Raytown, MO was once known as the “Lost Township” when an 1826 Jackson County survey declared the tough prairie grassland to not be worth measuring. William Ray disagreed and set up a blacksmith shop at the crossroads of many important settler trails, developing a center for trade and gathering. What began as a humble Santa Fe Trail stop for early 19th century pioneers heading west, Raytown has grown into an important economic development corridor blending the best of modern urban and suburban life.
That pioneering spirit important to Raytown’s namesake has not been lost on Michael Crane. Michael may seem the unlikely subject of a brewery story: he never was much of a beer drinker. But a fateful clearance sale and an innate scientific inquisitiveness transformed into a passion for exquisitely crafted beer. Toss in whimsical experimentation with exotic ingredients and styles, and you’ll understand the soul of Crane Brewing. We spoke with Michael to get the full story.
How did it all begin?
In the holiday season of 2009 my wife and I purchased a Mr. Beer kit on closeout at Target for $15.00 thinking that it would be a fun activity to do with our college-aged sons. After a few brews with the kit, I started researching the brewing process and became very interested in learning more and making larger batches. Within a month or so I purchased equipment to make 5 gallon batches and soon started building an all grain 3-tier gravity brew system. Within a few more months I constructed a single tier natural gas fired HERMS system with a pump and temperature controlled mash.
The following year I joined the Kansas City Bier Meisters, which is the second oldest homebrew club in the United States. One interesting note was that all this time I was not a beer drinker. I was just very interested in the process and science of brewing. Through many friendships gained from the homebrew club and going to many meetings I learned to brew better beer and focus on brewing to style. I started entering homebrew competitions and winning. Over a period of 2 years I won 80 medals and 2 best of shows.
In the fall of 2013, the Kansas City Star wrote a feature article about me. A young man named Chris Meyers saw the article and contacted me. He had been researching and planning a brewery with Aaron Bryant, a friend who he had been brewing with, and Steve Hood who was doing an internship at Boulevard Brewery after completing brewing school at the American Brewers Guild. Aaron meanwhile had just completed a degree in chemical engineering at Kansas University. Around the same time, I met Randy Strange through the homebrew club and he and I had started brewing together. Randy talked about starting a brewery together and when he met Chris we all decided to start Crane Brewing Company. In early 2014 we started meeting at my house every Sunday and putting a plan together. After a few meetings we knew that we needed a CPA to help us with the financials on our business plan. I contacted Jason Louk my long time accountant and he came on board as our sixth partner.
Throughout 2014 we all brewed beer in my basement and started going to beer festivals. We presented ourselves as Crane Brewing Company although we had no brewery and no money to start a brewery. But together we were making excellent beers and getting a lot of attention. We attracted the interest of all the local distributers but made a verbal agreement with Central States Beverage. With this agreement combined with the attention we were getting in the press, Jason was able to get investors interested.
What's the history of the brewery building?
For the previous 22 years I owned a manufacturing business in the building, Funblock Tables. We made play tables for children, classroom storage furniture for schools, custom closet parts for several closet companies and store fixtures. I own the building which was a big plus, but the business had not been good for over 5 years. So when we got together to talk about starting the brewery, it was an easy decision to sell the business and build the brewery in the building.
What are the brewery specs?
We are fortunate to have a large building of almost 18,000 sq. ft. which gives us a lot of room for growth. We have 3,000 sq. ft. of climate control space for bottle conditioning and barrel aging. That gives us the room for around 400 spirit and wine barrels for our sour and wild fermented beers.
- 15 barrel system from American Beer Equipment in Lincoln, NE
- Three 30 barrel fermenters
- Two 15 barrel fermenters
- One 30 barrel brite
- One 15 barrel brite
What's the reception been like by the locals?
Ever since we introduced Crane Brewing at the Parkville Microbrew Fest in April, 2014 the support and enthusiasm for our beer has been overwhelming. The city of Raytown, MO has been very accommodating and supportive. During construction and after, the mayor has come to visit many times and show off the brewery to local and state representatives. By the time we started distribution we had over 5,000 followers on Facebook. At the end of 2014 there were several articles written about the things to look forward to in the Kansas City area and these articles all listed the opening of Crane Brewing to be one of the most anticipated.
How was the transition going from homebrewing to production brewing?
It is common for most start up breweries to either dump a few batches or to attempt to sell beer that is not up to standards. What sets us apart from so many other breweries started by homebrewers is we have two professional brewers. Steve Hood is a graduate of the American Brewers Guild and Randy Strange from the Siebel Institute. Our first batch of Saison turned out a bit darker than anticipated so instead of releasing it we bottled half as Premier. We all hand signed labels to give this beer away to friends and supporters. The other half was bottled with Brett and will soon be released as Amber + Brett. It will have been conditioning for 8 months with the Brett and is really a fantastic, funky, wild Saison.
What is your brewing philosophy?
Our slogan is “Tradition Evolving.” Our focus is Belgian Farmhouse Ales, Sours and Barrel aged wild fermented beers. We like to take traditional beers like a German Gose but in secondary fermentation add the zest of oranges or grapefruit. We make Berliner Weisse and add beets after primary fermentation to make our Beet Weisse. Most of the beers we make are based on beers that I brewed as a homebrewer and won awards with.
Do you have a funny story you can share?
Well, I must say that it is not a funny story but one that will never be forgotten. On April 26th we were allowed to present ourselves as Crane Brewing at the Parkville Microbrew Fest. Over the previous several years I had been brewing a variety of sour beers which all happened to be ready for this event. Besides having 4 beers on tap, we had 5 different sour beers in bottles. A list of beers was published prior to the event and as soon as it was opened to the public we had hundreds of people lined up for our beers. All the other breweries were coming over to sample our Beet Berliner Weisse and Saison and other sours. Within the first 2 hours we had gone through 50 gallons of beer and tapped out. The excitement was beyond all expectations. Other brewers said that Crane was the envy of all who were there. At the end of the festival as we were packing up to leave, a brand new 5lb CO2 tank with a defective valve started leaking rapidly and caused it to launch right into my arm as I was standing 20 feet away and fractured my elbow. All I remember is feeling someone grab me and squeeze me tightly and a voice that said, “I was a paramedic in the army and I will take care of you, you will be ok.” I was taken away by ambulance and the following morning emergency surgery was performed to put my elbow back together.
How has your experience been working with BSG?
We have been very pleased with BSG. The service you offer is second to none. Orders are shipped accurately, well packaged and quick. This enables us to keep a just-in-time inventory which ensures all ingredients are always fresh.
Any exciting upcoming plans?
At the present time we do not have our taproom open, but do bottle sales from the brewery on a limited basis. We also have done brewer only releases of small batch barrel aged and wild fermented beers. We are looking forward to completing our taproom within the next few months.