Pioneers: U.P. craft beer is a growing business

Upper Peninsula brewers talk about the rise of their industry in the region and across the state of Michigan. It has an increasing economic impact, from tourism to new ventures.
Every city or region has something that comes to mind whenever a local or traveler hears its name. New York City has Broadway. Paris has the Louvre. Zimbabwe has Victoria Falls.

For Michigan, it's craft beer.

The entire state is, simply put, a bastion of barley, wheat and hops. Not merely because of numbers--though Michigan does have the fifth most craft breweries in the country--but because of quality. Bell's in Kalamazoo and Founders in Grand Rapids are perhaps two of the state's best-known and enjoyed exports.

But how is craft beer developing even more locally? Say, in the Upper Peninsula?

Sure, Michigan craft beer seems strong when sipping on a Bell's Two Hearted Ale, but has the popularity of craft beer spread to smaller corners of the state? If so, has the industry had an economic impact on the region?

For answers, we turn to Paul Boissevain of Keweenaw Brewing Company in Houghton.

"Pioneers"

Boissevain describes his brewery as the "hops-induced" vision of Dick Gray and himself. Drawn by the crystal clear waters of nearby Lake Superior and small-town hominess of Houghton, Boissevain and Gray set roots to explore their passion for beer. Naturally, this led to the creation of Keweenaw Brewing Company in 2004.

KBC, as the locals call it, is a microbrewery. This means strictly beer--no food.

"As a microbrewery, we can sell our beer wholesale or in our taproom," Boissevain explains.

Speaking of beer sales, selling craft beer has not been a problem for KBC.

"The acceptance and desire for craft beer in the U.P. has grown dramatically over the years," he says. "Even here in the Keweenaw, we are seeing growth in our market in spite of the influx of craft beers from other Michigan breweries from both sides of the bridge."

Suffice it to say, the craft beer landscape in the U.P. has changed drastically even in just the last 10 years. Today, there are about 14 establishments in the U.P. between microbreweries, breweries and brewpubs, like the Vierling, a brewpub, and breweries Ore Dock and Black Rocks in Marquette, or the Library brewpub, and Brickside and Red Jacket breweries in the Copper Country.

"When we opened our doors in 2004, we were the only microbrewery in the U.P.," says Boissevain. "We were also the first brewery in Michigan to can our beers."

Keweenaw also happens to be one of the 10 largest production breweries in Michigan; they're busy distributing throughout Michigan, Wisconsin, eastern Minnesota and Cleveland.

Also finding success in U.P. craft brewing is the Jasper Ridge Brewery in tiny Ishpeming just outside of Marquette off U.S. 41. Their roots stretch back to 1996, around the time craft breweries started to take off. Back then, they were one of only a handful of breweries in the UP and Michigan altogether.

"I kind of consider us one of the early pioneers in the local industry," says co-owner Ryan LaMere. "With the growing increase in popularity, the industry has gained many new breweries throughout Michigan with several more currently being built very near us."

This continued growth for breweries like Jasper Ridge and Keweenaw spells good news for respective local economies.

"More people are coming in and drinking the beer, which allows us to hire more staff as we get busier," LaMere says. "Even better is the money is being circulated through the local county and Michigan, for the most part."

Growth for Keweenaw hasn't meant just staff. In 2007, Boissevain's team opened a 16,000-square-foot facility in South Range, boasting a 50-barrel brewhouse just five miles south of their headquarters in Houghton.

"Our new brewery has also allowed us to expand beer varieties," says Boissevain. "Both at the taproom and in cans."

Beer Tourism

Besides having an impact on the local economy, craft breweries have brought what Boissevain calls the "beer tourist" to the Upper Peninsula.

The "beer tourist" might start at the Soo Brewing Company in Sault Ste. Marie, stop at Tahquamenon Falls Brewery in Paradise, and make their way all the way up to Brickside in Copper Harbor, or hit the southerly route with brewpub stops in Menominee, Escanaba, and Manistique.

Given its location, Jasper Ridge is able to play to the adventure tourist, too, most of whom also happen to enjoy craft beer.

"Outdoor recreation is a big part of business as well," says LaMere. "We are a five-minute bike ride from over 30 miles of mountain biking trails. In the winter time, we are situated on a main snowmobile trail."

No wonder a local mountain biking club has decided to make Jasper Ridge their meeting ground every Wednesday to begin and end group rides. That of course means more business when hungry and thirsty cyclists trudge in after a hard ride.

In all, it sounds like a good time to plan a trip to the U.P. Boissevain's final pitch will have anyone looking for travel time in their calendar.

"From major beer tasting events in Marquette and Houghton to the itinerant tourist putting notches in their beer mug, the number of breweries here in the U.P., new and old, have become a significant addition to the draw of the U.P. across the Midwest," he says.
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