A Strange Brew Of Beer And Community

Dannyboy Perone left a steady job in government to work in the hop and grain-encrusted beer industry. Now, he spends his days around shining beer kettles that dwarf even his towering 6'5" frame.

Arbor Brewing Company Brewpub] in Ann Arbor first attracted Perone about a decade ago with its friendly atmosphere and tasty brews. He soon became a regular and now works as a facilities manager at its sister microbrewery, the Corner Brewery and Beer Garden in Ypsilanti.

"I stumbled into Arbor Brewing Company, and it felt like home. It was my Cheers," Perone says, who volunteered and worked part time at the Corner Brewery, which opened in 2006. "It just kept me coming back for more, and the beers were great."

Arbor Brewing Company Brewpub opened in July 1995, about two years after microbreweries and brewpubs were legalized in Michigan.

"We were basically looking for a neighborhood pub," says co-owner, Rene Greff, in reference to her and her husband's first brewpub. "[It's] a neighborhood hub that's sort of the center of politics and culture."

Grizzly Peak Brewing Company followed soon after, and both pubs flourished in Ann Arbor. Townies and students stop by to sip every variety of beer, from light pilsners to hoppy IPAs to nutty stouts and porters brewed in house.

As of 2008, Michigan is ranked 15th among states in terms of breweries per capita and 5th in total number of breweries (70 at last count), according to the Brewers Association. After more than a decade, Ann Arbor's downtown has several different brewpubs touting unique flavors and atmospheres. Dexter, Milan and Ypsilanti have also become home to microbreweries that sell beer across the state or even around the country.

Ann Arbor's craft beer scene, in part, feeds off of the college town's demographic which includes people with education, disposable income, and a fair amount of traveling under their belt, says Rene Greff.

"Ann Arbor has always been a college town, and it's always been a pretty big beer town," says Duncan Williams, head brewer at Grizzly Peak, adding that places like Royal Oak, with its more urban sensibility, is more conducive to wine and cocktails.

Some of Ann Arbor's original settlers might also have something to do with the beer-friendly culture, says Ron Jeffries, owner of Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales microbrewery and the new Jolly Pumpkin Café & Brewery. Settled in part by Germans, Ann Arbor is no stranger to beer-infused gatherings, like the Oktoberfest celebrations that are currently underway.

"You see how communities were settled carrying through hundreds of years later," Jeffries says. "On the west side of the state, the Holland area for example, had Dutch Calvinist settlers. I know the brewers over there in New Holland have had a devil of a time with some of these conservative anti-alcohol attitudes."

Further fueled by local bars like Ashley's and Old Town Tavern that carry craft brews and a strong following of home brewers in the Washtenaw County region, beer culture thrives.

"The whole scene feeds off each other. The more brew pubs open, the more beer culture exists. The more beer culture exists, the more people get into it," Williams says.

And once you try good craft beer – like good coffee, artisan bread, or ice cream – there's no going back, says Jeffries.

"In general, Americans have become more educated about beers, and our palates have all become sophisticated. I think people have become more adventurous," Rene Greff says. "It's a completely different palate than it was ten years ago."

Microbreweries: a whole different animal

Brad Sancho had only a decade-long passion for home brewing at his disposal when he opened up Original Gravity microbrewery on a rural county road in Milan a little more than a year ago.

Sancho single-handedly brought craft beer culture to Milan, and, with no formal training, he saw the lack of competition as a major draw. Situated in a largely residential area, Original Gravity has been successful even without the help of a beer culture-infused community that brewpubs depend on.

"Microbreweries and brewpubs are two really different businesses, so they can live in really different areas," says Jeffries, whose Jolly Pumpkin microbrewery resides in Dexter. Whereas brewpubs can only serve their beer on the premises, microbreweries can exist in a rural or remote location because it can ship beer locally or all over the country, and you're not really tied to a building or downtown area, he adds.

And Sancho's strategy has worked so far. The majority of his customers are locals, and Sancho has taken to indoctrinating local craft beer virgins with light, crisp beers that even the craft beer veterans favor.

Like Original Gravity, the Corner Brewery is a microbrewery situated in an old warehouse near residential Ypsilanti. Students stop in to study in the lounge's booths, a handful of regular telecommuters work using the microbrewery's free WiFi, and friends and co-workers come in for a drink, with the large groups filling up the full-sized wooden dining room tables.

Sales at the Corner Brewery have been up, though Rene Greff says she's hesitant to guess why. Similarly, Sancho's barely year-old business has also been riding out the economic turbulence with ease. And Jeffries is confident that his newly-opened Jolly Pumpkin Café in downtown Ann Arbor will do fine, adding that the current, less than savory economic climate is just a "weird coincidence."

With consumers still wary of spending, this beer-related success seems out of place. But maybe human nature has something to do with it, Jeffries muses. More than ever, people communicate via phone and internet in their work and social lives, and it makes it difficult for people to maintain a feeling of community.

"When you have a beer that you know where it's from – it's from that building there on the corner. You may know the people who work there. Or if it's a brewpub, you can go in there and have a beer at their bar and eat food with your friends and family," says Jeffries. "And so you get this tie, this sense of community."

Creating a neighborhood gathering place has been what Rene and Matt Greff have been after from the start. Their establishments have hosted everything from The Shadow Art Fair to political events and movie nights.

"[Our customers are] super supportive, and we're supportive of them," Perone says. "We'll host business meetings, and people just know that the space is available… We have a lot of community events, like neighborhood association meetings. It's almost like a mini-town hall in some respects."

Julianne Mattera is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Her previous article for Concentrate was Downtown Ypsi: Old school, New Scene

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