Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a five-part series profiling the state of Michigan’s brewing industry.
“Bottom line is we have some great liquids coming out of our state,” Dave Engbers spurted as he drove to the Indiana Brewers Guild Festival.
The co-founder of Founders Brewing Co. light-heartedly joked that the Hoosier State is jealous of the Mitten’s craft brewers. But that jealousness is the same sort of feeling Michigan’s brewers feel toward the states in the Pacific Northwest.
With world quality breweries such as Founders, Short’s Brewing Company and Bell’s Brewery Inc., the state has come a long way since 1997, although there’s still a long way to go to match a 20 percent market share some states have. But the Michigan Brewers Guild has the breweries in the same mindset. The Guild’s 15th Summer Beer Festival will begin Friday in Ypsilanti.
“We’re all on the same page of trying to build our industry,” Engbers said. “(Oregon) has an almost 20 percent market share, 20 percent of all the beer consumed in the state. Compare that to Michigan, where we’re around three percent. We’ve got a long way to go.”
The state’s craft beer industry makes up 3.8 percent of the market in Michigan, tripling since the guild’s inception 15 years ago. And it’s a good start to the 10 percent the guild hopes for in the near future, said Rex Halfpenny, publisher of the Michigan Beer Guide.
That goal will come by buyer’s awareness, the same awareness the guild has helped create in beer customers and enthusiasts in Michigan.
“The consciousness of buying something better, buying something artisan, something diverse, buying color, flavor, aroma, finish and aftertaste all plays into the decision,” Halfpenny said. “That’s the great thing about craft beer — they’re craft beer drinkers, not brand specific. A Bud drinker is a Bud drinker on the airplane, on the golf course, at home, anywhere he travels across the country…where a guy who drinks Founders will also drink Bell’s. And that’s what we’ve always wanted to produce that diversity.”
And those beer enthusiasts are growing faster, Michigan Brewers Guild executive director Scott Graham said.
“We have a good beer drinking community, some of the enthusiasts are vocal and get out to the breweries and that helps create the awareness, excitement and enthusiasm,” Graham said. “Now we’re seeing it get a little bit of size, and there’s more that’s reaching further and it’s like a snowball that’s gaining size. And it’s getting to the size that it can grow faster as it rolls over.”
To the point
Part of what has helped the craft industry grow is the decline of mass breweries and beer drinkers in general.
In 2002, Michigan consumed 6.8 million barrels of beer. In 2011, the state drank just 6.3 million barrels, a decrease of 500,000 barrels. But at the same time, the craft industry has grown by three percent.
“Those guys are hurting,” Halfpenny said of the big five breweries. “Meanwhile, craft beer, even though the numbers are small, is growing. We’re drinking less, but we’re drinking smarter.”
Still, the big four — Budweiser, Pabst, MillerCoors and Labatt — comprise 88 percent of the market share.
And the increase is product driven, by the way the product tastes, not like the mass advertising from major breweries.
“The big boys are going to outspend us and buying media,” Engbers said. “But at the end of the day, it’s about the liquids in the bottle, that’s how we compete. The beer enthusiasts are engaged in our industry and we have better educated consumers out there and they want better beer.”
To an extent
The guild has led to many of the dreams of Halfpenny being fulfilled. But he said since they’ve made some decisions against his wishes, now that he is no longer with the guild — because he’s not a brewer, a rule he helped implement.
“Subsequent to (me leaving) the guild has made some decisions that aren’t best for the industry,” he said. “If the guild did a little better job on marketing and spent the money more wisely we’d have a bigger industry.”
Still, Halfpenny pays his dues to be an enthusiast member of the guild and provides support by way of his publication and speaking engagement promoting Michigan beers. His dreams of having multiple Michigan beer festivals a year has come to fruition.
“I see that we have community, a stat that supports Michigan stronger than many states,” he said. “I had very big plans, and we succeeded with that to a certain extent. Now there are spring and fall festivals. I’m happy that we have that community that shares. If a brewer is in trouble, he can call another brewer and get help. That’s the community I wanted to see and we have that.”
And guild members agree the community is strong as ever, and growing — but there still is plenty of room to grow.
“We have a great community in terms of the sheer number of well-crafted beers and they are just now getting the recognition and attention it deserves,” Arcadia Brewing founder Tim Suprise said. “From the view point of the rest of the country, we’re lagging. So we have that room to grow.”