Brewer Paul Popa rinses out the mash tank.
Article and photographs by Jeremy Benson

Tables and umbrellas are in bloom on Main Streets across the Midwest, major league spring training is coming to a close, and Memorial Day is right around the corner—all signs that the height of beer season will soon be upon us. For Mid-Michigan, the season is sponsored in part by the Tri-City Brewing Company.

Although its first beer—a German ale named after Bay City's Phoenix Brewing Company—landed on shelves in early 2007, the company tracks its history to Fathers Day 1995, when Kevin Peil received a home-brew kit from his family. After a decade of experimenting and boiling in his garage, Peil and a handful of home-brewing friends developed a business plan and gathered a group of investors.

"Some folks were home brewers; some were just interested investors," says Chris Sprague of Freeland and one such partner, "but everyone has chipped in." Several investors have day jobs as engineers and chemists at Dow, and in the early days used their knowledge to help set up the fermentation tanks and boiling kettles. One investor owns a printing company, which supplies the bottle labels and six-pack carriers. "Everyone has a different skill," says Jim Schmidt, a semi-retired Dow Corning contractor. When the brewery opened in 2007, it was the first independent beer brewer to operate in the region in 50 years; that spring it became the official micro-brewery of the Great Lakes Loons and Dow Diamond.

After establishing the company, Peil enrolled in a month-long intensive course at the Munich Brewing Academy in Germany to learn the art of brewing on a larger, more demanding scale. "I spent so much time sitting in front of tanks, deconstructing the process. It was useful." Peil and company also received tips from other Michigan micro-breweries, including Lumber Baron's Charcoal Grill and Brew Pub in Bay City.

Every Saturday, a group of the investors meets at the warehouse-turned-brewery in northeastern Bay City to help Peil and Paul Popa—Tri-City Brewing's President and brew master, respectively—clean out the tanks between and after boiling or man the skittish bottling line. "Eighty to ninety percent of what I do is clean and sanitize," says Popa, wearing rubber boots and gloves, as he uses a pressurized hose to direct loose grains toward the only floor drain in the facility. Popa was also instrumental in 2008 when Dow Diamond and the Loons contracted the Tri-City Brewing Co. to develop a light beer exclusively for the team. "Paul made a batch at home," says Peil. "We all tried it, said 'we need to do this, we need to do that.'" When they gave the Dow Diamond management a taste of Paul's refined recipe, the Loons Summer Ale was a hit— and has been with baseball fans since.

Though the Tri-City Brewing Co. produces many popular styles of beer, drinkers should expect a unique flavor— the Phelan Irish Red, for instance, is only a distant cousin of Killian's sweetened Red. The ingredients are the primary difference: whereas most beers on the market will mix wheat or rice into the mash (the basis for all beer, which looks and smells like Grape-Nuts cereal), Tri-City uses only whole grain barley, providing much deeper flavor notes in the final product. "We only use four ingredients: grain, water, yeast and hops—we say that’s the sign of a good beer," says Schmidt.

"We decided from the start that we would make beers that we like," says Peil, who hasn’t lost the joy of sharing a beer amidst a life of making it.

Tri-City Brewing Company's ales, stouts and lagers can be found on tap and shelf at over 60 vendors across the region, including at the brewery on Saturdays from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.; specific locations and more information can be found at

© Jeremy Benson, 2010