Beards are back. And they’re getting a lot of attention.

Aaron Wilson, age twenty-eight, and winner of Ann Arbor’s Best Beard Contest, says random women often stop to compliment him on his “well-groomed” beard. And Ryan McIntosh, a twenty-two-year-old U-M student with a beard fit for a lumberjack, gets high fives and “nice beard!” greetings from complete strangers.

“I think every generation [of men] has a way to show its manliness,” explains Hadley Whittemore, the big-bearded thirty-three-year-old general manager at Bivouac. He thinks beards are his generation’s way of doing that. He says his beard is always “well received.” When he lived in Seattle, “people couldn’t walk by without grabbing it–just like people want to touch a pregnant woman’s belly.”

When George Clooney and Ben Affleck wore full beards to the 2013 Oscars, some said it signaled the beard’s new prominence in American pop culture. Soccer star David Beckham, actor Ryan Gosling, rocker Dave Grohl, and others may have influenced the trend. But scientists are also weighing in. A recent study by an Australian researcher reports that “badges” in primates–which correspond to beards in men–are a marker of sexual dominance.

There are websites and blogs dedicated to beard photography and lifestyles, including one Tumblr account that celebrates “yeards,” or beards that were grown for a full year. Another Tumblr called “Beard Pornography” is devoted to “the single most manly and great thing a man can have” and urges readers to submit photos of their own “marvelous beards!” And there’s a growing market for beard grooming products–from beard combs to beard butters and oils.

“It’s easy not to shave,” explains Cyndi Clark, owner of Ann Arbor’s Lily Grace Cosmetics, but cultivating a competitive beard “takes more thought and time.” Since she opened in 2011, she’s expanded her men’s shaving, skin care, and hair care products because “guys are interested in taking care of themselves.” The spa below her store serves both women and men and has a team that specializes in haircuts, brow clean-up, massage, detox facials, body waxing, and nail grooming–all for men.

On a Saturday afternoon in March some of the area’s most impressive beards have come together at Clark’s store for her Best Beard Contest. Fifteen men show up–including Wilson with his long and silky dark-haired Santa Claus style and McIntosh with his lumberjack look. Most of the men are in their twenties and thirties, but a couple beards are showing their age.

Daniel Byrne, sixty-five, has a neatly trimmed white beard and glasses. He stands near the door and checks out his competition. “I’m the token old guy,” he laughs. He says he “grew a beard thirty-seven years ago because I was sick of shaving.” He points to Wilson and says, “I wouldn’t want a beard that long. I’d have to visit Downtown Home & Garden for a rake and some bug spray.”

McIntosh says his friends jokingly call him a “lumbersexual”–a term coined for a rugged outdoorsy-looking younger man with a beard who wears flannel shirts. McIntosh insists “this is just how I am … I don’t need to fake it. I’ve always worn flannel and camped since I was a little kid.” He’s driven an old pickup truck since he was seventeen. McIntosh grew up in Bay City with a dad “who always had a beard.” A few years ago he went home for the summer and let his beard grow. Even if trends change, he’s planning to keep it, simply because “I like how I look with it.”

Chris Ridgard, thirty-two, sports a spectacularly bushy black beard and matching tuft of hair on the front of his otherwise bald head. He starts growing his beard the first day of fall and shaves it off the first day of spring–and he’s been doing so for four or five years. Bobby Hitchings is also thirty-two and also bald. He hasn’t shaved in twenty months, and his big red beard looks like it’s straight out of Duck Dynasty. Hitchings says his kids “would cry if I shaved it off.” His wife wouldn’t take it so hard: “It’s a little extreme,” she says of the beard, “but it makes him happy.”

Shaun Walford and Mike Haddad, the bearded owners of Detroit Grooming Company, which launched last summer, are judging the contest with Clark and hawking their beard oils and butters. Walford says the trend of young professionals wearing beards means upkeep is essential. “If you’re gonna do it, do it well,” he urges. “Take care of it.”

Wilson leaves with the top prize, a box of grooming supplies. He’ll need it in San Francisco, where he’s since moved to work in software sales. He says bearded men on the West Coast are sure to “up the competition.”

“How does a man with a beard like this get a job in this town?” That’s what Whittemore asked when he moved to Ann Arbor after working for REI’s flagship store in Seattle. He understands that some people “do judge a lot with aesthetics” and feels fortunate to work at a place where he can be himself.

Bivouac owner Ed Davidson says a person doesn’t need to look like a “lumberjack” to get a job at the clothing and outdoor gear store–all that matters is “that they are a good worker.” But it is a beard-friendly business. Davidson has sported a beard since he “went on a camping trip” in the late 1970s–shaving it off just once. And his son, A.J., who works for Bivouac, is also bearded.

Whittemore says he saw all types of beards when he lived in Seattle. The bearded “hipster” tends to get a bad rap, he says–the stereotype is that “it’s a trust fund kid who tries to fit into a demographic.” But generally he’s noticed guys with big beards are “not pretentious” but tend to be “gregarious.” You meet “a guy with a big beard, and they generally have a big personality to go with it.”

He says it doesn’t cost a lot to take care of a big beard: “A dollar comb from Walgreens is all you need”–and a bit of beard oil. He wears his hair in a “tight fade,” closely cropped to his head. Guys with beards “can look sharp and presentable and not intimidating,” he explains.

Even men who can’t grow a beard seem to embrace the trend, Whittemore says. He thinks that’s because “everything surrounding beard culture is pretty inclusive.” And he dismisses a recent news report declaring “some beards as dirty as toilets.” He says the much-hyped study–based on one microbiologist’s swab of a handful of beards–has been disproved. “It’s no secret that microbes live in your beard … just like they do on your skin. Unless you’re neck-deep in toilet water it’s not a problem,” he laughs. And he points out that microbes aren’t all bad–there’s even a beer that’s brewed with a yeast collected from beard follicles. Oregon-based Rogue Ales sells “Beard Beer,” which originates from brewmaster John Maier’s beard.

At Arcade Barbers on a Friday afternoon customers are a mix of college students and older men, and at least two-thirds have some kind of facial hair. Barber James Burge says beards seem to be seasonal in Ann Arbor, probably because they help keep men warm in winter. He says many men decide to grow beards or mustaches as part of “Movember” or “No-Shave November” (initiatives that raise awareness about men’s health issues) and for some it sticks–usually until they shave it off “right before spring break.”

Burge, who has stubble right now, has worked at the barbershop about ten years and notices “the younger generation of women seem to like beards.” The shop does a lot of what he calls “shape-ups” and “hipsters”–and just minutes ago he says a guy came in with a photo of Hunger Games character Seneca Crane’s beard, asking to copy it. Crane’s beard is so famous it has its own Facebook page. Burge pulls out his phone to show his own former “Wyatt Earp” look, and an old ID of him when he had a full “trucker beard.” And, he adds, let’s not forget about the great beards of history: “What about Abe Lincoln? Or Grant? Or [Teddy] Roosevelt?”

Burge’s coworker Zach Wilkes, has a less historical and more practical take. He’s had a beard for about five years because “I’m just lazy, and I don’t like to shave.” Plus, Wilkes says, men “just want to have fun too!”

Over at HopCat, two bearded friends who met as students at Michigan State are catching up over a meal. Dan Schmidt is a middle school teacher in North Carolina, and Tony Reeber is an ER nurse at St. Joe’s, and both are twenty-seven. When they grew their beards as seniors at MSU, Reeber recalls, “we were ahead of the curve with our friends.” Schmidt kept his beard because both he and his fiancee like it. Also, he says that teaching and beards seem to go together.

When Reeber graduated he immediately shaved his beard, thinking he wouldn’t be employable. But he missed it so much he grew it back. Lately he’s noticed many of his coworkers have beards. “Recently, it seems [workplaces] are much more accepting of beards … or maybe it’s because I have more confidence in it.”

If Schmidt and Reeber feel like trying their luck at Ann Arbor’s Best Beard contest, Cyndi Clark says her staff plans to host it again next year. She believes “beards will be in style for a few more years.”

And if the beard trend goes bust? Fans of facial hair need not worry. Arcade barber Burge says he’s noticed another trend on the horizon: the mustache.