An update on Lansing's booming brewery/distillery scene

For many, summer means cracking open a fresh brewed beer or crafting a summery cocktail, sitting around a campfire and enjoying the great outdoors. Here in Michigan, the “eat local, drink local” mentality puts an entirely different spin on this aspect of summer; the beers that many are choosing to drink in between dips in the lake are most likely Michigan-made, and many people’s spirits of choice for poolside cocktails are more frequently coming from the hyper-local local brewer, rather than large-scale distilleries.

Five years ago, Capital Gains ran a story covering what was, at the time, Lansing’s “budding brew culture.” Then, EagleMonk Brewery, Bad Brewing Company and Harpers were the main players in the Capital region’s brewery game. Now, with more than six breweries in the Lansing area, and the addition of a distillery scene, it’s clear the game has changed. People are no longer simply looking for brews and booze options that are local, they’re looking for the differences between them.

“It’s the craft aspect of it,” says Brian Rasdale, co-owner of Bad Brewing Company. “Every place is different. Water profiles are different, it’s a very artistic process.”

Rasdale – who is acknowledged as one of the first in a group of professional brewers in the area – had been homebrewing for quite some time before opening Bad, which taught him the significance of each product that goes into making the beer. From the water to the hops, each ingredient the brewer uses influences the final, unique product.

 “Everyone enjoys trying different things, especially now,” says Rasdale. “People like variety. Each atmosphere is really cool and different.”

While Lansing’s beer scene is growing, it’s still no Grand Rapids, boasting more than 60 breweries. The question many people ask when an industry grows as fast as this one has, is at what point does it cap out? Rasdale thinks the sky is the limit.

“With all these breweries popping up, it actually helps out. A few years ago, if people wanted to do a brew tour, people wouldn’t come to the Lansing area. There was only a few breweries,” says Rasdale. “Now, it gives people a chance to come to Lansing and hit ten breweries over the course of a couple of days. I think, overall, having more breweries and distilleries is a positive thing for everyone.”

Rick Wyble, CEO of American Fifth Spirits agrees.

“The more distilleries in Lansing the better. I don’t want to be the only one. The more we can become a destination for quality spirits the better things will be for everyone.”

The welcome seems necessary, as according to him, there are approximately 75 – 100 distilleries in planning throughout the state, many in the Lansing region. Wyble says the boom in distilleries most likely came from the state’s decrease in regulations surrounding opening a distillery.

“That’s what peaked my interest,” says Wyble. “Wineries and breweries were pretty established but spirits were sort of that third leg to the stool that had yet to be explored.”

While these two crafters of their respective poisons agree on the “more the merrier” ideology, not everyone is so optimistic. Because the beermaking process is similar in a lot of ways to how spirits are crafted, many brewery/distillery combinations have begun to pop up. Sleepwalker Spirits and Ales, which recently moved to REO Town, Sanctuary Distillery, Brewery & Winery (Grand Ledge), and Ellison Brewery and Spirits, all fall into this multi-functional category and call the Greater Lansing area their home.

Aaron Hanson, co-owner of Ellison Brewery and Spirits, says he is aware of three to four more brewery/distillery combos that are scheduled to open in the Lansing area, and he’s not sure this community will be able to support more than that.

“Craft beer growth as a whole has slowed quite a lot according to national numbers and the consumer’s palates are evolving and demanding higher quality product for a reasonable price point which can be difficult for smaller breweries,” says Hanson, noting that overall, the brewery/distillery scene is still growing in mid-Michigan.   

Beyond their professional interest in producing and providing local brews and booze for our community, area brewers and distillers also stressed an interest in educating the public on the intricacies of each beverage, and how to appreciate the varied qualities in each one.

“We just had a cocktail class on Memorial Day that was very well attended,” says Wyble. “We don’t want people coming into our cocktail bar to get drunk, we want people to enjoy the cocktails and good conversation.”

Rasdale says something similar about the atmosphere he fosters at Bad Brewing Co.

“It’s not like going downtown and getting crazy. People are just stopping by for a few drinks and to hang out with friends. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere.”

As for the future of the industry in mid-Michigan, while each brewer or distiller has a different vision for what growth means, they all agree that as long as the quality of the product stays high, success will stay high as well.

“Even though there’s this many, I think there’s room for more growth, as long as people are making good spirits and good beer,” says Rasdale.

Hanson agrees. “Hyper-local is still gaining popularity, but only if the product is of high quality and consistent for a reasonable price. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next 12 months for this industry.”

Photos © Dave Trumpie

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

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