On tap from the altar: Beer Church Brewing Co. debuts in New Buffalo

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Beer Church Brewing Co. opened in a former church at 24 S. Whittaker St., in downtown New Buffalo. The owners have spent the last two and a half years getting it ready for business. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

NEW BUFFALO — John Lustina and Jane Simon spent the last 21/2 years working toward opening the Beer Church Brewing Co.

With the brewpub making its debut in downtown New Buffalo last week, the two owners now seek a congregation to share their beer with.

Housed in a white church with wide windows, the brewpub is hard to miss at 24 S. Whittaker St. The church dates the 1830s and at one time was used as an armory by the Union during the Civil War.

“We set out to find the perfect Beer Church and were shocked to find the one at the crossroads of downtown New Buffalo was for sale, along with an adjacent lot that could furnish more parking,” Lustina said. “We wanted to make the church part of our brand in some way. I think people appreciate that.”

Raised in Indiana and transplanted to new Bufflao, the two business partners came up with the idea for the Beer Church after visiting an annual festival called Lagunitas Beer Circus. Lustina said they were looking for something unique of their own after that.

Once an offer was submitted and they closed on the Civil War-era First Methodist Church, Lustina and Simon found their head brewer.

Bridgman resident Nate Peck was originally consulting the owners of the proposed Beer Church, until they persuaded him to come on board in July.

Operating under the brewpub license, Beer Church will serve food as its beer is sold in-house – including beer to go in the form of 32-ounce cans called “crowlers.” Peck said crowlers are about half the size of the more common growlers.

“I just came in to consult, but shortly after I said ‘Hi,’ John said ‘I want to hire you,’” Peck said. “I like that it’s a brewpub because after working in a brewery for seven years, I did not want to do distribution anymore. I wanted to make sure we had the best beer possible and that it was under my control.”

Renovating history

With the owners’ love of craft beer and Peck’s knowledge of porters, the Beer Church’s foundation was set. Next came the church’s actual foundation.

With an original opening date of Memorial Day last year, the restoration of the church pushed things back. This included work on support beams and adding a more modern look to the inside. Even the floor, which is now bare, was covered in old red carpet.

However, the brewpub still holds its religious resemblance.

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Beer Church Brewing Co. opened in a former church, in downtown New Buffalo. The Civil War-era church dates to the 1830s. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

The church’s altar was retrofitted to house the tap, the pews are being used for some seating, stained glass remains on the original doors, and the lectern will be used to greet customers. The reuse of the church items has brought a mostly positive reaction from the community, Peck said.

“I’d say it’s been 99 percent positive,” Peck said. “Not everyone will like the beer or the atmosphere. But we had a couple come in on Ash Wednesday with the ash on their forehead and they were totally fine with it. It’s good to see that not everyone who attends church is offended by it or anything.”

The brewpub has a capacity of 33 people now. However, the Beer Church is expected to have enough indoor seating for more than 100 people after the temporary wall is taken out and the remainder of the taproom is renovated.

Outside, Peck said the Beer Church will have a “beer garden,” where customers can sit outside. Lustina said he looks forward to getting the outdoor area set up, along with the wood-fired pizza oven that will be in the back half of the brewpub.

There’s no timeline for when the remainder of the church will be completed, as Peck said they are focusing on bringing the remaining brewing equipment onsite.

A heavenly lineup

The first beer offered at the Beer Church includes Crooked Cross Creme Ale, Pontius Pilate IPA, Unreliable Narrator – a double IPA – and Midnight in a Perfect World.

Peck said Crooked Cross and Pontius Pilate will always be on tap. The head brewer said recipes don’t take him very long because he has a feel for what ingredients work best.

Lustina expressed his gratitude for what Peck has produced so far.

“I know the location is great and the building is historic, but I didn’t expect the beer to be this great, this soon,” he said. “It normally takes a new brewery some time before it tastes like this. Nate is an artist and he knows where this is going. We’re giving him the freedom to make whatever he wants.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 4, 2017)

Lake Michigan College purchases come under fire

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Former Lake Michigan College president Jennifer Spielvogel’s lawyer says the community college violated its ethics policy by paying more than $212,000 over the past five years to a trustee’s business.

Brad Glazier, Spielvogel’s lawyer, said documents showing then-Board Chairwoman Mary Jo Tomasini’s design company was being paid by the college for merchandising services came to light through his work on a lawsuit between LMC and its former president.

According to a document outlining the purchases between LMC and Competitive Edge, the $212,000 in charges included merchandise such as jewelry, pens, golf towels, wine and beer glasses, shirts and jackets. Competitive Edge is a promotional products supplier based in Stevensville.

The document includes the dates in which these items were ordered, which ran from Jan. 6, 2011 to Aug. 17, 2016. While Tomasini remains a trustee, she served as board chairman for part of the five-year period.

“I would like to see the board comply with their own policies. It’s important for a public institution to be transparent, and I don’t think they are being transparent with the purchase of these products,” Glazier said in a phone interview Friday. “It’s troubling to us because the policy states trustees can’t do business with the college, unless it is made public and is approved by the board.”

Glazier said he asked several trustees during a deposition for Spielvogel’s lawsuit against the college – including Tomasini, Chairman Michael Lindley and trustees Paul Bergan and Debra Johnson – and was told they had not voted on the purchases at a board meeting, and they were not made public.

However, LMC released a statement saying trustees have acted within the institution’s policies and procedures as they are not involved in “day-to-day purchasing decisions at the college.”

The statement said the role of each trustee is to approve the annual budget and not individual line items – such as promotional material.

“Ms. Tomasini has never misused her role at the college as an unpaid volunteer trustee,” the statement read. “In fact, she does not direct or participate in any transactions between Lake Michigan College and Competitive Edge. As a college alumni, she and her firm have made almost $130,000 in donated personal and professional contributions. In addition, Competitive Edge frequently provides promotional items to the college at wholesale cost or through a donation.”

The college’s Purchasing Department is responsible for purchasing functions and are given the expectation of “upholding the ethical practices of the purchasing profession.”

According to LMC’s statement, the college has done business with Competitive Edge since 1993. When Tomasini became a trustee in 2009, LMC officials said she fully disclosed her business.

LMC said it buys promotional products through more than 25 vendors.

These promotional items are used for student recruitment, promotion of academic programs, student life activities, community outreach, athletics, employee recognitions and donor relations.

In a letter to the editor submitted to The Herald-Palladium, which was published Friday, Lincoln Township resident Enid Goldstein called attention to the potential conflict of interest. Goldstein was told of the purchases from Glazier, who offered documentation to support his find.

Goldstein has been critical of LMC and its board for the handling of Spielvogel’s termination last spring.

Spielvogel was suspended a few months after taking the position for various reasons offered at a just cause hearing in May. Chief among those reasons were Spielvogel’s spending habits, as the board cited more than $20,000 in unapproved expenses. After the just cause hearing, where Spielvogel argued she was not at fault, trustees voted to have her removed as president.

Spielvogel has since brought a wrongful termination lawsuit against LMC, which remains ongoing.

“The chief allegation against my client (Spielvogel) is that she spent money inappropriately. But in order to prove the termination was for just cause, the employer had to show a policy was violated,” Glazier said. “The board clearly violated a policy and allowed the board chair to sell products to the university. They were not applying their policies even-handedly.”

In Friday’s news release, LMC officials said there was more to Spielvogel’s dismissal than her unanticipated expenditures.

“Ms. Spielvogel was dismissed from Lake Michigan College for many reasons beyond inappropriate spending,” the statement read. “Several concerns arose related to her job performance, including violations of policies, creating a hostile work environment, inappropriate comments to and about employees, college volunteers and community members, ignoring specific directions from the board and overall concerns related to management of the college.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 4, 2017)

Assessing a night of destruction: Meteorologists confirm three tornadoes in Southwest Michigan

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

DOWAGIAC — Pieces of wood, nails and debris laid scattered inside a cabin on the Crystal Springs Camp & Retreat Center’s compound near Dowagiac.

This was what Dan Stuglik, the camp’s director, came back to Tuesday night after getting off from his police shift.

Stuglik makes it a priority to check on the campsite after every storm, no matter how small. When he arrived at 1 a.m., the camper cabin had been split in half by a fallen tree that also managed to take out power lines in the process. The roof and its subsequent framing was sunken in and resting on two bunk beds that had been occupied last summer.

“If there were ever a time for this to happen, this was the best-case scenario,” Stuglik said. “We have policies in place (for where to take the campers) when weather like this comes through. It’s nice to know we didn’t have to do that.”

Three days after tornadoes hit towns in Berrien and Cass counties, the communities are in the process of picking themselves up. Each tornado, rated EF-1 that recorded peak wind speeds of 105 mph, touched down briefly but affected a larger portion than ground zero.

Crystal Springs Camp was a quarter of a mile east of where the Dowagiac tornado hit, but the prevailing winds still uprooted a few street and utility poles.

A portion of the campground lost power. However, Stuglik said AEP workers were on site by midnight to help restore it. Even Cass County officials were out at 8 a.m., taking note of the damage.

“It was nice to see they were out so early,” Stuglik said. “It was encouraging to see them.”

Tornado movements

David Smith, Cass County emergency management and homeland security coordinator, was working on damage assessments for most of Wednesday.

In addition to tornadoes in Dowagiac and Niles, the National Weather Service in the Northern Indiana office confirmed a third tornado in Calvin Township on Tuesday night.

The Calvin Township tornado touched down south of Brownsville Street, west of Calvin Center Road, in a wooded area and then traveled rapidly northeast – just missing the Calvin Center Seventh-day Adventist Church. Several large trees were uprooted along with chain link fence pulled from the ground.In Dowagiac, the tornado touched down in a field southwest of town and caused extensive tree damage as it tracked into the far south side of town.

Two single-wide mobile homes were destroyed, and there was widespread tree and additional minor house damage, before the tornado crossed through the Dowagiac Elks Golf Club. The tornado then dissipated as it crossed Dowagiac Creek.

Another tornado touched down in downtown Niles near the Eastside Elementary School. Extensive tree damage along with minor- to significant-structural damage to homes occurred in about a five-block area of Niles. Many large trees fell down on houses and vehicles, the NWS reported.

All three tornadoes were on the ground for less than a mile and lasted only a few minutes before and after 9 p.m. Tuesday.

In Dowagiac, Smith said there were at least 17 homes with damage. This included everything from missing shingles to caved-in roofs. Two vacant mobile homes outside Dowagiac city limits were destroyed.

Capt. Rockey Adams, coordinator of the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department’s Office of Emergency Management and homeland security division, was in Niles on Wednesday to compile damage numbers.

Adams said they counted 32 different structures with varying degrees of damage.

Why now?

Clean-up proved to be harder than Stuglik thought Thursday.

As they were cleaning up after the tornado, Stuglik and his crew were also shoveling snow.

“It was strange enough to get a tornado in February, but getting snow after one?” Stuglik said. “Now that we know it’s being torn down, we began removing some of the beds and other items that could be salvaged. Now all that stuff is covered in snow.”

The tornadoes’ appearances are strange to meteorologists as well. Smith explained that authorities were given little or no warning because it wasn’t seen on the radar.

When weaker tornadoes form, it’s impossible to determine if they were there until the day after by assessing the damage. The difference between an EF-1 tornado and straight-line winds is the damage, Smith said.

“We were getting severe thunderstorm watches. Then it became a thunderstorm warning. That as the extent we got (Tuesday),” Smith said. “When we have a weaker type of tornado, it makes it harder for the National Weather Service to detect those. They are usually brief and not on the ground that long. Nothing pops up on the radar either. Every couple years we seem to get these weaker tornadoes.

“We’ve been very fortunate no one was seriously hurt.”

As for Stuglik and the clean-up process, he called the insurance company.

The building was deemed a compete loss, but is insured for $36,000. While that’s good news for Stuglik, the hurdle of replacing it remains.

“Because it’s a summer camp, it will take longer for everything to get approved,” he said. “We are hoping to have it ready for 2018. That means the cabin won’t be in use this summer.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 3, 2017)

An eye for farming: Coloma vineyard incorporates drone technology

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Joe Herman is owner of Karma Vista Vineyards in Coloma. Herman decided to enlist the help of a drone company in Southwest Michigan to help keep an eye on his crops. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

COLOMA — Joe Herman has looked into new ways of getting the most out of his crops, which included collecting soil data and adding micronutrients to his land.

Now he’s embracing a technological approach for his wine grapes.

As owner of Karma Vista Vineyards in Coloma, Herman is enlisting Great Lakes Drone Company to provide aerial data management and consultation for this year’s growing season.

Using an unmanned aerial vehicle, more commonly known as a drone, Herman is hoping to redefine how to manage his fields this year.

“It gives us one more tool in making the perfect fruit,” Herman said. “The quality of the fruit determines the quality of the wine. It gives you perspective on what you can get from the ground.”

Herman learned of the use of drones in agriculture through several news outlets in the western part of the U.S. Then he met the owners of the Great Lakes Drone Company during the agriculture fair hosted by the Michigan State University Extension in early February.

Coupled with his interest in the subject and the happenstance meeting with the Watervliet company, Herman wanted to know more.

Reyna Price, sales and marketing director for Great Lakes Drone Company, said Herman signed up after further discussions on how they could save him time and money.

“We got a lot out of that agriculture fair,” Price said. “We were there to try and educate people on how technology could go hand-in-hand with farming.”

The timing worked for Herman, who opens Karma Vista Vineyards for the season on Friday.

Herman said he realized this form of technology with vineyards is still in it’s infancy, but wishes to be ahead of the curve.

“You find as you get older, you only have so many vintages left,” Herman said. “We sell grapes to other wineries across the state because we use only about a quarter of what we grow.”

The buzz on grapes

Herman’s family has been farming in Coloma for 170 years. He’s a sixth-generation grower and his son makes it seven generations as the vineyard’s winemaker.

In addition to their cherries and peaches, Herman said they grow 10 variations of wine grapes.

The Karma Vista site in Coloma makes up 90 acres, while Herman Farms in Bainbridge Township is 360 acres. The 450 acres together proves to be a lot of ground to cover for Herman and his family, which is where drone oversight comes into play.

The drone overflights are expected to provide them with real-time data to make cost-effective decisions in vineyard health, disease and nutrient management.

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A photo of a drone that the Great Lakes Drone Company uses to take video and pictures. Drones like this one will be used to oversee rain and soil levels on Joe Herman’s farm. (Photo provided)

These flyovers will take photos to show various stages of water accumulation, measure growth and use thermal imaging to give insurance companies an idea of what’s lost in the event of a flood or drought.

“The main goal is to give him a better yield at the end of the season,” Price said.

Herman said he and his workers normally had to watch for changes in water and growth from the seat of a tractor, whenever they would drive up and down every row.

“You get good at trying to spot a difference in your crops,” Herman said. “But sometimes that’s not enough. We’ve gone into soil testing and applying micronutrients into the soil. There are a lot of things out there that you can feed into the soil. The soil feeds the vine.”

Mapping the fruit belt

Because of the weather in Southwest Michigan, Price said Great Lakes Drone Company wants more growers to know they offer this service.

“We cant wait to see how it works,” Price said. “Not only can we collect data on the health of crops, but we can find crop damage for crops that succumb to that strange Michigan weather.”

They started planting grapes about 15 years ago. However, he introduced juice grapes at first, before adding wine grapes.

As time went on, Herman said they decided to open a winery of their own instead of just selling grapes to other businesses.

So, being the first at using drones to keep an eye on his crops should come as no surprise.

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Pilot Kyle Dorosz and operator Brea McGaffey manage a drone through a remote tablet for Great Lakes Drone Company. (Photo provided)

To start out, Herman said he wants the drone to survey 80 acres at the Coloma site every other week. The idea is to get a baseline and a different view as his crops get different foliage and sprout in late May. The drone’s data and mapping will come into play as the season progresses and dryer spots begin to develop.

“We are focusing on soil and the vineyard’s health at our operation,” Herman said. “Everything is about the air and water drainage. This gives us a look of the contour of the land – from the air we can spot those pockets in the vineyard that are struggling more than others.”

When asked if he’s worried the new strategy won’t make a difference, Herman references a common motto among growers.

“If you’re not making some mistakes, you’re not doing enough,” he said. “It’s great to have a job where you can pour yourself into your work and pour your work into a glass. I’m 61 years old and excited about the new things to come.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 2, 2017)

Like a war zone: Tornado wreaks havoc in Dowagiac, Niles

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

Several homes and buildings were left in disarray Wednesday morning after tornadoes touched down in Dowagiac and Niles, meteorologists say.

The National Weather Service in Northern Indiana sent a survey team to assess damage from Tuesday night’s storms in coordination with emergency management officials in Berrien and Cass counties.

Meteorologist Geoffrey Heidelberger said both Southwest Michigan cities were hit by separate EF1 tornadoes, which equated to 105 mph. The EF rating is determined by the amount of damage and the damage path that is left from a tornado.

Heidelberger said the tornado in Niles was on the ground for half a mile.

“They weren’t down for very long, but they were two separate circulations,” Heidelberger said. “These tornados were associated with a warm front lifting north through the area. As these storms crossed Lake Michigan, a change occurred in the wind direction, which sent the tornadoes east.”

Capt. Rockey Adams, coordinator of the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department’s Office of Emergency Management and homeland security division, was in Niles on Wednesday to compile numbers in terms of damage.

Adams said they counted 32 different structures with varying degrees of damage.

“In addition to the downed trees and power lines, there was evidence of high water along streets,” Adams said. “But none of that appeared to affect any of the structures. Niles was the most impacted (city) in Berrien County from the storm.”

Fire officials and Niles residents spent their Wednesday boarding up broken windows after the tornado tore through the night before.

Niles Fire Capt. Don Wise said the tumultuous weather began about 9 p.m. Tuesday and proceeded into the early morning hours. Officials are unsure when the tornado hit Niles during the storm.

Multiple trees were found fallen on top of houses and a few garages were left demolished from fallen debris, Wise said.

“Numerous power lines and utility poles were down,” Wise said. “We saw a metal shed wrapped around a utility pole as well.”

There were no reports of injuries.

Most of the damage hit the east side of Niles between 12th and 19th streets and between Eagle and Regent streets. Wise described the pattern of property affected as being caught in a line of damage.

“We boarded up the garage doors at the city street department today,” Wise said Wednesday. “All six garage doors were either blown out or blown in. They lost part of their roof along with some other structural damage.”

Wise said crew members and emergency responders wrapped everything up by 2:30 a.m., before getting back to it the next morning.

Niles officials contacted the Red Cross in case people would be in need of shelter.

“The city is working as fast as they can to get the power restored,” Wise said. “There was some extensive damage that will make it a long time to get right. We ask people to stay out of the neighborhoods. It’s harder for street and utility crews when cars are passing by them all the time. They need all the room they can to get their job done.”

Damages in Dowagiac

Dowagiac Public Safety Director Steve Grinnewald said a select portion of their region in Cass County suffered from the hard rain and high winds.

The damage was concentrated to the southeast section of the town, Grinnewald said. In Dowagiac, trees and power lines were found lying upon houses.

Power has been restored to almost everyone in the city, and Grinnewald said there were no injuries to report.

“It’s almost like there is a path of destruction in a six- to eight-block area,” Grinnewald said in reference to the tornado.

The initial dispatch to the fire department came at 9 p.m. for fallen power lines. Grinnewald said that’s when things started to flare up.

“We had crews out until 3 a.m. We made things safe, when it came to clearing the power lines and the roadways,” he said. “We came back later that morning to help cleanup.”

Police made contact with Dowagiac residents who were still in damaged houses to ensure they were OK. Grinnewald said there were maybe three or four houses that were already empty.

“We were surprised by the severity of the storm,” Grinnewald said. “We had heard reports that it could be bad. The thing is, as you’re coming into town, other than that damaged section, everything looks fine. The other section looks like a war zone.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 2, 2017)