Ramshackle Brewing taps into local restaurants and serves the community
“What kind of ramshackle operation are you running?”
Those are the words Zack Bigelow’s dad asked for when he first saw his son’s homemade brewing equipment over a decade ago. Today, Bigelow runs Ramshackle Brewing Company, a quaint brewery next to Olivia’s Chop House in Jonesville.
Since the doors opened in July 2019, Bigelow and his wife Jessy, as well as his co-owner Joe Kesselring, have been successful. The brewery’s revenue has doubled since the start of the pandemic as more local restaurants sell their beers and more customers come to their welcoming and tight-knit brewery.
“You’ll leave here feeling like family,” Jessy Bigelow said. “You may be a stranger at first, but we’ll know your name before you leave and you’ll want to come back again and again.”
The brewery has a dry-erase bar, paintable bricks, open-mic nights on Wednesdays, and live entertainment on weekends. What it doesn’t have are TVs.
“We want to be a little different and get people talking to each other again,” said Zack Bigelow. “Everyone was learning a little more about a stranger every day.”
This sense of community is what enabled Ramshackle to overcome the difficulties of the pandemic shutdowns, which hit just eight months after opening.
“What got me through was people walking by and saying, ‘I don’t even drink beer, but I want to buy a hoodie because I know you have to stay here'” , did he declare.
People often stopped by to buy hoodies and gift cards to keep the brewery afloat.
“I felt appreciated, like deep appreciation,” he said. “The community said, ‘No, you’re not giving up. “”
Jessy said she was afraid to be a new business facing closures with outside service and other restrictions.
“I was very scared because we were only eight months old and hadn’t hit a baseline yet,” she said. “And knowing that the community has rallied around us has really made us feel welcomed and appreciated.”
The brewery offers a rotating menu of six beers and local snacks like pretzel bread from Jonesville Bakery, roasted nuts from Cascarelli’s in Homer and meat from Ferry Farms in Litchfield. Hungry customers are welcome to bring a pizza or take away.
The most popular beer is their English Drizzle, an English-style IPA different from the popular American-style IPAs.
“If I had thought when I opened that an English-style IPA would be the number one seller, I would have laughed,” he said.
Bigelow’s personal favorite is the “Czech Yo Self”, a Czech pilsner. Although not necessarily a popular style, it is one of the most difficult beers to master.
“Any flaw, whether it’s a half-degree difference on your process, will show,” he said.
Drew Stella is one of the brewery’s “beer slingers”, a role he describes as being in charge of the dining room and making sure everyone has a full glass.
“I love interacting with everyone in the community,” he said, “and serving really good quality cold beer.”
Stella worked in marketing before joining Ramshackle full-time in June 2021. He encourages students to “broaden their horizons” with different beers.
“Surpass the standard beer your mom and dad drank,” he said. “Get to know something that is more inspiring.”
Bigelow opened the brewery nine years after making its first brew in October 2010. Ramshackle got going with the help of $350,000 raised from local investors and the formation of the Brewer’s Professional Alliance.
Bigelow, along with his co-owners, owns 53% of the company.
“That’s what we really wanted to do is let everyone who followed our dream reap the rewards too,” Bigelow said.
But before he could even consider opening the business, Bigelow needed to master the art of brewing beer.
“I’m self-taught with books,” he said. “Jessy is next to me reading, you know, a love story book or whatever, and I’m reading this huge intense beer book about brewing.”
He always loved the “idea of flavor” and worked as a pastry chef right out of school. But the art of beer making was not easy.
“It’s chemistry, it’s physics. And you’re dealing with a living being – with yeast, it’s a living product from start to finish,” he said. “It really opened my mind to the level of skill needed to make a good beer.”
Bigelow quit his full-time job last year to manage Ramshackle full-time, a move he’d waited three or four years at the company. But the success of the brewery allowed it in just two.
“Every day is a different challenge,” he said. “We are human. Every ounce wants to give up but you gotta stick with it.
Jessy works a day job at Hillsdale Hospital, and Kesselring takes a step back to pursue his musical career as a guitarist with the death metal band Throne.
Ramshackle distributes its beer to the Hunt Club, Johnny T’s Bistro, Saucy Dogs, Olivia’s Chop House and other local restaurants.
Most outside orders started with 5 gallon drums. Now restaurants are asking for 15 gallon kegs.
“It’s self-distribution. I throw it in my car and drive off,” Bigelow said.
Expanding its reach is on the table as the brewery is at 65 – 70% brewing capacity. About 20% of its sales come from outside, while the store makes the rest.
The Bigelows encourage students, faculty and residents to stop by their brewery from 3-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 12-10 p.m. Sunday.
The growth since opening has surprised Bigelow, especially given the pandemic.
“It’s strange that I brew once a week and now I brew twice a week, soon it will be three times,” he said.
Plans to expand the brewery into a larger production facility and bar are also underway.
“We want it much, much bigger,” he said. “We will look at this seriously in two years.”
For now, Ramshackle is open to everyone for a cold drink and some quality conversation.
“Some of my favorite nights have been when we have a bunch of academics and professors and then guys who just got off work at Martinrea, just hanging out,” he said, “you know, swapping stories and buy tours.”