Across the state, a community of talented, passionate craft beverage producers are raising the bar and bringing Michigan into the national spotlight.
By Erin Marie Miller
When the Real Ale Company opened in Chelsea in 1982, there were only a few microbreweries in the state. “It was like pulling teeth to get a license,” says Ted Badgerow, who spent months working with his partner Gordon Averill to obtain permits and secure a location zoned for a microbrewery. Two years later, crippled by high production costs and limited resources, they closed. In spite of the rough start, Badgerow never abandoned his passion for craft beer. In 2016, he opened Ypsi Alehouse with partner Dave Roberts. The brewpub, which boasts a full kitchen and live music, took home four awards at this year’s World Expo of Beer in Frankenmuth. The industry today looks very different from the ’80s, Badgerow says, adding he’s impressed by the community of knowledgeable brewers that has evolved from it.
In 2017, Michigan’s craft beer industry was ranked ninth in the nation by the Brewers Association, with an economic impact of over $2 million. Last year, the state ranked fifth for craft breweries with 357 operating across the state. “Growth has been pretty stunning, both in the number of breweries and volume of beer sold,” says Scott Graham, executive director of the Michigan Brewers Guild. He admits the industry has matured and competition is fierce but insists there is still a great amount of opportunity.
Some of that opportunity comes in the form of entrepreneurship and education. Andrew Donaldson, sales manager for Odd Side Ales in Grand Haven, says one of the company’s goals is to become employee-owned. Higher education is also now supporting potential career paths through degrees. Teo Watson-Ahlbrandt, a consultant for Eastern Michigan University’s new fermentation science program, holds a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry from EMU and has been involved in craft brewing for over 15 years. As compliance supervisor at Edelbrau Brewing Company in Ann Arbor, he emphasizes the importance of knowledgeable brewing processes and believes the industry is “reclaiming what was lost in the ’70s.”
Opportunities also extend to other industries. Last year, the Michigan Craft Beverage Council was formed to research agricultural products used in the state’s craft beer, wine and spirits production. Beyond hops, barley and grains, other ingredients like herbs, honey and fruit are common in recipes. Blake’s Hard Cider, which employs 600 people annually and reports 700,000 visitors last year, uses nine apples from its Armada orchard to make every 12-ounce can of hard cider.
Since Ferndale-based Valentine Distilling Co. opened 12 years ago, owner Rifino Valentine says he’s seen “an explosion” in the craft distilling industry. According to the Craft Spirits Data Project, the number of craft distillers in Michigan increased by 47 percent between 2016 and 2017. “That was our goal,” Valentine says. “We wanted consumers to have a choice. We wanted to break up the grip five or six companies had on the industry.”
Valentine’s deliberate focus on quality manufacturing and ingredients have made him a local legend, but he contends that what he’s doing in Detroit has a ripple effect across the continent. Similar ripples have been made by Michigan State University’s Artisan Distilling Program, which was established over 15 years ago by the late Professor Kris A. Berglund. “Dr. Berglund was considered the father of (Michigan) craft distilling,” Valentine says, “and many distilleries around the country have his fingerprints all over them.”
Aged to Perfection
A 2017 study commissioned by the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council found the industry directly generated around $773 million in wages and $2.1 billion in economic activity for the state. Emily Dockery, project and marketing director for the nonprofit Michigan Wine Collaborative, says the state’s wine industry is “on the precipice of exploding.”
As director of marketing at Chateau Chantal in Traverse City, Kyle Brownley agrees the industry has aged well. When the winery opened in 1993, tourists would come out to do a tasting and hopefully buy a bottle of wine, he says. Today, visitors are knowledgeable about wine and come for the experience. Brownley credits part of that success to the collaborative nature of Michigan’s wine industry professionals, adding that “what’s good for one of us is good for all of us.”
Michigan’s wine industry is not without obstacles, though. Harsh winters can be economically devastating, and some viticulturists have turned to cold-hardy varieties of grapes to address climate concerns. Itasca, a new grape that can withstand extremely low temperatures, has offered hope. Jessica Youngblood, co-owner of Youngblood Vineyard, calls Itasca a “game-changer.” She and her husband, David, heard about the grape from his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, where it was identified in 2009. They incorporated it into their Macomb County vineyard after it became commercially available in 2017.
Lower acidity and similarities to sauvignon blanc set Itasca apart from other cold-hardy varieties, says Josh Morgan, winemaker at Petoskey Farms Vineyard & Winery. Since grapes take three years to mature on the vine, wines made from Itasca won’t be on the market until next year, but Morgan believes they have the potential to put hybrid wines on the map.
In spite of challenges, the state’s craft beverage industry has stood the test of time with its focus on quality and community. The business of booze is good in Michigan — and we can all drink to that.