When the Stroh Brewery Company closed its 135-year-old plant on Gratiot Avenue in Detroit in 1985, many thought it signaled the end of beermaking in Michigan. No one would have predicted that 30 years later, the state would bounce back to boast more than 200 breweries, and yet here we are.
What makes Michigan — No. 6 in the country in number of breweries, according to the Denver-based Brewers Association (BA) — so successful at beer? For some in the business, it comes down to the state's abundance of beer's primary ingredient: water.
Is that it?
"It's actually a few different things," said Scott Graham, executive director of the Michigan Brewers Guild, a nonprofit group formed in 1998 to promote and protect Michigan's beer industry (and which currently represents about 160 of the state's breweries). "You can point to good water, but we also have a close-knit community of brewers, which helps raise the bar for everybody. The more time you spend around other brewers, being exposed to their beers, the more it highlights what's good and makes you want to do better."
Having a state full of passionate drinkers helps too. "There's a consumer-driven 'buy local' mentality in Michigan that has done a lot to support our breweries," said Eric Briggeman, brewmaster at Rochester Mills Beer Co. in Rochester and president of the guild. "Michigan people like Michigan."
The numbers would seem to bear this out. According to the Michigan Beer Guide, craft beer sales in Michigan represented 9.43 percent of the state's overall beer market in 2014, with Michigan-brewed beer accounting for the majority of that, or 6.56 percent, up from 4.74 percent the previous year.
And while Michigan-brewed beer consumption remains below the national craft average of 11 percent, Graham expects Michigan beer to reach double digits in the near future. In fact, he says the guild anticipates the in-state market share to climb as high as 20 percent within the next five years.
Michigan Beer Guide publisher Rex Halfpenny is more cautiously optimistic. "While Michigan's craft beer industry is enjoying remarkable growth, and there is plenty of space and opportunity to continue to grow, we must keep in mind the vast majority of beer consumed in our state is still sourced from out-of-state mass-market brewers," he said. "For Michigan's beer industry to really show growth, sales of mass-market beer must continue to erode or we will see a day when the presently growing volume of Michigan-made beer exceeds its consumer base's ability to consume it all."
But why worry about the future when we can focus on the present? This year's version of the guild's oldest and largest festival, the Summer Beer Festival, happening July 24-25 in Ypsilanti, will feature the most beers (over 1,000) from the most Michigan breweries (over 100) ever.
"Not that many festivals have that many beers," said Graham.
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