Michigan Brewer Guild 2014 Winter Conference

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To kick off 2014, I once again traveled north to Kalamazoo to attend the always phenomenal Michigan Brewers Guild (MBG) Winter Conference. This year, it fell rather inconveniently during the historic Polar Vortex. Despite the treacherous conditions BA Technical Brewing Projects Assistant Chuck Skypeck and I joined a very well-attended, well-organized event that featured a variety of presentations, the MBG annual meeting, an MBAA district meeting, Michigan malt and hops updates, a trade show, late night hospitalities, and the elegant Great Beer State reception dinner.

Founded in 1997, the Michigan Brewers Guild (MBG) comprehensively oversees the state’s craft brewing industry with many levels of promotion, protection and education. The guild is led by a Board of seven, with the support of Executive Director Scott Graham, and Communications Manager Shannon Kuchera. The MBG hosts four immensely popular annual beer fests, in addition to its annual Winter Conference, as well as their annual Capitol Hill climb in mid-May.

Currently, the MBG represents 120 member breweries—with somewhere around 130 breweries and brewpubs in the state (and over 42 breweries-in-planning), this represents an extraordinary 92 percent membership—the highest number since the organization’s inception. They have over 2,000 Enthusiast members, over 17,500 Facebook likes, and is an immense tour de force for small and independent Michigan brewery businesses.

According to Bart Watson, BA staff economist, Michigan’s small and independent breweries employ over 11,600 people, and the state is in the top 10 states for economic impact with over $1 billion contributed to the state’s economy.

The conference technical seminars included ABV Testing Techniques by Gary Spedding, Microorganisms Involved in Barrel Aging, by Mary Pellettieri (current MBAA President), Beer Stabilization 101 by John Stewart of Perrin Brewing and MBAA District Michigan Technical Chair, The Art of the Cooper by Russ Karasch of Black Swan Cooperage and a preparatory course on Michigan’s OSHA inspections.

Brewers are the fastest growing industries, so OSHA is now paying attention, and now brewing is considered a “high hazard industry.” Beverage manufacturing is the number one targeted industry for MIOSHA (includes soda, water, wine, etc). Hospitals and nursing homes are numbers two and three. The regulators are coming and breweries need to be prepared and in compliance. State brewers guilds need to be a guiding light for education and information for their member breweries.

Gary Spedding led a very instructive Sensory Evaluation Workshop. Instead of featuring the usual off flavors, beers were spiked with a variety of less common fatty acids typically associated with lager yeast.

Conference business meetings included Managing the Growth of your Brewery with a panel by three Michigan brewing veterans, a panel update on Michigan malt and hops, Beer-cations, on Michigan beer tourism, an MBAA District Michigan local chapter meeting, Insights into Wholesaler Contracts, Beer Tax 101, and the Annual MBG Meeting.

At the annual meeting, various reports were given from MBG officers and committees. MBG board elections brought some new members to the MBG board. Chuck and I were afforded the opportunity to introduce ourselves and discuss BA program work. Results of MBG board election can be found here.

Through grant funds, Michigan Beer roadside billboards were installed in 2013. A couple Michigan brewers have such a sense of pride whenever they see these billboards, they even admitted to getting teary-eyed when they drive by the signs.

Brett VanderKamp, chair of the MBG government affairs committee, provided an update on the extensive beer-related legislation written this year. The MBG also employs a lobbyist, who is a great ally for the guild and brewers in the capitol. The MBG is one of only a handful of craft brewers guilds with a PAC.

Michigan lawmakers have so far shown significant bipartisan support for several bills that relax restrictions on breweries and brewpubs and enact more flexible licensing rules—initiatives meant to boost Michigan’s craft beer industry and promote economic growth. However, due to infighting issues on bill related to Michigan’s so-called “secondary use” rule prohibiting bar and restaurant owners from using glasses, coasters and other items with supplier logos, unless specifically approved by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission (LCC), which was tie-barred to the other bills, none of the bills passed in the 2013 session. The bills are all going back on the table again this year, and are anticipated to pass in the next couple weeks.

Many Michigan brewers stood to encourage the brewing community to go to Lansing to meet their elected officials. The MBG hosts a legislative day in Lansing in late May and hopes a large contingent of the 130+ Michigan brewers are present.

Tim Surprise, of Arcadia ales, commented with great pride, “Twenty-four months ago, if you suggested that brewers would have fairer access to market, you would have been laughed out of the room. The progress we’ve made in the last two years has created halcyon days for us right now. We haven’t contributed much in money, we are still driven by much grassroots effort. The brewers’ connection to the elected officials here is truly remarkable and has grown about in just the last two years.”

The full MBG Winter Conference schedule can be found here. Each year the MBG invites the nation’s guild leaders to attend, as an immense opportunity to learn and potentially replicate in other states. We’re happy to see guilds are offering more educational seminars and conferences each year. It’s a critical trend necessary for maintaining legal compliance and elevating the quality of craft beer across the country. These gatherings also afford the state’s growing industry of small brewers an opportunity to network, build relationships and share each other’s brews.

“It’s not just the seminars and speakers that I learn from, the connections and networking of all my fellow Michigan brewers is also invaluable.” says Brian Confer from Storm Cloud Brewing.

Hope to see more guild leaders next January at the 2015 MBG Winter Conference!