When Arbor Brewing Company opened in 1995, it was the city’s first brewpub. But owners Matt and Rene Greff weren’t starting from scratch: Matt had already spent four years brewing beer at home. He knew many of the thirty or so members of the Ann Arbor Brewers Guild, and friends from the group helped with the opening, sampled and offered feedback on the beer, and enthusiastically patronized the brewpub when it opened.
Both home brewing and professional brewing have grown dramatically since. The AABG has 135 members, and Ann Arbor now has nine breweries.
Many brewers have followed in the Greffs’ footsteps, honing their craft and receiving guidance in the local home-brewing community before trying their hands at the big time. “I think about half the brewers that I know came from a home-brewing background,” says the Ypsi Alehouse’s Ted Badgerow, before hastily revising his estimate. “Probably 75 percent. Almost everyone.”
Badgerow should know: he’s moved back and forth between the two worlds for thirty-five years. Inspired by a friend’s home brew, he cofounded the Real Ale Co. in Chelsea in 1982. It was the first new brewery licensed in Michigan in thirty-eight years–and a few years ahead of its time: “We sold as much beer as we could brew at $20 per case–about $6 per case less than it cost to produce,” Badgerow writes on the Ypsi Alehouse website. When they ceased production in 1984 Badgerow went back to home brewing; he helped found the Brewers Guild.
No wonder, then, that even after starting businesses, many brewers stay close to the home-brewing community. ABC and Washington St. neighbor Grizzly Peak both host annual competitions for home brewers.
“I think [beer aficionados] all grew up with a sense of community,” Matt Greff says. “It would never dawn on me not to include the home-brew community because that’s where I came out of, that’s where our industry came out of. They’re our friends, and they’re our customers.”
That mentality translates into a surprising degree of openness between home brewers and commercial brewers. “If you ask somebody ‘Hey, what’s in your spray bottle?’ or ‘What’s your yeast on this? Who’s your supplier? Where do you get your equipment? How about these hops?’ or any number of a hundred questions, they’ll always just answer,” Badgerow says. “There are no secret recipes in beer.”
Ann Arbor home brewer Alex Baker notes that some breweries will even give away their yeast for home brewers to experiment with. “There are a lot of breweries who will look at you and say, ‘Yeah, I was you. I was a home brewer at one time, and you’ve got to start somewhere,'” Baker says. “People don’t go right into professional brewing. They did that batch on the stove.”
Nick Panchame attended his first AABG meeting last August. He’s not a home brewer–he moved to Ann Arbor from Traverse City to become the head brewer at the new HOMES Brewery on Jackson Rd. But he says AABG, as one of the oldest home-brewing clubs in America, has an “epic” reputation. “It’s stupid to not be involved with them as a brewer or an upcoming brewery in Ann Arbor,” Panchame says. “They set the tone just as much or more than the [professional] breweries in Ann Arbor.”
Ebb and flow
Interest in home brewing ebbs and flows with the state of pro brewing and the economy in general. Currently it’s ebbing a bit. Christopher “Crispy” Frey, one of the AABG’s current informal leaders, recalls that there were about sixty members when he joined the group in 2000. By 2011, it hit an all-time high of 175. But that, Frey declares, was “the peak of the home-brew hobby.” In the past three years, the AABG’s membership has eased back to the current 135.
Sales of home-brewing supplies are also finally starting to slow down. Jason Smith, owner of Adventures in Homebrewing in Scio Township, says 2016 was the first year in about twelve years that his business has seen less than double-digit growth. “It’s been a great ride,” Smith says. “It’s been fun. I’m glad it’s done as well as it has. But with that said, I’ve always known at some point we were going to plateau out and see what regular industries see of that three to five percent [growth].”
Smith says that home brewing often slows down when the economy improves, while commercial brewing picks up. Greff backs that up, noting that ABC was among a “crazy number of brewery openings” in the ’90s. Things were quiet during the dotcom bust and the Great Recession, but in the past few years new commercial breweries have started popping up again.
Few tears are being shed in the local home-brewing scene at the news that the hobby has peaked. AABG member Steve Krebs fondly remembers the intimate nature of a guild meeting when he joined in 1991. With only a dozen or so members, “We would all bring a brew–home brew, or a beer that we liked–and we would all do little tasting glasses and taste it and comment on it,” he says. “In doing that, we all shared our knowledge, and we all got better fast.”
As the home-brewing hobby grew, AABG members say, meetings became much more unwieldy. There’s still plenty of enthusiasm to go around, but Frey says meetings “have devolved somewhat into more social and less learning.”
Home brewers are frank about the downsides to the growth of their hobby, but they have unreserved enthusiasm for the continuing growth of commercial breweries. Baker compares the situation to “a small town where you’ve got one pizza shop–a pizza shop opens up across the street, and the other pizza shop gets better.” Krebs says that when a new brewery opens, “A lot of the people that go first [as customers] and the ones who are the most reliable employees and the ones who are most likely to go out and proselytize are home brewers. We just want them to survive because we want to keep this incredible variety of wonderful beers available to us.”
Some local brewers are starting to wonder when Ann Arbor’s professional brewing scene may hit its peak. Greff says he’s seen periods of expansion and contraction, and right now he’s anticipating a fresh contraction: “The market is so crowded that I would not want to be a new brewery right now,” Greff says. “We have a hard enough time. We’ve been around for twenty-one years, and it’s just so hard to get shelf space in the store or to get a tap handle at a bar.”
AABG’s Frey wonders whether Ann Arbor’s newer breweries might “cannibalize” established businesses, or fall victim to a market contraction themselves. In any case, he says, “It does seem that there has to be some cap, some roof.”
Panchame thinks there’s room to raise the roof. The new brewer in town notes that Traverse City (where he worked at Right Brain Brewery) has nine breweries serving a town of 15,000 permanent residents–a per-capita rate far higher than Ann Arbor’s (though Traverse City gets more tourists). He notes that as craft beer has grown in popularity, brewers have had to work harder to better serve an increasingly educated and discriminating market.
Since the Ann Arbor home-brewing scene hit its own roof, it’s begun to spin off new, smaller offshoots. Shaking up AABG’s long-running status as the only home-brew club in the area, the Burns Park Brewers formed about five years ago. Neighbors Steve Swaney and Jamie Phillips began brewing together, then slowly brought other friends into the group, which now has around fifteen members.
“This sort of happened organically,” says member Peter Todd. “This was literally people who knew each other, who had kids in the same school, who would get together for other reasons.”
A Burns Park Brewers meeting today is not unlike those early AABG meetings that Krebs remembers: about ten close friends sitting around a table joking, chatting, and swapping beers. Baker, a Burns Park brewer, jokingly refers to AABG Ann Arbor’s “other” home-brewing organization. He attended a meeting, he says, but it “was huge, and I was kind of overwhelmed.” Besides, “they charge dues, and [the Burns Park Brewers] are free.”
Joe Walters, who owns Liberty Street Brewing Company in Plymouth, is an AABG member, but he also organizes a group called the Sons of Liberty, which some other AABG members attend.
Krebs says the ideal number of members for a home-brew club is between ten and twenty. “I think we’re going to see more groups split off and just do little private things, where you just invite friends,” he says. He’s planning to start one himself.