Craft beer industry spawns lots of little (and growing) businesses

Little businesses that support or rely on the craft brew industry are bubbling up all over.
What do a bar of soap, a walking tour and a feature-length film all have in common? Each one was created because of and in support of the local craft beer industry.

From guided brewery tours to grooming products, small businesses have been popping up all over Southwest Michigan and beyond, offering products and services that cater to craft beer lovers or in some way bolster the craft brewing industry itself.

"The craft beer movement is indicative of the craft movement in general. Creating niche products that people love and are going to gravitate towards. Whatever you are making, someone out there is going to enjoy it," says Kevin Romeo, Creative Director for Kalamazoo-based Rhino Media.

Romeo and his cohorts at Rhino create promotional and marketing content for a wide variety of businesses, but have, ever since the company's inception, hitched its horse thoroughly to the craft beer wagon. The company has created materials for a number of breweries such as Greenbush, Bell's, Darkhorse, Paw Paw and more, while also producing The Michigan Beer Film, the industry's first feature-length documentary.

"It seemed obvious to me that craft beer was such a big thing, so it seemed natural do a documentary about what spawned it," Romeo says. "We feel like we put a flag in the ground and made a statement about Michigan beer and the culture."

That flag might as well have a giant 'X' on it, marking Kalamazoo as the spot to be if creating or supporting craft beer is your goal.

"A while after the film was released I met a guy at a party, he saw The Michigan Beer Film, and says it changed his life. He thought 'I've got to go where that film was made, I need to be a part of the craft beer scene,' he found something he enjoys and a community surrounding it," Romeo says.

Soon after arriving, the newcomer found a job with Michigan Mobile Canning, a company that owes its entire existence to the rise of are craft beer.

MMC was formed in 2012 to help small- to medium-sized breweries can its beer without having to purchase a permanent canning line or build new a new facility to house it.

Co-owned by Andrew McLean and Scott Richards, the company trucks in canning equipment that can easily be adjusted to fit nearly any brewing space, no matter how cramped or irregular.

The service allows breweries to distribute their beer in cans without shelling out what could be nearly $200,000 for a custom-fitted line.

"There are a lot of people making real good beer all around Michigan and it’s hard to spread it all around. We want to help those guys," says Andrew McLean, co-founder of Michigan Mobile Canning.

Michigan Mobile Canning, along with area agricultural startups such as Hop Head farms and Pilot Malt House work directly with breweries to help create craft beer. Other companies, however, work almost as promotional arms for the industry, raising awareness for craft beer and craft beer tourism.

West Michigan Beer Tours, the brainchild of John Liberty and Eric Faber has expanded rapidly in the past couple of years. It began as a for-hire tour company, organizing behind-the-scenes brewery field trips and transportation. Now it offers a series of services including day-trips to baseball games, overnight explorations of various brewing regions and weekly Saturday walking tours that it hosts in conjunction with Discover Kalamazoo.

The Saturday tours make stops at local breweries, and other places of interest, in and around downtown Kalamazoo. Guides not only showcase the area's thriving craft beer industry but also explore the history of a town known as much for beer as for free college, guitar making, and so much more.

If an organized tour isn't your bag, Discover Kalamazoo recently unveiled the Give a Craft Passport, which is a self-guided tour of all of Kalamazoo's downtown breweries.

The passport style guide book is modeled after "Ale Trails" in other states and leads motivated drinkers around the city as they collect stamps from participating breweries. Once completed, the passbooks can be turned in to Discover Kalamazoo for cool craft beer swag.

"People in this town really come together over craft beer and want to be a part of it in some way," Leigh Ann Theisen of Discover Kalamazoo says.

Which is why West Michigan Beer Tours, Discover Kalamazoo, and other companies are promoting the area as a craft beer tourism destination.

Hotels and B&B's are also getting involved, offering beer themed packages for its guests.

The Kalamazoo House Bed and Breakfast for example offers a swanky, four-hour brew pub limo tour that can either be created by guests or curated to offer maximum enjoyment for minimum effort.

While many businesses are helping the brewing industry either through promotion or production still other small businesses are popping up in conjunction with the industry.

If you were to go on Etsy, the popular online craft marketplace and do a quick search for "Michigan Craft Beer," you would be led to dozens and dozens of pages full of local beer related merchandise and handmade products.

Bottle openers with brewery logos, paintings of popular craft beer labels, T-shirts, Michigan shaped cup holders, lamps fashioned from growlers...the list goes on. It seems that nearly any product, article of clothing or accessory can be created using upcycled beer paraphernalia, or crafted using a local brewery theme.

Kalamazoo Soap Company is one of the small businesses using Etsy to distribute its craft beer-themed products. In this case it's soap made using several of the area's favorite beers.

The company offers the cleansing bars crafted from selections such as Bell's Oberon and Latitude 42's Lil' Sunshine Golden Ale among others. And no you won't leave the shower smelling like a barroom, if anything, following a shower, people may think you work at a hop farm.

According to its Website, "Beer soap does not smell like beer but instead picks up the aromas of the hops, grains, malt, and extracts used in making the beer. The end result is a subtle sweet fragrance. Beer is beneficial in that it soothes irritated skin and has skin-softening amino acids and contains polyphenols which act as an antibacterial agent."

Kalamazoo Soap Company isn't the only local businesses offering cleansing and personal hygiene products created for the dapper beer drinker as Damn Handsome Grooming Company also offers well hopped soaps and shaving lathers.

Co-owned by Jarrett Blackmon and his wife Bridgett, the duo pick up spent brewing ingredients from area craft brewers that they re-purpose for their wares.

"We partner with craft breweries. We chat with them, pick up some spent grain, talk about hops. It's great. The community is so giving, and so cool. We become friends with many of these guys," Jarrett Blackmon says.

That seems to be the trend. Small businesses either work directly with or parallel to breweries who understand that the success of these side-businesses is tied with the success of the craft beer industry. Everyone works in conjunction to make a living, offer high quality products while also forming a tighter community of entrepreneurs and beer drinkers.

It also doesn't hurt that craft beer fans and Kalamazoo residents in general are are pretty open and creative bunch.

"The community in Kalamazoo is just so amazing and supportive of trying wacky things," Blackmon says.

Weather it's a business model based on bar hopping or hopping bars of soap, if it has to do with craft beer in Michigan, almost no idea is too wacky to work.

Jeremy Martin is the craft brew writer for Southwest Michigan's Second Wave.

For more about the many businesses the craft brew industry is spawning listen to Jeremy Martin's interview with Gordon Evan's on WMUK.
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