Fort Street Brewery attends its last beer festival

I-75 construction, craft beer economics take toll on craft beer maker

Tom Gromak
The Detroit News
Ryan Walker, head brewer at Fort Street Brewery in Lincoln Park, hands out a beer at the Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Festival in Ypsilanti Saturday.

The 2018 Michigan Brewers Guild Beer Festival was a tough one for Ryan Walker. The 27-year-old is head brewer for Fort Street Brewery, and this fest may have been his last. His brewery is closing at the end of August, a victim of years-long construction on I-75 and a crowded craft beer marketplace.

"It's bittersweet for me. I'm seeing a lot of friends I've known for years," he said, between pours of "The Last Stand," an India pale lager named, appropriately, for the last weeks of the brewery's existence. "Knowing it could be my last festival as a brewer is tough."

Brewery owner Pete Romain said the factors that ended his 13-year run were many. There are more craft brewers in Michigan than ever before. The city of Lincoln Park continues to be a tough place to do business. But the construction.

The Michigan Department of Transportation has been rebuilding I-75 for two years. Rerouted traffic either avoids Fort Street, opting instead for Jefferson or I-94, or it speeds past him. Speed limits have been raised to 45 mph to keep the cars moving. And they do.

"I've got I-75 right in front of me, they go through so fast. We don't have a downtown anymore. We have a highway," Romain said. "The road has killed me." Would-be patrons from the surrounding communities stopped coming or reduced their visits because they didn't want to take the detours to get there or to get back home.

"It's not just the road," but that's a big one. When Romain started, there were only about 40 or 50 craft brewers in the state. Now there are hundreds and "people always want to go to the newest place." Lincoln Park's fall into emergency management made the business climate there difficult at times. And social media can can make you or break you.

"The people that love you never talk, but the one guy you cut off one night makes a lot of noise," he said. "Things have really changed."

The Fort Street Brewery stand near the end of the Michigan Brewers Guild 2018 Summer Beer Festival.

Romain said he tried to make it work, taking out loans to pay the bills because he says he's too proud to declare bankruptcy. But he's not taken a salary for himself in more than a year. Along the way, he's lost his chef and had a hard time finding and keeping good servers.

For the brewery's upcoming last month, hours will be limited to 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. in the evenings and there won't be any food service. But there will be beer and beer specials. Romain and Walker brought a slate of those beers and more to the Summer Beer Festival for one last last hurrah.

They recently tapped the last of their cask night beers last Thursday, inviting their original brewer to join Walker for the event, and the brewpub was packed to standing-room-only. "Someone said to me 'if all these people had come in here regularly, you wouldn't be closing now.' I guess it's like they say: Nobody goes to the wedding, but everybody goes to the funeral."

"I gotta move on," Romain said. "Everybody asks me what I'm going to do, but I just don't know. I'll figure it out. I always do." He's been an entrepreneur since, at the age of 26, he bought his first party store. And he's working to sell the Fort Street property. At present, it's being considered by a restaurant. But that will mean parting and parceling out the brewing equipment. And saying goodbye to people like Walker.

"It's a flooded field right now," Walker said. "You've got so many people getting into the industry right now that it's a dog-eat-dog world." He worries that will limit his chances of being able to get into a similar brewer position elsewhere. "I've been in the industry for five or six years now. It's a shame. We'll see what's next."

More: If you want to visit Fort Street Brewery before it closes, it's located at 1660 Fort St, Lincoln Park.