In 2021, Chelsea, Michigan, a small town not far from Ann Arbor, got their first beer and wine specialty store, Withington’s. What they really got was Jay Friend, their personal sommelier or, if you prefer, a wine expert. And he is well on his way to becoming a beer expert.
We met Jay Friend, Withington’s owner, during the Chelsea Area Chamber of Commerce’s Backyard Beer Garden event in early October. We were charmed by him and his story. We knew it was a special place when we learned Withington’s is a family name passed on from his mother’s side for generations. Jay and his son both share it as a middle name.
Standing in Withington’s, looking across the way at Heydlauff’s Appliances and Jiffy Mix, brought back memories from childhood – school field trip tours at Jiffy Mix to shopping trips with my parents to buy new household gadgets.
Jay is behind me, unpacking a case of Kona Cabernet from Washington State. I gesture towards the wine, “How is it?”
“It’s delicious. Red Mountain AVA Alliance is the best place for Cabernet. I think it’s even better than most of California,” Jay says while multitasking between helping customers and taking deliveries.
It occurs to me that maybe we should have timed our visit differently. Thanksgiving was just days away, and a steady stream of delivery guys was filling the store. Thinking perhaps I was late, I asked, “When do people start coming in to buy their wine for Thanksgiving?”
Jay replied, “In the past couple of days, I’ve seen a few people start to, but really it’s last minute.” I watch a few customers exit the store with their beer and wine tucked under their arms.
Now that I had him alone and did not want to expose my ignorance to a crowd, I asked, “What is the best wine pairing for turkey?”
Not batting an eye, Jay offered, “I think the best pairings are lighter wines, lighter reds. There is a tradition in France, Beaujolais Nouveau Day. It’s a harvest fest. It’s a big party in celebration of the new harvest of the year. It’s great with turkey and light white meat,”
“What beer would you pair with turkey?” I ask.
“That’s a good one,” Jay said. “I think an IPA, as well as a wit beer, lagers, Kolsch. I think staying away from the darker, heavier beers. I don’t think they would do well.”
We are working on a holiday beer article. It’s a holiday beer list, but it could be beers you want to share with your family and friends. Not necessarily the spiced Christmas beers. “I noticed Mothfire’s Zu in your cooler. What do you think about adding Zu to the list of beers we are considering?” I asked. “I thought it would be fun. It’s a brute, so you could treat it like a glass of champagne and have it on New Year’s Eve.”
Jay agreed and said, “It falls in this weird category which I kind of like.”
Barrel and Beam
Jay asked, “Have you been to Barrel and Beam?”
“No,” we say and hang our heads shamefully, “You are like the 18th person to ask us.” They are always on our list when we visit Marquette, but we always run out of time.
Jay smiles as if understanding, “Barrel and Beam are doing great stuff. They aren’t doing the cool trendy stuff that everyone else is. I think they are one of my favorites. Speciation (Artisan Ales) is one of my favorites too. I really like them because they’re doing this crossover of beer and wine. Cider too. They are doing this slow open fermentation which has a bridge to wine.”
“Your store reminds me of Everyday Wines in Kerrytown in Ann Arbor,” I said. “They carry everyday, drinkable wines. You aren’t going there for collector wines. You go there because you’ve got guests coming over and need a couple of bottles of something special.”
Jay added, “Yeah, to get your wine for your week, month or dinners.”
“You know, having the kind of wines that can be enjoyed on a daily basis and not in a cellar is definitely very similar to what we do,” Jay agreed. “I spoke to her (Mary Campbell – owner of Everyday Wines) about running your own store. She mentioned she had another license.”
Long story short, they worked out a deal, and Mary transferred the extra license to Jay. He said, “I’m super thankful for her, obviously.” Jay smiled. And thankful for all his colleagues from Plum Market to Arbor Farms; they were all great and supportive.
Jay said, “I think this is a different setting, being the only dedicated wine shop in Chelsea. I think it allows me to have some higher-end things and grow in that way. I’m not going to have a cellar of collectibles, but I can get it if someone wants it.”
“Do people come to you to get their beer and wine for events? ” I asked Jay.
“It is definitely something I’ve done. I think my limitations are not having liquor, ice, and all the party essentials. It is easier to go to a party store. I can always get it. I just had a wedding. I got three half barrels of Coors Light and Busch Light. I’m more than happy to get the kegs of Mothfire, Arvon, or Waxwings. I can get that stuff too.”
What did you find surprising when you were starting the store?
Jay thought about the question and said, “It’s grown quite a bit since then. My beer selection was going to be Two Hearted and some standard things, like five beers. It wasn’t on my radar.”
How many beers do you have now?
Jay replied, “I have no idea. I have a lot.”
You can’t help looking around the store at the huge selection of unique beers. Jay said, “Whatever’s going on in the big box stores still relates to these stores. I knew Smooj was huge and growing.”
Straight from Smooj: “Smooj is the brainchild of the creative team at HOMES Brewery. It was the 2020-the pandemic was raging, and seltzer was booming. Like many breweries, we asked ourselves, “Should we make one?” The problem: seltzer is boring, and we are not. So we tinkered till we came up with something thrilling and wholly original: a colorful, fruit-packed hard smoothie we named Smooj.”
Curated Beer Selection
Jay continued, “ I knew it (Smooj) was really popular, and it was nowhere in Chelsea. So for that reason alone, I reached out to the distributor, and that opened a whole can of worms as far as getting obscure things. So combing through their book and working with my salesperson, I curated a small, unique beer selection.”
Curious, we asked, “Who is your salesperson at M4 CIC?”
Jay said, “Marty. He’s awesome. He helped me bring in some cool things. And then I did just like with the wine, brought weird things in. I also brought in well-known brands. I didn’t know what this town wanted to see. I know where I wanted to go. I wanted to go weird and obscure because that is interesting for me.”
Jay continued, “But I didn’t know what this town wanted to see, so I brought in Two Hearted. I stocked the 12 packs and other stuff M4 sold. Then people saw one rare beer and asked if I could get another rare beer. Can you get Waxwings, or can you get Arvon? (They asked.) So that grew. That’s really interesting to me too.”
The topic shifted, and Jay was on a roll.
He continued, “The evolution of brands and products starts in stores like this store. Eventually, they’ll probably get a distributor, and then they’ll be distributed into Busch’s and Meijer. It grows, and by the time it hits the shelves of Meijer, then it’s kind of the end of the line for me. And not to say that there isn’t a thing I wouldn’t carry because of that.”
“But,” I say.
“The perception is it’s everywhere. A Short’s beer that is not at Polly’s (local grocery store) is rare. The perception is that it’s everywhere, so it doesn’t sell quickly here. Two Hearted didn’t sell that well. If you are going to buy a case of Two Hearted, you’re going to pick it up when you go to the grocery store. It is the same price,” Jay clarified.
Now I was wishing Withington’s was in our neighborhood.
“For the people who come here on a regular basis, it is not beer so much because I think beer consumers gravitate towards their style but wine. I think people are getting comfortable with me vetting the wines and making sure that they are good and well-made. They’re comfortable just picking something up and going with it,” Jay said.
“I definitely have some people who have their regular things they want. I’m happy to always have them cold, have them on hand,” Jay smiled as he mentioned this.
Non-Alcoholic Beer and Wine
We are working on a list of non-alcoholic beers and wines for dry January. Do you have any suggestions? I said, “I’ve tried a couple of sparkling non-alcoholic wines, and they are too sweet.”
Jay pondered the question and then said, “I completely agree. They are dealcoholized. They are either boiled or heated to the temperature where the alcohol will go away. Or, I don’t know, put through a centrifuge. I don’t really know what the process is but either way, I think it starts as bad wine and becomes worse. I find a lot of sparkling non-alcoholic wines are sweet.
I carry proxies. They are made by a vinegar company in Toronto called Acid League. They do a lot of vinegars for dressings. They started making these wine alternatives, so they are not dealcoholized. They are meant to emulate like a glass of wine.
We will have to come back when we are ready to write the dry January article. Jay said, “I think there are definitely some clear winners as far as the feedback I get from my customers.”
Thanks, Jay, for sharing your time with us and for your expert advice. We will definitely be back to get your input for our Dry January article. Withington’s is located at 112 N. Main St. in Chelsea, Michigan. If you’re visiting, I encourage you to check it out and the other wonderful businesses on Main Street, like Chelsea Alehouse or Ugly Dog Distillery.
We’ve got a few more shots from our visit to Withington’s in our gallery. Please take a peek and let us know what you think. Leave a comment and show some love by sharing this post.
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