Monday, July 22, 2013

How Long Can Our Beer City Bubble Last?

Those of you who know me will not be shocked to see that I'm writing about Michigan beer. My love for the liquid from our peninsular state is blatantly apparent, and it doesn't hurt that I've accidentally surrounded myself with people who are extremely agreeable with me on the topic. Known to some (including myself) as the Great Beer State, Michigan has the fifth-highest number of breweries in the nation at 122, according to a 2012 report from the Brewers Association. Homing in on Grand Rapids and West Michigan, we find a handful of them. A brewery tour crafted by Experience Grand Rapids lists 21 establishments, 15 of which are located in Greater Grand Rapids.

Heavyweights like Founders and Bell's easily made the cut onto this tour, as did Brewery Vivant, a particularly propinquitous location to my home that is known for sustainability and Belgian beer, not to mention the fact that it's situated in a repurposed funeral home. Lesser known brewers like Pike 51, White Flame, Waldorff, Harmony and Jaden James were included as well. Notably absent is Perrin Brewing, but that could be due to the operation's relative youth. It's likely that several others didn't make the list, as well.

Keeping track of these breweries has not been as hard as one might think, probably because the whole industry is dear to my heart. Still, I cannot say that I've been to all of the breweries that Grand Rapids has to offer, let alone all of those that I listed. And thinking about the sheer number in our city--let alone West Michigan and the entire state--got me wondering just how long our brewing bubble can last. The number of new companies each year seems to go up little by little (I'm looking at you, Perrin), with some breweries like Founders expanding on what seems to be an annual basis. National data reported by the Brewers Association show that there is still serious growth, year after year with 13 percent by volume in 2011 and 15 percent in 2012.

But growth can only continue for so long. As of 2012, the U.S. had the highest total number of breweries (2,403) since the 1880s. More than 400 breweries (counting both brewpubs and
Excluding Prohibition, the mid-to-late 1970s saw the lowest
number of breweries in the nation, bar none. (Infographic
courtesy of the Brewers Association)
microbreweries) opened in 2012 while 43 closed their doors. Though the closings account for about 10.5 percent of the openings, few people seem to be worried that their dreams of opening a brewery or working as a brewer are endangered. The burst of this delicious, carbonated bubble likely won't happen for awhile, but it should be noted that a saturated market often leads to the weeding of the weak.

So with a swollen craft brewery sector, Grand Rapids moves forward as Beer City USA for the second year in a row. But what does that title even mean anyhow, when it seems that we may have been the only city to circulate a pseudo-political campaign for the win? You saw all of those coasters, right? Grand Rapids had more than half of the total votes cast during the poll with 27,005 votes out of approximately 50,000. Coming in second place, Kalamazoo had 11,150 votes, just above Asheville (who tied with us last year for the title) with 10,075 votes. Maybe our beer is just that good--who knows? But be sure to notice that the top two cities are from Michigan… Could this be a sign that our state is too deeply in love with its own beer? Let's hope not because it's apparently contributing more than $133 million to our state's economy, according to the Michigan Brewers Guild, and it's certainly having a major impact on tourism in Grand Rapids and other cities throughout the state.

--Matt Knaack lives in Grand Rapids and occasionally blogs for ZZP.