LANSING — While many Michigan industries are in decline, the craft beer industry is flourishing, with breweries expanding and bringing tourists to local communities.
Craft beer has been expanding nationally — and even more so in Michigan, said Scott Graham, executive director of the Michigan Brewers Guild in Lansing.
“Michigan every year outpaces the national growth trend,” he said.
A craft or microbrewery is a smaller, regional producer of beers, often with a distinctive flavor.
Beers produced by the 70 in-state breweries represented 1.8 percent of the 6.6 million barrels sold in Michigan in 2008, according to the most recent statistics, said Rex Halfpenny of the Michigan Beer Guide. Each barrel represents 31.5 gallons or 336 12-ounce bottles.
“Given that things are bad and people are out of jobs, people are still drinking beer and they’re also seeking a better glass of beer,” Halfpenny said.
Founders Brewing Co. President Mike Stevens said his Grand Rapids company is going strong. “We went from around 10,000 barrels to 18,500. My 2010 forecast is to take it up to about 28,000 barrels,” he said.
With that increase comes the need for more employees. Founders moved to a new facility about two years ago and increased its work force from 19 to 73.
“We’re constantly hiring, just to accommodate our growth and needs there,” he said. Another expansion is expected later this year, which should bring an additional dozen jobs.
Larry Channel, co-owner of Dragonmead Microbrewery in Warren, said that his company sold around 1,500 barrels of beer in 2009 — about 200 barrels more than the previous year.
“In the midst of a recession, we’re not at all upset about what we sold,” Channel said. “We couldn’t increase our capacity without some more capital investment.”
To increase its production, Dragonmead would need more fermenters, an investment that will depend on how well it does this year.
Channel said that although his business is doing well, he’s still concerned about the economy. “At some point in time, people just have to go elsewhere for work.”
Graham of the Brewers Guild said that one reason for the increased popularity of Michigan micro-beers is that other states have been far ahead since the craft beer trend began in the 1970s in California. “Michigan is lagging behind in terms of volume and share, and just increasing awareness is going to last for quite a while,” he said, expressing optimism about the future.
“I’m sure it would be better if economic times were better, but I think we’re going to see growth for years to come. When the economy bounces back, it’ll pick up and be even faster,” he said.
Travel Michigan, the state’s official tourism promotion agency, doesn’t track the number of tourists coming into the state for beer-related visits. Even so, industry experts have a number of anecdotal accounts.
For example Larry Bell, the president of Bell’s Brewery Inc. in Galesburg, said visitors come from Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. They often make day trips either for an event at Bell’s Eccentric Cafe in Kalamazoo or as a part of a larger tour of Michigan breweries, such as a recent bus trip of 50 Shepard residents.
“We don’t formally give tours. That being said, we give an awful lot of tours,” said Bell.
In contrast, Mike Stevens of Founders said most out-of-town visitors to his brewery are business travelers making a side trip. Many leisure tourists come specifically to see the brewery, such as the 30 passengers on a chartered bus from Indiana who recently came through.
“There’s a whole beer community out there that’s very intrigued and interested in seeing other breweries,” he said. “Mostly, they’re from around the Midwest. It’s still a relatively inexpensive weekend for these folks. They charter a bus, pay 50 bucks, get to come to the brewery, see the place and enjoy a day here.”
Dick Gray, an owner of Keweenaw Brewing Co. in Houghton, said he sees most tourists in the summer months. During other times of the year, the local college, Michigan Technological University, attracts some visitors, such as parents coming to visit their students. “Since I’m a Tech grad, they bring a group of parents and students up to tour the brewery,” Gray said.
Gray said few out-of-state groups visit since Houghton is so far away.
The Beer Guide’s Halfpenny said that most fans of microbrews are beer tourists of some sort. “I’ve been chasing beer since the early ’80s all across this country,” he said. “The beer guide belongs in the car, so as you drive around you can find these places.”
Stevens said part of the reason Michigan’s beer industry is doing so well is because of the quality of the products.
“Michigan really does have some of the best breweries in the whole country,” he said.