BY MATTHEW MILLER Lansing State Journal
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — EAST LANSING — Kris Berglund, the father of Michigan’s distilling industry, was on a talking jag: the etymology of Swedish surnames, Finnish road signs, the family farm his owns in Illinois corn country. He’d flown across six time zones the day before. His head hurt. It was, he pointed out as he cracked a beer, after five o’clock in Sweden. In East Lansing, it wasn’t quite noon.
Berglund is in his mid-50s, gray bearded and blue eyed, the founder or co-founder of a half-dozen companies. That’s alongside his academic appointments at Michigan State University, where he is a university distinguished professor of food science and chemical engineering, and at Luleå University of Technology on the Swedish coast not far below the Arctic Circle. He is the head of MSU’s Artisan Distilling Program, the author of a popular (and free) practical guide for small distilleries, and “our only guru in the business,” Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute, told the Lansing State Journal.
Berglund wears his guru status lightly. What he exudes is enthusiasm.
“We’re going to have 24 seats and another five to eight at the bar.” The topic of conversation had shifted. He was talking about his latest project.
The venture is called Red Cedar Spirits. It’s a partnership with Uncle John’s Fruit House Winery that brings together the St. Johns cider mill’s distilling license, MSU’s German-made stills and Berglund’s expertise. It operates out of former public works building that was shuttered by the city of East Lansing in 2004 and purchased by Berglund and his wife, Ingham County commissioner Dianne Holman, in 2011 for their biochemical company, Working Bugs.
MSU’s distilling equipment now occupies space on the building’s south end. There is a new wooden bar in a former garage bay. If inspections go well, the garage will be a public tasting room. Bottles of rye whiskey, apple brandy and vodka already lined a shelf on the wall behind the bar.
Berglund said he wants the tasting room to be “almost like a portal on this industry for Michigan.”
He wants the company to continue the work of incubating it.
Microdistilleries are thriving around the county, but their success in Michigan has a lot to do with a slow dismantling of the barriers to entry. A distilling license in the early 1990s cost $10,000. In 1996, in part as a favor to the state’s fruit farmers, the Legislature created a new class of license that allowed winemakers to distill fruit brandies. That license cost $100 a year.
In 2008, Berglund approached then-state Rep. Barb Byrum with a proposal to create a small distilling license that would allow distillers to make whatever sort of spirits they cared to and allow sales on site. It was, Byrum said, a clear opportunity to boost agritourism in the state.
The Legislature passed it with near unanimity. The fact that the economic impact of the change was estimated at $400 million probably didn’t hurt.
There were no small distilleries in the state in 1996. There were perhaps 10 a decade later. Now there are more than 30 license holders, though not all of them are selling their wares, and others still in the process of starting up.
J.P. Jerome is one of those. He grew up in Bath, worked for a while after college at Bell’s Brewery near Kalamazoo, came to MSU for a Ph.D. in microbiology. Along the way, he and six friends from childhood decided to start a distillery.
They found a former slaughterhouse near Detroit’s Eastern Market. Barrels of whiskey with the Detroit City Distillery logo are stacked up now in Berglund’s warehouse.
“The craft beer industry has obviously undergone a crazy revolution in the past 20-plus years,” Jerome said. “The hope and the logical next step in the process would be that maybe spirits are going to undergo the same revolution.”
And, just as microbreweries introduced many to styles of beer beyond American lagers and pilsners, he sees the potential to create a market for “some very different unique spirits made with local ingredients.”
To get to that point, would-be distillers have to clear at least one particularly vexing regulatory hurdle.
Unlike beer and wine, there is no amount of distilled spirits that can be made legally without a license, and, to get a license, it’s first necessary to set up a fully operational distillery.
That’s one of the other places where Berglund comes in. Through a previous partnership with Michigan Brewing Company in Webberville and now through Red Cedar Spirits, he has helped to incubate new distilleries, offering recipe testing and contract distilling, practical advice and old-fashioned encouragement.
“He allowed me to develop a product, to fine tune that product and to test the market for that product as we were in the process of opening up our own brick-and-mortar place,” said Rifino Valentine, who began selling Valentine Vodka in 2009 and moved into a production facility in Ferndale in 2011. “That, as well as a lot of emotional support.”
But Berglund’s other key contribution has been as a teacher, both to students at Michigan State (which is starting a beverage science and technology specialization this fall) and in the weekend seminars he teaches multiple times a year here, at Cornell University in New York and in Sweden.
As he drank his beer and talked about Red Cedar Spirits’ future, there was a class of 40-plus students in a room down the hall listening to a lecture on fermentation from a fourth-generation German still maker. There were Michigan farmers and chemists and engineers, students from Indiana and New York and Quebec.
He’s taught those seminars for 16 years now.
“I’ve thought for at least 14 years that people would stop coming,” he said.
They haven’t yet.