SE Michigan Brews Mean Business

At last month's Michigan Winter Beer Festival, 17 southeastern microbreweries and brewpubs crash-tested recipes and gained new beer suitors. And while they braved frigid-cold temperatures to pour drafts for a roving crowd of 2,100, the breweries delighted in the opportunity to show off a variety of craft beer fermented in our little corner of the mitten.

The February 23rd festival was organized by Michigan Brewers Guild to celebrate Michigan's lively brewing culture. More than half of the breweries represented at the sold-out Grand Rapids event were from southeast Michigan.

Luring New Customers

"A lot of people end up coming to visit our establishment as a result of attending the festival," says Erik Harms, brewer at Dragonmead Brewery in Warren. He says the festival has also driven demand for Dragonmead's kegs, bottles and English casks that are distributed to bars and restaurants throughout the state. "Lots of times people who attend go to their pubs and ask for our products. It builds interest for Michigan-made beer," Harms says.

Need proof? Dragonmead ran out of the 37 gallons of beer it brought to the festival. Harms says that his most well-received beers were Final Absolution, a Belgian trippel, and Ring of Fire, a beer brewed with hot peppers. "People like to try funky beers, like ones with higher alcohol content or strange ingredients," explains Harms, who also featured an Imperial Stout aged in a bourbon cask.

For Clawson-based Black Lotus Brewing Company, a microbrewery that opened in October of 2006, the festival offered exposure. "As a new brewery, it's important that we're hitting our target market of beer aficionados, and the festival targets the biggest proportion of sophisticated beer drinkers in the state," says Mark Harper, Black Lotus owner and brewer.

Harper brought four varieties of beer, including The Gift Belgian Strong Ale, Generation X Porter, and a brown ale brewed with hemp seeds and honey. "For the winter festival, we bring at least two high hitters, meaning stronger, higher gravity beers," says Harper who poured every last drop of Black Lotus beer by the end of the afternoon.

Other metro Detroit breweries represented at the festival included Lincoln Park's  Fort Street Brewery, Kuhnhenn Brewing Company, Detroit Beer Company, Royal Oak Brewery, Sherwood Brewing Company and others.

Churning the Economy

In Michigan, the brewing industry kicks in more than $24 million in wages with a total economic contribution of more than $133 million, according to a 2007 Beer Serves America study. It's a business that seems to be holding its own despite the region's economic woes. In fact, Michigan is ranked sixth in the nation in total breweries per state.

"The economy aside, Michigan is a great place to have a brewery and be a brewer," says Duncan Williams, head brewer at Grizzly Peak Brewery in Ann Arbor.

Williams brought home empty kegs of Barrel Aged Bear Paw Porter and Edwyn's Warm-up Ale, a dry British pale ale, and gained new admirers at the Winter Beer Festival. As a brewpub, Grizzly Peak can't distribute beer off premises. "So it's nice to go to other side of the state, and have people asking questions about our beer and where we're at."

"Michigan's becoming quite the beer state," says Williams, who has been brewing at the 12-year-old brewpub for six years. "Overall, there's a lot of interest here, and Ann Arbor is a big beer town. Grizzly Peak and Arbor Brewing Company compete, but at the same time we create a beer culture so we feed off each other." Arbor Brewing Company was also represented at the festival, as was Dexter-based Jolly Pumpkin.

Dragonmead, open for ten years this May, also has a steady stream of enthused customers at its on-site pub. As a microbrewery, however, Dragonmead is also licensed to manufacture product to sell to other establishments. Its distribution in Oakland and Macomb counties is significant says Harms.

"We get very good support here," Harms says of the southeast Michigan market. "In fact, there are a lot of accounts that want our product. We can't produce quite enough, but we're doing pretty well supporting in-state demand."

Black Lotus is also brewing at capacity, and Harper attributes it to Michigan's sophisticated beer-drinking culture. "People here don't want to drink corporate swill, but want to drink local beer that's fresher and more interesting."

Concocting Vernal Delights

Microbreweries and brewpubs constantly re-engage beer connoisseurs and novices alike with seasonal selections. Right now, local brewers and patrons are finishing up heavier, winter specialties, but thoughts of spring are already fermenting.

After winter thaw, Black Lotus will debut a green jasmine tea beer. "With a shortage of hops in the industry, it's important to find alternative ways to flavor the beer," says Harper, who is pleased with his test batches. Black Lotus is big on supporting local commerce, and even uses the tag line, "think global, drink local." It's partnering with Ono Teas, a Novi-based company, on the creative concoction.

At Grizzly Peak, a Belgian white ale and a hoppy Saison, which is a Belgian French farmhouse beer, will be on tap this spring. Williams says that later in the season the brewpub will unveil Poolside Lager, a lighter, easier drinking beer for warmer weather.

While the Michigan Winter Beer Festival is only one flip of the calendar behind us, thoughts of spring recipes are already top-of-mind for local brewers. In support of local brewpubs and microbreweries, and a burgeoning Michigan industry, bottoms up!

Melinda Clynes is a Detroit-area freelancer. Her last article for Metromode was A Hipsters Guide To Windsor.


Winter Beer Festival coaster - Melinda Clynes courtesy photo

Erik Harms at Dragonmead Brewery - Warren

Black Lotus Brewing Co. fermentation tanks - Clawson

Dragonmead tap handles - Warren

Black Lotus Brewing Co. dining room - Clawson

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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