WAB evolves with the industry as it celebrates 20 years

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the days that Woodward Avenue Brewers is open.

In the spring of 1997, the blue-collar town of Ferndale wasn’t known as the hotspot for dining and entertainment that it is today.

That’s when Woodward Avenue Brewers served its first few pints in a tall, two-story building on Woodward a few skips south of Nine Mile. Once opened, the brewpub joined the Magic Bag theater, Como’s Restaurant and others to help make the Nine Mile and Woodward intersection a little more buzz-worthy.

This month WAB will celebrate 20 years of business with throwback pricing and other deals, plus the release of a new IPA, the 20th Anniversary Ale. Made with all Michigan ingredients, the new brew is expected to be ready the week leading up to Memorial Day.

Most of the festivities are May 22-29. That week beer lovers can sign up for a Brewer’s Club Membership for $20, 80-percent off the usual price.

A daylong, family friendly anniversary party is planned for noon-7 p.m. May 27, too.

Recent improvements

In order to stay relevant and profitable for two decades, a business needs to evolve. While WAB has done that, the Ferndale staple’s biggest change came just a year ago with the hiring of a new brewmaster.

Chris Coburn has lived in Ferndale for nearly as long as the WAB has been open, but he worked out in Sawyer at Greenbush Brewing. He told me he was thinking of leaving Ferndale, but then he heard there was a position open at the WAB.

Anyone who has visited the brewpub in the past year or so should have noticed the improvements made since Coburn stepped in.

“I’ve changed everything,” he said, explaining that he’s increased the number of WAB beers they have on tap, and has limited guests taps to be more selective. These days the guest taps (products from an outside brewery) are largely ciders and root beers — types of beverages Coborn doesn’t make.

He changed the Custom Blonde beer, one of WAB’s most popular ales, to the Woodward Avenue Blonde, making it crisper and even more approachable to non-craft beer lovers.

Coburn, a Hazel Park native, also redesigned the Raspberry Blonde to be a seasonal beer and actually include fresh raspberries, something you can’t do year-round.

“There wasn’t a single raspberry in that beer,” he says of the old Raspberry Blonde. “There was a long line of chemicals (used to flavor it), and not a single raspberry. So when I make it we add over 260 pounds of fresh raspberries.”

The new Raspberry Blonde should be ready next month at the start of summer.

Coborn’s updates come a couple years after WAB got a wood stone oven and upgraded its culinary offerings from pretzel rods and quesadillas to a full menu featuring sandwiches, salads, pizza and calzones.

Last year the WAB added a Port, an outdoor rum bar located in the back of the building. Port reopens for the season Thursday. It’s open Thursday-Sunday to start, and then daily once Memorial Day weekend hits.

Ferndale is a welcoming climate

The Woodward Avenue Brewers hasn’t grown up an only child, either. The owners — Chris Johnston, Krista Johnston and Brian Reedy — are also behind the Loving Touch pool hall and music venue next door, and the Emory bar and restaurant just north of WAB.

The owners also helped develop two Ferndale street fairs. Pig & Whiskey, taking place this July, is expecting 100,000 this year in downtown Ferndale’s east side. The DIY Street Fair returns at the end of summer for a 10th year, and expects 70,000 guests and 170 artist vendors.

Dustin Leslie, general manager of operations for WAB, Loving Touch and Emory, says the fact that businesses have only grown in Ferndale since the brewpub’s opening is a positive thing.

“The city of Ferndale is such a diverse, welcoming climate,” he says. “It’s amazing how well business does in such a climate because you hear the reverse so many times. It’s inclusive. It’s a ton of competition, but that competition has brought so many new people. It’s so welcoming.”

He adds that other beer-based businesses popping up in Ferndale have helped the WAB.

“(Nearby beer bar) One Eyed Betty’s made it so we can use proper glassware that people are used to seeing,” Leslie says.

“So when they get a beer in a tulip glass they don’t freak out,” adds Coburn, referring to the smaller, shorter glass used to serve stronger beers.

The more the merrier

The WAB is a longtime player in the growing Ferndale-Royal Oak beer game. Royal Oak Brewery at 215 E. Fourth — Oakland County’s oldest brewpub — is another one.

Today, a craft-beverage lover can come to Ferndale and drink brew from those two houses or beer from Royal Oak’s ROAK Brewing (330 E. Lincoln), River Rouge Brewing (406 E. Fourth) or Bastone (419 S. Main), which is transforming to team up with Jolly Pumpkin Pizzeria & Brewery.

There’s also the aforementioned One Eyed Betty’s beer bar (175 W. Troy in Ferndale) and the incoming HopCat Royal Oak, a craft beer haven opening at 208 W. Fifth on May 20.

Soon Ferndale will have two new brew pubs. Royal Oak’s Axle Brewing will soon debut Livernois Tap, a beer hall and restaurant at 567 Livernois in Ferndale. Urbanrest Brewing Company, at 2615 Wolcott, also is also to debut this spring with farmhouse ale and kombucha.

Ferndale also is known for its two meaderys: B. Nektar (1551 Jarvis) and Schramm’s (327 W. Nine Mile).

Coburn says he believes the Ferndale-Royal Oak area will become a destination for beer lovers like Grand Rapids or Kalamazoo.

“Within a 2-mile radius, you’re going to have seven or eight breweries,” he said. “That’s where I see the big change in what the beer scene has become. It’s a driving force in Michigan and people travel for that. You’re going to find people traveling here for beer when 20 years ago this was just a neighborhood.”

Woodward Avenue Brewers — open 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Mon..-Fri. and noon-2 a.m. Sat.-Sun. — is at 22646 Woodward in Ferndale. Call (248) 546-3696 or visit thewabferndale.com.


(313) 222-2402

Twitter: @melodybaetens