Editor’s Note: As The Michigan Daily celebrates its 125th anniversary, take a look at another chapter of history — that of Ann Arbor’s breweries.
It was a Thirsty Thursday.
I headed deeper downtown, against a campus crowd flowing the opposite direction for the night. East Washington became submerged in a golden sunset, hues of amber and red from pale to dark.
Arbor Brewing Company’s monthly beer-tasting event had a “Michigan-made” theme that night. Ochre ambiance and a hearty aroma greeted me at the door. I shuffled between two dozen varieties all brewed in-state, from porters to pales to “Peanut Butter Chocolate Stout.” I mingled among retired men indulging flavor from mason jars with the utmost precision — a drastic difference from conventional University drinking culture.
According to the Brewers Association, Michigan alone produced more than 825,000 barrels of craft beer last year across 159 craft breweries — a quantity that’s nearly quadrupled over just the past decade. During the recession in 2008, while the cost of germinated barley soared 25-to-40 percent and hops prices tripled, craft beer production continued to rise steadily in the state.
A historically German immigration town, Ann Arbor opened its first commercial brewery in 1838, during a century when the U.S. brewery count was at an all-time high of about 4,100. The numbers majorly dipped during Prohibition and the Great Depression, but by current day, we have almost recovered the historically high counts — just shy of 3,500 at the end of 2014.
Though beer was nationally re-legalized in 1933, no company brewed commercially in Ann Arbor for 46 years following the end of prohibition until Matt and Rene Greff opened Arbor Brewing Company in the summer of 1995, with Grizzly Peak emerging three weeks later, two blocks down.
An influx of short-lived brewery openings cluttered the mid ’90s, led by a series of closes and financial struggles that made locals wonder if craft brew would just be a fad. However, those that prevailed are some of the most successful businesses today. Jon Carlson and partners would go on to invest in the local development firm Mission Management, which is responsible for successful Ann Arbor breweries like Grizzly Peak, Blue Tractor and Jolly Pumpkin.
David Bardallis has documented the city’s entire brewing history in his book, “Ann Arbor Beer: A Hoppy History of Tree Town Brewing,” published in 2013. He graduated from the University’s Dearborn campus in ’94; as he came of legal drinking age, the craft beer boom took off. He is now a home brewer and connoisseur of local product — the man even has the word “bar” in his name.
Rene and Matt Greff wrote the foreword to Bardallis’s book, and they have hosted a beer-tasting series every month since 1997.
“It’s partly flavor, it’s partly quality — but I think even more importantly is the local aspect: Being engaged with and knowing the people who make your beer. There’s a whole community feel,” Rene said.
A veteran in the brewing industry now, she believes passion for beer can stem from college. By partnering with a University graduate from India, the Greffs recently began operations on their first overseas brewery in Bangalore.
In the following two weeks, I worked my way backward in time, filling in the details from management firms to Peanut Butter Stout. To my surprise, Jolly Pumpkin’s history extends only six years, but the roots of its owners intertwine deeply.
Maggie Long, managing partner and executive chef at Jolly Pumpkin Café and Brewery on South Main, was raised around Detroit and completed her graduate degree at the University. The restaurant’s old-world tropical décor transported us to a colonial South America.
Before we started, she interjected, “Hold on, I just gotta text my six farmers back.”
Her commitment to localness doesn’t just stop with food. Jolly Pumpkin’s liquor license only allows them to distribute to themselves, so they sell exactly what they brew in Dexter, Mich.
Long began as executive chef at Grizzly Peak, where she met Ron Jeffries — head brewer at the time — a University graduate and local brewing legend. In 2004, Jeffries started the first Jolly Pumpkin in Dexter, where he became one of the first people in the country to brew sour beers. Long’s desire to make a local impact followed him there.
“Six years ago, sours were still on the obscure end, so we wanted to make this a really comfortable, approachable place,” Long said.
Now, Jolly Pumpkin is most known for their two entry-level sours, Bam Biére and Bam Noir. Long strove to make their beers as versatile as possible, suitable to pair with anything on the menu, eliminating the need for expertise. In doing so, she has encouraged a humble community of drinkers, not exclusive or pretentious with ale epistemology.
“Beer’s such a great world, especially in Ann Arbor. Everybody kind of does different things, so they all have their own niches,” Long said. “If somebody doesn’t like one style, they can go somewhere else and have another style.”
Jolly Pumpkin is now a 70,000-square-foot facility for brewing and bottling. Back during first year of business, its Oro de Calabaza golden beer won a Gold Medal at the Great American Beer Festival. The company has won national and international accolades almost every year since, including the most recent at the seventh annual Hong Kong International Beer Awards, where they took home more first-place prizes than any other brewery.
Later in the week, I headed over to Blue Tractor BBQ & Brewery, which also only brews and sells on the premises. Steve Barnes, formerly general manager of Grizzly Peak, moved over to manage Blue Tractor three years ago. An Ann Arbor native, he echoed Long’s sentiments about Jeffries.
“There are chefs and there are cooks. The cooks just take the recipes and put it together and here it is. But the chef creates something new,” he says. “Whereas Ron, he was sort of like a chef-brewer. He could create new things and start things from scratch and have these ideas and they turned out great.”
Barnes then led me right around the corner, simply a wall separating what we just drank from what was currently being produced. From a sweaty sauna to a refrigerator-cold room, he detailed the complex procedure of the two-week process from grain to glass.
“I give (my head brewer) free reign to do whatever he wants to do,” Barnes says. “That’s what I did with Ron. Not everything works, but that’s how you learn.”
Later that day, down the street, Grizzly Peak Brewing Company reflected the same sentiment — a fearlessness to push the envelope and make mistakes with brewing.
“Beer has been able to sustain itself through any of the fads because of the fact that people started doing new and interesting things, as opposed to the same lager over and over again,” said Stacy Baird, Grizzly Peak’s general manager.
Baird was hired only six months ago, but she has already revamped the menu and modernized the space to invite younger, chicer customers into her usual mix.
Both she and Duncan Williams, the head brewer, were born and raised in southeastern Michigan. Williams came under Jeffries as an assistant in 2001, but took over as head brewer when Jeffries left to open Jolly Pumpkin.
On his job, the brewpub and the entire Ann Arbor craft brewing scene, Williams explained, “It’s a mixture of innovation and tradition.”
For rookies or the adventurous, Grizzly Peak offers a sampler of five-ounce selections of beers, sorted from lightest to darkest, or less hoppy to more hoppy, to encourage drinkers to try new items side by side.
Just as Baird and Barnes are relatively new faces of management in the industry, new faces arrive from around the world in Ann Arbor each fall. Just as Baird and Barnes are willing to try new things with brewing, more millennials are also willing to expand their palates to appreciate quality brews.
“A lot of younger people are a big part of the reason (the craft brewing industry is so successful). The millennials and the like are fuelling a lot of that. If it wasn’t for them, it couldn’t sustain itself.” Baird said.
Ultimately, all four brewing companies share the same goal of growing appreciation for their craft and their product — not only to the University’s college crowd, but to the entire city of Ann Arbor.
“The community just gives us the ability to bring more people into the area, and because we’re so close in proximity, they don’t have to walk far. We gently feed off each other,” Long said.
“There’s been this amazing camaraderie right from the very time we opened,” Rene said. “We know that we’re competitors, but we feel like there’s enough business to go around, and we’re really more like all in this together.”
Long added, “The explosion of the brewery in the area and throughout the state has created jobs outside of brewing, like hop farms. So when you create the demand on a relatively small scale, there are offshoots that come of it.”
Long’s sentiment has basis in fact, as Michigan’s craft brewing businesses contributed almost $1.9 billion to the U.S. economy last year — 3.4 percent of the $55.7 billion contributed by craft breweries nationally. National breweries have also created more than 424,000 jobs related to breweries and brewpubs.
From two breweries down the street two decades ago to three brewpubs and nine microbreweries to date, it’s clear the craft-brew boom is infectious.
Over on the east side of town, down Packard Street, Pointless Brewery & Theatre is set to open next year, which will serve improvisational theater with in-house brews. This spring, more than 500 people raised almost $53,000 on Kickstarter for the new business, proving the local dedication to craft brewing.
On the other side of town on West Liberty Street, Glasshouse Brewing is just set to open its doors later this summer. The Payeur family hones their focus on what will strictly be a brew house and beer bar.