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  • Jordan D. Smith

New Business Brewing a Sense of Community...and Beer

For the past year, passers-by have watched as a former used car dealership on the corner of Grand River Ave and Water Street has undergone a dramatic transformation. The property that stood vacant for more than a decade is the home of the newly founded ConfluxCity Brewing Company. However the building isn’t the only part of this new business that has undergone a surprising change. For Portland native Jim Hilligan and his wife Kiley, the path to becoming a brewmaster took a route you might not expect.

After graduating from Portland High School in 2003, and later Ferris State University, Mr. Hilligan found himself working in the construction business in the Washington DC area. That is where he met Kiley, who is originally from Virginia. Their lives later brought them back to Michigan, where Kiley lost her southern accent. Though, the Virginian claims, laughingly, the southern drawl still makes an appearance after having a few drinks.

The spark that kindled into a new business, however started with, of all things, a family white elephant gift exchange. According to Mr. Hilligan the gift in question was a home brewing kit which he and his father hotly contested. Eventually the junior Hilligan won the day though. That white elephant gift fermented more than beer, however as he quickly found he really enjoyed brewing. His family and friends raved about his brewing creations, which inspired the Hilligans to turn his avocation into a business.

One thing visitors to the brewery always ask about is the unusual name. According to Mr. Hilligan the name is a tribute to the location at the conflux, or intersection of the Grand and Looking Glass Rivers. Additionally, though the proprietors hope their establishment in downtown Portland also becomes a place of coming together of friends and family. “This town has so much going for it,” says Kiley Hilligan. Jim agreed, chiming in that, “people don’t realize how nice this town is. The whole place is beautiful; you don’t realize it,” until you’ve spent some time living elsewhere.

The Hilligan’s pride themselves on locally sourcing materials for their business as much as possible. They bought steel for internal walls from Michigan Steel and Trim, just down the street. Other materials were sourced from reclaimed lumber including some from their family farm. While the staff of Family Farm and Fleet were extremely helpful locating hard to find materials like steel for railings and a wastewater storage tank, Tom’s Hardware helped with just about anything else.

It’s not just the building though, the beer they serve is also brewed as much as possible with local or Michigan grown ingredients. The hopps they use are all Michigan grown. Other ingredients used in specific brews are from local farmers or will be in the coming season. For instance the 100 Acre Honey Wheat Ale is made with honey from the Hilligan’s next door neighbor. According to Mr. Hilligan, “Each has its own unique flavor and characteristics,” thanks to the quality locally sourced ingredients. In addition to craft beers, they will be serving up a variety of grilled and toasted sandwiches, as well as fried appetizers. Their signature snack though is beer cheese dip served with beer mash sticks, which are baked fresh using the leftover mash from the brewery. In the future they hope to expand to making craft wines and ciders as well.

With a prime location right across the street from Power’s Park softball field, they do hope to serve the many softball teams and fans. In the future, they plan to sell growlers of their brew that could be consumed at the ball field. The City of Portland revised the rules for alcohol in parks a number of years ago. In the meantime, it is important to note that the view of the ball field from the patio of ConfluxCity is very good.

“The City of Portland has experienced unprecedented growth in the past few years,” says Portland City Manager Tutt Gorman when asked about the city’s role in this new project. The opening of ConfluxCity Brewing Company is a prime example. The city Planning Commission, and Zoning Board worked with the Hilligans to make the necessary rezoning of neighboring residential land to build the necessary parking needed for the business. According to Gorman, “the challenge of revitalizing a long-time vacant building on a corner lot in a commercial district with essentially no parking was a daunting endeavor. Mr. Hilligan was great to work with and I applaud his commitment, determination and grit.”

According to Hilligan, it wasn’t all smooth sailing though. One thing that those unfamiliar with brewing wouldn’t think of is the huge quantity of wastewater involved with the brewing of beer as well as cleaning of the brewing and fermenting tanks. Hilligan said the volume of waste was estimated to be equivalent to forty homes. According to the Michigan Water Environment Association, “between two and seven barrels of wastewater are generated for every barrel” Due to the impact that volume of waste would have on the city’s wastewater treatment plant and environment, the associated fees would have been substantial. As a result, the brewery stores their wastewater on site and has it hauled away by a company out of Grand Rapids.

Asked to comment on the issues with wastewater treatment faced by the new brewery, City Manager Gorman said that, “while the City supports economic growth, it must also be responsible as it relates to protecting the environment and maintaining infrastructure. The City plans to conduct in the next fiscal year to evaluate the capacity of the [waste water treatment plant], as well as the associated fee structure and also explore potential privatization. The City is excited for this new chapter and wish[s] Conflux all the best. We look forward to working with them in the future as their business grows.”

According to the Mr. Hilligan, the brewery has had several days of “soft-opening” over the past few weeks including an exclusive event for their “mug club” and will be having the official grand opening Friday the 8th. They will be open from 11:00 AM to 11:00 PM Friday with a ribbon cutting ceremony at 5:00 PM.

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