June 26 2013 12:00 AM

Craft beer distribution network reaching the mainstream

Finley’s American Grill is an appropriate metaphor for the rise and expanding reach of craft beer in the United States. The all-American style family restaurant with five locations in Michigan proudly boasts Black Angus steaks and baby back ribs as menu mainstays. At its two Lansing locations since early February, the restaurant has gone after a new type of customer with 25 Michigan-made beers on tap.

“We weren’t selling many bar items, so we were looking for something new,” said Carissa Henrys, a manager at the south Lansing Finleys, 6300 S. Cedar St. “When we found out about craft beers’ becoming a big hit, we remodeled to put in a walk-in cooler to display all of our craft beers. It does bring in a lot of new customers.”

Aside from one Bud Light handle, the other 25 taps at Finley’s are exclusively Michigan beers, including styles from Short’s, Bell’s, Founders and New Holland. 

Finley’s is part of the Grand Rapids-based River City Food Co., which includes bd’s Mongolian Barbeque and Pietro’s Italian Restaurant. 

Finley’s is also a testament to craft beer’s increasing market share, historically dominated by the domestics, like Anheuser-Busch and Miller, bringing more complex flavors to virgin palates.

“It certainly is a well-established fact that the craft beer industry in Michigan has exploded,” said Mike Lashbrook, president of the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association. “It has revitalized the whole beer experience for consumers with a great deal of variety and new tastes and styles. Overall, it’s been a real boon to the industry.”

Lashbrook credits Michigan’s regulatory structure for giving distributors independence when choosing which breweries to represent, compared to other states that allow bigger domestic companies to pressure distributors about which brands they can carry.

“We believe that the ability of the distributors to make independent decisions about which brewers they represent and the efforts to represent them has been a real benefit to craft breweries in Michigan,” Lashbrook said. “Without that, they could have pressure to not carry those brands. … It really has led to an explosion in the craft beer industry and their ability to grow in the state.”

According to The New Yorker, Michigan saw a 22.9 percent increase in craft beer production between 2011 and 2012, which ranked 25th nationally. It reportedly increased another 20 percent in 2012, 8 percentage points higher than the national average.

Kate Henry, vice president of Lansing-based Dan Henry Distributing, said while exposing more consumers to a greater variety of beer, restaurants that may not be labeled as beer destinations may find it difficult to exhaust a supply before it goes stale. That could result in a bad experience for the customer, who may be trying a style for the first time. 

To avoid this problem, Finley’s orders quarter-barrel sized kegs at a time, rather than full barrels. Henrys said the south Lansing restaurant goes through quarter barrels in two to three weeks, others in less time if they’re more popular.

Ultimately, Lashbrook said it’s up to distributors to make sure beers are rotated with fresh kegs from the brewery. And maintaining a steady stream of freshness benefits all parties involved, he said, speaking to craft beer’s future success here.

“It’s been great for the consumer, great for the economy and great for distributors in Michigan,” Lashbrook said. “It’s made us a beer destination state.”