Third Time's a Charm?
Even during Michigan beer’s golden age of growth, success hasn’t come easy for brewmaster Scott King
Photographs by EE Berger
According to the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” And that sentiment certainly rings true for Scott King.
The brewmaster has had his fill of farewell parties, closing his eponymous King Brewing Co., in 2009 after fighting the good fight since 1994, then helping to form, then fold, MillKing It Productions. But this time around, he thinks Axle Brewing Co. — with the injection of capital from new business partners and a new management team — will allow him to focus on doing what he loves best: brewing great beer.
Round 1: Going Solo
After cutting his brewing teeth working out west in Seattle and Boulder, Colo., King came back to Michigan. He decided to open King Brewing Co., in Pontiac in 1994. The primary focus was on retail distribution, but that changed as King’s intuition — and market preferences — proved that smaller rotating batches were what the public wanted.
“I saw what was happening out west with the initial growth of craft beer,” King says. “Breweries in California, Washington, and Colorado were making pale ales. ... Naysayers around the Detroit area were initially saying ‘No one is going to want that.’ ”
Customers did want that, but running the business was a struggle. “We were brewing on equipment that was converted for beer from other uses, like dairy equipment,” King says. “Learning how to consistently brew … on equipment that was held together with solder and duct tape was a challenge.”
When the economy tanked in 2008, maintaining the brewpub became less viable.
Then there was the location. “Oakland Avenue (in Pontiac) was a rough situation. Crime in the area was high, and our landlord kept raising the rent; people were sometimes hesitant to come in,” King says. “Eventually, the property was leased to the adjacent company, so we had to close our doors.”
In late July 2009, King held a farewell party. But he didn’t stay inactive for long.
Round 2: New Obstacles
King joined with some business partners to launch MillKing It Productions (MIP) in 2010. The goal was to produce a limited roster of beers (initially AXL Pale Ale and Brik Irish Red Ale) for distribution only.
But MIP was formed on a shoestring budget. The business partners were vocal about product, but King didn’t have much in the way of business planning and operations experience. MIP eventually had four beers on the roster (adding SNO White Ale and producing Rochester Mills’ Cornerstone IPA under contract). But the brewing challenge was missing for King, and larger issues were looming.
“We were operating on the wrong side of the grain bill,” King explains, playing off the term for elements that make up a beer recipe. “I was passionate about brewing (but) didn’t have the necessary experience, or interest, to run the financial side.”
Production was always behind and MIP was having trouble filling orders. “I was constantly telling suppliers and distributors ‘If…’ We were just stuck in a bad loop.”
The limited beer roster and the financial juggling act proved to be more aggravation than King and his business partners wanted. Midsummer 2015 ushered in the end of MIP.
Round 3: Axle Gets Rolling
King wasn’t done brewing. “I have spent the last 25 years of my life doing this … I’m not qualified to do anything else,” he admits. “No one is going to hire a 48-year-old brewer to do anything else.”
As quickly as MIP disappeared, a new venture, Axle Brewing Co., took to the streets. The new business partners believed in King’s brewing vision (and history). And an injection of capital provided him the opportunity to be ahead of the curve financially for the first time in years.
Axle’s President Dan Riley is pleased with the organization’s progress. “We wanted to get Scott out of the operations side ... so he can make quality beer,” he says. “We share a lot of common ground apart from our business; we enjoy much of the same music and art. That has helped us establish trust and will give us room to grow together.”
What does the King think? “Luckily, Dan’s not a d***,” he says with a huge smile on his face. “I’m really pleased that I can just brew beer again in a favorable environment. I don’t want to come across as a clown sell-out brewer.”
Axle is distributing a six-beer lineup of flavor profiles today’s marketplace demands: an IPA, a porter, a red, and a Wit (a Belgian-style ale), plus two limited releases: Frank (a black IPA), and Ruby (a red IPA).
The goal is to grow the brand, but at a reasonable pace. “We have adequate space to expand the brewery as necessary,” Riley says. “We’re happy starting where we are … we’re not jumping in with stars in our eyes under the false assumption we can distribute nationwide right out of the gate.”
Riley says Axle has a few plans in the works, including smaller runs and expanded offerings for festivals, events, and taprooms. And speaking of taprooms, Axle is on track to open a new pilot brewing facility and taproom on Livernois in Ferndale. While there are still some legal issues to hurdle, things are moving along nicely. Plans call for indoor and patio seating, a space for pop-up kitchens/food providers, and a room for private events and parties.
King believes that bodes well for the future.
“We’ve got new equipment, specifically made for brewing beer,” King says. “We’ve also got new business partners that are solid business minds. They’re the ones who are counting the money coming in and scheduling the payments going out. There are accounting people, marketing people, Internet people, and graphic designers."
“I can focus on what I do best ... brew beer.”
Visit axlebrewing.com for more information.