Rex Halfpenny loves Michigan beer. In the mid-'90s, when the craft brewing scene was taking off, he abandoned a lucrative corporate career to begin publishing the Michigan Beer Guide a magazine promoting local beer. Now in its 10th year, the free MBG can be found across the state in brewpubs, at beer-savvy retailers, and even in highway welcome centers. We met to talk beer and the budding Michigan craft hard cider movement over a couple pints at Rochester Mills Beer Co.
Metro Times: Why drink Michigan beer?
Rex Halfpenny: How about taste? People will pay sixty grand for a luxury SUV. They'll go out and buy a plasma TV. Each morning they'll pay five bucks for a coffee drink and yet they'll still settle for the 30-pack of tasteless light beer. Not only do we make beer in Michigan, we make award-winning, world-class beer. Some are mediocre, sure, but some are outstanding. The point is this: We have all this diversity at our fingertips. And it supports the local economy. Michigan has 75 breweries employing a couple thousand people. If you're all about supporting Michigan jobs, support Michigan breweries. I can't think of a reason not to drink Michigan beer.
MT: How did you get into the business of promoting Michigan beer?
Halfpenny: I want people to fulfill their lives by enjoying something other than light beer. So when we recognized there was a growing industry here and we could encourage creative beer culture, we started the Michigan Beer Guide. We wanted people to experience the new handcrafted quality beer. We wanted people to see that beer had color, taste, texture and finish. So we created a publication to network homebrewing, professional brewing, distribution, retailing, hobbyist collectors and beer historians. That's what Michigan Beer Guide does. It networks all these people into one source.
MT: What's changed since you started?
Halfpenny: Michigan has risen and can be counted in the Top 10 beer states. While craft beer is a bigger portion of purchase decisions than ever before, Michigan beer is a good part of that. I've had retailers tell me that it's difficult to sell other craft beer because the consumer is so Michigan-oriented. We've done something to change the consciousness. We are doing a lot to grow a culture here that is already much larger in other states.
MT: In 1998 you helped legalize homebrewing in the state. Were folks getting their garage breweries raided by the cops before? Halfpenny: There wasn't a law saying we're going to throw you in jail for brewing a few gallons of beer. There weren't beer police. There were homebrew supply shops. It was just an oversight from repeal. You know the election time maps of blue states and red states? There was a map printed by the American Homebrewers Association that showed all the states where brewing was legal and there were these 12 states that weren't the right color, where homebrewing was still illegal. Michigan was one of them. I wanted us to be the right color.
MT: You founded the Michigan Brewers Guild. How does this help Michigan beer? Are you still involved?
Halfpenny: I'm an allied trade member; I participate where I can. Their thing is about marketing and promoting. I'd very much like to see more visibility. I'd like to see billboards and ads in the Metro Times. The guild has a couple of big events. Principally, there's the Summer Beer Festival held in Ypsilanti the third weekend in July that will attract some 7,000 people. There are hundreds of different beers, all made in Michigan. And they just did the Winter Beer Festival in Lansing. That was about 150 beers.
MT: You've organized a hard cider competition the past two years. Michigan is the nation's third largest producer of apples. Why don't we make and drink more hard cider?
Halfpenny: At one time apples were primarily grown to make hard cider. Johnny Appleseed planted trees not so we had apples for pie but to promote a good, healthy beverage that was suitable for everyone in the family. When temperance came in around the mid-1800s and began pointing the finger at alcohol use, the apple tree became associated with that and many were chopped down.
A move was made by the apple industry to change its image. And that image was not about the beverage or alcohol but about being a healthy fruit to eat. By doing that we changed the crop. We now grow Red Delicious and Macintosh and all these other eating apples. The apples out there now are no longer like the apples we used to make cider with. Michigan got caught in that trap, and when cheap concentrated juice from China infiltrated the American market, Michigan's apples started going to waste. A group at MSU wanted to find an alternative use for these wasted apples and thought, why not bring back hard cider. We are slowly and surely becoming a hard apple cider-producing state.Todd Abrams is a writes about food for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org