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Building a better beer ecosystem

Arbor Brewing Company Microbrewery brewery manager Dan Peron

Liz Crowe with some of her novels at Ashley's

L to R Mike Eriksen, Jeff Renner, Spencer Thomas and James Powers of the Ann Arbor Brewers Guild at Wolverine State Brewing Co

Jeff Renner of Ann Arbor Brewers Guild enjoying a pint at Wolverine State Brewing Co

Louis Breskman in front of the field where hops will be planted in a couple months at Groovy Hopster Farm in Chelsea

Ferementa founder and A2 Beer Wench blogger Liz Crowe at Ashley's

Mike Powers of Ann Arbor Brewers Guild enjoying a pint at Wolverine State Brewing Co

L to R Mike Eriksen, Jeff Renner, James Powers and Spencer Thomas of the Ann Arbor Brewers Guild at Wolvering State Brewing Co

Arbor Brewing Company Microbrewery brewery manager Dan Peron on the bottling line

Arbor Brewing Company Microbrewery brewery manager Dan Peron with the Rat Pad

Louis Breskman with poles for hop trellises at Groovy Hopster Farm in Chelsea

A keg of Belgian Rye Dubbel made with the Rat Pad at ABC Microbrewery

Ferementa founder and A2 Beer Wench blogger Liz Crowe at Ashley's

Louis Breskman at Groovy Hopster Farm in Chelsea

When Jeff Renner and about a dozen others founded the Ann Arbor Brewers Guild in 1986, they did so out of necessity, in a time when craft beer essentially didn’t exist.

“When I started brewing, it was to be able to have something that was different from yellow fizzy beer,” Renner says. “There were a few stale imports and a few others that were different–Ballentine and a few other ales–or you could go to Canada and get a few things that were interesting.”

In those early years, a guild meeting consisted of gathering around a member’s kitchen table and passing around home-brewed bottles of beer for feedback. In the 25-plus intervening years things have changed significantly. The guild now boasts over 150 active members from Ann Arbor and other nearby Michigan cities, and Renner says meetings today are much more crowded affairs, resembling “stand-up cocktail parties.”

“Certainly in the last five years it’s exploded,” he says. “It’s quite remarkable.”

That explosion has given rise to an ecosystem of Washtenaw County businesses and independent communities devoted to the pursuit of craft beer. One of the earliest developments in that process was the availability of local brewing supplies. Where Renner and his fellow homebrewers once had only the Big Ten Party Store (now Morgan and York) for a paltry selection of ingredients, things became much easier when Adventures In Homebrewing opened its Dearborn brewing supply store in 1999, followed by an Ann Arbor location in 2011. 

Adventures In Homebrewing co-owner Jason Smith says he got into the business at just the right time by “pure dumb luck.”

“If you start at our level, you saw the homebrewing side of it grow,” Smith says. “And as that side of it grew, people started to open the breweries and say, ‘I can do this on a professional level.’ So we’ve had a few of our customers that have moved on to open breweries. I think each store has their own local story of a customer going on to open a brewery somewhere.”

Former homebrewers were responsible for kickstarting brewing operations at Arbor Brewing Co., Wolverine State Brewing Co., Grizzly Peak Brewing Company and Blue Tractor BBQ and Brewery. And in some cases, the newly minted pros have turned right back around and closed the circle by engaging homebrewers in their businesses in unique ways. Dan Peron, director of brewery operations at Arbor Brewing Co. Microbrewery, eased his way into the business by doing volunteer work for owners Matt and Rene Greff when they opened their Ypsilanti location in 2006. Eager to do some brewing himself, Peron fashioned his own brew kettles out of some discarded kegs from the brewery, creating a 10-gallon brewing system that he christened “Rat Pad.”

“I have a close affinity to anything ratty, so the name just kind of stuck,” he laughs. “It’s not the most glamorous system, but it turns out great beer.”

Peron was unable to brew at home at the time, so he started using the Rat Pad to make a weekly batch at the Microbrewery. As time went on, Peron stepped up to his current professional capacity at Arbor, and Rat Pad became the focus of a monthly brewing and tasting event catering to homebrewers. The small Rat Pad system allows for experiments that might not be worth the risk on a larger scale, and brew enthusiasts are encouraged to come to Rat Pad events with their wildest beer ideas. A recent Rat Pad creation–a dark rye saison with bacon–was dubbed “Because We Can.”

“We’ve actually called a few people out in the past for playing it too safe,” Peron says. “We don’t want your practiced, award-winning IPA recipe. We want something that’s like a hybrid or an experimental. Think outside the box. The world’s filled with safe beers.”

The local beer scene has also helped launch some endeavors that aren’t even directly linked to actually making suds. Liz Crowe got into the local beer industry in 2008 when she was approached to become a part owner of the then-nascent Wolverine State Brewing Co. She’s no longer with the brewery, but she’s continued to participate in the local beer world in a variety of unique ways. Crowe maintains the popular beer blog A2 Beer Wench, and beer and brewers have factored prominently in several of the romance and suspense novels she’s written. She also does social media and marketing work for Fenton Winery and Brewery, and was involved in founding Fermenta, a Michigan craft beverage organization for women.

“I just used my ability to write and created the A2BeerWench.com blog, and started talking about my journey in craft beer,” Crowe says. “The more I talked about it and the more people that I met, the more friends I made. It’s a very friendly and fun business.”

And as area stakeholders see it, there’s still plenty of room to welcome newcomers into the scene. Ann Arborite Louis Breskman announced Groovy Hopster Farm, a new 10-acre hop farm in Chelsea, this past fall. He’ll plant his first hop crop this year, with plans to sell exclusively to breweries within a 100-mile radius. Breskman, who has no previous professional experience in beer, says he’s received a warm welcome from other locals in the business so far.

“I’ve talked to other people in the industry and other hop farmers, and they’ve been really open about showing me how they do things,” he says. “We’re talking about working together on stuff and everyone’s sort of in the same boat. It’s just a real spirit of community, which I really appreciate.”

Peron is unreservedly enthusiastic about the potential for new players and continued growth in the Washtenaw County beer world.

“As far as the direction of the movement, it’s kind of limitless when you think about how many people are switching from their granddad’s yellow fizzy beer,” he says. “There’s so many choices and that’s what people want. They want variety, they want new ideas, they want something exciting that they’ve never had before. I think as long as people can dream and be creative–not to sound hokey–there’s no end of what we can do.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate and Metromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe .

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