Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a five-part series profiling the state of Michigan’s brewing industry.
In 1996, Rex Halfpenny had trouble sleeping, stressed from the rigors of corporate America.
Halfpenny had come from the vast beer cultures of the West Coast to Michigan for his job in 1988, and now eight years later, decided to become part of the beer industry.
“Frankenmuth got thrown into the river, Stroh’s closed. Thank God there was Bell’s.”
And he had ties to Bell’s Brewery. Upon his arrival to Michigan, Halfpenny said he became “pretty good friends” with Bell’s founder Larry Bell.
After his departure from corporate big wigs, Halfpenny traveled around Michigan visiting all 30 or so breweries there were at the time — just a few more than the three he knew.
“They knew each other, but didn’t talk, there was no community, no conversation,” he said. “So that took some effort. When I finally got them together, they sat in cliques. They talked about each other, but not to each other.”
So they finally met, all together in a dive bar in Saginaw that sold only Budweiser because they didn’t want to have to meet at a place with each other’s beers. Halfpenny wanted a group unanimous in decisions and what a solid beer community would do, but the brewers could only decide on one thing.
“I said, ‘Drink Michigan beer,'” Halfpenny said. “We decided to start a guild based on marketing Michigan beer. That was the one thing we could all agree on.”
So it begins
The Michigan Brewers Guild was born that night in 1996, but it didn’t really get its start until 1997.
Brewers Guild Director Scott Graham, in his sixth year in the position, said he’s not sure anyone else will notice the guild’s made it to 15 years.
“It’s nice to see, but it’s hard to notice. You don’t really see it unless you stop and think about it,” Graham said. “Fifteen years doesn’t make a big difference for consumers. Internally we’re happy for how much we struggled and what we’ve done.”
He said the guild’s one goal is to promote beer, something most consumers won’t notice. That goal is the shining remainder from Halfpenny’s early days as executive director.
Halfpenny left the guild following three years of no pay and the simple fact he isn’t a brewer. He now is one of the leading supporters and promoters of Michigan beer with Michigan Beer Guide.
“I should probably give Rex Halfpenny credit, he was instrumental in getting things going,” Graham said. “He tried to figure out common interests, and everybody wanted to sell more of their own beer. That led to the first beer festival.
The early struggles
The early interest in Michigan craft beer was low, and it showed in the guild’s first attempt at throwing a beer-centric festival.
The 1998 festival was thrown in Livonia, and people trickled in and out of the festival.
“That festival had 600 people,” Halfpenny said. “That was the interest in Michigan beer.”
At that time, the Michigan craft beer share in the state’s beer market was well under one percent. That festival was thrown with very little capital, just on the backs of the young brewers who made up the guild.
“We didn’t have any money,” Graham said. “We were producing a much smaller group, but all of us were a bit younger with enthusiasm.”
With about 30 breweries in hand, the festival showed they all knew that an association was a benefit to their businesses and the industry. Those brewers know to win people over, they need to work at it.
“What is so special about our industry is it happens very organically,” said co-founder of Founder’s Brewing Company Dave Engbers. “As a small brewery we’re very accessible, we have a taproom that brings people to the source of the beer and that’s where we meet our customers. You get to sit down and have a beer with them, have a good time, then they tell their friends and it grows. It’s very organic and very genuine.”