GRAND RAPIDS — Experience Beer West Michigan hosted an event that was the first of its kind to take place in the state of Michigan earlier this week.
The Beer City Round Table featured a panel of 15 West Michigan brewers and brewery owners. They sat on stage at the Pyramid Scheme, forming a half circle around a keg of Kuhnhenn’s The Fluffer (a West Coast IPA that moderator Ben Darcie said was a “neutral” choice).
Those who attended got to listen to these personalities answer questions about beer and the politics and economics that surround it.
The conversation began with questions as simple as “What is your favorite part about beer?” (to which most panelists immediately replied, “Drinking it,”) and ranged to such topics as oversaturation of the craft beer market and the plausibility of using Michigan-grown hops and malt in all brewing processes.
Brewers shared opinions on some points and disagreed on others, but overwhelmingly made it obvious that not one of them was interested in the idea of competing with their fellow breweries. When the proposal for an IPA contest was made by an attendee, all panelists were wary of the word “competition.”
Seth Rivard, co-owner of Rockford Brewing Company, and Chuck Brown, owner of Cellar Brewing Company, threw around words like “co-opetition” and “collapetition.” Referencing last year’s Bourbon Barrel Challenge, they pointed out that it was never really a “challenge,” but instead a collective showcase of a favorite style of beer.
“Competing like that is not in our nature,” said Rivard.
“Helping each other make beer will only make [the market] better for the rest of us,” said Ernie Richards, brewer at HopCat.
Elk Brewing Company owner and brewer Eric Karns noted that given the size of his operation, his two biggest competitors ought to be Harmony Brewing Company and Mitten Brewing Company. Instead, the two breweries ended up being the ones who helped him with licensing and working out the specs of his system.
Later in the evening, John “Gonzo” Gonzalez, Mlive reporter, called in and asked the panel if they felt craft beer was keeping pace with domestic beers in the bars they service.
Richards recalled his first years at HopCat, when serving patrons was like “having a counseling session over what the hell they wanted to drink.” Now, he said, “people have really started to get interested in craft beer.”
Robert “Wob” Wanhatalo, brewer at Mitten Brewing Company, agreed. “People seem to be interested,” he said. “Over the last year I’ve brewed cream ales and blonde ales in hopes that people continue to challenge their palettes.”
Chas Thompson, beer engineer at Schmohz Brewing Company, said “We’ve outpaced the macros in variety and educating our customers in that variety.”
Regardless of the topic, the panelists remained laidback and lighthearted. When you see brewers like Wanhatalo and Brewery Vivant’s Jacob Derylo drinking from cans of PBR on stage, you know that pretension is not going to be an issue.