GDB: We, as drinkers, like to drink local when we can. We’re fortunate enough in Chicago to have a number of neighborhood breweries whose beers we can find on tap down the street. Are you finding, on your end of the business, that there is an interest among brewers to get locally sourced ingredients?
Erik: I have been fascinated by the craft beer industry in a number of ways. Not the least of which was certainly my recognition of the movement to buy local and how it’s really taking hold throughout the Midwest, both within the beer industry and in just the general food & drink industry. Breweries are extremely interested in buying local and in my case (over here in Western Michigan) they simply are not able to source their grains locally. We have a brewery over here that their mission statement is ‘Belgian Tradition. Local Mission.’ [Ed. Note: referring to Brewery Vivant] but they are not able to source locally. We hope to team with local hops growers to literally give breweries the ability to make 100% local beers.San Francisco’s North Beach Malt Brewing House (circa 1909). Photo Courtesy Anchor Brewing Co.
GDB: Michigan seems to be a happening place for brewing ingredients (note I didn’t say hoppening); there are a few hop farms in operation as well as your malt house. What is it about the Mitten state that seems to make so beer friendly?
Erik: Michigan is an awesome place (totally biased opinion) and has done a great job of ‘picking itself up of the mat’ following generations depending on automotive manufacturing. For most of my life when most people think of Michigan they specifically think of Detroit and it ultimately ends up being a ‘bashfest’ on the Detroit area (blight, crime, etc.). Michigan obviously has a lot more to offer than just the Detroit area and we, as a state, have done a great job in reinventing ourselves and injecting Michigan into conversations nationwide regarding craft beer, health care, etc.
I also really think that Bell’s down in the Kalamazoo area has a ton to do with making our state ‘beer friendly.’ I am no expert but I just think that they have been one of our nation’s largest craft breweries since the 1990’s which is awesome in itself, but it also shows that there’s a lot of people around my age (I am 31 years old) and younger that don’t ever remember there not being a craft beer option at the local party store or grocery store. My generation has grown up with craft beer being in front of me so we’re not intimated by different styles, different varieties, etc.
One other thing that I feel really strongly about in regards to why craft beer has been so successful in our state is the accessibility and uniqueness of both the product and the producer. Each of the beers have a story (see Keewenaw Brewing’s Widow Maker Ale or Founders Furniture City Stock Ale), just like each of the beer drinkers (in this case, me). This allows me to identify with what I drink and ultimately helps me to identify with those who busted their butts to make it for me to taste. You don’t get that story nor that connection if you pick up one of the mass-produce ‘beers.’
GDB: Let’s talk, specifically, about your end of the state – the Grand Rapids area. There seems to be a brewery and brewpub explosion there. Can you describe the beer culture in West Michigan? And has the influx of new brewers been good for business?
Erik: Like I mentioned previously, I have been fascinated with a number of aspects of the Michigan craft beer industry since we began developing our company.
As a little background, I am a 10 year military veteran turned small business owner and maltster. I have never been around an industry or a group of individuals that work so well in a collaborative environment. The breweries themselves don’t see one another as competition (or if they do, they chalk it up to ‘friendly competition’) and they view converting someone from drinking one of the American Light ‘Beers’ to a craft brew as a win for the whole craft brewing community regardless of which craft brew that individual had. There aren’t many industries that can say the same thing, usually competition will not allow the sharing of information and friendships like there is in the fairly tight-knit craft beer industry. Even if the competition is friendly, it still drives breweries to constantly innovate and improve their product line-ups.
The seemingly constant influx of new brewers has been awesome to see. The Michigan Brewers Guild has done a great job in my estimation at setting a course for the Michigan craft beer community. That said, even with all of the breweries (both young and old), craft beer is still only around 6% of the Michigan beer market. I’ve been asked by folks if I think we are (or could be) reaching market saturation with craft breweries, but I point to the 6% stat as evidence that we may have not even scratched the surface of what this state and this country is capable of.
GDB: Even though we live in Illinois, Karl and I pride ourselves on having a fairly decent working knowledge of all the great brewery related happenings in Michigan, but we’re finding it hard to keep up. Are there any breweries that are opening in 2013 in Michigan that you’re most excited about?
Erik: In all honesty, I don’t tend to get a whole lot more excited over the opening of one more than any of the others – when a new one opens we all win. That said, the city of Muskegon has long been another area of our state that has been at the brunt of many jokes. It’s a beautiful lakeshore community with so much to offer and by the end of 2013 they’ll have 2 new breweries calling Muskegon home (Unruly Brewing and Pigeon Hill Brewing).
A number of years ago this would’ve been almost unfathomable. But, thanks to the grit and determination of some hard-working, ‘outside the box’ thinking, craft beer loving folks, Muskegon will be home to not one, but two breweries. This is innovation right before our eyes and is getting back to the roots of our ancestors where each town had a church, a market, and a brewery and all of the farmers around the outskirts of town supported one another.
Pilot Malt House