Michiana 2027: The future of wine, beer, and spirits in Berrien County
BERRIEN COUNTY, Mich. -- There are three industries booming right in our backyard. Can alcohol put Berrien County on the map nationally? Local experts weigh in.
“I think the future of distilling is more distilleries,” said Bill Welter, owner of Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks.
“I think you’re going to see, in 2027, more local tap handles, more local beer on the shelves, and more places carrying it,” said Pete Crowley, owner of Haymarket Taproom in Bridgman.
“The more wineries there are, the more diversity we can have; the more overall customers will come into our area and we help each other,” said Rockie Rick, owner of Gravity Vineyards and Winery in Baroda.
Winemaking is now Rick’s life.
But fruit farming came first.
“Right where we’re sitting right now was a peach and cherry orchard that I helped plant as a real little kid,” Rick said, while sitting in the tasting room he runs.
The 70 acres Gravity Vineyards and Winery sits on in Baroda first belonged to his grandpa and dad.
Rick started growing grapes about 10 years ago. Then he began selling and serving his own wine in 2011.
He said Berrien County’s proximity to Lake Michigan gives winemakers a strategic advantage.
“It really moderates our temperature, both keeping us a few degrees warmer in the winter time, a few degrees cooler in the hottest part of the summer,” Rick said. “It extends our growing season to where there’s guys still out picking grapes now in November.”
The location of big cities – Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, etc. – within driving distance of Berrien County also helps, a lot.
Rick said business has grown steadily each year; even through economic twists and turns, because southwest Michigan is becoming a destination.
“Our weekday business has increased,” he said. “So people are coming here and spending a whole week in our area, versus just a day like it was a few years ago.”
But with success comes demand.
“We need people with specialized skillsets,” Rick said. “We need people that are trained in chemistry and enology and viticulture and plant pathology and vine nutrition – stuff that’s very, very scientific.”
That’s where Michael Moyer comes in.
“It’s definitely becoming wine country here in southwest Michigan,” Moyer said.
He’s the director of Lake Michigan College’s winemaking program – one of the first of its kind in the Midwest.
The school opened a tasting room in Baroda back in July so the two dozen students in the program can sell what they’re making.
“We have a woman who was working in the financial world of Chicago,” Moyer said. “We have, actually, a pediatric surgeon in our cohort of students this year. And then we also have two children of large grape growing families in southwest Michigan.”
There are about 20 wineries in Berrien County.
But following close behind is the 17 breweries that have opened in the county in recent years.
“I think, right now, the glaring thing that’s missing to me is a dedicated beer trail, beer trail signs – I see all the wine signs and I see that industry’s got a lot more history behind it than we do,” Crowley said.
A craft beer boom is running right through the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail.
And tucked in the woods of Bridgman sits Haymarket Taproom.
“You can have the people that are actually making the beer in the market where it’s being sold,” Crowley said.
That’s what led Crowley into the brewing world.
And southwest Michigan’s unique location then led him to expand his Chicago business to a former Michigan State Police Post in Bridgman in January.
“I mean, when the season is over, it is definitely over,” said Ayla Batton, Haymarket’s general manager.
Batton said the reception has been warm so far, but she said before and after the summer surge is a reality the team at Haymarket is learning to work with.
But both Batton and Crowley agree there is a growing desire for drinks and food – like Haymarket’s specialty pizza – that are made from scratch, locally.
“People come to breweries for comfort and they come to breweries for friendship and for sort of like a sense of home,” she said. “And I personally see breweries becoming more of like a community center than just a place to go get food and beer.”
“When people think of southwest Michigan they’re thinking spirits, they’re thinking wine, and they’re thinking beer,” Welter said.
Behind the walls of an old Featherbone Corset factory in Three Oaks, Welter completes the trifecta.
“The facility here is 40,000 square feet but we continue to run out of space,” he said.
Welter opened Journeyman Distillery in 2011.
He and his team make whiskey, rum, gin, and more from scratch, on site.
“I think, really, southwest Michigan is a leader in alcohol production,” he said.
But unlike the growing wine and beer world in Berrien County, Journeyman is the only standalone distillery in the county.
But it’s doing incredibly well.
“I think the biggest challenge for us over the next five to 10 years is establishing ourselves as a national brand,” Welter said.
Journeyman products are currently sold in 14 states and six countries.
Welter has grown his business from five employees to 120 in under a decade.
He said the demand is there, but he also thinks craft distilling is approaching a plateau.
He said the cost and time needed to begin distilling on your own is sometimes unappealing.
Welter also thinks Michigan can become more welcoming to distillers if the state lowers how it taxes them.
“Right now, Michigan is one of the very highest in the whole country in terms of what we pay the state of Michigan in terms of excise tax,” he said.
Three different industries – one common goal for the future: work together to continue putting southwest Michigan on the map.
“I feel like everyone in the industry around here realizes that all of us together will raise – the high tide raises all boats, as they say,” Crowley said.
“I think a rising tide carries all boats,” Welter said. “The more people that come to this community and come to southwest Michigan, the better off this area will be. And it will just continue to grow as almost like a national destination point.”
“As more wineries open up, we’re going to have a chance to even further diversify,” Rick said. “Cause we’re not trying to be everything for everybody.”
“We need to really push to get the recognition that this area deserves,” Moyer said. “And that starts with – there’s some looking in the mirror and making sure that we’re putting our best foot forward in everything that we do.”