We sat down with Chris and Aubrey Martinson, the owners of the Chelsea Alehouse, to talk about beer, music, and life in Michigan.
Chris and Aubrey Martinson – Chelsea Alehouse
Our most recent visit to see Jeff Daniels at the Chelsea Alehouse led us on a journey. This adventure into music and beer prompted an interview with Jeff Daniels. We thought that it would be fun to talk to the masterminds behind the flourishing music scene at the Chelsea Alehouse. Thankfully Chris and Aubrey were more than happy to take a few minutes to sit down with us and talk about how they have successfully combined beer and music into a thriving business in Chelsea, Michigan. What follows is our recorded interview with them and a transcription of our chat. Grab your favorite beverage and give it a listen (or a read).
A Chat with Chris and Aubrey Martinson
Life In Michigan: This is Chuck Marshall with Life in Michigan. I’m here with Chris and Aubrey Martinson, the owners of the Chelsea Alehouse. How are you?
Chris Martinson: Very good, thank you.
Aubrey Martinson: Awesome. How are you?
LIM: I’m doing pretty good. So you’ve been open just over four years. Obviously the priority has been beer and food. Was it part of your business plan when you started to do live music as well or did that evolve over time?
AM: Yes it was part of the plan. We weren’t exactly sure how it would pan out. When I worked at the Art Center I met a lot of musicians. A lot of the people who have played here were either students there or instructors there, or teachers, like Jed Fritzemeier who taught in Chelsea. Some of the people who play here, I knew beforehand. Other people they have just showed up and said we want to play. We didn’t build the stage right away, that took a few months before we put that in.
LIM: I remember when we first came, we came like three days after you opened up. The stage wasn’t there then, but now it is there.
CM: We’ve made a lot of changes since then.
AM: A lot has evolved. Music has always been part of the plan but the priority was getting open. As we grew, we were able to add the stage, add more music. Having Wes Fritzemeier say, hey I want to play Wednesday and Sundays as a regular gig that was really important.
CM: Yes him and George Merkle first playing on Sundays.
AM: Yep, that was really important to realize having regular music was important. Having a regular band that could develop a regular following. It was just George and Wes at first and it grew into Thunderwude after that.
LIM: Oh really. So that is interesting. You’ve got Sonic Sunday. You got Bluegrass on Wednesday. You’ve got live music on Friday and Saturday. Do you think that you’ll ever get into a Chelsea Ale House Beer and Music festival or something like that. Do you think you’ll expand it even further?
CM: We talked about that, maybe doing the bluegrass, roots kind of thing. It really hasn’t been anything we’ve been able to do with the growth of a new business and everything else we are doing. It’s really been our focus is to keep moving in the right direction. It would be fun though.
AM: There is a lot of distractions and we try to stay focused on the core of our business. We need to make sure that is good and healthy before we get too distracted by other things
LIM: You are doing good job on the core.
AM: Thank you. It is not out of realm of possibility. We have a lot of musicians who I think would really enjoy that.
CM: One of the cool things about Chelsea is the Sounds and Sites on Thursdays in the summer. It is like having a mini music festival every week in the summer really. We are a stage for that too.
LIM: Will you have that outside?
CM: It’s been outside for the past few years. It’s been actually on our patio. It’s worked out pretty well.
LIM: The big buzz has been that you have had Jeff Daniels here for some solo acoustic shows. I know that his son’s bands played a few times here. I think he just played last week, or this week.
AM: On Wednesday.
LIM: How did you guys start working with Jeff?
AM: I met Jeff and Kathleen when I was the Executive Director of the Chelsea Center for the Arts, which doesn’t exist any more. That closed down a few years ago. They had purchased the building we were house in and gifted it to the Art Center. As long as the Art Center existed we were able to use that building. It was through our interactions; just because they were the benefactors of building that I got to know them.
We invited the Ben Daniels Band to play on New Years two years ago. I don’t know if it was Ben’s idea or if it was Jeff’s idea. Ben said, how about my dad pops in after the show at the Purple Rose. I said okay. I’m not going to say no to that. We didn’t advertise it because it was anything [for sure]. I didn’t want to promise it. He might be tired after playing a three hour gig at the Purple Rose and not want to come here. It was an added bonus.
To see people’s faces, when he walks in with his guitar and starts getting set up. People are like who is this guy? And then he gets on the stage. They were like, oh my God that is Jeff Daniels. That was really fun. It added a lot of energy to the night. We did it again last year. He did the same thing and popped in. Last year the big difference was Jeff actually hung out a little bit and spent some time. As he was leaving, I said, doors open, if you want to play here, you don’t have to play with your son. You can have your own show. He said yeah maybe when my wrist heals. He had a broken wrist. I followed up in February. He said sure how about March.
AM: He wants it to be a regular gig too, which is the amazing thing. He just wants a place he can be comfortable and play.
LIM: It’s close to home.
LIM: It’s a cool place.
AM: Right around the corner. And we do live music and he champions that. Long story long. How did that happen? Basically I kept throwing little nuggets out there. Saying whenever you are ready. Let me know. He was finally ready. Now he is off acting again. He’ll be gone for six months. When he returns hopefully we will find him on stage again. We haven’t set any dates yet.
LIM: That will be great. There is a wealth of musical talent in Chelsea and in the State of Michigan. What factors into the music that you select to bring to your customers?
CM: It’s been a little bit of a challenge over the years. Chelsea is a small town and we are so close to Ann Arbor. Even though it’s not that far away, for a lot of people there is a little bit of a barrier for people to go out for certain bands. We have bands that have been touring around the state in the region. Really the bands that have been the most successful here have been bands that have some kind of a Chelsea tie or they are more known in town. We try to bring music in that will fit with the scene is already happening here. That has been the best.
AM: The bands that have done really well, of course, Wes and Tommy who grew up in Chelsea and they got a really good following for Thunderwude. Bands that have done really well are Understory, Jake Prince Trio, Moxie Strings, Blarney Castle. I know there are others [with Chelsea ties]
CM: Mark Lavengood. Are there Chelsea ties there?
AM: No, I don’t think so.
LIM: I think he just knows Jason.
AM: yeah just knows Jason and then they played in… You know Mark Lavengood was in the Flatbellys and they played at the Wolverine. There is a local following for him. The bands that have been the most successful and the biggest draw have a Chelsea connection in some way.
Chelsea is very supportive town of their musicians and of the music program at the high school. People have watched the children grown up through the music program. They have become fans of the students here in Chelsea. They are so excited when they can come back and watch them as professional musicians. It is a amazing. People love playing here because it’s not just their mom and grandma coming to see them for a concert. It’s the whole town that comes out to see them. It’s been really fun.
CM: Mark Palms too.
AM: You know Mark from Manchester, Mark Palms?
LIM: Ah, maybe.
AM: Cajun, Zydeco
LIM: I don’t know. I’m drawing a blank.
AM: If not you should. I’ll make it a point to introduce you.
LIM: At least to me it seems like there’s a lot of similarities between the crafts of making beer and making music. Do you guys feel there’s that synergy between the art forms of making beer and making music?
CM: I think so. There is a lot of creativity that goes into making beer and a lot of the same people in Michigan, myself included, got started as homebrewers. Then move on to working in a brewery or starting a brewery. I play music but I’m not anywhere near the level that get on a stage. I grew up doing that as well and I think there are lot of folks that relate to that.
If you look at any music schedule now throughout the state, there are ton of breweries. Seems like a lot of them are venues. Options have gone a way, but a ton of them have come back through breweries, which is kind of fun. Actually Thunderwude is playing at Shorts and Ore Dock in Marquette this weekend. That is where they are playing.
There is definitely a tie. One, always going back to pubs for millennium, well not a millennium I guess, but centuries, It has always been music and pubs.
LIM: The public house. Go there and get yourself some music, poetry whatever.
CM: It just fits together.
LIM: Maybe you are more likely to pick up an instrument or sing if you been drinking.
CM: That is true.
AM: Inhibitions are down.
CM: I get worse.
LIM: It’s like bowling. You’ve got that peak.
CM: I think you are right. There is a tie, because of the circles. You see a lot of the handmade mugs, in the case of Witch’s Hat they’ve got the beautiful, hand-blown glass mugs. There really is that tie there and those communities can come together and work on a common thing.
LIM: So you just recently started doing canning. Have you thought about collaborations with a band or a musician to do a signature beer and can that?
CM: We talked about it but we hadn’t thought about the canning, but that isn’t a bad idea. For Thunderwude, our house bluegrass band for three years…
LIM: That is what I was thinking. Bourbon Barrel Thunderwude
AB: We’ve talked about a Barrel-aged IPA.
CM: Or something like that.
AB: One of the challenges is getting the production in line with everything else.
LIM: Or a Ben Daniels Band Brown
AB: Oh my gosh, yeah. Totally open to the idea. Thunderwude is as much Chelsea Ale House as Chelsea Ale house is. It is a natural extension to collaborate with them and figure out what kind of beer we should make that would have their name on it. It would be super fun. Can I talk about our big news?
CM: I’m not quite sure which big news. You mean our big, big news?
AB: One of our challenges we have right now, is our system is a seven barrel system. We are moving our business downtown.
AB: At the end of the year. We are going to a smaller brewing system so we can do more small batches and have a little bit more fun with it. Right now we have to focus on getting the beer to serve the pub and for distribution. It is difficult to serve the creative desire. Are batches are a bit large for the pub at this point.
CM: I’ll rephrase that just a little bit. We aren’t growing our distribution anymore and we are going to change that plan and we going to focus on our pub. We could make more batches of beer in smaller batches and have more variety on top of the pub. We are focusing on that. We’ve not focused on distribution and our rig is made for the distribution. We are going to downsize that to make it work better. So we are changing our focus.
LIM: Will you keep both? Or are you just moving?
AB: No we are moving downtown. We are going to still do the music. We will be brewing in a basement, which is another reason why we have to have a smaller system because the ceilings are lower. We will be brewing in the basement and have the pub and the music upstairs.
LIM: Wow. Any time frame you are thinking?
AB: We are super excited.
AM: Yeah, we are thinking January 2018 to open up down there. Cross our fingers sooner, but that is a realistic timeline. Our lease is up here the end of December.
LIM: That is is super exciting, to be right downtown. That will be great. A question I’ve asked other people, I’m going to guess part of it is your business, but what is it you love about your life in Michigan?
CM: That is a great question. I grew up in the UP. I grew up in Negaunee, ten miles from Lake Superior. Came down here to Albion College for school. I’ve been in this area ever since. I’ve traveled a lot throughout the country. We live in a beautiful country but I always want to come back to Michigan. Especially when I go home to the UP, there is something special about it. It feels right to me. Every place has its own unique circles of people and creatives but there seems to be a lot of artists, musicians and talent all around us — all over the state, no matter where you go. It makes it for a fun place to be, there is always something fun happening. We both went to Albion College. Even in the small town of Albion there is all these interesting people who have studios and all around there and you’d never guess. It seems to be everywhere throughout the state. Maybe it is inspired by the Great Lakes or our beautiful natural resources. Does that make sense?
AM: It does. I have to say I agree. I grew up on a farm in Pinckney. I like trees, woods, open spaces. We live in Grass Lake and driving here to talk with you today we passed so many farms and cows. I like that about this area. In Michigan in particular, it is amazing we have a really strong background of people who work with their hands. Right now, I don’t necessarily work with my hands but I come from people who do. I can tap into a knowledge base and Chris can growing up in the UP. It translates into people who know how to work with their hands for a living, can also be creative with their hands. Make music with their hands. There is a work ethic in Michigan. If you are a musician you have it. If you are a brewer you have it. There are lot of really hard working people, but they also know how to chill out and have a great time. And take advantage of the times when they aren’t working. They can relax, grab a beer and make some music. That is part of it. Of course there are the lakes and all the natural lands. I cry a little bit every time we cross the Mackinac Bridge. I try to be cool. These days we don’t get much up as we’d like. I was going to the UP, three times a year for almost 20 years. Now it is once a year. It makes it even more special when we finally cross that bridge.
LIM: That is a special part of Michigan. I love the whole state, but there is something about the UP. I don’t know what it is.
AM: What are those pointy trees I really like?
CM: Black Spruce, in the swamps.
AM: Black Spruce, I get so happy. They are just these pointy trees. They are so perfect.
LIM: The Seney Stretch.
AM: That is exactly where they are. You can appreciate the pointy trees and not a whole lot else about that stretch.
LIM: I’ve got one last question. It is my humorous question. What do each of you like to have for breakfast?
CM: I go back and forth. This is going to sound silly. I like toast. Toasted bread with some butter on it with some nice jam. Most days I have some form of toast. When I’m feeling a little bit more, it is not healthy really but I’ll have yogurt and granola. I will do that. There is a new, little restaurant in Grass Lake that does an amazing breakfast. It’s what I shouldn’t be eating for breakfast. They make everything from scratch. They have sausage gravy, biscuits with their house smoked pork and pork belly and eggs on top. It was wonderful.
LIM: What is the name of the place?
CM: Barny’s, a little tiny place. It is right downtown. They are doing a great job.
AM: They are fantastic. They make everything from scratch.
CM: That was my best breakfast recently.
AM: Mine. When I was working at home more. I work here more, when I was working at home. If I had salad greens. I would make an egg and put it on salad. It is kind of weird. It is so good. Mostly, I just drink coffee. I eat lunch. If I am going to eat breakfast, eggs over easy on toast. It is so classic.
LIM: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. I appreciate it.
AM: Of course. Thank you.
CM: Thank you.
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