The State of Beer

After surviving a few false starts, Michigan’s microbreweries are enjoying an explosion of popularity and success. But can the good times last amid evolving regulatory standards, calls for more government oversight, and global competition?


Mark Rieth, principal and CEO of Detroit-based Atwater Brewery, plans to open a 7,000-square-foot microbrewery and distillery in Grosse Pointe Park.

Photograph by Justin Maconochie

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Scattered throughout smaller Michigan cities and metropolitan areas, and frequently taking up residence in once-abandoned urban buildings, microbreweries and craft brewers have taken a sizeable chunk of the shelf space Michigan retailers reserve for beer — not to mention they’ve made a major push into out-of-state markets.

In a “state of the industry” study by San Francisco-based Demeter Group, Michigan’s craft beer industry grew 20 percent in 2012. In addition, the state now ranks fifth in the nation in its number of breweries, according to Drink Michigan, a group that promotes state-made wine, beer, and spirits. The Demeter statistics include the recent opening of 17 breweries — with establishments in Grand Rapids, Big Rapids, Lake Leelanau, and Marquette — as well as to an existing variety of long-established breweries that are thriving across metro Detroit.

All told, Michigan now has more than 100 craft breweries, and its trade industry group — the Michigan Brewers Guild in Lansing— claims its members deliver a $113 million economic impact for the state. Overall, the global beer industry accounted for more than $2 billion in economic activity in the state last year, according to the Beer Institute Economic Contribution Study.

Scott Graham, executive director of the Michigan Brewers Guild, believes the industry still has a great deal of growth potential. “If you ask around, there are a lot of people (who are) unaware of the fact that there are local breweries in Michigan, let alone more than 100,” Graham says. “The analogy I make is that the snowball is starting to get bigger. Every time it rolls over, it’s kind of in an exponential fashion.”

Microbreweries were a phenomenon in California long before they caught on in Michigan. One of the first to believe microbreweries would be successful in Michigan was Larry Bell, who started Bell’s Brewery in 1983 as a home-based business operating out of Kalamazoo. “California tends to do things before we do them,” Bell says.

Indeed, several leaders of the Michigan craft beer industry say they studied the initial emergence of brewing in California. It dates back to the mid-1960s when a brewer named Fritz Maytag took over a struggling San Francisco brew operation and transformed it, producing what was widely regarded as a quality craft beer. From there, Maytag developed a series of products that became popular in the Bay Area.

In the mid-1970s, what proved to be one of the most successful California craft beers arrived in the form of Anchor Liberty Ale, which pioneered a technique called “dry hopping” that delivers both a sharp taste and a vibrant aroma. In the years that followed, now-legendary California microbreweries like New Albion Brewery and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. emerged, proving the viability of the concept and stirring the imagination of Michiganders who spent time in the Golden State.

Mark Rieth, principal and CEO of Detroit-based Atwater Brewery, says he became intrigued by the concept after a stint in California during the 1980s. His goal was to see if he could make it work in his own backyard. “I was kind of indoctrinated into the microbrewery scene, the brewpub scene,” he says of his German-style beer.

Michigan took a major step toward its future in the craft brewing industry in 1992, when state lawmakers allowed breweries to sell beer by the glass. Prior to that, the only way microbreweries could earn revenue was through distribution, making it difficult to get a brewing operation off the ground.

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