Alumnus opens Clare brewery, embraces daring flavors
Brad Bellinger wanted to be his own boss in a place with a cozy coffeehouse atmosphere.
But coffee wasn't his thing, and neither was a career in political science. In September, the 2005 alumnus and his longtime friend Amy Shindorf opened Four Leaf Brewing, the only brewery in Clare.
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Four Leaf sits in the heart of downtown Clare. The brewery is located off off US 127, a place the two friends thought would be perfect for travelers going through to northern Michigan.
"It has a tremendous amount of people passing through," Bellinger said. "It's a neat little town up-and-coming."
Bellinger's love for beer and do-it-yourself-attitude began in college, when he was given a recipe for dandelion wine. He made it himself, then asked Mountain Town Brewing if he could shadow its brewmaster. Bellinger observed for a few days, then was offered a position.
Bellinger fell into "the whole brewing thing."
100 years in the making
Bellinger and Shindorf would often drink craft beer together.
He introduced her to craft brewing in Mount Pleasant, Shindorf said. That was when she saw the brewer's perspective. He'd always talked about becoming a brewmaster, and Shindorf said she wanted to see Bellinger put his craft to work.
Many conversations later, Bellinger and Shindorf decided to take the leap. After searching for locations, they came upon a building in Clare -- one that already had 100 years of history behind it.
Originally built as an ice house, the building was also a gym, video store, a 1930s Ford dealership, a hardware store and a carpet shop.
"It's cool it has gone through all these different changes and is now a brewery," Shindorf said. "I'd say it's a hundred years in the making."
During the building process, Shindorf said they found a lot of quirks that remain in the brewery today, including large, worn wooden doors that lead to the basement, hidden rooms and the original wood floor. A pair of historic women's dancing shoes fell through the ceiling while drilling to install heating and cooling.
The owners installed some quirk of their own -- some of the tables in the brewery are made of repurposed bowling alley lane.
"We overlooked (the location) for quite a while," Shindorf said. "There's nothing real square about it. We didn't pay extra for all the character that's here."
While the building boasts character, so does the beer, something Bellinger wants to be known for.
The brewery has its staples, like its IPA and stouts. Bellinger enjoys concocting more eccentric flavors, like the "Romancipator," a barleywine made with strawberries, or "Doors Open," a vanilla hazelnut stout customers call and ask about.
"(I like) beers you might not drink every day, but are cool to try," Bellinger said. "At the end of the day, I want to be known for daring beers."
Bellinger describes his beers, which he brews three times a week, as "his babies" so it's hard for him to pick a favorite. He said the brewery's Irish Ale is tremendously popular. The brewery's name and logo serve as a nod to Clare's history.
"It's a name I had been kicking around for some time," he said. "Clare is well-known for its Irish festival. (Clovers) are on every road sign; the water tower has clovers on it. I thought it was a neat way of representing (the community)."
A place of their own
Shindorf has worked for nearly every level of government, and was once known as "the trashiest lady in Isabella County."
She used to be its recycling director.
Both Shindorf and Bellinger are environmental enthusiasts and proponents of "doing it yourself." While they were content in their previous jobs, each was eager for a place of their own.
"What I was looking for when I was working in government was having a desk job where I made a difference," Shindorf said. "(Now) I drink beer on occasion when I'm here. I no longer own dress pants. I can have my family here; I can set my own hours. This is the extreme opposite of that."
Both agreed on a coffeehouse atmosphere, somewhere laid back where customers can relax and have a beer. On Saturday nights, Four Leaf hosts acoustic musicians. The artwork on the walls was done by a friend of Bellinger's.
The pair doesn't necessarily want their brewery to grow to other parts of Michigan. Shindorf said the plan for now is to keep it local.
"Craft beer is popular. It's spreading, on the uptrend," she said. "We weren't trying to be part of that trend, so we created a really small system that's just for Clare."