The Great Lakes of Craft Beer

 

Good friend Jennifer Banovetz and I at 8 Degrees of Plato Beer Company in Cass Corridor.

Craft beer. I love it and drink a lot of it. I’m mainly an IPA guy, for a variety of reasons, including that I’m addicted to hoppy beers. When we lived in China, I was blown away by the craft beer tsunami that was sweeping across that country. The Chinese first tried Budweiser (and its mass-produced brethren) a decade or so ago and said “no thanks, we have been producing this kind of swill for 9,000 years.” Then about five years ago, craft beer began trickling in to the country due to demand from expats like me, and that was that. The Chinese (and much of Asia) have gone nuts for craft beer. In Shanghai alone, I couldn’t believe how many craft beer places were opening per month. My friend Di Di (thebrewgirl.com), who works for AB InBev craft division in China estimated it at one per week. We were swimming in craft beer in Shanghai. Then I moved back to Detroit.

Before I go on, I should tell you that I have some history with craft beer in Detroit. In 2005, I purchased a share of ownership in Atwater Block Brewery, which was owned by my friend Mark Rieth. I ran the restaurant and Mark oversaw the beer side of the operation. We had a good run for a couple of years, but Detroit was struggling. The Great Recession hit. And we bailed on the restaurant part of Atwater. Mark hung tight with the beer side and I will talk about his successes in a minute.

If Shanghai is a swimming pool of craft beer, Michigan is the Great Lakes. Holy crap, there is a lot of craft beer here. Michigan is the fifth largest craft beer market in the U.S., behind California, Washington, New York and Colorado, according to that bible of beer, the Michigan Beer Guide (michiganbeerguide.com). We have 379 “permitted” breweries in the state, with 34 in metro Detroit alone, and many around the state, such as Bell’s Brewery (bellsbeer.com) and Founders Brewing company (foundersbrewing.com), are nationally recognized as Michigan beers.

We even have our own guild. Formed 20 years ago, the Michigan Brewers Guild (mibeer.com) advocates in Lansing for the craft beer industry and currently has hundreds of participating members. It also holds four annual beer festivals around the state. The festivals feature more than 100 breweries and 1,000 Michigan craft beers. We are a craft beer loving state, and organizations such as the Guild are proof of that.

Researching beer in Michigan is kind of a dream and I have thrown myself into it wholeheartedly. I recently spent some time at the Traffic Jam and Snug in Detroit (trafficjamdetroit.com), which bills itself as Michigan’s first brew pub, and chatted with the brewmaster, Chelsea Piner. She is passionate about beer and passionate about Detroit. She told me that like monks in ancient times, Traffic Jam uses much of the same equipment to make beer as they do to make their renowned cheeses. She normally has four to five of her beers on tap, and you can actually watch both brewing and cheese making processes from an observatory on the second floor (the place is huge).

Traffic Jam and Snug brewmaster Chelsea Piner and I standing where she makes the magic.

Chelsea then sent me to one of her favorite brewery’s in Detroit, Batch Brewing Company (batchbrewingcompany.com), which is located in Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, Corktown (much more coming about this neighborhood in future posts). Batch looks like a German-style beer hall with large, communal tables and a long bar, all set in a big warehouse where they also brew the beer. They usually have about 18 of their own beers on tap, including one of my favorites, Son of a Batch IPA which, at 8.2 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) means I can usually only have two (unless Uber or Lyft are involved in the shenanigans). Batch was started by two long-time friends, Stephen Roginson and Jason Williams, who fled corporate America to make good craft beer. They do lots of events in the local community, including one that combines beer and yoga. (How could things get any better.)

Met at Batch with brewing staff and  owner Jason (on my left) at the cavernous brewhouse and restaurant.

Batch also has a really cool charitable program called the Feelgood Tap, where local breweries pick one of their own taps, add a dollar to the price, and let the customers do the giving by paying that dollar (feelgoodtap.org). Many local breweries participate and so far they have raised more than $100,000 for non profits throughout the state of Michigan. A pretty cool way to give back and drink beer.

Atwater owner Mark Rieth and I at his enormous German-style brewhouse downtown.

And the biggest craft beer producer in Detroit is…wait for it…Atwater Block Brewery (atwaterbeer.com).  Along with the original location at Jos. Campau in Detroit, Atwater has locations in Grosse Pointe Park (in a renovated church) and Grand Rapids. Atwater also has begun producing beer in Austin, Texas and North Carolina, and is selling Atwater in 24 states.  Sipping a hoppy Atwater Better Life Choices IPA (ABV 6.5%), I asked Mark what to expect for Michigan’s craft beer industry:  “The future is about smaller tap houses,” he said. “The days of bigger craft brewers is done. It’s about hyper-local offerings, such as we see in the Detroit community.” Good insight for future brewers looking to capitalize on the growth of craft beer in Michigan.

My Shanghai buddy Scott Orwig and I enjoying beer and cider at the fun and funky Motor City Brewing Works.

Along with the growth of craft beer, there is an emerging hard cider industry in Michigan. One of my favorites in metro Detroit is Cellarmens (www.cellarmens) in Hazel Park, which makes an amazing cider called Saigon Sin. I also like the cider made by Motor City Brewing Works (motorcitybeer.com), which is a funky brewery in midtown that knows how to make a very strong Michigan apple product that they simply call “Hard Cider.”  My two favorite outstate cider producers are Farmhaus Cider Co. in Hudsonville (farmhauscider.com) and Tandem Ciders in Suttons Bay (tandemciders.com), the latter of which has a bucolic setting and often raucous tasting room.

Maria, one of my craft-beer slinging favorites at Hopcat Detroit.

We also are seeing new places in metro Detroit pop up that don’t make craft beer, but offer lots of it on tap. HopCat is a fast growing chain out of Grand Rapids (hopcat.com) that sell lots of craft beer throughout the midwest, including a Detroit post offering 130 taps. My new favorite craft beer drinking spot is a place called 8 Degrees of Plato, the name of which comes from a brewing term (8degreesplato.com). The beer bar and bottle shop has about 25 taps and offers hundreds of choices of beer and cider for sale and is located in the fast-rebounding Cass Corridor. And finally, another favorite, the Grand Trunk Pub downtown (grandtrunk.pub), which has 20 Michigan craft beers on tap, 58 bottled beers, and 17 different canned beers available. It is in a historic, sweeping building that opened in 1905 as Detroit’s Grand Trunk Railroad ticket station. It’s as beautiful to look at as it is a fun place to drink Michigan craft beer.

Demarco from 8 Degrees of Plato and their extensive, and eclectic, offerings of tap beer on the chalkboard behind.

When I was in China, I had several U.S. craft breweries contact me about helping them get into the Chinese beer market. (I wrote a lot about beer in China in my last blog.) They feared that craft beer sales in the U.S. were flattening out and that they needed a new, growing market like Shanghai to maintain growth. The good news is that Detroit is also a burgeoning market for craft beers and, as this city grows and more people from around the country (and the world) move here to take part in its renaissance, that should continue. That growth makes this city a place where craft beer sales can continue to flourish in the future. As an IPA hop head, I have every intention of doing my part to support the Detroit craft beer market’s continued growth. Good beer makes it even more fun to be part of a resurgent city.

We met in Shanghai and got together for some epic craft beer tastings there. Chris, me, James, and Scott have had no trouble continuing that “hobby” in Detroit.
The Brewers Guild map of Michigan craft beer. Like I said, The Great Lakes of beer!
My last Michigan craft beer shout out goes to brewmaster Nick Panchame of HOMES brewery in Ann Arbor (homesbrewery.com). Go for the good beer, but don’t miss their menu of all Asian street food. Talk about bringing back beautiful memories…