When it comes to craft brewing, Michigan is sort of a paradox. Across the country, the state has a growing reputation for brewing award-winning beer, and U.S. drinkers are raising their glasses to the state's quality small brewers, including Kalamazoo's prized Bell's Beer. But Michigan drinkers have traditionally passed on these brands, preferring to drink ice-cold mass-produced brews from the country's biggest brewers. Craft beer has a minuscule 2 percent market share in Michigan, about half the national average, and far behind well-developed craft brewing states — Washington, Oregon, California — where small brewers can garner 10 percent or more of the market.
But that's quickly changing. In Michigan, craft beer sales are rising. In recent years, the sale of Michigan-made brew to Michiganders has more than doubled in an otherwise flat or declining beer market.
And Michigan is actually outpacing the nation in craft-beer growth. Ever since laws regarding small brewers were changed 20 years ago, production has risen steadily. The making of craft-brewed Michigan beer has grown almost 20 percent a year, and even during the economic contractions of 2007-08, it still grew at a healthy 10 percent.
What's more, the brewing business has become a minor driver in the state economy, with the National Beer Institute saying that brewing directly produces more than 500 jobs, with wages of $32 million, and a total economic contribution of more than $242 million. And that's just brewing, not counting the jobs (and wages) related to retailing and distributing.
Into the brew
With numbers these impressive, could beer brewing help cushion the loss of the state's manufacturing jobs? Beer might not solve all of our problems, but there are illuminating success stories. Take the story of Dragonmead Microbrewery (14600 E. 11 Mile Rd., Warren; 586-776-9428; dragonmead.com). All three founders used to work for the Big Three.
Owners Larry Channell, Bill Wrobel and Earl Scherbarth founded the brewery in 1997. Scherbarth had been a metal worker at Ford, Wrobel a sales and marketing person at Chrysler, where Channell also worked, re-engineering business processes. After the three spent years trying to think of a business idea that would lead them to independence, Channell, an active home brewer, suggested opening a microbrewery.
"I think we all thought we were nuts at that point, and that that was the stupidest idea of all," Channell recalls with a dry laugh. "It took us a while to realize we could find a long-lasting niche."
Soon, the three were going into business, and honing production techniques so they could make excellent beer "without having to work to death." Channell credits the abilities they developed and used in the auto industry. Channell had a chemical engineering background, Scherbarth had the metal skills to make necessary tools, and Wrobel's experience in marketing aided in the design ads and products.
"There's a lot of brainpower in the auto industry, and I almost think of it as being as much brainpower as it took to make the atomic bomb — it's just not channeled in the right directions. In our case, channeling it into making beer was wonderful."
How wonderful? Channell says, "It's done well. Exactly as it we hoped, it grows about 20 percent a year and it just keeps on going. We work hard to try to limit that growth to 20 percent."
Asked if it isn't unusual for a company to try to limit its growth, Channell laughs a bit and says, "That's what we were aiming for when we started. If it goes any faster than that, you run into problems." Instead of maximum growth, Dragonmead focuses on its specialty, delivering something unusual, a microbrewery with an incredibly high variety of quality beers, meads and wines, using the more than 50 taps in its large Warren pub — the highest variety brewery in the world with a single brewing system.
And it's a pleasant space, tucked away in an industrial-looking building on I-696's service drive, its ocher walls festooned with flags and the company's many awards. On a Saturday night, the space can have a lounge feel, with a keyswoman vocalist taking requests, serenading the crowd. It aspires to a level of sophistication, a nice mix of relaxed couples and cap-and-T guys out for a few, who mostly hold the baseball man-cry in -- at least until those bottom-of-the-ninth comeback homers. Clearly, it's the sort of relaxed, friendly and affordable evening out more people are willing to splurge on.
Poised to pop
Perhaps nobody finds all this growth more exciting than Scott Graham, executive director of the East Lansing-based Michigan Brewers Guild, who believes we're on the cusp of a beer bonanza. Graham says, "I think Michigan is poised for a boom in volume growth in craft beer. I think it's going to double or triple in the next five years — and that's a conservative estimate. ... We're at the beginning of an exponential growth curve."
Asked why Michiganders have been slow to support their state's talented brewers, he explains that the Midwest typically lags behind when it comes to national trends, but that it's swiftly changing. "We've got a great brewing culture, great breweries, great beer. Everything's in place, we just need more demand at the consumer level. And it's growing: We see more people willing to spend money on craft beer, because it's still an affordable luxury, just a $10 purchase for a six-pack."
Just as specific states have been leaders in the craft-brewing trend, certain cities have strong commitments to local brands. In our region, Graham points to Ann Arbor, which has several Michigan-friendly beer bars, as well as a tight cluster of brewpubs with a loyal following. That thirst for good, local beer has helped put Ann Arbor on the brewing map, making Grizzly Peak Brewing Company (120 W. Washington, Ann Arbor; 734-741-7325) the top-selling brewpub in the state three years in a row.
But that sort of enthusiasm is poised to fan out across the state, aided by general trends toward sustainability, small producers and local food. If Graham's predictions come true, we're going to be seeing a lot more of Michigan beer, not just at bars, but on the menu at restaurants. Though plenty of drinkers still want their brew cold, clean and fizz-yellow, the converts are clearly gaining on us. And it doesn't break down along class lines.
"You go to a brewpub and look around you and you see white-collar, blue-collar, old, young, everything in between. I think the demographic for local beer is this: almost everybody of legal drinking age."
In these tough times, that's the sort of news that goes down easy.
To try out Michigan beers this month, drop in at the 12th annual Summer Beer Festival, July 24-25, in Ypsilanti's Depot Town. In the fall, the Michigan Brewer's Guild will join Metro Times to host the Ale Fest on Oct. 24. at Detroit's Eastern Market.
Arbor Brewing Company-Corner Brewery
720 Norris St., Ypsilanti; 734-480-2739; cornerbrewery.com
Atwater Block Brewery
237 Joseph Campau, Detroit; 313-877-9205; atwaterbeer.com
Black Lotus Brewing Company
1 E. 14 Mile Rd., Clawson; 248-577-1878; blacklotusbeer.com
CJ's Brewing Company
8115 Richardson Rd., Commerce Twp.; 248-366-7979; cjsbrewing.com;
Copper Canyon Brewery
27522 Northwestern Hwy., Southfield; 248-223-1700; coppercanyonbrewery.com
Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales
3115 Broad St., Suite A, Dexter; 734-426-4962; jollypumpkin.com
King Brewing Co.
895 Oakland Ave., Pontiac; 248-745-5900; kingbrewing.info;
Kuhnhenn Brewing Co.
5919 Chicago Rd., Warren; 586-979-8361; kbrewery.com
Motor City Brewing Works
470 W. Canfield St., Detroit; 313-832-2700; motorcitybeer.com
Sherwood Brewing Company
45689 Hayes Rd., Shelby Twp.; 586-532-9669; sherwoodbrewing.com
Arbor Brewing Company Pub & Eatery
114 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor; 734-213-1393; arborbrewing.com
419 S. Main St., Royal Oak, 248-544-6250, bastone.net
Big Rock Chop and Brewhouse
245 S. Eton St., Birmingham; 248-647-7774; bigrockchophouse.com
Detroit Beer Company
1529 Broadway, Detroit; 313-962-1529; detroitbeerco.com
Fort Street Brewery 1660 Fort St., Lincoln Park; 313-389-9620; fortstreetbrewery.com
Lily's Seafood and Brewery
410 S. Washington St., Royal Oak; 248-591-5459; lilysseafood.com
Royal Oak Brewery
215 E. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-544-1141; royaloakbrewery.com
Great Baraboo Brewing Co.
35905 Utica Rd., Clinton Twp.; 586-792-7397; greatbaraboo.com/menu.asp
Rochester Mills Beer Co.
400 Water St., Rochester; 248-650-5080
Woodward Avenue Brewers
22646 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-546-3696