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Michigan beer industry must craft new partnerships to thrive

Courtesy of One Well Brewing

The Next Idea

I own a brewery in Michigan. Sometimes I still can’t believe I actually get to say that and have it be true. Thousands of home brewers and craft beer lovers from around the country aspire to do what I do -- and I know, because just eight months ago I was one of them.

In November 2014, my business partner and I opened the doors to our brewery in Kalamazoo, and from an outside perspective, we’re living the dream.

Like starting any small business, however, this dream is not for the faint-hearted. We have worked long hours over the last year to get the business off the ground. We draw below-poverty incomes to make ends meet at home. We sacrifice our personal lives and mental and physical health to ensure the success of the company and the well-being of our employees.

It’s our early growth and success that keeps us going and justifies our tribulations. But it’s also what keeps us up at night.

In our world as a nanobrewery (yes, we’re smaller than a microbrewery), growth is almost as scary as the alternative.

As a small start-up, our options are limited. We simply don’t have the time to brew more often while still trying to push our products into distribution and expand our reach, and we don’t have the money right now to invest in expensive equipment that would allow us to brew more beer per batch.

We are not alone. Small breweries all across Michigan can relate to our situation.

In our effort to tackle this problem, we began to ask ourselves a few questions:

What if small Michigan brewers like ours got together and pooled our resources to minimize risk?

What if we took a more cooperative approach to help all of us grow?

What if we had a shared space to store ingredients, refrigerate our beer, and trade ideas and best practices with each other?

This kind of organized collaboration could be a game changer for the Michigan craft beer industry.

So what’s the Next Idea?

Don’t get me wrong, cooperation between small breweries in Michigan is nothing new. We readily share best practices and help each other when we need extra grains or hops, for example. We’ve had success with this informal approach, but if we’re going to sustain the Michigan craft beer industry’s rapid growth, it’s time for a more coordinated effort. 

Our state's craft beer industry already has national clout, now we have to figure out new ways to get more Michigan beers in front of people.

In communities all over Michigan, we’ve seen Maker Spaces emerge that allow creative people to put their ideas into action. Places like Techshop in Detroit and GR Makers in Grand Rapids offer local designers, tinkerers and artists access to high-tech, expensive equipment such as laser cutters and 3-D printers that they would otherwise be unable to use on their own. This concept could work for brewers, as well.

A shared Brewer Space, if you will, would offer some huge advantages:

  • Larger, more state-of the art equipment that gives each brewer the ability to make, bottle and can more beer.
  • The opportunity to leverage our collective buying power to purchase raw materials at cheaper prices, and the storage space to plan ahead.
  • A collection of industry brain power-- master brewers, canning/bottling/packaging experts, distribution and logistics specialists, marketing experts – who can trade invaluable insights and ideas with one another.

This concept has worked in states like California, Colorado and Oregon, where the pioneers of the nation’s craft beer industry continue to innovate and push us forward. To keep up, we have to develop a Michigan approach to cooperative brewing. 
Creating a shared brewing space won’t be easy. It’s going to take a lot of capital, expertise and commitment. It is also going to take a shift in the mindset of how our industry in Michigan operates. But we think it’s worth trying, and we’re already starting to look for suitable space and having conversations with potential partners. A year from now, we hope to have a model that could be applied anywhere in Michigan.

Our state’s craft beer industry already has national clout, now we have to figure out new ways to get more Michigan beers in front of people. There are a lot of dreams riding on these innovations, and if we work together, there will be room for plenty more.

T.J. Waldofsky is co-founder of One Well Brewing in Kalamazoo.

Join the conversation in the comments section below, on Twitter or Facebook, or let us know your Next Idea here.