Michigan beer industry outlook strong, but COVID-19 threatens brewers

Michigan beer industry outlook strong, but COVID-19 threatens brewers

Michigan Brewers Guild by Nathan Reens

Scott Graham jokes that watching the Michigan beer industry grow for more than 30 years reminds him of parents watching their children grow up.

“When parents are in the midst of raising a family, they don’t always see the growth and may not notice the changes over time, but to others the changes are much more dramatic,” Graham, the executive director of the Michigan Brewers Guild, said recently. “But then you step back and that child isn’t so little anymore and they’re out on their own.

“That’s kind of how it is with Michigan having nearly 400 breweries. The state of the industry is amazing, but people take it for granted because that’s where we are now. I can tell you, though, it wasn’t a given. People flew in the face of adversity, they grinded and scraped by to build all these community assets that we have today. That’s really noteworthy.”

It’s also a timely and relevant reminder amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has taken a whipsaw to both established and fledgling brewers’ business. It should serve as a nudge to visit a local brewery for a drink, a meal or some beers to take home, as well as a move to snag a Michigan brew at retailers, Graham said.

“Surviving the COVID pandemic of 2020 – let’s hope it’s just 2020 – I have concern for our friends who make up our membership. There’s not a big pile of money behind breweries. Everybody works hard and has to give it everything they’ve got.

“It’s not easy street, but I really think and hope that our industry will get through this hiccup and it will ultimately be stronger. The faster that can happen, the better. So, to the extent that anyone can, it’s a great time to support these local businesses.”

The Michigan Brewers Guild represents more than 300 brewers, ranking Michigan as the sixth largest beer state in the U.S. The industry supports 21,000 full-time jobs and nearly $900 million in employee income. The total economic impact of Michigan’s craft breweries is more than $2.5 billion.

The guild, which also has enthusiast and business memberships for backers not directly involved in the industry, promotes Michigan beer and aims to help breweries in the state reach 20 percent of sales by 2025. It has designated each July as Michigan Beer Month, but the drive to help breweries succeed is a year-round endeavor.

That push is generally highlighted by seasonal beer festivals that bring people from around Michigan and the Midwest to sample beers and interact with industry players. The pandemic has forced the cancellation of the summer and U.P. festivals, while the fall festival hangs in the balance. Dropping the events from the calendar pains Graham.

“Those are really good times to get together and see old friends,” he said. “I think we’re all sad in different ways because we can’t do that and then the breweries can’t show what they’ve been working on. And the festivals have always been a chance for people to learn who’s out there, what’s new and how we got to where we are.”

Graham, however, said there are new opportunities to become familiar with Michigan beer through the weekly Michigan’s Great Beer State podcast that he co-hosts with Fred Bueltmann, an industry veteran.

The podcast was developed as an outtake from interviews and conversations Bueltmann had while chronicling Michigan beer for the guild’s book project “A Rising Tide, Stories from the Michigan Brewers Guild.” The show is a mixture of the history and stories shared by brewers while also providing a forum to talk about the current state of the industry.

“We knew we had something with those interviews because there’s so much that people either don’t know or forget over time,” Graham said. “The podcast and the book are great ways to get a look inside at all the people and incredible beer that call Michigan home.”

The continued focus on local craft beer will energize breweries and their employees as they operate under social distancing guidelines and occupancy limits.

“I still see an industry maturing, and I anticipate growth because people recognize the value of having creativity and locally owned businesses in their communities,” Graham said.

Visit the Michigan Brewers Guild website to learn more and here’s a map to discover a brewery near you.