Tapping the market: Local breweries grow alongside booming craft beer industry
When Mount Pleasant City Commissioner Jim Holton opened Mountain Town Station in 1996, he owned one of only six brewpubs in the state.
“(Craft brewing) was unknown,” Holton said. “I had a lot of customers who said they would just rather have a Budweiser because they weren’t sure about craft beer. They thought it might be a craze or a fad.”
Twenty years later, the “fad” is still going strong. According to the Brewers Association, a Denver-based industry trade group, the U.S. craft beer industry generated $1.85 billion for Michigan’s economy in 2014, contributing 14,700 full-time jobs and $571.6 million in wages. Mount Pleasant is home to three brewpubs — Mountain Town Station, Hunter’s Ale House, and most recently, Cranker’s Brewery, which transitioned from a traditional restaurant to brewpub in 2014.
In 2012, the Hunter family turned CoCo Joe’s — formerly a dueling piano and seafood bar — into Hunter’s Ale House, to cater to craft beer drinkers. In 2014, the family opened its own brewing operation, Hunter’s Handmade.
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In 2007, Holton opened a separate microbrewery called Mountain Town Brewing Company. The manufacturing and packaging plant distributes 4,000 barrels of beer across the Midwest each year. In total, the four Mount Pleasant businesses will generate 162,750 gallons of beer this year.
Michigan brewers are distinguished by receiving three types of licenses. A brewpub is allowed to manufacture up to 5,000 barrels of beer annually. A brewpub must operate a full service restaurant with at least 25 percent of gross sales from non-alcoholic items and can’t sell its beer to wholesalers or retailers.
A microbrewery can manufacture up to 30,000 barrels of beer annually. Microbrewers can sell beer to consumers for on-premise consumption and to licensed wholesalers, but not retailers.
Brewer permits allow owners to manufacture an unlimited quantity of beer, which can be sold to licensed wholesalers. Brewers can sell directly to licensed retailers and consumers for off-premise consumption.
The Brewers Association recognizes 205 craft breweries in Michigan, which produce 769,897 barrels of beer each year. Michigan ranks fifth in the nation in overall number of breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs. That number grows larger each week.
“You can’t pinpoint a certain number (of breweries), because by the time you do, it will be wrong,” said Scott Graham, executive director of the Michigan Brewers Guild. “We are in an interesting revival of local breweries. I think we’re rewriting the curve of history in American beer.”
Less than 10 percent of all beer sold in Michigan is brewed in the state, but Graham said he expects this number to surpass 20 percent in the near future.
Cranker’s Brewery and Mountain Town continue to expand their operations to distribute beer outside of the state. Holton said Mountain Town beers can be found in Ohio, Indiana and will soon be delivered to Illinois and Wisconsin. Cranker’s main brewing location in Big Rapids is looking to expand next month to stores in Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia.
The smaller-scale Cranker’s Brewery in Mount Pleasant produces 300 to 350 barrels each year. Its Big Rapids location produces up to 6,000 barrels per year.
Both Holton and Cranker’s owner Jim Crank studied the craft beer industry in the Pacific Northwest before starting their businesses. Crank said he spent 25 years studying beer culture before deciding to convert his Big Rapids, Grand Rapids and Mount Pleasant restaurants to brewpubs in 2009.
“What I loved about the industry is I would go into a town in Oregon with 4,500 people and it would have five breweries that would be absolutely packed,” Crank said. “It became a destination. Each one would honor each other by carrying its products.”
Cheryl Hunter said she became interested in craft brewing two years ago when she learned there are hop growers in the state. Hunter said she bought her brewing system form Saugatuck Brewing Company, the same equipment that used to brew World Beer Cup Gold Medal winner Bonfire Brown Ale.
“I’m probably the odd person out in all of this,” she said. “Number one: I don’t have a beard. Number two: I am a woman that is almost 60 years old. Usually women (my age) are thinking about retirement — I’m the kind of person who wants to be involved in this industry because it’s so fun.”
After graduating from Central Michigan University in 1995, Holton started brewing his own beer in five-gallon buckets “just to see if he could.” When his batches turned out to be better than expected, Holton traveled to California to become a certified brewmaster. He then began looking for places to open a microbrewery.
“Michigan is a good spot. We have a lot of water resources and I thought Mount Pleasant would be a great town for it, obviously being a younger generation crowd that might appreciate the craft side of beer,” he said. “Instead of doing it in five-gallon buckets, I was brewing 500 gallons.”
After 20 years of brewing, Mountain Town offers many of the same beers, but also experiments with new specialty recipes each season. Its microbrewery produces 4,000 barrels per year at its distribution center on West Pickard Street and 700-800 barrels at the brewpub restaurant on East Broadway Street.
Staples of summer
In a warehouse at the edge of town, Mountain Town Station brewmaster Buck Dubro and a team of brewers monitor temperature dials on 930-gallon fermenters full of sweet brews like Blueberry Kush and Maple Porter.
Dubro casually scratches his amber beard while walking across the clean concrete factory floor. The distinctive smell of malt dominates each room in the warehouse, even in a garage-sized freezer full of kegs.
Despite starting at Mountain Town Station four years ago, he can explain the purpose of thousands of dollars in equipment as if he wrote its manual.
The Traverse City native has lived in Michigan beer paradises like Detroit, Grand Rapids and Lansing. He started — like many others — as a self-taught home brewer before finding his way to Mount Pleasant.
Now he operates all beer production for brewpub by himself.
“Beer runs my life,” Dubro said.
“What’s happening across Michigan is happening in this town too. It’s on a smaller scale. We have a harder time getting people off the highway, but it’s not bad.”
After a slow stretch from December to March, local breweries are preparing for the summer beer season to begin. As the seasons change, so does the lineup on taps around town.
“During the winter, you want a heavier beer that has a bit more flavor to it to warm you up, maybe a bit higher alcohol content,” Holton said. “In the summer, you want something that is light, smooth and crisp; maybe a little fruity and softer to the palate.”
The popularity of craft beer, Holton explained, is driven by consumers who are appreciative of fresh, locally-produced ingredients and beers with deeper flavors.
“Brewers are like artists,” Holton said. “Yes, we can punch out the same painting all-year long, but they want to get creative on some batches especially during the seasons.”
Mountain Town Brewing’s Train Wreck Amber Ale and Iron Horse IPA are the most popular beers distributed across the state. A new Belgian Tripel — golden in color with banana, citrus and clove notes— is available until June. The light, sweet beer is 8 percent alcohol by volume and the brewpub’s spring beer of choice.
The Chippewa Gold Kolsch will be available at Cranker’s Brewery next month. Crank said the 5.4 percent ABV beer is a sweet summer beer that can be turned into a watermelon shandy by request.
Hunter’s Spring Fling is being brewed just in time for the season. The sour cherry juice creates a light summer wheat ale at 5.8 ABV.
Glass half full
The renaissance in Michigan brewing is the latest chapter in a history more than 200 years old.
Michigan beer can be traced back to the early 1800s — when an 1829 issue of the Cleveland Herald announced a shipment of Detroit beer making its way down the Great Lakes. A dark, robust ale was the specialty of Michigan’s earliest English immigrant brewers and the drink of choice among Michigan beer drinkers through the 1840s. Around 1850, a new wave of German immigrants brought the classic German lager — a crisper, cleaner draft.
“For a period of about 50 years you saw breweries really expand and grow in size. The industry became something remarkable,” Graham said.
Michigan jump-started the Prohibition era in 1917 with its own statewide ban on alcohol, nearly three years before the 18th Amendment made the production, transport and sale of alcohol illegal. Only a few brewers survived until Michigan became the first state to repeal prohibition in 1933.
The number of breweries bounced back, Graham said, peaking with 58 in the 1930s. A period of consolidation followed, and by the 1980s only the big three — Miller, Anheuser-Busch and Coors — survived as viable national companies.
Since Michigan reworked its liquor laws to allow breweries to sell and serve beer on its premises in the 1990s, Graham said the state has experienced a rebirth of small town local breweries.
“Michigan will tend to outpace the national average (of beer production) and there are a few reasons,” he said. “We have a lot of really good beer and a lot of good breweries. That is helping generate a consumer and brewer culture that is constantly feeding on itself. We’ve got a great variety of styles and world class beers made in Michigan.”
Graham sees more room for growth in the state, but also future consolidation and the failure of some of its new businesses.
Opening a microbrewery would be foolish today, Holton said. He was told before opening Mountain Town Brewing Company that a microbrewery would be risky because the market is shrinking for distributors. Bars now have hundreds of options to put on tap and in their coolers.
“I think there is still room to grow in Michigan however, the weaker (businesses) will have to fail eventually,” Holton said. “I would not want to open a microbrewery in the state of Michigan now, but I think there is a lot of room for the brewpubs.”
Graham believes local brewpubs are flexible enough to remain a niche attraction in small communities like Mount Pleasant.
“Brewpubs are essentially local eating and drinking establishments and they will continue to have an endless variety of things they are doing,” Graham said. “How many restaurants can a local community support? A lot.”
Hunter said she is happy selling her beer by the glass because it allows her brewers to experiment.
Meanwhile, Holton is looking outside of the state. His southward-bound distribution network might require a Mountain Town in Kentucky to continue expansion when it becomes too costly to transport beer from Mount Pleasant, Holton said.
Will there be more brewpubs opening in Mount Pleasant? It depends on who you ask.
Hunter, Holton and Graham said it is possible. Crank was less optimistic that the city can support additional options.
“(College undergraduates) are not the demographic that drinks craft beer,” Crank said. “If (CMU) had a large graduate program like Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Western Michigan University, the breweries would have a much bigger college presence. The towns are also different and have larger populations.”
Hunter said she hopes CMU’s certificate program in fermentation science will make Mount Pleasant a destination for beer lovers and tourism.
Crank said he is working to bring something unique to his local location like a venue space behind the restaurant for sponsored volleyball tournaments and live music.
“I think there is room for growth,” Holton said. “I think there will be more coming to town. Mount Pleasant can do the same thing, and create that culture you see in Grand Rapids.”