Tumultuous: That’s one word that could describe the Michigan brewing industry in 2019. Mirroring the much of the American craft beer industry, metro Detroit breweries went through some growing pains. In the past 12 months, the region saw several local brewers, cider makers, and meaderies shut their doors and others merging with their peers. Some longtime breweries, began to experiment beyond the strict confines of “beer” driven by new drinking trends like the summer of seltzer. Then there were of course the lawsuits, one of which drove local conversations and fueled national headlines for more than a week this fall.
In spite of it all, there were still quite a few bright spots in the industry including several openings and a few new locations to sip pints on the way in the new year. Here now is a look back at the biggest openings, closing, trends, and memorable stories involving metro Detroit’s beer industry in 2019.
It’s always a huge loss when a local business closes. Such was the case with Axle Brewing Company’s Livernois Tap, which after just a little over two years in business closed down operations on June 30 in Ferndale. The brewery’s owners were candid about the climate that contributed to the shutter: road construction made it difficult for customers to access the business for nearly six months and was compounded by the challenges of self-distribution in Michigan. The closure set a tone for a summer of upheaval in the brewing community. A few weeks later, Hazel Park brewery Cellarmen’s announced it was closing due in part to issues with distribution and the company’s landlord. The year was capped off by the abrupt shutter of 13-year-old Clawson brew pub Black Lotus Brewing Company, which shut down under apparent financial duress in October.
The summer of 2019 was marked by several notable mergers mirroring the chaotic state of craft beer across the country. Spanish brewer Mahou San Miguel began the process of acquiring a 90 percent majority stake in Michigan’s largest brewery, Founders Brewing Company. The international brewer previously purchased a 30 percent stake in the Grand Rapids-based company. Confirming that an earlier plan to merge with Right Brain Brewery had fallen through, Royal Oak’s Roak Brewing announced that it would join forces with Marshall-based Dark Horse Brewing Company. Roak’s CEO John Leone characterized the move as an effort to “compete and maintain independence” from larger brewery conglomerates like AB-InBev in an increasingly crowded market.
Between the news of Axle Brewing Company’s closure and a lawsuit filed by one of Detroit’s oldest microbreweries Traffic Jam and Snug against Blake’s Hard Cider, June proved a turbulent month for the local brewing industry. Traffic Jam’s owners allege that a trademark filing by Blake’s for a product called Traffic Jam triple-berry cider would infringe on their brand. The lawsuit is still ongoing, according to recent court filings and an attorney representing Traffic Jam.
However, that legal battle was dwarfed by comparison to the fight between Founders Brewing Company and a former employee, Tracy Evans. In the lawsuit, originally filed in 2018, Evans claimed that over the course of his employment at Founders’ Grand Rapids and Detroit breweries, the company failed to adequately address its toxic, racist work environment and ultimately fired him for raising concerns. In late-October, a leaked deposition by a (now former) manager Dominic Ryan at the Detroit location incited renewed backlash towards the Michigan beer brand. In that deposition, Ryan claimed he didn’t know Evans — whom he fired — was black.
The news grabbed the attention of national media and fueled debate in the local food and beverage industry about discrimination in a city that’s more than 80 percent black. It caused at least one brewer to pull out of the Detroit Fall Beer Fest at Eastern Market; Founders ultimately skipped the event as well. Meanwhile, bars and restaurants across the country began removing Founders products from their menus. After several days of silence, the brewer abruptly closed its Detroit location without notice and canceled a Canadian Breakfast Stout (CBS) beer release, citing concerns for employees’ safety. Shortly after an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Founders’ director of diversity and inclusion resigned her position.
The following week, Evans and Founders reached a settlement. The parties declined to discuss the terms of the agreement. The company now plans to reopen in Detroit in early 2020. The owners also pledged to donate 100 percent of its Detroit profits to local charities and community organizations through 2022 and will undergo an independent workplace audit as it tries to rebuild confidence in its brand.
Market changes in the brewing industry resulted in more than just mergers. Some Michigan breweries began stepping away from the strict definitions of “beer.” The summer of seltzer inspired some local makers including Atwater Brewery, Detroit Beer Co., and Griffin Claw to experiment with making hard, bubbly seltzers. The cannabis industry has also recruited Short’s Brewing Company and the Rochester Mills Production Brewery to its ranks.
Openings and Expansions
Despite some of the concerns over summer and fall closures, metro Detroit breweries continued to expand and open at a healthy clip. In 2019, Grosse Pointe Park welcomed a new honey winemaker called Recolte Meads, Islandview gained a Belgian-style beer spot in Brewery Faisan, Cadillac Straights opened a taproom and brewing supply store in Madison Heights, and there’s even a winery and cider maker in Eastern Market now. Brooks Brewing opened a Ferndale taproom and the owners behind Northern United Brewing Company and Jolly Pumpkin added brewpubs in Cass Corridor and Dearborn. In December, Dragonmead replaced short-lived taproom Shipwreck Brewing Company with Dragon’s Landing in St. Clair Shores. Likewise, longtime brewer Lily’s Seafood celebrated a landmark 20 years of business this fall.
Heading into 2020, there’s a whole lot more beer in the works for metro Detroit. German brewpub and bottleshop Lagerhaus No. 5 is currently under development in Eastern Market, while neighboring Eastern Market Brewing Company is opening the Ferndale Project in the former Livernois Tap building. Oak Park is set to gain an outpost of River Rouge Brewing Company Flint’s Tenacity Brewing is opening coffee shop-taproom called Tenacity Craft in Virginia Park. Other forthcoming projects include Ohio-based pizzeria and brewery Saucy Brew Works and Cass Corridor’s Nain Rouge Brewery. Suffice to say, there will be plenty of beer to drink in the new year.