Finally...A Good Brewery in Michigan

 
 

By Chris McClellan

Just kidding. Michigan beer is really delicious. We're big fans.

Along with a handful of pioneering areas of our country, Michigan tops almost every beer-lover's list when it comes to homegrown craft. The sheer number of great breweries in this state, pushing 200 at this point, is a singular tribute to this fact. And the people themselves, always straight shooting and full of smiles, tend to get under your skin in the best way possible. "Michigan nice" is what I call it. Authentic, approachable, and generous with their time and spirit, it's a refreshing combination, and provides a distinct and obvious analog to the state's thriving craft scene. 

We sat down with Ryan Cottongim, who founded Witch's Hat Brewing Company in December 2011 along with his wife Erin, and had a conversation about the origin of his brewery, the community where he put down roots, and the growth of great beer in Michigan.

Chatting with Ryan felt a little like talking to myself, and it was, admittedly, slightly unnerving. His approach to craft beer was like mine. His creative process was like mine. His love of a community-driven business was the main reason he started the brewery, and I couldn't agree more. The more conversations I have with brewers, restaurant owners, and thought leaders in the industry, the more I see the similarities and sentiments that bind this group together. A firm commitment to people, a fierce love of the liquid, and unquenchable thirst for great conversation and discovery. It's this sort of enthusiasm that keeps me coming back for more.

Ryan and Erin started Witch's Hat when they were laid off of their respective jobs in 2010. Ryan was a passionate homebrewer for about 10 years before starting the brewery, a similar path to most of our countries recent startup brewers. Both Ryan and Erin grew up in South Lyon and felt a strong commitment to the area, making the decision on where the to locate the brewery a no-brainer.

Similar to most of Michigan, South Lyon's regional identity exudes a sort of humble panache, if that's a thing. Blue-collar and cosmopolitan. Classically mid-western and progressive at the same time. In short, it's a great place to put a brewery, and while Ryan knew the sort of risk he was taking on (as any small business owner does), he also knew the town would be there to support his dream.

The current 15-barrel brewery is an inspiring evolution of their 3-barrel brewhouse, originally located at the end of a strip mall in a different part of town. I'm a big fan of a rugged, industrial setting for a brewery, and Witch's Hat's new location doesn't eschew any of its original, and humble, charm. Located just a few mins down the road from the famous depot where they got their name, it's a close-to-perfect place to drink a few beers and appreciate the hard work that got them to this point.

Ryan reflected on their choice to name the brewery after the town's infamous building. "It ties into a lot of our history. Our parents and families were raised here. It’s the iconic symbol of South Lyon." Truly regional ties make for a strong brand in this part of Michigan.

Their commitment to a fresh, quality product comes through clearly in the beer. It's delicious, and the town couldn't agree more, judging by the sterling reputation they've achieved in a just few short years in the community.

When I asked about his inspiration for the beer, his answer was as easy to swallow the as their flagship IPA, Train Hopper. "We're going for the bolder side of balanced", he mused. "I'm certainly a craft beer nerd when it comes down to it, but I wanted to make sure all our beers were approachable." Fun Fact here: Their brown ale is named of their springer spaniel, Edward.

Not to say they don't get funky on some seriously unique liquid, evidenced by The Bear Witch Project, a mouth-puckering, smoky Lichtenhainer (a collaboration brew with local brewery Grizzly Peak) and Doedish; an aromatic, punchy double IPA on draft.

The conversation turned to the evolution of the craft beer consumer. As locally brewed beer becomes the new standard, the new consumer comes to the brewery already aware of what makes a beer "craft", along with a palate for tasty brew that has never been seen before in the country.

"What we’re seeing is the younger, just 21 crowd coming in already having beer knowledge" he said, "I think that shows how long this is going to continue to grow. It's a clear indication of a whole new market opening up. It’s going to pave the way for the next 10-15 years, driving a new localism movement. We don’t have to sit there and do the "welcome to craft beer" pitch anymore, and the best part is that each month there’s more and more coming."

This has, in essence, created the perfect environment for start-up breweries all over Michigan. High demand, a young and educated consumer base, and an intrinsic urge to support local.

And local they will stay. When I asked about growth in the coming years, he was optimistic, yet grounded, in his reponse. "80% of our business is out of our taproom. We are about 1500 barrel a year brewery right now. We definitely have long term plans of distributing more, but our taproom will always be our major focus. It’s tough to be creative when you don’t have a taproom. I can put 22 beers on now to see what works."

Michigan is, definitively, a fun place to be. The pioneering spirit of great beer, from the national brands we already love to the local watering holes finding their place in the community, is strong and growing. It only makes sense that people like Ryan and Erin are finding success in such a place.

Published in September 2015.