Bottling Sustainability in Webberville

Michigan Brewing Company
(MBC) in Webberville, MI, has enjoyed steady, double-digit growth for several years, expanding its award-winning beer production to 6,000 barrels and a million bottles this year, and recently diversifying into the distilled liquor-and wine-making business.

Along the way, the popular brewery has also makes a pretty convincing case that you can have your sustainability, and drink it, too.

Drink Local First!

Chris O’Brien, in his book Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World, maintains that “Small breweries are perfect examples of community-based, socially and environmentally concerned small businesses.”

Michigan Brewing Company fits this definition well. It provides jobs for some 30 people, and its business-to-business relationships include working with local printing and packaging companies, trucking companies, restaurants and many others.

The brewery purchases the corn and wheat it uses to make beer—and more recently, vodka and gin—from farmers all over Michigan.

MBC also uses canola seeds from nearby Charlotte, transforming it into biofuel that partly powers their brewing and distilling operations.

“Why buy sweet corn shipped in from California when you can buy it locally?” asks Bobby Mason, who opened MBC in 1996. “I believe that doing business with local people just works so much better for everybody.”

Like MBC, other Capital region microbreweries, wineries and up-and-coming artisan distilleries like Uncle John’s Cider Mill in St. John’s are using homegrown fruits, vegetables and grains to produce spirited beverages, catalyzing a sustainable trend that might be called “Drink Local First!”

Mason says local connections can lead to unexpected business opportunities. He recently hired a local fence company to do some work at the brewery and the owner happened to have a close friend who owns a chain of restaurants in the state.

“Now the restaurant guy is interested in carrying my beer because the fence guy brought him here and introduced us. You start touching everyone around you and the circle just gets bigger and bigger,” says Mason.

Canola, Stills, and Mash

MBC has also partnered with Michigan State University (MSU) and local businesses to help foster the emerging bioeconomy by creating a bio-refinery and on-site distillery.

“We are not looking to get people to drink more,” said Kris Berglund, MSU professor and distillery expert. “We’re just trying to get them to drink the things that are made locally.”

The distilled spirits enterprise at MBC owes much to Berglund, who helped champion the passing of a new state law last spring—Public Act 218—which allows artisan distilleries to market and sell their grain-based spirits on site. Previously, Michigan distillers could only sell their products through the state liquor distribution system that included a hefty licensing fee.

MBC is one of the early dozen to jump on this opportunity, which looks to be lucrative, according to a study by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). The MEDC estimated that distilled liquors could eventually add $400 million and 1,400 jobs to the Michigan economy.

Michigan residents spend more than $800 million annually on spirits, of which less than 1/20th of a percent is produced here, according to Berglund.

Berglund’s work goes beyond advocacy. He’s also a distiller himself. When he’s not on campus, Berglund can often be found at MBC working with the stills, which are part of MSU’s Artisan Distilling Program.

“I’m a professor of chemical engineering,” he says wryly. “Chemists distill. That’s what we know.”

MBC also houses the Biorefinery Training Facility, which includes a biodiesel-making operation. Both the stills and biodiesel refinery are used for research, teaching and outreach. Combined, they are training dozens of people to tap into the emerging green bioeconomy.

MSU’s student body, largely unaware, is also contributing to the enterprise. Recycled fryer grease from campus cafeterias and the canola seed from Charlotte are the two sources of the biodiesel that MBC uses to power its steam generator to heat water to make beer.

In fall 2007  the first batch of “bio-beer” was produced using this biofuel—and every batch since has been similarly green-powered.

MBC also uses a mixture of biodiesel and regular diesel to power its vehicles, and employees even drove these green vehicles to Madison, Wisconsin, last  summer to compete in the Great Taste of the Midwest Beer Festival.

The green equation at MBC also means recycling the waste "mash" produced from pressing the canola seeds and processing the beer and spirits: MBC gives it away to local farmers to slop their hogs.

PA 218

The market for microbreweries in Michigan is strong and getting stronger: 70 breweries and $25 million annually. Michigan wineries are doing well, too. Artisan distilleries look to be the next big thing.

MBC’s stills operate under a dual teaching and commercial license arrangement between MSU and MBC. For months, Berglund has been helping MBC employees distill Michigan red wheat and corn into batches of vodka, perfecting the blend, capturing the drinkable “middle hearts,” and readying it for commercial release.

Berglund is unflaggingly enthusiastic about the distillery and microbrewery industries in Michigan.

“It’s a sustainable 'all-of-the-above',’" says Berglund: "Good for the social, the economic and the environmental well-being of all. Plus, it’s entertaining,”

In early January, Mason served the first round of his Michigan-made vodka—named PA 218, in honor of the new state law making it possible to sell and serve spirits—in his MBC pub. 

PA 218 Vodka will soon be available in area stores and restaurants.  Mason has also begun selling gin and eventually plans to produce whiskey, as well.

The label on PA 218 reads, in part, that this vodka contains “Michigan corn, red winter wheat and water from the Saginaw Aquifer in Central Michigan . . . to put a little bit of Michigan in every bottle for you to enjoy.”

Beer Advocate, an influential national website and magazine for beerophiles, recently told readers that, in light of “severe economic and fuel issues” they should support their local brewers more. “Make your first beer a local beer every time you go out.”

Those are easy marching orders when it comes to MBC, which is "like the Baskin Robbins of beer,” according to Berglund, with its 16 beers on tap and a brace of national award-winning brews.

“As much as possible, let’s keep everything close to home,” says Mason.

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John A. Kinch, Ph.D., is a green-minded writer, professor and communications strategist. Find him at  

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Stacks of MBC's beers

Vodka runs out of the stills early in the process

Biorefinery Training facility

Lab equipment

The final bottled vodka product

Kris Berglund and a vat of vodka

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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