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March 27, 2013

Beer tours brew up business for Troy resident

By Terry Oparka
C & G Staff Writer

After Troy resident Steve Johnson and his wife, Laura, enjoyed a tasting tour of wineries in southwest Michigan, the couple wondered if similar tours for beer lovers could be successful.

So Johnson, who has a marketing and business background and earned a master’s of business from Walsh College, drafted a business plan for a brewery-tour business as he was finishing up his coursework.

“I didn’t know if it would turn into a full-blown business,” he said. “I thought we’d try it a few times and see where it took us. I envisioned three different tour routes, planned the first event for June of 2009 and wondered if someone would show up.”

Since then, Johnson’s company, Motor City Brew Tours, has conducted more than 100 events with more than 50 breweries, distilleries and meaderies in Michigan. The company also provides bus transportation to four major beer festivals in the state: the Michigan Brewers Guild events in winter, summer and fall, and the World Expo of Beer. Guided walking tours are offered through downtown Royal Oak and Ann Arbor.

Johnson, 40, said he kept his day job for the first year and a half and made the move to do the business full time in the summer of 2010. Motor City Brew Tours ran 60 events last year. 

“When we started, the number of breweries in the state was less than 100. There’s now over 120,” Johnson said.

According to the Michigan Brewer’s Guild, the brewing industry in the state ranks fifth in the nation. In a 2013 report released by the Demeter Group Investment Bank of San Francisco for the Brewers Association, Michigan, with a 20 percent increase in breweries, was cited as a high-growth state for the industry, which along with Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina and Texas, accounted for 30 percent overall of the growth of the industry in 2011.

An avid bicyclist, Johnson expanded Motor City Brew Tours into bike tours, as well as historical tours highlighting brewery history, Prohibition history and theater building history.

Johnson said he has a lot of regular customers, most ages 35-55.

“Everybody likes something about every place,” he said. “It’s about quality and trying new things. They are not pub crawls.”

One “regular,” Brian Wilson, who recently moved to an apartment in Midtown Detroit and is an avid bicyclist, has taken two bike tours: Detroit Brewing History and Lansing Beer Week. He’s also taken one boat tour on the Detroit Princess and four bus tours.

“Every trip is a great mix of historical information presented in an entertaining way,” Wilson said. “You get to see parts of town or hear details about places you might not otherwise, and see ones you would in a whole new way.

“I couldn’t not try it,” he added. “The themes all sounded interesting; it was just a matter of which one to try first, and bike riding for beer — who could pass that up? I love supporting Detroit breweries and getting a little physical activity in at the same time, like you’ve earned it.”

Motor City Brew Tours will sponsor Cruisin’ for the Trails, a bike ride to support local rail trails along the Clinton River and Paint Creek trails, April 27. There will be stops/tours at the Rochester Mills Beer Co., 51 North Brewing Co. and Clubhouse BFD. Tickets cost $20 per person before April 13 and $25 per person after that. All proceeds from the event will support the Friends of the Clinton River Trail and Friends of the Paint Creek Trail. For information, call (248) 850-2563 or visit http://MotorCityBrewTours.com.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Terry Oparka at toparka@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1054.