• Anna Blessing
  • Founders Brewing Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan

In the introduction to Locally Brewed: Portraits of Craft Brewing from America’s Heartland, Anna Blessing writes, “In part this is a book about beer, but mostly it is a book about people: the craftspeople and artisans who brew the beer.” And—spoiler alert—that’s exactly what it is. Blessing has deftly pinpointed what’s most interesting about each brewer’s story and spends several pages, illustrated with photos of the brewers, beers, and breweries (taken by Blessing herself), telling it.

The 20 breweries featured in the book are listed in chronological order, starting with Minnesota’s August Schell Brewing Company, established in 1860. It’s listed by the Brewers Association as a “domestic noncraft brewery,” Blessing explains, because they use corn in one of their beers—something that megabreweries do to lighten beer. In the case of Schell’s, though, it’s a practice that was established 150 years ago by founder August Schell, who used corn to cut the protein content of the high-protein barley he was using (the only type available to him at the time). By the time the next brewery in the book, Bell’s, came along in 1985, Schell’s had already survived the Dakota Conflict, the Civil War, both world wars, and Prohibition—and it would go on to make it through the craft beer boom and bust of the 90s.

Many of the stories are of well-known breweries that started out small. Despite near-constant expansion, New Glarus has long been in the enviable position of demand outstripping supply. In 2005 they’d just finished one long-term construction project when the sales team reported that sales were up 75 percent, meaning that within a year they’d be out of beer to sell. They bought more land and built another brewery—and they’re still not making enough beer to distribute outside Wisconsin (though they don’t seem to want to, either).

  • Anna Blessing
  • Empty bottles lined up by the side of the road during Dark Lord Day

Lots of breweries weren’t immediately successful, though. Founders, now one of the biggest and best-respected craft breweries in the midwest, nearly foundered (sorry) three years after it opened. In 2000, owners Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers owed more than a million dollars and were considering filing for bankruptcy. A boost from investors allowed them to restructure, at which point they stopped brewing “balanced but unremarkable beers” (Engber’s words) and began producing more daring recipes. Even with their improved reputation and sales, it took another eight years for them to get out of debt.

You can enjoy the book even if you don’t care about beer—though it helps if you do. I was familiar with most of the breweries in the book, but I didn’t know the story of how Three Floyds’ Dark Lord Day went from a crowd of ten people the first year the beer was bottled (2004) to 100-odd the second; by its third year thousands were showing up for the release, and the event has been attracting beer nerds from across the country ever since. Or how the founders of Short’s Brewing ran out of money halfway through the construction of a larger brewery, and were saved by a customer who wanted to be a Mug Club member so badly that he invested $250,000 in the business. Or that Pat Conway, co-owner of Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, is working with U. of C. archaeologists to create a beer the same way the Sumerians would have done it (he hasn’t succeeded yet). And Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery made not only the first fruit beer released since Prohibition (a cherry lager, in 1992), but also the first USDA-certified organic beer (1996), and the first government-certified gluten-free beer (2006). When its pumpkin lager came out in 1989, it was the only commercially released beer of its type in the world.

  • Anna Blessing
  • The labeler at Short’s Brewing

Blessing makes it clear through her narrative that these facts aren’t just trivia, but evidence of the spirit and mission of each brewery. Lakefront’s brewers are committed to innovation. The owners of Great Lakes have a slight obsession with history. And that Short’s investor who came along at just the right time isn’t the first person who’s shown faith in founder Joe Short without much to go on. Dark Lord may not be what Three Floyds expected to become known for—it was the first Russian stout they ever brewed—but the rationale behind its creation does seem to encapsulate the brewery’s “why not?” attitude (the brewers figured that if their neighbor Flossmoor Brewing could brew an award-winning Russian imperial stout, so could they).

On Wednesday, April 16, from 7-9 PM, Blessing will sign copies of her book at the Locally Brewed book launch at Piece Brewery and Pizzeria (1927 W. North)—one of the featured breweries. There will be several rare beers on tap, including Surly Pentagram (American wild ale), Three Floyds Backmasking (oatmeal stout), Dark Horse 6 Pair of Legs (bourbon barrel-aged porter), and several from Piece: Moose Knuckle (bourbon barrel-aged barleywine), the Weight (pale ale), and Marketing Ploy (a pale ale brewed in collaboration with Three Floyds).