WARREN — Ten years ago, there weren’t many options for beer lovers in Michigan.
Or as Rex Halfpenny of Michigan Beer Guide put it, “It was a desert.”
Among the microbreweries and brewpubs quenching that thirst since then is Dragonmead in Warren, which makes more than 40 beers–all available on tap–in a brewery smaller than even most microbreweries. When the owners were building their brew house, they would get laughed at when trying to order three big tanks for making beer. Even the smallest brewers have ten tanks.
“Nothing in the state comes close to their offering,” Halfpenny said.
Halfpenny and his wife, Mary, publish the Michigan Beer Guide, a promotional guide to Michigan’s microbreweries and beer pubs. Halfpenny came to Michigan from Seattle, where microbreweries had become a trend, in 1988.
Changes in the early 1990s to Michigan state regulations allowed small breweries to exist. Now there are about 20 microbreweries and 45 brewpubs throughout the state, most with their own charm and specialties.
“It’s a good time to be a beer drinker in Michigan,” Halfpenny said.
Halfpenny said Michigan beer enthusiasts have taken a particular liking to Dragonmead’s Final Absolution, a Belgian Trippel-style (more alcohol and sweeter taste) beer that has become the brewery’s flagship. Dragonmead opened in 1998. In 2003, the brewer sold $450,000 worth of beer, or 850 barrels, said Bill Wrobel, one of three owners.
“We have been described as home brewers on steroids,” Wrobel said.
As is becoming common among microbrewers (Halfpenny prefers the term “craft brewers” for very small brewers), Dragonmead imports its ingredients according to style, so for a German beer, the owners buy German hops and yeast, likewise for Belgian beers, and so forth.
Wrobel is a product planner for Chrysler during the day. He shares Dragonmead’s ownership with two other automotive guys: Larry Channel, a former Chrysler engineer, and Earl Scherbarth, a retired Ford engineer. They opened Dragonmead in 1998. Originally, they wanted to have 80 percent of the business to be in distribution, with 20 percent in retail — people stopping stop by the brewery to have a taste. The distribution end didn’t take off like they wanted but they have steadily upgraded the bar part of the brewery, including such benefits as free pizza during Monday night football.
Since there are so many beers to try and people somehow forget what they drank in the past, Dragonmead sells passports, which customers can write in and leave at the bar. When they come back, they consult their passport to see where they have been before and what they liked.
Now retail accounts for 80 percent of business. Wrobel said the brewery has been more a passion than a career.
“2004 will actually be the first year that we turned a profit,” Wrobel said.
He and his partners “have opted for what we call ‘organic growth,'” or using only word-of-mouth marketing, he said. They expect the next seven years to be profitable.
The state of Michigan has three legal categories for breweries:
• Regular: large volume brewery.
• Microbrewery: must only sell its own alcoholic products, with an option to sell food.
• Brewpub: can sell other companies’ alcoholic drinks and must sell food.
• 6.7 million barrels of beer were sold in Michigan in 2003 (31 gallons per barrel), about half of which came from Anheuser-Busch; 70,000 barrels were made in Michigan, 35,000 of which came from Kalamazoo Brewing Co., maker of Bell’s beer.