BENTON HARBOR — Simon Rusk got into the beer industry by accident.
As the owner and head brewer of The Livery, Rusk moved to St. Joseph a few years ago for work as an attorney.
When he decided he wanted to get away from practicing law, Rusk picked up a bartending shift at The Livery.
“I was looking for other legal work at the time,” Rusk said. “I thought it would be fun to pick up a shift here. It was really the only brewery around when I first started coming here.”
He would eventually parlay that opening role into operations manager.
Rusk became The Livery’s brewer in 2016 – a role he at first was hesitant about taking. Having once worked on a dairy farm, he rediscovered his love for working with his hands.
In time Rusk convinced the former Livery owner to sell it to him. He turned over the staff, worked to improve the food and gave his booking manager all the power when it came to finding entertainment.
Now, three and a half years later, Rusk is running one of the most popular breweries in Berrien County.
“I fell in love with the feeling of this place and the mission that was created by the original owners,” Rusk said. “I felt comfortable here.”
A root for hops
Rusk has been a home brewer since he was 18 and has enjoyed seeing the rise of the craft beer movement. But Rusk never envisioned himself in this position until a few years ago.
Originally from Jonesville, Mich., Rusk graduated college with a degree in economics. After that, he got married and moved to St. Louis, Mo., where his wife attended law school.
It was during that time that Rusk became interested in law. His wife got a job in Chicago, where Rusk then entered law school. After getting his law degree, the couple moved to Southwest Michigan, where Rusk got his first legal job with Smit and Kragt.
However, once the company was acquired by another firm in 2010, Rusk left.
“It turned out, I didn’t like practicing law that much,” Rusk said. “I wasn’t passionate about it. It required a lot of time working with doctors in hospitals and it wasn’t where I wanted to be.”
When he joined The Livery, Rusk worked from 4 p.m. to midnight. It wasn’t that long after he joined the brewery when he was offered a promotion.
Rusk spent more than a year in that role until the former Livery brewer took a job at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo. Rusk and the owner then began the search for a new brewer. But none of the candidates seemed to mesh with The Livery’s vision, Rusk said.
“Some of my friends reached out to me and encouraged me to take over the job of head brewer,” Rusk said. “At first I was hesitant about it. But I enjoyed the idea of creating these fun beers and bringing people together.”
To the uninitiated, brewing beer sounds like a cool job.
But Rusk points out it is physical work and it can be monotonous.
“You have to clean a lot of kegs and clean a lot of tanks,” Rusk said. “You’re basically a glorified janitor. We do a lot of cleaning.”
Rusk underwent an intense crash course of training to be a brewer on a larger scale than what he was accustomed to.
After becoming more comfortable with the process, Rusk began to make the beer his own. He changed several recipes and created a few more. At the same time, Rusk said he continued to learn.
“This industry is super fast,” he said. “You have to be aware of what’s happening. If you don’t continue to learn and improve, you’ll get left behind.”
Taking the reins
Rusk bought the Benton Harbor brewery only a couple years after taking over as head brewer.
The former owner, wishing to focus on other projects, negotiated an agreement with Rusk. It was then that Rusk began to put his heart and soul into every aspect of the business.
He continued to modify the beer, revamp food options and put an emphasis on live music. After expanding the kitchen, they were able to make pizzas from scratch.
“That portion of our business really took off,” Rusk said.
As for what keeps him going and wearing all these hats? The people. Rusk said he loves the day-to-day interaction with his staff and customers.
Outside of that, perhaps the biggest calling is the beer.
“I do love the craftsmanship of making a great beer. It’s a never-ending quest,” he said. “I want to make the best beer you’ve ever had.”
If possible down the road, Rusk wants more space for a fermentation area. Other than that Rusk said he plans to keep living the dream and making beer.
“I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time,” he said. “It’s been very rewarding and challenging as well. I think that we’ve been in a better spot than we’ve ever been.”
Contact: twittkowski@TheHP.com, 932-0358, Twitter: @TonyWittkowski