IMG_5135By: Paige Van De Winkle

Microbreweries and the culture that brews around it are flourishing in the Kalamazoo area, and the Michigan legislature is responding with several bills that  ease restrictions on serving and brewing to encourage industry expansion.

The pending bills evoked positive reactions from one new local brewer and a few enthusiasts, while one Kalamazoo brewer is leery about the effects such bills will have.

  Greg “Gonzo” Haner of Gonzo’s Biggdogg Brewery—which opens in Kalamazoo in October 2013—sees no end to the craft beer boom. “People 21 to 30 are drinking more microbrews than ever,” said Haner. “Their folks aren’t blue collar workers, and they don’t want ‘blue collar beer’ anymore.”

Loosening restrictions to allow for brewery expansions would benefit the craft brew scene at large, said Haner. Gonzo’s will have a menu of meals specially tailored to complement the beers on tap, a far cry from the old bar standby of brews and peanuts. The new brewery is proud of its Kalamazoo roots, with a website that features the phrase: “You hold in your hand a righteous brew, born and bottled in Kalamazoo.” The brews are made using locally grown hops from Hop Head Farms in Hickory Corners, Mich.

Michigan currently has the fifth most breweries, microbreweries, and brewpubs in the nation, according to a count by the Brewer’s Association, a national trade group. From 2011 to 2012, the microbrew industry in Michigan grew by 20 percent while most states only grew by about 12 percent, according to the State of the Craft Beer Industry Report by the Demeter Group Investment Bank.

Since the craft beer industry has had a $133 million impact on the state’s economy as of 2012, according to Pure Michigan, part of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the state legislature has taken notice and made it a priority.

Founder’s Brewery in Grand Rapids and Shorts Brewery in Elk Rapids already have plans for expansion, but current laws limit the extent of this expansion. House Bill 4709 would double the limit of microbrewery beer production; House Bill 4710 would allow brewpubs to have  beer served at five rather than just two outside locations; House Bill 4711 would allow any brewery to brew and also serve beer in two locations as opposed to one. These House bills have bipartisan support, but are met with mixed reactions by brewers in Kalamazoo.

The Demeter Group study shows that craft beer drinkers first choose type of beer–such as IPA, wheat, or amber ale–then choose a brand, rather than choosing a brand first. This shift in consumer choices from brand-centered to type-centered means that there is room for new craft breweries as long as their beer is good. It also means that the industry will not be dominated by a few big brand names.

Passage of the bills would mean the creation of more jobs in new brewpubs and brewing facilities, and liquor license fees would generate significant revenue. At this point, beer tastings and all kinds of Michigan microbrewery tours and festivals are sprouting up all over the state. Audrey Walker, digital designer, blogger for DrinkMichigan.org, and lover of craft beer, hosts beer tastings of her own with her friends. “We call them ‘secret beer parties,'” laughs Walker. “Everyone brings a different beer and we all sample each other’s and talk about it.”

In addition to craft beer being economically profitable for Michigan, it is building a new identity for what a Michigander is nationwide. Walker describes how “there’s a community built around” craft beer. She recently attended the Great American Beer Fest in Denver, Co. where at least 11 Michigan microbreweries were represented. “Shorts always has a long line,” says Walker, who has been to festivals throughout the nation. “Still,” she confides, “there’s nothing like a Michigan beer festival.”

Yet, the confidence in the growth of craft beer does not translate into support for the pending Michigan bills from all local brewers. Larry Bell of Kalamazoo gem Bell’s Brewery reportedly opposes the bills meant to allow microbreweries to grow. One reason for this is because of the limited number of liquor licenses in the state. Certain breweries will monopolize the licenses, according to Bell, preventing upcoming breweries to thrive. If Bell is right, craft brew drinkers will have an increasingly narrow variety to choose from.

Bell’s opposition to the lenient bills might seem odd, since Bell’s Brewery is the largest in the state, and the 7th biggest in the nation as of 2012, according to the Brewer’s Association. Bell’s website boasts of availability in 18 states plus Washington D.C., and plans to expand to the Upper Peninsula.

According to the City of Kalamazoo’s official site, liquor licenses in the Development District are allowed if issuing the license would “prevent deterioration and promote economic growth.” This local policy is another indicator of the lucrative impact the microbrew industry has made on the economy. As long as microbreweries thrive, the government, in Kalamazoo at least, will not stand in the way of the growth.

Leigh Ann Thiesen, a Kalamazoo-based graphic designer for Imperial Beverage Co. and craft beer enthusiast, is excited about the expansion of microbreweries. She has worked closely with brewers, including Shorts and Kalamazoo-based Boatyard Brewing Company, to design labels and more. At the same time, expansion is not entirely the goal of certain brewers, including Shorts, said Thiesen.

Shorts Brewery wants to stay localized in Michigan. Bell’s fear of a few microbreweries monopolizing the state, or becoming too large to sustain quality beer, is counter to what many brewers want their businesses to be, according to Thiesen. Often microbreweries limit how much beer they distribute purposely so “you have to come to the town to get the beer,” she explains as she sips on her first Founder’s Breakfast Stout of the year. The Breakfast Stout is a seasonal beer that is only available from October through December.

What Thiesen likes about craft beer is the “endless variety.” The craft beer culture is focused around and excited about “experimentation and uniqueness,” and new microbreweries mean even more experimenting. Michigan brewers are certainly giving consumers experimental flavors, as evidenced from Shorts’ autumn favorite Funkin’ Punkin pumpkin ale, to Traverse City-based Brewery Terra Firma’s sweet and spicy Ancho Chili Dutch Double Chocolate Porter, to Boatyard Brewing Company’s rich Shore Leave Honey Brown ale.

Not only does Thiesen think craft beer is more than a trend, but she the future of Michigan’s economy lies in craft beer. “It’s the new huge thing in Michigan,” says Thiesen. “We were so heavy in the car industry, and now everyone wants to be involved in Michigan’s craft beer.”

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