Deal brewing between Detroit Bikes, Fat Tire ale

Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
The Detroit News

Detroit — Zak Pashak is passionate about high-quality American-made products and manufacturing — which is why he left Calgary, Alberta, and opened Detroit Bikes in a former sign shop on the city's west side.

That he happened to start his company at the same time cycling is experiencing a tremendous popularity in the region, well, "it was a complete coincidence," Pashak says.

"Detroit offers opportunities that I wouldn't be able to get in Canada; the manufacturing base, the factory space," he said. "I didn't expect Detroit would turn into this cycling mecca."

Pashak, whose company churned out 1,000 bikes last year, is about to get an even bigger boost: New Belgium Brewing Co., which brews Fat Tire amber ale, has commissioned 2,415 custom bikes for next year. The order will more than double the company's usual output and force it to add at least 10 employees to its current staff of 20.

The increased production comes as Pashak is working to ramp up operations, building to an eventual goal of producing 50,000 units a year. Right now the company makes two models: the A-Type, which much like Henry Ford's Model T, comes in any color you want as long as it's black and the B-Type, a step-through bike that comes in white. But Pashak is planning to introduce a third type later this year and also wants to start doing more custom orders.

Bicycles built on site

What makes the manufacturer unique is that they build nearly everything on-site, starting with high-quality lightweight steel, rather then purchasing pieces and assembling them here.

"This is a completely different way of doing things, not at all like the American bike industry is doing," said Pashak.

Since the 1992 bankruptcy and subsequent closing of Chicago's popular Schwinn Bicycle Company, American bicycling manufacturing has dipped sharply. Many of the models on the market today come from China.

Detroit has seen a revival in bicycle manufacturing in recent years, with Detroit Bikes, Shinola and Detroit Bicycle Co. contributing to a $6 billion industry in the U.S.

Biking has also been an important part of New Belgium Brewing Co. since the beginning. In 1989, founder Jeff Lebesch rode through Belgium on a Fat Tire bike, and when he returned home to Fort Collins, Colorado, he started brewing beers inspired by what he had sampled abroad.

Lebesch gave his amber ale the name "Fat Tire."

The brewery has a tradition of giving employees a bike in honor of one-year of employment, and they were looking at models to give out for 2016, said spokesman Bryan Simpson.

"All of them are ultimately sourced overseas in terms of make and build," said Simpson. "(We were) pushing for a company that sources in the U.S."

Start-ups stick together

Detroit Bikes had the capacity and, as a start-up itself, New Belgium's leaders appreciated the story.

"The idea of bringing back American manufacturing jobs resonated with us," said Simpson.

Just like the A-Type and B-Type bikes, the Fat Tire model will be a three-speed commuter.

Pashak, who has a background in municipal politics, says it was actually politics that got him into bicycle manufacturing.

"What I saw was all this political goodwill for cycling and all this consumer goodwill for cycling," he said. "But the industry hadn't done anything with it."

For now, Pashak is gearing up for spring, when sales improve, and preparing for production on the Fat Tire bikes. One thing is for certain, no matter how many units Detroit Bikes produces, Pashak wants to keep everything simple.

"We're trying to take it back to the 1920s, when the bike was used to get around the city," he said. "We're trying to build a bike that is easy and accessible."

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