Eastern Michigan student embodies entrepreneurial spirit, opens microbrewery

by Emily Vontom, Published April 03, 2013

When you start your own business, there's a lot you have to learn and even more that you must know. Eastern Michigan University student Erin Cottongim and her husband, Ryan, discovered this quickly in 2010 when they decided open a microbrewery.

The Cottongims began their journey when they both found themselves unemployed with a newborn to care for. As a home-brewer, Ryan figured it was the right time to launch the brewery, but as fate would have it, the banks didn't think so and they were turned down for financing several times.

It was then that Erin, an accounting major in the College of Business at Eastern, turned to the Collegiate Entrepreneurship Club for help. She attended her first meeting, which was held at the Corner Brewery in Ypsilanti, Mich. She instantly became inspired by Renee Greff, the owner of the brewery, who spoke of the challenges she faced owning a micro-brewery.

"As I listened to her talk I thought, 'that could be me,'" Erin said. "It changed my life."

There was still much work to be done, but the newfound inspiration made the work much easier. Erin met with the Center for Entrepreneurship at Eastern where she learned about the Michigan Small Business & Technology Center (MI-SBTC). MI-SBTC is a statewide business assistance program that provides no-cost one-on-one counseling, training and research support for Michigan small businesses.

Erin and Ryan discussed their plans with Ron Stevens, the business counselor for the Greater Washtenaw Region of MI-SBTC. The couple soon realized that they didn't know enough and that they had a lot of work to do before they could launch their business.

"We were neglecting the details and Ron helped us change that," Ryan said. "Our business plan went from nine pages to 30 pages. We were also forced to focus on what was important to our business. Ron's a godsend; we met with him monthly and learned something every time we went."

The Cottongims began to focus on the important details and were soon ready to approach the banks again. They had a new business plan and received funding from a credit union to begin their dream of starting their own business.

"When we sat together and reviewed their plan and strategies, they really stepped it up," Stevens said. "They addressed all of the things that needed to be done to make this business happen. They never gave up on their dream."

Finally, in December 2011, on the day after Christmas, the Cottongims opened the doors to their microbrewery, the Witch's Hat Brewing Company in South Lyon, Mich. The entire 13-hour day saw a steady line of people waiting to get in to the new brewery.

"We met our monthly target in the first six days we were open," said Erin. "And we're still ahead of our projections. It has been a wild ride."

Currently, the brewery employs five full-time employees and six part-time workers, and boasts more than 400 Mug Club members. There are usually 10-12 beers on tap, including their own, "Train Hopper." While the pub doesn't serve a full menu yet, it is on their wish list for the future.

Witch's Hat beers are on tap at locations in the following cities: Ann Arbor, Berkley, Chelsea, Clarkston, Detroit, Fenton, Ferndale, Hamburg, Howell, Milford, Rochester, South Lyon, Westland and Ypsilanti. The next step is more state distribution and eventually, national distribution.

But, the Cottongims plan to stay in South Lyon, the place they have lived their entire lives.

"This town has been good to us," Ryan said. "So we want to be good to it."

For more information about the company, please visit http://www.witchshatbrewing.com or call 248.486.2595.





Emily Vontom

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