Prohibition to Profit: Breweries, once banned, now a revenue-growing trend for Michigan

57 Brew Pub bartender Rae Wireman.

The first beer was likely an accident.

Historians say that sometime around the 5th millennium, BC, maybe even earlier, wild, airborne yeast came into contact with some recently harvested cereal grains (the practice of harvesting grain was fairly recent then). Combining with the sugars in that cereal, the yeast caused spontaneous fermentation, and the first batch of beer bubbled into existence.

Some would say that’s when all the trouble started. Others contend the happenstance was nothing short of providence, proof that nature can, indeed, be kind.

Regardless of personal opinion, it soon became apparent that alcoholic beverages were here to stay. It didn’t take long for beer to catch on and turn into a commodity — brewed, traded and sold.

A 6,000-year-old Sumerian tablet depicts a group of friends sitting around a communal bowl, drinking beer through straws. That’s a far cry for the multi-billion dollar brewing industry of today, where giant corporations and small brew pubs contend daily for the beer drinking public’s attention. The path from that first, accidental brew to today’s widespread availability has not been without its detours and speed bumps, however.

Despite general acceptance in much of the world, early Americans repeatedly attempted to control, limit or ban the manufacture and consumption of beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages. Colonial settlers in Massachusetts petitioned the court there to ban the sale of all manner of beer, wine, whiskey and similar intoxicants.

57 Brew Pub lead line cook and assistant brew master Jared Edison prepares the next batch of beer.

These restrictions eventually went by the wayside; however, over the years, state and federal governments regularly attempted to impose stiff taxes and levies on alcohol in an effort to limit its consumption.

Temperance organizations came and went, their goal always the same — to ban or limit alcoholic beverages. Though the popularity and success of these organizations waxed and waned with time, the movement survived. So did the brewers and distillers.

The prohibition era of the 1920s and early ‘30s began with the signing of the 18th Amendment. According to history.com, this led to the illegal manufacture and distribution of liquor and the worst gang-related violence the country had ever seen.

Gangsters, such as Al Capone, were happy to provide the American public with what brewers and distillers no longer could.

Newsreels were filled with tales of shootouts, killings and extortion, all related to prohibition.

Public opinion swayed and prohibition’s supporters grew scarce.

The era came to an end in 1933, with the ratification of the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th, closing the chapter on America’s experiment with prohibition.

With prohibition ended, brewers were again free to develop and perfect their wares, though most American brews followed similar paths as they had before. Indeed, for a generation or more, there was very little real difference between one brand of “grocery store” beer and another.

Americans, many of them soldiers, who sampled local beers while serving in England, Germany and other European countries came away with a knowledge that something better existed in the world. When they returned stateside, they brought that knowledge with them.

Even so, it took decades before small-batch, craft beers began making a common appearance on grocery store shelves. And it’s only been in the past decade or two that small, independent brewers have begun to make an impact on the marketplace.

According to 57 Brew Pub brewmaster, Vic Aellen, whose family hails from Switzerland, brewing beer that will appeal to these more refined tastes is as much art as science.

Legislators in Michigan are seeing the potential growth in revenue in the craft beer industry and now are considering allowing the expansion of microbreweries and brew pubs in the state, according to The Associated Press.

One bill would let microbreweries double their output to 60,000 barrels a year without having to worry about additional restrictions. Another bill would let smaller brew pubs own interests in three more brew pubs and produce up to 18,000 barrels a year instead of 5,000 barrels.

A third bill would let large breweries sell beer for on-premises consumption at up to two locations instead of one.
57 Brew Pub and Bistro in Greenville is one example of a trending business that caters to the increasingly discriminating palate of American beer lovers.

According to 57 Brew Pub brewmaster, Vic Aellen, whose family hails from Switzerland, brewing beer that will appeal to these more refined tastes is as much art as science.

“You can put a whole bunch of stuff in a kettle, but there’s a lot more to it than that,” Aellen said. “There’s a lot more finesse. Anybody can make a high alcohol beer, but I look for balance. Any brewer wants to achieve balance; that combination of bittering and flavor and aroma. If you don’t have balance, it’s just a bunch of flavors fighting each other.”

Aellen’s brews, he says, are always a work in progress. Even when he hits on a “perfect” recipe, he never stops tinkering, sometimes using a popular beer as the first step toward something entirely different.

“This is not something you sit down and do in one sitting,” Aellen said. “I’m always on a quest to build something new, to find a new flavor everyone enjoys. It’s been a very interesting journey. It’s always evolving.”

On an even more personal level, many beer lovers have taken to creating recipes of their own, beer tailored specifically to their individual wants and needs.

Chad Lincoln, who participates in the Brew Gadgeteers, a brewing club headquartered in Lakeview, says he came to the hobby indirectly.

“We started with a wine kit and had some fun with it,” Lincoln said. “But not drinking wine myself, I decided to get into brewing. It developed into quite a hobby.”

The Lakeview Club, now in its third year, has more than 30 members and continues to grow. The easily availability of brewing supplies and information has helped spur this along, Lincoln added.

“An advantage to brewing your own (beer) is you can adjust your recipes to make almost anything you like, and you can always develop something new,” Lincoln said. “I think brewing has gained in popularity, probably most recently as a result of the craft beer industry in the state.”

For the modern Michigan beer lover, so many options now exist that it’s hard to know where to start. Fortunately, that decision may be made one beer mug at a time.

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