How Motown became Malttown: Michigan beers and Michigan trains make a nice fit

February 18, 2014

by F. K. Plous

The Chicago Tribune’s Dec. 15 Sunday “Travel” section devoted its entire back page to a story by free-lancer Kevin Revolinski on one of Detroit’s booming new industries—craft brewing.

“Detroit beer is a success story,” Revolinski writes, listing no less than 17 brew pubs in Detroit proper and its suburbs.

“How is it that these things go under the radar?”—Revolinski wondered. “It’s not even recent news. Since as far back as the 1990s, Detroit entered into the craft-brewing scene, and while new breweries continue to emerge—from the heart of downtown into the greater metro area—a few breweries that are staples set up shop a decade or more ago.”

Revolinski ought to know. He’s the author of the new Michigan’s Best Beer Guide, which lists and reviews the state’s 119 craft breweries, a number that continues to expand as five more breweries go forward with construction plans.

Left unmentioned in Revolinski’s story is that Michigan’s remarkable collection of craft breweries and brew pubs not only is the fifth-largest in the nation but also is one of the easiest for outsiders to reach by train.

“Four of the brew pubs Revolinski cited are right in the city of Detroit, which people from Chicago, Indiana and Western Michigan can reach three times a day on Amtrak’s Wolverine trains,” said Corridor Capital Chairman James E. Coston. “And four more are located in Royal Oak, a suburb just north of Detroit served by the same trains.”

You don’t have to ride a train all the way to Detroit, however, to sample a good locally brewed Michigan beer. The legendary Bell’s Lager is brewed in Kalamazoo, also on the Wolverine line, and there are breweries and brew pubs in Lansing on the Amtrak Blue Water corridor.

“And one of the state’s most famous craft breweries, Founders Ale, is just a two-block walk from the new Amtrak intermodal station on the edge of downtown Grand Rapids,” Coston said. “It includes not just a brew pub but a brewing academy where the next generation of craft brewers can enroll to study the art. Amtrak’s Pere Marquette gets in from Chicago at 9:55 p.m. You can get off the train, walk over to Founders for beer and late dinner and then walk to your hotel a few blocks away.”

Beer and trains went down together, came back together

But using intercity trains to explore out-of-town regional craft brews isn’t the only “fit” between brewing and rail travel. There’s a historical fit as well: Passenger trains and small breweries both represent fast-growing new consumer favorites that returned to popularity only after most of the “experts” pronounced them extinct.

“Forty years ago passenger trains and regional beers both were going away,” Coston said. “The federally subsidized airway and highway networks made it impossible for privately financed passenger trains to compete, while the brewing industry had begun consolidating into a few giant corporations that used their marketing and distribution power to force all but a handful of local and regional breweries to close.”

Coston said the situation for both of these civilized amenities was viewed by most experts as hopeless. Vast governmental and commercial forces that had been gathering strength for decades finally had prevailed, creating an environment that seemed to have no place for passenger trains or authentic, locally brewed beers.

If you don’t like it, try Europe

Coston said he found it curious that the disappointed train riders and disappointed beer lovers of 40 years ago received essentially the same advice when they consulted the contemporary” experts” about the disappearance of these respective amenities.

“Basically, they said, ‘If you don’t like it here, try Europe.’ If you wanted a good train ride, you had to fly to Europe, and if you wanted a nice, robust, malty beer you had to go with an imported brand. The message was: ‘We don’t do that in America. ‘”

Today the beer situation has completely turned around. Thanks to a 1970s revision of the Federal Code that for the first time since Prohibition allowed Americans to brew beer in their homes, thousands of beer-lovers became brewers, and those with entrepreneurial gifts went commercial and opened their own breweries, about half of which evolved into a totally unprecedented type of institution known as the brew pub. The movement swept across the country. A news release from the Brewers Association trade group said the U.S. had 2,347 commercial craft breweries in 2012, of which 1,132 were brew pubs. In the same year, the market share for craft breweries rose into the double digits.

“In a year when total beer sales grew only 1 per cent, craft brewers saw a 15 per cent rise in volume and a 17 per cent rise in dollar growth,” the Association said.

Equally important, the craft-brewing movement has revived a type of business that 20 years ago was believed headed for extinction: locally owned breweries catering to the tastes of their communities and regions. The local breweries were virtually exterminated by Prohibition between 1919 and 1932. The hardier ones that survived Prohibition succumbed to corporate takeovers during the emergence of global mega-brewing corporations during the late 20th century. Today small brewing is back and steadily widening its market share as dissatisfaction with “taste-alike” corporate beers spreads through an increasingly sophisticated consumerate.

“More breweries are currently operating in the U.S. than at any time since the 1870s,” said Brewers Association President Paul Gatza. “Demand for beer produced by small and independent brewers has never been higher…Beer drinkers nationwide are responding positively to high-quality, full-flavored, diverse offerings from American craft brewing companies that continue to innovate and push the envelope.”

Coston said the skyrocketing demand for train travel has mimicked the revolution in beer-drinkers’ preferences.

“Amtrak is going to carry another million passengers this year for a total of more than 32 million,” he said. “Like good beer, train travel was once dismissed as un-American and nearly disappeared. Now the culture has changed: Trains and beer are both back. Some of the trains—especially those sponsored by Washington, Oregon and Maine, even serve local craft beers in their café cars.”

But he noted that satisfying the nation’s craving for a better way to travel is not going to be as easy as satisfying its demand for better beers.

“America’s beer experience is improving because the country was able to mobilize its entrepreneurial sector to brew superior beers,” he said. “But improving transportation is government’s job, and governments are not entrepreneurial. They’re bureaucratic, which means they’re slow to detect trends and slower to capitalize on them.

“We need more trains on more routes to more places,” Coston said. “Wouldn’t it be great if somebody could just ‘brew’ them?

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