Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Detroit Beer Week: The Man, the Myth, the Malt

On Sunday I had the chance to sit down and chat with Jon Piepenbrok, one-half of the team behind this year's Detroit Beer Week.

And by "sit down and chat with" I mean go to the bar I visit thrice weekly anyway and do shots of Jamesons with Jon, who also moonlights as a bartender at this the Happiest Place on Earth, as he worked and I jotted notes on my laptop while compulsively updating Facebook.

You're jealous of my job, aren't you?

Detroit Beer Week launched in October 2009 quietly, with only a couple of weeks' notice and minimal media coverage (I was one of the only outlets that even discussed it ... and YOUBET I feel it necessary to point that out now). DBW occurred over an 8-day period with about a dozen participating locations that held beer-related events such as beer dinners, tastings, and even a lesson on proper glassware at a pop-up store specializing in men's wares.

"I put it together in three weeks myself with a little bit of help from some other guys and with no money," Jon tells me. "I purposely did it with zero funding just to show it could be done and show what could be done with it."

It was done with little press and little advertisement; there but for the power of Facebook the events received next-to-no promotion or publicity.

And yet people still came. And buzz still happened. Enough buzz that afterwards, brewers and distributors started calling Jon to ask how they could get involved the following year. Enough buzz that the Metro Times took notice.

"Metro Times is partnered with the Michigan Brewers Guild and Fall Beer Fest, so after the first Beer Week last year they approached me and said they wanted to get involved," says Jon. They joined on as the official media sponsor, providing Detroit Beer Week with promotion, ad space, and a couple of their own coordinating events.

Next year the event will grow even bigger as the organizers -- Jon along with his partner Jason Peltier -- sit down with the Metro Times next month to start discussing next year, with active planning starting as early as March. "This year we started planning in August and it still wasn't enough," Jon notes. "Next year is going to be even bigger."

I'm not gonna lie, homeboy looks exhausted, but all his work is bound to pay off. Since last year he and his partner Jason launched their own "beverage events" production company called Liquid Table, which is producing Detroit Beer Fest this year. This is just the beginning for Liquid Table, which is aimed at any kind of special event that involves beverages, as well as providing services to those in the beverage industry. They'll offer beverage event planning and production services; "catering without the food," as Jon calls it. For industry professionals they'll also offer staff training, restaurant consultation and brokering.

And you can rest assured that any event you attend that is produced by Liquid Table will not be offering Black Swan wine and Miller beer (Heneiken for those fancy types) -- part of what they're trying to bring to the (drumroll) TABLE is the knowledge that for only a little more money -- if any more at all -- you can serve quality products that people will enjoy and remember. "Once we get the good products in front of people in a small setting they remember how much they liked it and they start to demand it." Really you could say they're in the business of bringing people better taste. Damn, I am on a ROLL.

It's no secret that the craft beer industry is taking off something huge in the state of Michigan. (At least to readers of this blog it damn sure shouldn't be a secret because I harp on it every single week.) But while here it's still kind of exciting and new (like sex when you're 14 18), in other states the whole craft beer concept is old hat (like sex when you're married).

"It really started last year when I was sitting in a board meeting with the Michigan Brewers Guild trying to convince them to do a third beer festival in Detroit," Jon explains. "As soon as they decided to do it, it was like a lightbulb went off." Jon, who was working for Arcadia Brewing Company at the time, kept seeing how well craft beer was doing in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, and even Kalamazoo, but it had still yet to hit in Detroit. "New York and Philly were already doing it," he says. "It just seemed like the right time, the right place, and the perfect opportunity to promote craft beer -- particularly Michigan craft beer -- and also the city of Detroit."

There are 81 breweries in the state of Michigan currently and many of those have taken home awards and accolades from the country's top beer competitions, including most recently Kuhnhenn, Short's, Big Rock, Founders and Bastone taking home medals at this year's Great American Beer Festival held just a few weeks ago. Thanks also to breweries like Jolly Pumpkin and Dragonmead, Michigan is widely considered to rank among the top craft beer states in the country, and everyone seems to know that but Michigan itself.

The trend has certainly been picked up by the city of Detroit, thanks to passionate bar owners who want to support all things local and also happen to be craft beer snobs themselves. Places like Park Bar, Woodbridge Pub, Bronx Bar, and Roast proudly promote their Michigan-made craft brews, and Foran's Grand Trunk -- the Happiest Place on Earth and also where I sit doing shots conducting this interview with Jon -- has nothing but Michigan beers on tap with another 100 (give or take) available by the bottle. But go out to the suburbs of Royal Oak, Birmingham, Novi, Mt. Clemens or Southgate and "local beer" still means Oberon.

We'll get there, people. I'm here to help.

Of this slowly-growing trend, Jon notes, "It's grown huge in Detroit and in SE Michigan but we're still sorely lagging behind the rest of the state which is still sorely lagging behind the rest of the country." His goal with both Detroit Beer Week and Liquid Table is to get to the level of a, say, Denver, where 70-80% of the beer on draft is local craft beer. "I intend to take what the Guild does and what the brewers and distributors do and go beyond that."

Long-term, Jon and his partner Jason hope to take Detroit Beer Week to the same level as the beer week events in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and San Diego. "These events bring in tens of thousands of people from around the country. I want people to come here for this 8-10 day beercation, experience Detroit, experience Michigan beer, and go home and tell their friends what an awesome time they missed."

At this point in our interview it's nearly midnight and we're ready to get to the serious drinking. There's a bottle of Founders Nemesis calling my name and Jon just poured more Jamesons. Anything else you want to add, Jon? "Um. We rule too."


Detroit Beer Week starts this Saturday with the Tap: Detroit launch event at St. Andrew's Hall, and runs through Saturday October 23 with the Brewers Guild Fall Beer Festival. There will be approximately 15 official Beer Week events as well as 30 beer destinations during this 8-day period. For more information about Detroit Beer Week, check out their Facebook page, and also check back here regularly as I am going to blog the HELL out of this event. Again, I'm here to help.