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Local breweries are crafting hand sanitizer for customers, first responders

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

During World War II, the Ford Motor Co. used its facilities to produce B-24 Liberator Bombers for the war effort. 

In 2020, distilleries are stepping up to create what the country needs in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis: hand sanitizer. 

Last week, Birmingham brewery Griffin Claw began making and bottling its own brand of hand sanitizer. At first, the small bottles of germ-killing spray made from neutral grain alcohol were given out for free to customers who ordered food and beer for delivery or curbside pickup. 

Last weekend Griffin Claw Brewing Company of Birmingham debut its own brand of hand sanitizer.

This week, after a media blitz surrounding the effort, the brewery and distillery is donating bottles of Griffin Claw hand sanitizer to Gleaners Community Food Bank and first responders, including the Birmingham Police Department. 

"The problem isn't creating the liquid itself," said director of sales Kyle VanDeventer. "I don't want to say we have an ocean of it, but it's really close. The only issue now is we can't get the bottles." 

Griffin Claw Brewing Company has been making spirits for about six years, but doesn't distribute them like they do their craft beer. It's only served in the tap room. 

He said the hand sanitizer is made from a byproduct of the brewing process. 

"We send beer through a strip sill, getting all the liquor and vapors out of the beer and we get a very concentrated form of alcohol," he said. "We had tubs of that from the last couple of months. We take that, which is around 170 proof, water it down with distilled water to 140 proof and make hand sanitizer." 

Birmingham’s Griffin Claw won gold and bronze medals at the 2015 American Craft Spirits Association awards.

VanDeventer said since the word of their hand sanitizer has spread through local news and social media, activity at the brewery and restaurant has been "insane." 

"The last two days have been very active for us," he said, saying they've been busy with curbside and delivery orders. "Changing and evolving our business model was a necessity. We didn't know how successful it would be. People have been in desperate need of food and alcohol."

Atwater Brewery is also working on a similar hand sanitizer but made with ingredients from its distillery arm. Owner Mark Rieth says they're solidifying the main ingredients now. In addition to selling the sanitizer in their tap rooms, they will also supply to the state for distribution to first responders and others in need. 

"We're following the FDA guidelines, following our distillers permits, checking all those boxes," said Rieth. "Our goal is to, by next week, have it in production both in bulk and spray bottles."

Rieth is cautious about the legalities of giving away what is essentially alcohol. The state of Michigan prohibits bars and restaurants from giving customers free drinks. 

Detroit's Atwater Brewery has joined Tenth and Blake, the craft beer division of Molson Coors.

"This is such an unknown right now," he said, regarding the rules. "If somebody (from the state) tells us we can (give it away), great, there's a need for it. There's a need for it from the state and they have funds. We just want to cover our costs and help out." 

Atwater Brewer's Detroit tap room is offering curbside pick up of beer 2-7 p.m. each afternoon, and pick up from the Grosse Pointe Park location by appointment. Anyone in the area can also schedule a delivery of products by emailing atwater@atwaterbeer.com. 

Because dine-in service at bars and restaurants is paused due to virus concerns, Rieth said it's been "a struggle."

"Such a large portion of our business is draft products on premise, in bars and restaurants," he said. "The package stores, chain locations are selling, so that part of the business is still active, but everyone's kind of taking a step back and ordering less. It's 'wait and see.'" 

On Thursday evening, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has relaxed its regulations to allow beverage distillers to make denatured alcohol. 

“I am profoundly grateful for the Michigan distilleries who are putting people before profit and are using their production facilities to make hand sanitizer during this COVID-19 emergency," Whitmer said in a statement.

The rules are approved through the end of June with the possibility of an extension should circumstances call for it.

mbaetens@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @melodybaetens