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Michigan microbrews not yet at their boiling point


Ellison, EagleMonk, Lansing Brewing Co., Midtown, Ozone — while Lansing once had little in the way of choices for a local brew, it now has numerous options for picky patrons.

And based on the success of these local microbreweries, organizations like the Michigan Brewer’s Guild wager the fever for craft beers won't break soon.

The numbers back them up. While craft beer sales experience national yearly increases of 5 percent, domestic beer is at somewhat of a plateau — slapped with a 1 percent national sales downturn in 2017.

But locals in the craft brew game aren’t too worried about being trapped in a bubble, at least not one that could prove catastrophic.

Scott Graham, executive director of the Michigan Brewer’s Guild, believes the microbrewery explosion has tapered off into a “matured” state that still has room for growth.

“It has become much more common to find craft brews in the grocery store, or at a local brewery or at a local tavern. But, no, I don’t think we’re at the saturation point,” Graham said.

“The percentage of beer that’s brewed in-state is only about 10 percent, and I think there’s room for that number to go quite a bit higher than that.”

Sonia Buonodono, co-owner of EagleMonk Pub and Brewery, confidently shook off the notion of the saturation point.

“I think we’re gonna be around a long time,” she said. “Now that we have more breweries, we welcome them, because it makes us a destination. People will come here, just like they go to Grand Rapids or Kalamazoo. It helps all the breweries in the area.”

What’s driving the fever for craft beer? Graham said people are simply tired of the homogenous styles offered by the big names and are craving authenticity.

“We reached a point where beer was a really intentionally uninteresting mass produced product that was practically the same, no matter what kind you had. And consumers don’t prefer that, especially today,” Graham said.

Buodono said locally developed flavors cannot be beaten by the mass produced beers of industry giants.

“People want more local products.

The way to get beer locally made and locally sourced is to go to a brewery. Local beer tastes a whole lot better than the regular commercial beers that are out there.”

Sawyer Stevens, head brewer at the Lansing Brewing Co., said the new generation of beer drinkers is seeking more options than just the classic pale lager domestic beer formula.

“The younger consumer has all of these different varieties. They can develop a flavor profile, whereas several years ago you had the domestic white lager, and that was it.”

Williamston’s Old Nation Brewery co-owner Travis Fritts looked back to the generational shift in music during the early ‘90s as a similar example. He compared stale hair metal to the big domestic beer brands and the exciting new grunge rock bands to the experimental craft beers.

“These guys weren’t dressing up anymore. They were just straight up playing music and trying to make it as good as it could be,” Fritts said. “As folks my age and older had kids, those kids grew up with those kinds of ideas. They’re making their choices based on that need for authenticity.”

Fritts isn’t worried about the bubble bursting; he instead foresees a “shakeout,” meaning a weeding out between the professionals and those just in it for the proverbial gold rush.

“The conversation among brewers, at least in the industry, is that these kind of economic pressures tend to separate the wheat from the chaff. That separation is ultimately a function of skill and ability, as business people and as brewers.”

In Fritts’ experience, the ‘90s saw a clean split down the middle between craft brew nerds and those who just wanted a Budweiser. Now, Fritts said, there’s a large middle group that’s more decisive with its drink of choice.

“There wasn’t that fat middle of people who appreciate craft beer, but don’t really want to make it their hobby,” Fritts said. “There’s a larger group of folks that look at the beers they’re drinking and want to separate what is good from what is bad, and whether it’s following a trend or not.”

Stevens said Lansing is slowly catching up with the rest of state’s tough competition, like Grand Rapids, which is known nationally as “Beer City.”

“Prior to 2015 there wasn’t a lot of breweries in the capital area — especially in terms of distribution. It was kind of a craft beer wasteland,” Stevens said. “When we came in, along with Ellison and Old Nation, I think it really solidified this area.”

It’s a common industry discussion point that microbreweries peddle both atmosphere and alcohol.

Stevens said Lansing Brewing Co. tries to connect with the surrounding downtown community.

“They support us and we in return support our local community by doing events and charity work. I think it goes full circle.”

Whether the microbrewery trend keeps rolling and expanding, or fades back into obscurity depends on the ingenuity of the industry, Stevens said.

“We have to educate people on what quality craft beer is, and make sure our products are fresh.”


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