East Lansing’s most recently established bar, HopCat, is well-known for the 100 beers it has on tap. HopCat was started by MSU alumnus Mark Sellers, who began specializing in serving craft beer at its Grand Rapids location. The grand opening of HopCat’s East Lansing location last August drew in massive crowds of patrons waiting to get a taste.
Several MSU alumni have gone on to work with brewing companies throughout the country, some of which have become household names in the craft beer world, including Short’s Brewing Co. in Bellaire, Mich., Big Sky Brewing Co. in Missoula, Mont. and others. This weekend, the Art & Craft BeerFest is setting up shop in downtown Lansing, featuring brews from Traverse City-based Right Brain Brewery.
The craft beer rage has taken over the typical beer selection at many bars and pubs lately, and as many local residents and MSU students know, it has made its mark on the local bar scene as well.
Honing their craft
No one knows the excitement of having a quality beer quite like college students. MSU alumnus and Big Sky co-founder Neal Leathers remembers the struggle of trying to find good beer during his undergraduate days.
“We went to Mac’s Bar, and on most Fridays we tried to grab a case of something good,” Leathers said.
Although Leathers did have to look harder when in search of a good beer, it was not his ultimate reason for starting a brewery. Trying to find beer with a better taste was what Leathers said pointed him in the direction of craft beer.
While in college, Leathers and some of his friends spent a couple of summers in Alaska to work in the fishing industry — right when the craft beer industry was in its earliest stages. Then when he moved to Montana, Leathers and some friends had a cable access TV show about beer.
“We knew about beer and had a local reputation, so we decided to start a brewery,” Leathers said.
Tony Grant, a former MSU football player and the chief financial officer of Northern United Brewing Co., in Traverse City, Mich., did not foresee being a partner in a beer brewery as part of his future while in school.
Grant, who studied electrical engineering, corporate finance and accounting, did not learn about the craft beer industry until he worked in the finance department of Borders bookstore.
Grant’s Borders co-worker Andi Lobdell was already involved in the brewing industry as a partner at Northern United. Grant became a small investor in the company, but continued to work at Borders.
When Borders went through bankruptcy in 2011, Grant went to work at Owens Corning. It was during that time Northern United Brewing Co. was at its peak and began to expand, and Grant came on board as a full-timer in the business.
Although working in the industry is fun, there’s also a strong sense of passion that the brewers and business executives feel for craft beer.
“When I worked at Borders, I was really proud at the fact that I worked for a company that was doing positive things — a company across all demographics, beliefs and cultures — we offered something for everybody,” Grant said. “There was a very good camaraderie in the industry, and I think the same goes for the craft beer industry.”
A booming business
An admiration for craft beer is capturing the hearts and tastebuds of people everywhere, as well as stimulating the economy. MSU alumnus Michael Ludwig, brewer for Tapistry Brewing Co. in Bridgman, Mich., said craft beer is creating more job opportunities and helping the agricultural industry boom.
“More farmers are growing hops, a crop that is found in most beers,” Ludwig said.
Ludwig said a lot of craft beers have also integrated local fruits. For instance, Tapistry integrates local peppers and honey into its beer.
Even the university is getting in on the trend — MSU students are now able to take a beer brewing class taught by food science and chemical engineering professor Kris Berglund.
The beer brewing class is one of several courses offered that students can pursue to prepare for entry into the wine or beer brewing industry.
“There’s a fairly significant demand for people to have training in this area,” Berglund said.
Several East Lansing bars also have invested in serving craft beer for the masses.
Crunchy’s has remained a destination for unique brews since the late 1990s and was the first establishment in East Lansing to do so. The fast-growing craft beer industry caught owners’ eye and immediately drew them in.
“We had the foresight to see the potential growth in the industry,” Crunchy’s general manager Mike Krueger said. “It was a step towards changing Crunchy’s focus and creating a new niche for the business while supporting Michigan businesses and educating our customers about craft beer.”
With the numerous bars in East Lansing competing for business, it’s crucial that bars separate themselves from one another.
Crunchy’s consistently switches its craft beer selection and makes sure to have a unique lineup.
“We like good beer, and want to make sure others get to taste it also, regardless of where it is from,” Krueger said.
For the love of beer
“I started drinking it because it has a richer flavor, it’s more enjoyable, it has character and it’s made in Michigan,” fisheries and wildlife senior Shelby Flemming said. “Generally, it’s just better quality.”
On Jan. 31 from 6-10 p.m. and Feb. 1 from 5-10 p.m., the Art & Craft BeerFest is holding its second annual beer festival in Lansing.
Paul Starr started the festival last year after his interest in craft beer inspired him to let others know about the new breweries, festivals and tap takeovers that are happening in Michigan.
This year, Starr’s festival is showcasing only Right Brain Brewery beers.
“There are a lot of really talented brewers in the state,” Starr said. “It’s just growing from people getting turned on to craft beer because the craft beers are good.”
Everyone has their own opinions for why they love craft beer, but the most common seem to be the variety and the quality that goes into brewing these beverages. Krueger said he appreciates beers that are true to a particular style, and he wants to offer people a wide variety of choices.
“Our goal at Crunchy’s is to make sure that as many people as possible get to try as many different beers as possible — which I think is key to the growth of the craft beer industry,” Krueger said.
Ludwig discovered his passion for brewing beer after having trouble finding work in his first passion, darkroom photography.
Then he realized the two are actually quite similar. Both require science, craft and creativity.
“I saw that it’s (the beer industry) a booming industry in Michigan and I wanted to pursue a career where the industry was growing, in a time where there weren’t that many jobs because of the recession,” Ludwig said.
Grant is hopeful the craft beer craze will not die out any time soon. He doesn’t think it’s going to always continue to grow at the pace it is now, but the local artisan segment is going to have a slice of the business.
“Right now it’s on a significant growth trend, and I think it will continue for the next several years,” Grant said. “I know that it’s good beer and people enjoy it.”
The craft behind producing this type of beer, being locally made sometimes and the fun events such as beer festivals and tastings also play an integral role in what attracts Grant to craft beer.
“There is a person behind each of these beers,” Grant said.
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