Several months before setting out on my Smitten With The Mitten beercation through Michigan, I knew that Kalamazoo would have to be a stop. I soon came to realize that I know a miniscule amount of the other breweries in Kalamazoo other than Bell’s. So, I took to Reddit to see if I could get some expert opinions on where else I should stop. Reddit user, twoldofs, commented on my post with the following reply, “I’m biased because I live in Kalamazoo and own a brewery here, but our beer scene is pretty awesome. I’d recommend taking a day or two here to check out as many breweries as you can. Either way, Michigan is great for craft beer so I’m sure you will have good time. Cheers!” It turns out that user twoldofs is TJ from One Well. After further communication, I was all set to visit his brewery!
Upon dialing up the One Well Brewing Company website, I realized right away why this is a place I have to visit. A playful cartoonish image of a woods, a wizard, and a yeti introduce me to One Well’s brand. The yeti represents TJ Waldofsky and the wizard represents Chris O’Neill. TJ kindly set up a meeting for me to come into the brewery and meet with his co-owner, Chris. I arrive 3 in the afternoon and see fun murals on the windows outside.
Upon entering, I see a welcoming and cozy area with mugs hanging down like beer stalactites. I grab a seat at the bar next to Chris. As a small token of my thanks for meeting with him, I present him with a bottle of Surly Darkness. The only thing I tell him is that he has to share the bottle with TJ.
How One Well Started
Chris is an affable and laid back dude who is fun to talk beer with. I ask him about how One Well came to be and he spins the yarn. Most of TJ and Chris’s business plans are written on post-its from National City Bank. In the planning phase, Chris and TJ figure they have to save a lot of money to make the venture go. Since they are comfortable living on a bare-bones budget, they save with the discipline of monastic accountants. Between money from their parents’ 401Ks and money that Chris and TJ save, they come up with enough start-up cash to put the plan into action.
They decide on the space that used to be occupied by Sunset BLVD Brewing. They looked at other locations first, but each of those required a total build out and that didn’t suit their budget. This location also gives them a well-populated area in Kalamazoo to draw from. As for places to grab a beer, there aren’t many other places around One Well, so the location makes a lot of sense.
Their aim is creating the feel of the college bar that Chris frequented because he enjoyed knowing a lot of people at his local watering hole. Chris continues to say that One Well had to be a place where cool people could have a cool place to hang out. Chris and TJ relied on lots of word of mouth advertising at first. Chris notes that people are likely to spread the word about a good spot if they have a positive experience. That is exactly what happened.
One Well starts with a 3 BBL system. More than half of what they raise goes toward equipment and another sizable chunk to lawyers. Chris and TJ start One Well with five employees and are now they are up to 40. Chris describes managing his staff in a unique manner, “It’s like I’m dating 40 people.” What makes managing employees palatable is that they are in the habit of giving good jobs to good people.
When One Well began, Chris and TJ figured that if they sold 50 beers a night on Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday and then kicked it into high gear on the weekends by selling 100 beers each on Friday and Saturday night, they would be able to make a go of it. Well, they did that and more. Things went so well that they paid their parents back within the first 6 months of being open.
Chris and TJ have created a gathering spot for many to come and enjoy some fabulous beers. So many people enjoy this place that they decided to buy the business on the other side of the wall and expand. One Well was getting pretty packed and it was taking away from the patron experience. The expanded space allows for way more capacity, all the while still maintaining a cozy and communal feel.
I mentioned that Chris is laid back. He recalls the interview of their 6th employee, a graphic designer, who showed up in a shirt and a tie. Chris said he told Mike at the interview, “We really like you, but never come to a meeting with a tie on again.” Mike started up Stuffed Brain Studio and his graphic designs are killer. Not only do they want their community of patrons to be comfortable, but they also insist that their employees do the same.
One Well Brewing’s Beers
Community comes first, but the beer is a close second. I am impressed by the beers on tap. In fact, while Chris and I are visiting, he generously procures flights of everything that they have on tap. The styles run the gamut from low on the lovibond scale to dark as night. Do not judge the beers by their color because not all is what it seems. What I have to say about One Well is that their beers are well above average. One Well brews beers that you can ponder, discuss, and enjoy. They do sweet, hoppy, complex, tart, refreshing, and roasty. Several of the beers I am drinking simply blow me away.
Peanut butter beers are all the rage right now. In a market that seems to be more crowded by the day with variations using this ingredient, Professor Nutbutters absolutely separates One Well from the pack. This beer is a liquid peanut butter sandwich. Think roast, bread, and childhood satisfaction. This beer is sensational and unique. I can honestly say I have never had anything quite like it.
I am Minnesotan and so spice in a beer can be a bit of a risk. I enjoy chilis and peppers in beer. Notably, I like the vegetal and pepper flavor. A little bit of heat that builds over time is fantastic. Xalapa is everything I want in a beer with jalapeños in it. The nose of this beer immediately gets me in the mood for some Mexican food. Great pepper character in the nose, but a wonderfully deft use of spice in the beer. This beer is not a palate wrecker. Instead of wrecking your palate, this beer dims the lights, puts on the Barry White, and ransacks your palate’s erogenous zones with amazing flavor and aroma. My god this beer is fabulous. Go there now and pray it is on tap!
Only Gose To Show Lime
During our interview, Chris went to attend to some brewery matters while I enjoyed a burrito. More on the burrito later, but when Chris returned, he had a beer with him. It was a Lime Gose that they didn’t have on tap and I am pretty sure he summoned an eagle to get it from their production facility. I love limes and I take them any way I can get them. In a beer or a margarita, it makes not difference to me. I just love them. This beer is cements One Well’s special place in my heart. What a marvelous beer! Bright, slightly acidic, and wholly refreshing. I loved the briny and tart nature of this Gose.
I am going to come clean and say that hoppy wheat beers are not my jam. I am sure it is a difficult style to brew because wheat dries out the finish of a beer and keeping it hop-forward without using too much other malt can be tricky. Yet, One Well’s hoppy wheat ale, the Whoppy, is none of those bad things to me. Whoppy is crisp with a perfect hop bit at the end that keeps me wanting more sips.
Bad Adz Brown
There is lots of fancy wood in the taproom. This artistic excellence is thanks to Bad Adz Custom Wood Design. The man behind the design and artistry is Tim Overhuel. Tim is a craftsman and a magician all in one. The shelves that he made for the taproom are amazing. It seems fitting that One Well would brew an amazing brown ale in homage to Tim’s craftsmanship. This brown ale is so roasty and smooth. A lot of times a brown ale is an obligatory style a brewery feels they have to have. For me, these obligatory styles fall woefully short of being even an average beer.
Each sip of beer affirms why I came to One Well. Chris asks me about which ones I enjoy the most. I say that it easier to tell him which ones aren’t my favorite. The Root Beer Float Stout needs more balance because it comes off too sweet for my palate. I like the feel and the aroma, just too sweet. The only other beer I am not going to order a full pour of is the SimcoeRillo. There is something about the amarillo hop that gives off an onion/garlic aroma and it is not my favorite. Again, no flaws in the beers, just not my palate.
I try all 16 of the beers that Chris throws at me. I enjoyed the other beers that I had, but wanted to write about my highlights. When you go to One Well, you will see that they don’t brew any bad beer.
About That Burrito. . .
One Well, like other breweries in Michigan, takes food seriously. Their menu is streamlined and inviting. They have something for everyone. Their menu changes often and they are always inventing new ways to tempt your taste buds with culinary delights. I decide on the burrito that is stuffed with meat, guacamole, jalapeños, and french fries. This baby is a stoner’s delight. I devour it ravenously, so ravenously that I forget to take a picture 🙁 I guess that means it never happened. . . When you go to One Well, make sure you bring your appetite because their food is creative and delicious.
A True Beer Community
Chris is one of the most welcoming guys I have ever met in the beer world. He has countless ways in which he makes patrons and people who work at One Well feel part of something greater than themselves. During my visit with Chris, I saw people from Bell’s come in, other employees here on their day off, and many other regulars. Chris greets all of them with a high five and a smile. In fact, on the website, the mantra, “High fives over hugs!” is prominently displayed.
A sub-community at One Well is their mug club. I ask Chris how the mug club started and in his typical dry and perfect comedic timing he replies, “So, we ripped off Dark Horse.” Chris wants his patrons to have something special. They sold 100 mugs at $150.00 a piece. The beautiful mugs are the artistic creations of Jovonnah Nicholson in Grand Rapids. Once you are in the mug club you get a dollar off a beer for the rest of your life, early access to special release beers, and a 10% off on merchandise. The mugs are all unique and one of a kind; seemingly in line with how One Well is to the Michigan beer scene.
The biggest takeaway from my visit is how many One Well employees I see coming in for a beer on their day off. If I ever show up at my job on my day off, you will know that my body has been inhabited by aliens. There is a familial vibe at One Well and that is why it isn’t uncommon to see proud employees drinking a beer there on their day off. If I lived in Kalamazoo, One Well would be my local haunt. I love the people I meet and the character of the place. Community is not something that can be faked. It happens organically and because of hard work. TJ and Chris have put much of themselves into One Well and the success is validation for them taking the leap to create a place where all are welcome.
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