Cheers to 20 years of Michigan craft beer

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

The Michigan craft beer industry is raising a pint to toast several 20-year milestones.

Atwater Brewery, Founders Brewing Co., Dragonmead Microbrewery, Woodward Avenue Brewers and New Holland Brewing emerged in 1997 after the debut of breweries such as Arcadia Ales, Arbor Brewing Co. and Motor City Brewing Works.

The Michigan Brewers Guild formed the same year and officials decided to create a summer beer festival to showcase burgeoning beer-makers.

The first Michigan Summer Beer Festival was a one-day affair in July 1998 in Livonia. Guild executive director Scott Graham recalled 25 breweries and 100 beers under one tent.

This weekend, the Guild will host the 20th annual festival at Riverside Park in Ypsilanti, featuring more than 1,000 beers from 100 Michigan beer-makers. Graham said more than a dozen new Michigan breweries will participate for the first time.

“This festival is for the brewers, by the brewers, about the brewers,” Graham said. “It’s the oldest Michigan beer festival; it’s the biggest Michigan beer festival. ... The Michigan Brewers Guild is the trade association of the craft beer industry here, so the money we make with the festival goes back into supporting the industry.”

The industry is maturing but is still seeing growth, said Graham, whose organization represents 220 breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs that contribute more than $600 million to Michigan’s economy.

The Colorado-based Brewers Association for small and independent craft breweries ranks Michigan sixth in the number of craft breweries in the U.S.

The early days

Many of the entities that laid the foundation for Michigan to become one of the top beer states in the nation are still growing and expanding.

Founders Brewing of Grand Rapids, one of Michigan’s largest breweries, announced earlier this year that a second production facility and tap room would open in the Cass Corridor. Co-founder and president Dave Engbers credited his company’s success with teaming up with the right people and sticking to their plan.

“We made a hell of a lot of mistakes along the way,” Engbers said, “but each time we learned and we’ve been able to assemble a great team and now our accelerated growth kind of tops the industry.”

Mark Sellers, founder of BarFly Ventures, which includes several HopCat beer bars in Michigan and other states, said brewery owners 20 years ago were “very forward-thinking.”

“They were taking a big risk,” Sellers said, “and they were doing it purely out of love, because there was no money in it back then.”

At a press conference announcing Founders’ Detroit tap room, co-founder Mike Stevens said the company began to see a profit a decade after opening.

“We got knocked down quite a bit,” he said, adding that Founders “flirted” with bankruptcy a couple times. “It’s been very rewarding (now) that we’re the 14th-largest brewery in the country. ... We’ve been able to accelerate things that last five, six years or so. We’re in 46 states and 29 countries.”

Today, Michigan-made beer, wine and spirits are prevalent in local markets and liquor stores. Early on, however, brewers struggled with distributors.

“In the beginning, (the problem) was how to get your six pack on the shelf of a Meijer or Kroger store ... that was the difficult part,” said Mark Rieth, owner of Atwater Brewery in Detroit.

“Distributors didn’t understand it yet, customers weren’t accustomed to shopping for a variety of local beers yet,” Rieth said. “The first thing was convincing the community out there that buying a local product in the beer world is similar to food and other (local) items that people were buying at the time.”

Rieth was homebrewing in Boston in the 1990s and returned to his native Detroit in 1997, just as Atwater opened. He invested in the business in 2002 and bought out the other owners in 2005.

Atwater, which will be featured at this weekend’s Summer Beer Festival, started with four lagers and now makes 45-60 beers. Besides the Detroit production facility and tap room, Atwater has a restaurant in Grosse Pointe Park, and a brewery and restaurant in Grand Rapids.

Atwater will celebrate its 20th anniversary Sept. 16 with a party featuring a special triple bock brew of their popular beer Voodoo Vader, which is usually a dopplebock. The date coincides with the official tapping of the keg in Munich, Germany, which kicks off Oktoberfest.

Dragonmead in Warren celebrated its 20th anniversary with a party last month. Owner Earl Scherbarth recalled having little competition in the the early days.

“We didn’t bother to advertise, but now we have to keep getting our name out there,” Scherbarth said, adding that they have stuck to one major tenant throughout the years and that’s to never serve a bad beer.

“From Day One, we were advocating brewing true-to-style with the ingredients that come from the country of origin,” Scherbarth said. “People want something different. ‘Give me a fruit beer, give me the highest hop beer you can give me.’ There’s something for everyone today.”

Opportunities on tap

While the festival celebrates 20 years and the state’s craft beer industry continues to gain momentum, the original Summer Beer Festival remains a way for new beer-makers to get noticed and for craft beer novices to learn more.

“There is a collection of breweries that this will be the first year at the festival,” Graham said. “I know Snowbelt Brewing from Gaylord, this is their first year. Brown Iron Brewhouse is new. ... There are about 15 or so that are new. Certainly in the last four or five years we’ve seen an increase in the rate of new breweries.”

Of the 12,000 attendees expected at this weekend’s event, Graham said knowledgeable craft beer fans will enjoy the unique and limited products that brewers will bring, and newcomers will find the festival approachable.

“It’s a great opportunity for somebody who thinks they don’t like beer because they have this impression in their mind of industrial, yellow, fizzy beer, and there’s much more,” Graham said.

(313) 222-2402

Twitter: @melodybaetens

Pioneers of Michigan Brewing Scene

Arbor Brewing Company, founded in 1995: Brand rights for this brewery were recently sold to Farm + Ferment, a hospitality group that also owns Bigalora Wood Fired Cucina restaurants and others. 114 E. Washington, Ann Arbor. (734) 213-1393

Arcadia Ales, 1996: This Battle Creek-based company distributes products to several states. 701 E. Michigan, Kalamazoo. (269) 276-0458. 103 W. Michigan, Battle Creek. (269) 963-9690.

Atwater Brewery, 1997: Tap room and brewing facilities in Detroit and Grand Rapids, plus a restaurant in Grosse Pointe Park. 237 Jos Campau, Detroit. (313) 877-9205.

Big Buck Brewery This Gaylord brewery, distillery and winery once had a brewing facility and restaurant in Auburn Hills. 550 S. Wisconsin, Gaylord. (989) 732-5781.

Bell’s Brewing, 1985: Makers of Two Hearted Ale, Oberon and Hopslam, Bell’s was making craft beer in Michigan years before most others. 8938 Krum, Comstock. (269) 382-2338.

CJ’s Brewing Company, 1997: Pub and brewery with beer-friendly menu. A second location is open in Plymouth. 8115 Richardson, Commerce. (248) 366-7979.

Dark Horse Brewing Co., 1998: Distributed in 18 states, this longstanding beer-maker offers tours of the production facility on weekends. 511 S. Kalamazoo, Marshall. (269) 781-9940.

Dragonmead Microbrewery, 1997: Known for its popular Final Absolution Belgian-style ale, Dragonmead increased its production volume a few years ago. Tap room and full menu offered in Warren. 14600 E. 11 Mile, Warren. (586) 776-9428.

Grizzly Peak, 1995: A staple of downtown Ann Arbor’s brewing scene, this brewer has a full menu including offerings for kids and dogs. 120 W. Washington, Ann Arbor. (734) 741-7325.

Frankenmuth Brewery, 1862: Michigan’s original craft brewery. 425 S. Main, Frankenmuth. (989) 262-8300.

Founders Brewing, 1997: This popular Grand Rapids-based brewery announced this year that it would open a second tap room in the Cass Corridor this winter at 456 Charlotte. 235 Grandville SW, Grand Rapids. (616) 776-1195.

Great Baraboo Brewing Co., 1995: This Macomb County beer-maker offers its own products as well as guest taps and a full menu. 35905 Utica, Clinton Township. (586) 792-7397.

Kuhnhenn Brewing Co., 1998: Founded as a homebrew supplies store in 1998 and launched a brewery in 2001. 5919 Chicago, Warren. (586) 979-8361.

Motor City Brewing Works, 1994: Cass Corridor tap room known for brick oven pizzas. Second location coming later this year to Avenue of Fashion in Detroit. 470 W. Canfield, Detroit. (313) 832-2700.

New Holland Brewing, 1997: Production facility and pub in Holland, and the Knickerbocker, a restaurant and brew house in Grand Rapids. 684 Commerce Court, Holland. (616) 355-6422.

North Peak Brewing, 1995: Full restaurant and brewery. Known for Diabolical IPA and Siren Amber. 400 W. Front, Traverse City. (231) 941-7325.

Olde Peninsula Brewpub & Restaurant, 1996: Kalamazoo’s first brewpub. 200 E. Michigan, Kalamazoo. (269) 343-2739.

Rochester Mills Beer Co., 1998: The brew pub located in the historic Western Knitting Mill. A production brewery followed in 2012. 400 Water, Rochester. (248) 650-5080.

Royal Oak Brewery, 1995: Oakland county’s oldest brewpub. The 14-barrel brew house also has a full bar and wine menu. 215 E. Fourth, Royal Oak. (248) 544-1141.

Traffic Jam & Snug, 1992: The first brew pub in Michigan, this restaurant also has an in-house bakery. 511 W. Canfield, Detroit. (313) 831-9470.

Woodward Avenue Brewers: Some could argue this brewery near Nine Mile and Woodward helped Ferndale become the nightlife destination that it is today. 22646 Woodward, Ferndale. (248) 546-3696.

Michigan Summer Beer Festival

5-9 p.m. Friday and 1-6 p.m. Saturday

Riverside Park

Depot Town, Ypsilanti

Because you can’t taste 1,000 beers in one weekend, there is an app to help festivalgoers navigate and prioritize what is available to sample. Search BeerFestList in the Google Play Store or App Store.

More beer events

Arbor Brewing Company 22nd Anniversary Party: Besides lawn games and live music, this party will see the return of Olde No. 22 beer. 5 p.m.-midnight, Aug. 4. No cover. 114 E. Washington, Ann Arbor. (734) 213-1393.

Ninth Annual Michigan Brewers Guild U.P. Fall Beer Festival: Our state’s craft beer biz extends to the Upper Peninsula at Mattson Lower Harper Park. 1-6 p.m. Sept. 9. $40. Lakeshore Blvd. near E. Washington, Marquette.

Atwater Brewery 20th Anniversary Blocktoberfest Celebration: German food, live music, keg- and stein-hoisting competition, lawn games and a special tapping of Voodoo Vader. Noon-11:30 p.m. Sept. 16. No cover. 237 Jos Campau, Detroit. (313) 877-9205.

9th Annual Michigan Brewers Guild Detroit Fall Beer Festival: This autumn beer festival in Eastern Market is expected to sell out in advance. 5-9 p.m. Oct. 27 and 1-6 p.m. Oct. 28. $40-$45 in advance. Eastern Market, Detroit.

13th Annual Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival: Tickets go on sale in November for this annual beer tasting at Fifth Third Ballpark. 5-9 p.m. Feb. 23 and 1-6 p.m. Feb. 24. 4500 West River Drive NE, Comstock Park.