The Beer Also Rises

How a small brewer in Royal Oak is gaining market share in a saturated industry

When many college students were preoccupied with the conspicuous consumption of beer, Scott King of Clawson dedicated himself to creating the perfect brew. But while his first brewing company failed, the success of his second venture offers a lesson in perseverance.

As a student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in the late ’80s, King often could be found hunched over beakers of grain or peering at yeast cells through a microscope.

More an exercise in chemistry than anything else, brewing beer (the careful mixing and heating of water, hops, malted barley, and yeast) has been a human passion since the sixth millennium B.C. It also was one of Detroit’s notable industries, as the Motor City boasted some 15 breweries in the 1930s. By the 1990s, however, the number of brewing licenses in the state had dwindled to a handful.

“When we started King Brewing Co. in 1994, there were four brewing licenses in Michigan,” King says. “Now there are 85 licenses. It’s ironic that globalization and consolidation have virtually eliminated the large, American-owned brewers, but the number of craft breweries is exploding nationwide.”

Crafting the perfect brew drives King and his two partners, Kristy Smith and Eric Briggeman. King and Smith were collaborators in the former King Brewing Co., which had modest success in Pontiac until high overhead costs forced the pair to close the brewery’s doors in 2009.

The duo were joined by Briggeman, the brewer at Rochester Mills Brewing Co., and a new company emerged in Royal Oak under the MillKing It Productions banner, with a mission to “strip down all pretensions and preconceived notions of the craft brewing industry,” King says.

To that end, King shuns the long-held belief that retail craft beer should be offered in 12-ounce glass bottles. “Light and oxygen are beer’s worst enemies,” he notes. “Our 16-ounce cans are bigger, allow no light, and virtually eliminate oxygen because a can is filled all the way to the top. Cans also get cold faster, and are more transportable and convenient.” The fact that glass-bottle quality is ebbing — while prices are increasing — factored into the decision.

The renewed focus appears to be paying off. Earlier this year, the partners finalized an agreement to sell their AXL pale ale and BRIK Irish red ale in most of Michigan’s Meijer stores. The company also became the first beer maker of its kind to sign contracts with nearly every Anheuser Busch wholesaler in the state.

The developments are projected to boost annual output to 8,000 barrels (nearly 110,000 cases) this year and generate $2 million in revenue — a big jump over last year, when the company produced 1,000 barrels (13,700 cases).

“The Anheuser Busch wholesaler deal is huge for us,” King says. “They have manpower, trucks, resources, marketing expertise, and in-house printing facilities that will enable us to grow at a rate that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to achieve on our own.” db