Craft beer, of course, is still beer, and it’s made with the same ingredients that went into Stroh’s, but this new generation of Michigan’s brewers sees those ingredients as only a starting point. Beer today can be made with blueberries, pumpkins, asparagus, coffee, spices, and myriad other ingredients. These brewers see their work not as a job but as a craft, and they are reviving traditions that began in the seventeenth century when Europeans made beer on an artisanal scale. Those European brewing traditions came to North America first with English and Scottish immigrants, then with the Irish, Germans, and Slavs. Some brewers are staying true to the old traditions, while others are giving those traditions a twist.
… Brewer after brewer told me two things that they cherish about their craft: they love what they do because they work in an industry where they never stop learning, and they are attracted to beer in a quest for knowledge and novelty. They appreciate gaining a better understanding of the history of beer and its different styles; learning more about the ingredients that go into beer has deepened their appreciation for what they produce. At the same time, they still get excited when they encounter or create something new and unusual.
Although brewers have driven many of the changes in the Michigan beer scene, consumers have caught up and are now having considerable impact. Drinkers — particularly young drinkers — have shifted away from their father’s lagers and have embraced more creative ales. Millennials are exerting their influence on the food culture in general by demanding locally made high-quality products, rejecting relatively inexpensive mass-produced items. Some young people proudly brag that they have never consumed a Bud Light.
The combination of those cultural shifts has made craft brewing a powerful movement that has in turn spurred other trends. As Michigan’s beer enthusiasts demand locally made beers, Michigan brewers increasingly seek local ingredients. That has led to a renaissance in Michigan barley farming as well as malting and hops farming and processing.
But more than anything else, Michigan is the Great Beer State because of the individuals who are motivated by a passion for excellence and creativity. Michigan’s brewers and beer drinkers have created a new culture, one that values quality over quantity, individuality within a community, and equal parts tradition and innovation. In a state that has been economically beaten and battered for forty years, brewing gives Michigan a new identity and restores our reputation as a place where products are thoughtfully engineered and carefully constructed. Beer — like the automobile — is now a part of the soul of this state.
Look at the top states in craft beer production and notice that five of them — California, Oregon, Colorado, North Carolina, and Michigan — share common characteristics: amazing natural resources and outdoor experiences, a rich agricultural heritage, creative and hardworking people, and a culture of innovation. But there’s a difference between Michigan and those other states, and that’s our spirit and our pride. That spirit is what makes Michigan the Great Beer State today and into the future.
This book owes an acknowledgment to Peter Blum, the former Stroh Brewery executive and author of “Brewed in Detroit: Breweries and Beer since 1830.” Blum’s book, published by Wayne State University Press in 1998, is an outstanding history of brewing in Detroit and Michigan through the last decade of the twentieth century. Many brewers in the state told me they have read Blum’s book — sometimes more than once — for its insight into the state’s rich brewing tradition. But in the two decades since Blum’s book appeared, the entire landscape of Michigan brewing has changed. In 1998, the state had only a handful of microbreweries, and the craft beer industry that dominates Michigan beer today was in its infancy. It is safe to say that Blum had no idea how much the craft brewing industry would grow and prosper.
That said, brewing is an industry that has always been in flux. Brewers have come and gone, and beer styles have risen and declined in popularity. The one constant is passion. Brewers are passionate about beer. They take what they do very seriously and come to work with one goal in mind: to make today’s beer better than yesterday’s.
Even other brewers are eying Michigan with a mix of wonder and envy. In his keynote address to the Michigan Brewers Guild’s annual winter conference in January 2017, Jim Koch, the co-founder and chairman of the company that brews the Boston-based Samuel Adams brands, said, referring to Michigan: “This is the best time, and the best place in the history of the world, to be a beer drinker. One hundred years from now, brewers will look back and say, ‘I wish I could have been a part of this group.’”
That passion has helped to burnish Michigan’s image in the eyes of the nation. In 2014, Thrillist ranked Michigan as the fourth best beer state. The Beer Advocate website names Founders’ CBS Imperial Stout the fifth best beer in the world and KBS (previously known as Kentucky Breakfast Stout) the fifteenth best. In fact, KBS has such a cult following that Founders and other businesses in Grand Rapids devote an entire week to the release of this limited edition brew every March, and beer tourists from around the country flock to the city to raise a pint.
William Rapai is the author of two books that received the Michigan Notable Book award, “Brewed in Michigan: The New Golden Age of Brewing in the Great Beer State,” and “The Kirtland’s Warbler: The Story of a Bird’s Fight Against Extinction and the People Who Saved It.” He is an award-winning former reporter and editor for the Grand Forks Herald, the Detroit Free Press and the Boston Globe. Rapai lives in Grosse Pointe with his wife and two daughters.