Features

Tractors, Taps and Tables

How a farming family branched out into the brewery business
Encore-Magazine-Features-Texas-Corners-Taps-October-2017
The restaurants' taps feature Texas Corners Brewing Co.’s brews and ciders.

© 2017 Encore Publications/Brian Powers

One day in 2014, as Bill Schultz headed out of town for a weekend trip, his cell phone rang. His brother Dan Schultz had some big news. The conversation between the siblings — both operations managers at their family’s farm, Schultz Fruitridge Farms in Mattawan — went something like this:
Dan: “Hold the horses. We just bought the church.”

Bill: “Bought the church? You said you were going to look at it.”

“The church” is the white clapboard, former Christ the King Church at 6970 Texas Drive in Texas Township, a landmark Texas Corners structure that is more than 100 years old. The day before, Bill and Dan’s mother, Denise Schultz, who co-owns Schultz Fruitridge Farms with her husband, William Schultz, was driving by the church and saw a for-sale sign in front of the historic establishment. The Schultz family had decided to expand its operations into brewing hard cider and was seeking a site to open a tasting room. When Denise came home, Bill says, she “kind of jokingly” suggested the church as an option. But everyone’s ears perked up.

“Dan and my dad came by the next day to talk to a realtor and see what’s what,” Bill says.

They did more than just see what was what — they snatched it up. Walking through those doors that day, William and Dan immediately sensed that it was the future home of their Texas Corners Brewing Co. Everything simply connected, Dan says: the building’s uniqueness, its location, and something even greater — its historical significance.

“It hadn’t been used for some years,” Dan explains. “We thought we’d bring life back to it and make it part of the community again.”

“It brought people together,” Bill says, “and we still believe the building serves that purpose today. It brings people together.”

The farm

It was an earlier generation of Schultzes that got the family into the farming business that would eventually lead to the formation of Texas Corners Brewing Co., which now includes not only a cidery but a beer microbrewery and a farm-to-table restaurant. In 1951, William's parents, Victor and Dorothy Schultz, sold their home and general store in the Sister Lakes area of Van Buren County and purchased an 80-acre farm in Mattawan.

“It was a big gamble,” Dan says.

“I don’t know if I could have done that,” his brother Bill admits.

In the spring of 1951, most farms in the Mattawan area had lost their peach crops to cold weather — except for the farm that is now Schultz Fruitridge Farms, Bill says. That caught Victor and Dorothy’s attention in their search for a farm, and over the last six-plus decades Schultz Fruitridge Farms has continued performing better than average, says Bill. “Our elevation is unique in the area,” Bill explains. “That helps keep us warmer at certain points in the year. If you go a few miles away, things change.”

Its elevation is not the only aspect of the 400-acre farm that has helped it perform well. In the 1970s the family added a farm market, and in 1994 they established Gravel Canyon Bison Ranch in Schoolcraft, which supplies the brewing company’s restaurant with bison for burgers. Around 2012, they added Schultz Donut Depot at the farm. It’s open from the end of September through October and serves freshly made doughnuts and the Schultzes’ award-winning fresh cider.

Sitting inside Texas Corners Brewing Co., the Schultz brothers — Bill, 35, Dan, 31, and Andrew, 28, who is general manager of the brewing company and restaurant— laugh simultaneously when asked when their grandfather, Victor Schultz, retired from farming.

“With farming you don’t really retire,” Bill says, grinning. “You slow down … to 40 hours per week.”

Bill shares his grandfather’s passion for farming, saying working from sunup to sun-down and beyond makes sense to him. He admits he becomes “pulling-my-hair-out-bored” if he’s not putting in more than 40 hours a week on the farm. “He’s not one to sit still,” Dan agrees with a smile. And Dan says that he, too, knew from a young age that he belonged working in the fields and breathing country air.

“I always liked apple harvest — the fall atmosphere and everybody coming out to the farm and having a good time picking apples,” he says.

About them apples

When Victor bought the farm in 1951, some apple trees dotted the property, but not nearly the number there are now. The Schultzes have 45 acres of apple trees, or approximately 10,000 trees. Apple trees can live 40 to 50 years, but, as Andrew points out, the farm doesn’t have many 50-year-old trees.

“We still change things based on where the industry is going,” he says, noting that people’s tastes in apple varieties change like other trends. “There are apple varieties that go out, and there’s new ones that come in.”

Schultz Fruitridge Farms offers 20 varieties of apples, most of which are the Jonathan variety, followed by Golden Delicious. The farm also has new varieties like Fuji and Honeycrisp and other lesser-known types.

No “exact formula” predicts popularity trends in apple varieties, Bill says, but the popularity of the Honeycrisp apple can be traced to one source: Oprah Winfrey. Engineered in the 1960s, the Honeycrisp tree wasn’t widely propagated until Winfrey purchased some Honeycrisp apples and talked about them on her show in the 1990s.

“Ever since then, they had the press coverage that propelled that variety into what it is today,” Bill says, but “it’s a very difficult apple to grow.”

When deciding what varieties of apple trees to plant, farmers must consider whether an apple variety is likely to continue to be in demand five or 10 years later. Since fruit trees don’t immediately produce fruit, farmers can only hope their decision is the right call — especially when working with a challenging apple variety.

“It might be five, six, seven years down the road before you even break even and start to hope to make a little extra money,” Bill says. “Then you start saving for your next orchard. We’re diversified enough where we’re always planting or pulling out, removing something. It’s a cycle.”

Besides apple trees, Schultz Fruitridge Farms has approximately 2,500 peach trees and 14,000 cherry trees. Of the farm’s 10 varieties of peaches, Red Havens are the most popular. Peach trees last about 15 years, while cherry trees can survive 20 years. The farm also grows 12 acres of asparagus. That might not sound like a lot, Bill says, but picking the asparagus turns into an all-day affair for their workers.

Picking asparagus was one of his first jobs, Andrew says, along with rock picking (“walking a dusty field, picking up rocks and dumping them on a trailer”) and thinning peach trees.

“A peach tree will put out 10 peaches on a limb,” Andrew says. “You want three on it so you get that size and that quality. Yeah, you lose some peaches, but you are gaining really good ones in the process.”

Branching out

Although the Schultzes have added acreage and new fruit varieties, they knew the future of their business required more diversification. They found inspiration in two unlikely sources: Michigan’s weather and travels in Europe.

In 2011, the family was discussing what was next for their farm; for the previous 15 years, the weather had been difficult.

“It doesn’t matter with farming what skill set and knowledge you possess — the weather trumps everything,” Bill says.

A farmer can lose half of his or her income overnight. “It’s very humbling,” he says.

Bill traveled to Europe in 2010 and 2012 and discovered a vibrant hard cider industry there. Restaurants and pubs featured hard ciders on tap. That got him thinking: Who was better poised in Michigan to brew hard cider than Schultz Fruitridge Farms? They had the apples, the cherries and nearly 24 years of experience creating award-winning fresh cider. In 2005, the farm’s fresh cider took second place at the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market Expo in Grand Rapids.

“The farm always continues to evolve, and farming is what we do,” Bill says. “But I said, ‘Let us add another dimension to it.’”

The Schultzes’ decision to brew and serve hard cider coincided with what has been called “a renaissance” of the drink by The New York Times and online craft beverage publication CrushBrew. Carla Snyder, agricultural entrepreneurship and marketing educator at Penn State University, says that during the past decade hard cider has been the fastest-growing segment of the craft beverage market and the fastest-growing beverage category in the world. The Chicago-based market research company IRI reports that hard cider sales jumped 75 percent between 2013 and 2014, to $366 million.

For most of America’s history, hard cider outpaced beer as the drink of choice. According to National Geographic, during colonial times people “guzzled it like modern Americans slurp soda.” But with the enactment of Prohibition in 1920, hard cider virtually disappeared as Temperance advocates burned many apple orchards to the ground. Even after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, hard cider never recovered and heirloom apple cider varieties disappeared.

“The whole alcohol industry — wine, cider — it (Prohibition) killed off a layer of knowledge,” Bill says.

Bill began talking to other U.S. growers and producers who were brewing hard cider and experiencing strong growth and solid sales. He felt confident that hard cider would be a stable, successful product for his family. But when the Schultzes first started selling their hard cider at the Schultz Donut Depot in 2014, people often asked what “hard cider” was. Awareness of the beverage has risen since then, Bill says.

“Thanks to people like Angry Orchard that have done a lot of advertising out there,” he says. “They’ve expanded the knowledge base of the public.”

Home again

The Schultzes found their own new enterprise expanding quickly as well. It took two years to get Texas Corners Brewing Co. up and running, and during the process it morphed from only a cidery to a microbrewery and a farm-to-table restaurant as well.

Michigan law requires serving food with alcohol, so as the Schultzes’ production led from hard cider to craft beer (see What’s On Tap, page 27), the Schultzes were steered toward the prospect of serving farm-to-table food at their Texas Corners Brewing Co. rather than popcorn or peanuts. They already sold the farm’s produce to local restaurants, Dan says, so they thought: Why not provide it for their own?

“We are passionate about growing food and feeding families,” Bill says. “Food always brings people together, whether it’s sweet corn for a weekend barbecue or cider and doughnuts for a fall afternoon out on the farm or a meal out at the local restaurant. With the microbrewery and farm-to-table food, it’s a natural extension of what we do.”

While it was Willaim, Denise, Bill and Dan who initially worked to develop Texas Corners Brewing Co., there was no doubt in their minds who they needed to run the operation: their youngest son and brother, Andrew.

Andrew, who graduated with a degree in agri-business management from Michigan State University in 2011, was living in Dallas, working as a sourcing specialist for food conglomerate Nestlé. Andrew says he always wanted to return home if the right opportunity arose, but knew that the farm wasn’t large enough to support an additional family. But when Texas Corners Brewing Co. was created, the Schultzes hoped Andrew would return to manage it.

“I think for those entire two years (getting the business started) my dad was asking me to come back, and I kept saying, ‘No, no, no,’” Andrew says.

Other people expressed interest in the brewery’s general manager position, but the Schultzes knew Andrew was the man for the job. About three months before the opening of Texas Corners Brewing Co., Andrew did a 180 for two reasons.

“If we’re going to start a business, I wanted to get in on the ground and be there from the beginning,” he says.

And “it’s beer and it’s food and it’s people — what’s not to like?”

With his experience from Nestlé, Andrew came home, hired and trained staff, and in March of 2015 opened the establishment’s doors.

The interior of Texas Corners Brewing Co. has a 1,400-square-foot dining area with 21 tables and a capacity for 65 people. It also has eight seats at the bar. In their renovations, the Schultzes sought to retain the building’s original architecture, keeping its old wood floors and removing a drop ceiling to reveal the church’s cathedral ceiling.

The restaurant’s menu changes with the seasons. Weekend features are the most popular selections, and they routinely sell out, Bill says. Other popular items include the House Smoked Wings, Thai Lettuce Wraps and Schultz Farms Bison Burger.

“There was a long stretch of time where we sold more bison burgers than beef burgers,” Bill says.

The Schultzes have connections with area farmers who supply the restaurant with items the Schultzes don’t grow or raise. The pork the restaurant uses comes from Jake’s Meats, a family-owned farm in Cassopolis, and it's not uncommon for a Schultz family member to travel to Indiana to purchase Amish-grown produce. The brothers emphasize that all their food — from sauces to salads to homemade chips and French fries — is made fresh daily.

Family focus

The Schultzes’ farm life figures prominently in the décor of Texas Corners Brewing Co. Many of the photographs that dot the walls, including a black-and-white picture of the family’s bison herd and a warmly cast bushel of the Schultz farm’s red apples, were taken by Dan’s wife, Audrey Klein, a photographer. Andrew’s wife Ruth tends the bar and manages the farm market, and his stepson, Nolan Fillar, works as a food runner and host at the restaurant.

Pointing to a photo of a collage hanging above a high-top table near the bar, Bill says, “That’s my grandpa standing next to his plane in North Africa, then my grandma and grandpa on their wedding day. And that’s the flag he was buried with. He is out at Fort Custer.”

Even the names of the microbrewery’s craft beers pay homage to family. The list of brews includes the P51 Porter — named for Victor, who flew a P51 Mustang during World War II — Farmer’s Tan Lager, Idle Time IPA, and Three Brothers IPA.

“I’ve always felt that food brings people together,” Bill says, “and to see families come together here and have a good time, that leaves me feeling very warm inside. It means we’ve done our job, and it doesn’t get a whole lot better than that.”

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What’s on Tap?

When Texas Corners Brewing Co. first opened in March 2015, the restaurant offered sweet hard cider modeled after “the Angry Orchards and the Woodchucks of the world,” says General Manager Andrew Schultz. The restaurant served it for about a year, but then the owners realized that their customers had a palate for something different.

“We’ve talked to colleagues in other areas where sweet ciders go over very well,” Andrew explains. “In the Kalamazoo area, people go for a drier, tart, more crisp hard cider unlike the big, commercial guys. That might be different in Chicago or somewhere else. But here it seems like that’s what they gravitate towards.”

And what is the restaurant’s most popular hard cider?

“That’s easy — Cherry Hard Cider,” says Bill Schultz, one of Andrew’s brothers.

The Texas Corners Brewing Co.’s Cherry Hard Cider is so popular that the brewery recently began canning it to sell at Kalamazoo area retail outlets. It was a silver medalist in the Fruit Cider category at the 2017 Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition in Grand Rapids. (Perry is an alcoholic drink made from the fermented juice of pears.)

Texas Corners Brewing Co. has 12 taps — three of which dispense hard ciders. The remaining taps offer the company’s craft beers, Bill says. The company began brewing beer, he says, because it already had the equipment and licensing. Plus, he says, doing so made sense.

“They (the hard ciders and craft beers) complement each other,” Bill says. “Kalamazoo is a beer town. Some people will try our ciders and our beers and then have an appetizer.”