Almost everything starts with a name. Everything that happens after gives that name meaning, and eventually, a name earns a reputation. For the only brewery in Flint, Michigan, the name defined the business: Tenacity Brewing.
Tenacity first opened their doors to the public in February 2015. That same month, toxic levels of lead were detected in Flint resident Lee Anne Walters’ tap water. Flint had a public water crisis and Tenacity was faced with the seemingly impossible task of building a business selling a product that is 95% water. One year later, “Tenacity” has taken on a whole new meaning.
“Our mission statement is to brew creative beer and to serve and celebrate our community,” Tenacity co-founder Janet Van De Winkle told Paste. “We’ve always thought of ourselves as a community brewery, so we’re here to serve our community.”
Tenacity is the brainchild of Van De Winkle, Jason Caya, Tamra and Robb Klaty, and Jeff and Melissa Rasmussen. After testing recipes and picking out an historic firehouse just outside of downtown, they took to Kickstarter in September of 2014. The campaign goal was set at $15,000. Within a month, 151 backers pledged $21,406.
“The response was great,” Van De Winkle said. “I still say one of the best things about Kickstarter is not the financial support, it’s knowing who your cheerleaders are, knowing how much people in the community care, and how excited they are.”
Tenacity had a couple soft openings for their backers, family and friends at the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015. Concerns over Flint’s water started bubbling up at the same exact time.
The city of Flint stopping buying water from Detroit and started using water from the Flint River in April of 2014. It didn’t take long for the water, which is more corrosive than the water from Detroit, to start wearing on Flint’s aging water pipe infrastructure. Drinkable water in the older parts of the city came out of the faucet stinky and brown. Local officials dismissed the claims at first, and told residents to flush their water before using it. While the crisis had already started in certain regions of the 100,000-person city, there wasn’t much attention being paid on a wider scale.
But the problem wasn’t going to fix itself. On December 14, 2015, the city of Flint declared a state of emergency. On January 16, 2016, President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency. The small Michigan town had become a household name and the small local brewery near the banks of the Flint River had a perception problem.
One thing stayed the same though: Tenacity’s water stayed clean thanks to a double filtration system and frequent tests.
“In terms of us getting the word out that it was safe at the brewery,” Van De Winkle said, “it didn’t happen over night.”
Tenacity posted a picture of their lead-free water test results on Facebook, and copies of the tests are out on the bar. While the owners started to work on maintaining the image of their fledgling business, they worked to help the community as well.
“We’ve really been able to utilize the business for the benefit of the community, and more than just serving them beer,” Caya said. “Which I think is the thing that we’re all really the most proud of.”
Tenacity put a dollar of every Super Unleaded Beer they sold out of their tap into a donation fund, and a couple fundraisers for the Flint Child Health and Development Fund were held at the brewery. Tenacity was also a large part of the first Flint Restaurant Week to help restore the perception of Flint’s downtown businesses. Now, the brewery is looking to expand.
Of course, not everyone is open to Flint’s beer. To those people, Van De Winkle says that she is happy to take their call and answer any questions.
“Even before the water crisis it took ‘tenacity’ to start a brewery in Flint,” Van De Winkle said. “A couple people remarked on how fitting the name was, but that’s why we did the brewery in Flint — it was the largest city in Michigan without a brewery, and it’s certainly felt an economic downturn in its days, but the more you invest in something, the better your return is. We still don’t regret it one bit.”