, the bar was meant to seat 30, but, because of social-distancing restrictions, stools have been moved and spaced appropriately.
“We had 30 barstools. Our vision was: We go to the brewery and we like to sit at the bar and try all the beers and talk to the bartender,” Brown says. “Of course, now we’re forced to have (only) so many seats at the bar, and you know, looking back, if we knew this was going to happen, there’d be a much smaller footprint on the taproom side, and we’d make (more) room for the canning line. People can’t gather.”
Their intention when designing the brewing and taproom spaces was for people to gather.
Brown and McCleary graduated from Harper Creek High School together, but each followed their own paths afterwards. McCleary spent 25 years working with Southern Graphics Systems, making dyes for product labels, and Brown moved to Chicago to work as a certified public accountant with a sports technology company for 16 years. The pair reunited at a high school reunion about 10 years ago, leading McCleary to eventually relocate to Chicago.
For McCleary, brewing beer started as a hobby about 12 years ago but grew into something he wanted to pursue full time, which he did at Goose Island Brewery, in Chicago. He and Brown started seriously talking about moving back to their hometown to open the brewery five or six years ago, she recalls, sitting near a window at a high-top in Handmap’s taproom as mellow rock plays over the speaker system.
“Covid isn’t the first obstacle we ran into in this whole project, you know. There were obstacles all along the way,” says Brown. “And we would say to each other like, ‘Well, if it’s supposed to happen, it’s going to happen.’”
Not the usual obstacles
The brewery’s soft launch was originally scheduled for St. Patrick’s Day of 2020, with a hard opening set for the weekend of March 27. But Covid cases were on the rise in March, and it was unclear whether restaurants would be able to operate, so Brown and McCleary made the hard choice to postpone the opening.
But the collective uncertainty that has rocked the world since then didn’t put an end to the couple’s goal of successfully operating a brewery in downtown Battle Creek, nor did it dampen their spirits. They say it just required them to rethink their business model — at least for the time-being.
“We built a social environment. We built, you know, an amusement park, in a sense, that you can’t use,” McCleary says, and he and Brown both laugh.
So rethink they did. They purchased canning equipment after news of the statewide shutdown and prepared to sell their beer in cans out the back door starting in mid-June.
“It was really cool to get to see everybody,” Brown says, “and everybody’s excitement about us opening, being able to try the beer. It’s not really how we wanted to present the beer for the first time, but —”
“What can you do?” McCleary interjects with a laugh.
“It was slammed,” Brown says of their business, recalling a line of cars around the block. “We would sell out of beer in a half hour.”
The brewery at last opened its taproom doors at the end of June, to consistent support from the community. But that support started even before the opening, the pair say. Family and friends lent their hands and time helping make Handmap a reality. Brown’s brother, Mike Brown, and sister-in-law Marisa Brown, for example, did everything from painting light fixtures to filling out can labels and mopping floors.
“Maybe they weren’t able to open in the fashion that they had dreamed and hoped for,” says Marisa Brown, “but it was rewarding just to help out with to-go beer sales and getting their name out there.”
Currently, the taproom is operating at limited capacity, offering about 14 different brews — a mix of seasonal flavors and mainstays, including Handmap’s double IPA called Two Can, the brewery’s popular homage to the Cereal City, with hints of Froot Loops in the brew. Bar snacks are provided by Kitchen Proper, another downtown Battle Creek original. Handmap also features a beer garden and live music from the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo scenes.
Behind the lightheartedness with which Brown and McCleary greet almost every challenge is a real drive to see the brewery succeed. The pair invested their savings and sought grants and loans to bring the brewery to life.
Going forward, the couple says, they hope to bring in comedy and blues and jazz acts from Chicago. They’ve also noticed a trend in requests for non-alcoholic beers, gluten-free options and seltzers — all of which they’re looking into.
“We’ve talked about making a lot of different things, so I think that, for us, there’s a lot of opportunity to do whatever we want to do,” McCleary says. “And as long as people come out, we should be able to accommodate most needs for drinking.”
The business occupying the second floor above Handmap, The Record Box, is a venue space, often hosting weddings, and it’s not unusual for its patrons to wander downstairs to try the brews. As just such a group descends into the taproom, Brown hops up to assist the staff in pouring brews.
“So, if this was regular times, you could imagine this could be three hundred people, and that would change the whole dynamic as far as business and trying to keep up, and we could be having another conversation like, ‘Well, we’re so busy. We just can’t make enough beer,’” McCleary says with a laugh. “So it could be completely, completely different and just as frustrating and challenging, in a totally different way.”