University graduates are fleeing the state en masse. The job opportunities here are dwindling, and the ones that still exist look less appealing with every auto industry layoff.

Jessica Boullion
Jessica Boullion
Leopold Bros. brewing company makes a delicious and eco-friendly liqueur. (SHAY SPANIOLA/Daily)

Michigan’s economy has been languishing for decades, but last week, one of the few remaining beacons representing a high-tech economy left the state for good. When Pfizer pulled out, it seemed like that light at the end of the tunnel for Michigan’s economy would turn out to be an oncoming train.

But don’t go running the other way just yet. There’s still at least one optimistic industry besides nursing. It’s beer.

Not just any beer, though. Michigan – Ann Arbor in particular – is a hub for craft brewing. Innovators here have propelled Michigan’s brewing economy into the economic stratosphere. Even as other industries are sputtering and leaving the state, craft brewing is doing better than surviving. It’s thriving.

“We’re in a Michigan Beer Renaissance,” said Rick Lack, a manager at Rave Associates, a major distributor of craft beers in Michigan, “and it will only get better.”

The Brewer’s Association has reported a 9.5 percent production increase for the craft brewing industry in 2005, and an 11-percent growth in the first half of 2006. That makes craft brewing the fastest growing segment of the alcoholic beverages industry, outpacing other beer, wine, spirits and imports.

According to the Brewer’s Almanac, beer production in Michigan rose 135 percent between 1999 and 2005. This was outpaced solely by Iowa, whose production rose 233 percent in the same period. Michigan’s total production volume, however, is almost 15 times higher than Iowa’s.

Proportion of beer consumed by Michigan residents that was produced in the state doubled between 2005 and 2006, from .83 percent to more than 1.6 percent, according to Rick Lack at Rave Associates, a major distributor of craft beers in Michigan. He predicts that this number will rise to 3 to 5 percent in the next year or two.

According to Lack, his company has seen a 17-percent increase in the sales of craft beer in the nine-county Southeast Michigan market from 2005 to 2006. More dramatically, there has been a 37-percent increase in sales of Michigan craft brews to the same market during the same period.

Still not convinced you want to abandon biochemistry for brewing? For some, just the prospects of making money making beer isn’t enough. If your goal is to cure cancer one day, it’s true, you won’t be able to save as many people from the within confines of the microbrewery. But you’ll be able help out a few – and not just by facilitating inebriation.

Scott Leopold, one of the proprietors of Leopold Brothers on Main Street, spoke at the DANA Natural Sciences building last week about environmental sustainability. The Leopolds are modest, perhaps too modest, about the fact that theirs is the world’s first environmentally sustainable brewery. For a purveyor of sin, he seems remarkably altruistic.

“We adopted the UN definition of sustainability,” Leopold said. “Essentially – do no harm. Meet the needs of today’s customers without hurting future generations’ ability to do the same.”

And it seems to be working. Not only is Leopold Brothers eco-safe, it’s a formidable business. Leopold stressed his point that through environmentally friendly practices, his brewery was able to cut costs and increase production, recouping the investment for specialized green equipment in two to three years.

“Environmental sustainability means financial sustainability,” he said. “They are not diametrically opposed, as many people think.”

In Ypsilanti, Rene Greff, one of the owners of Arbor Brewing Company, operates The Corner Brewery. It’s a new facility, operated by Greff and her husband, Matt.

There, in the brewing room, behind locked doors marked “employees only,” she gestures to the tanks and machinery as if she’s showing tourists monuments in downtown Paris. And it’s almost as impressive. In this room, everything is sterile and mechanical, but the smell is sweet and a little tangy. In fact, it doesn’t smell like beer at all, but more like a freshly harvested field of grain. As it turns out, Corner Brewery mills all its own grain on site.

So what does it take to start an operation like this, you ask? Roughly 1.3 million dollars.

And that, in a nutshell, is what makes brewing a high-risk business. So if you’re looking to start your own brewery, you’ll need not only commitment but some capital to back it up. The payoff, though, is worth it.

It won’t be long until Greff can begin paying her investors. She expects to accomplish this after three years, but it could be sooner. Rick Lack reported that Arbor Brewing Company’s products have become the second fastest-selling Michigan brand of beer sold by his company, a major distributor in the area. This puts Greff and her husband behind only Larry Bell at Bell’s Brewery among Michigan producers.

Greff’s stunning startup performance in the market is due to her company’s success on the consumption end of operations. Through her activities at Arbor Brewing Company, Greff built a dedicated community of enthusiasts. Regular events at ABC like monthly beer tastings strengthen a sense of community among customers while simultaneously promoting a product. These tactics were so successful that no marketing was done in advance of the wide-scale launch in June, and current sales show that none was needed.

If the beer connoisseur community Greff has cultivated isn’t your scene, consider that tastes are changing. In addition to being lucrative, it looks like the brewing industry is also becoming hip. Or at least younger. Greff, Leopold, and Lack all agree that young people are becoming the new tastemakers for the industry.

Modern Brewery Age Magazine columnist Bob Wilson noted, “Many of today’s consumers are drinking something other than lagers. The major brewers are selling just vanilla, while the 21-34 year-olds are looking for 28 flavors.”

The tastes of this group are not yet fully understood. Sometimes, a producer will stumble on niche in the market purely by accident. Arbor Brewing Company’s Brasserie Blonde ale has become their most popular product since bottling began in June. This is a fairly new style to the Michigan beer market, and neither Greff nor Lack were prepared for the demand Michigan consumers would show for a product long considered in America to be the choice of the beer geek elite.

“Who would have thought – a blonde,” said Lack. One might conclude, as he does, that in today’s market, “It’s chic to be a beer geek.”

So while it may not seem that your LSA degree may not exactly scream brewery entrepreneur, it’s worth taking a look at. You may be attaching yourself to one of the few stable industries in a sinking state. And maybe even have a good time doing it.

Success, after all, is intoxicating.

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