If you get the sense that microbreweries are popping up everywhere, you're not far from wrong. The Upper Peninsula now has eight of them with a ninth opening up in a few more months.
"People are tired of drinking water," says Dave Beckwith, the head brewer at Lake Superior Brewing in Grand Marais. "The younger generation wants good beer. They're discovering that there's more to beer than Bud and Miller."
Lake Superior Brewing, a brew pub in Grand Marais, has been brewing since 1995. A brew pub is a microbrewery that also serves food.
Other U.P. microbreweries and brew pubs in the U.P. are the Marquette Harbor Brewery at the Vierling Restaurant and Black Rocks, both in Marquette; the Keweenaw Brewing Company and the Library, in Houghton; Hereford and Hops in Escanaba; the Jasper Ridge in Ishpeming; the Red Jacket in Calumet; and the soon-to-be opened Ore Dock in Marquette.
The Red Jacket is technically a "nanobrewery." In other words, a tiny, tiny brewery. How tiny? Well, it's located at the Michigan House restaurant in Calumet, and one day a week, it closes down the kitchen and fires up the brewery to make a half barrel of local brew. That's only about 15 gallons of beer.
A microbrewery is defined as a brewery that makes no more than 15,000 barrels a year. That's roughly 465,000 gallons of beer.
Nationwide, more than 100 microbreweries, brew pubs, and regional craft brewers (which are larger than microbreweries) are opening up every year. There are now more than 1,700 across the United States.
And we're drinking their beer. In 2010, craft brewing grew by 11 percent in volume and 12 percent in dollars. Consumption of the most popular American beers, in the meantime, was stagnant.
Most drinkers will concede that microbrews have a stronger taste and frequently more alcoholic content than mainstream beers. The small brewers will often experiment with different ingredients, like chocolate, coffee, and berries. Some of the mixes are highly successful, others not so much.
Who are the microbrew fans?
"They tend to be people who are middle class, more men than women," explains Paul Gatza, the director of the national trade group, the Brewers Association. "They're generally more travelled than others. Many have been to other countries, and they've gotten a good taste of craft brews, and they want beer with a richer taste. Generally, I'd say they're millenials, between 21 and 28 years old."
But, he says, there are many in their 40s and older who've developed a taste for craft beers. Craft beers are most popular in the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, the Great Lakes, and New England. Growth has been more sluggish in the South. Some observers have likened the growing popularity of craft beer to the Starbucks craze.
"I just think the microbreweries and brew pubs are like a little coffee shop," says Paul Gray, a co-founder of the Keweenaw Brewing Company in Houghton. "We've got the same type of atmosphere, only it's with beer. People like that. They're looking for something different."
Keweenaw Brewing Company, or KBC, has shown explosive growth. In 2004, it brewed 460 barrels. By 2008, it was up to 3,240 barrels, and this year, it'll be around 8,000. In 2013, Gray expects to brew 10,000 barrels. KBC has expanded from Michigan to Wisconsin, and by April, it'll be in Minneapolis-St. Paul. By next year, KBC will be available in Ohio.
Craft beers still account for only about five percent of the beer we drink, but that percent is growing every year. The major brewers are taking notice.
"They're concerned," Gatza says. "They've made public statements about the fact that craft beer is a threat, and the reason is simple: shelf space is precious. Craft beers are taking up more and more shelf space."
Has their growth peaked? Not likely, especially since they're most popular among the younger generation. The millenials are likely to be earning more money in the years ahead, and that probably means they'll have more cash for those special brews.