Mike Babb has beer in his blood, so it makes sense that he calls a beer city like Kalamazoo home, a place he’s helped solidify not just as a center for beer innovation but as the cradle for the development of the next generation of cutting-edge brewers.
A Colorado native raised in the shadow and culture of the Coors Brewing Co., Babb comes from a long line of beer enthusiasts. His grandfather worked in marketing at the behemoth of beer manufacturing, and his dad worked on the brewing and business side of the brewery. His sister worked there too.
“Some families talk about politics or what everyone’s day was like when they gather around the dinner table,” Babb says. “Our family talked about beer — all the time.”
So it made sense that Babb, 70, would enter the beer world himself, eventually making his way to the craft beer haven of Kalamazoo.
Process of chemical reactions
After graduating from the Colorado School of Mines in 1976 with a degree in chemical engineering, Babb walked through the doors at Coors in what would wind up being a 20-year stint with the brewer, working in process and research development, operations management, and eventually as head international brewer.
Babb came to Kalamazoo in 2003 to work for Kalsec, a local spice extraction company, as the product line director of the company’s hop extraction business, which catered to the hop-heavy burgeoning craft beer movement.
The company — and by default Babb — was approached by Kalamazoo Valley Community College in 2014 to help in the development of a KVCC certificate program in sustainable brewing. He still teaches in the program and keeps in touch with graduates who have been pushing out new flavors of beer at breweries across the nation.
Brewing, Babb says, is a multifaceted process of chemical reactions. Where you might see a golden-colored brew with a fluffy head, Babb sees the entire process, from start to bottle.
“I like the differences in beer — in manufacturing, process, type. It’s a complex thing, really,” he says.
“There’s the interaction of yeast, hops and water. But what types of hops? What kind of water? They all make a difference. Brewing is a combination of microbiology and physics and know-how. I find those aspects fascinating. I love to reverse-engineer a beer when I try something new.”
Despite his deep, complex expertise in brewing, Babb doesn’t take himself too seriously, doesn’t let himself get too exclusive in an industry that has become synonymous with cool. To put it succinctly, he doesn’t mind kicking back and cracking open a cheap cold one, what he calls “a lawnmower beer.”
There is something to be said for every beer, he says.
In the late 1980s, Babb studied brewing technology at the Technical University of Munich–Weihenstephan, and he has a master’s degree in education and curriculum development from Colorado Christian University, where his dissertation was on how best to deliver beer as well as its health benefits.
“In some ways, beer is healthier than spirits,” he says. “It’s a fermented product and has inherent health benefits, just like wine.”
More beer options
Before former President Jimmy Carter signed the law in 1978 allowing people to brew their own beer, which sparked many of the brands we know today, like Bell’s, Founders and dozens more, Americans had very limited beer options, Babb says.
“There were four mega-breweries, and not much variety,” he says. “It was like having four different kinds of white bread.”
That’s all changed, of course.
Michigan ranks sixth in the United States in number of craft breweries, with 398 of them operating in the state, more than double the number here a decade ago, according to the Brewers Association, a trade group that promotes craft breweries nationwide. All told, Michigan breweries have an almost $2.6 billion annual impact on the state’s economy.
Babb sees that impact locally too. Smaller Kalamazoo-area breweries like One Well, Final Gravity and Latitude 42 have all done what Babb says is necessary to survive in today’s competitive craft brewery scene — carve out a niche, make a name and work hard to drive people to your pints. Nearly two-thirds of the cost of beer is distribution, Babb says, so it makes sense to keep things local.
While he was in Germany, Babb was impressed by the number of smaller breweries and pubs scattered across the country. People liked the idea of being able to saunter down to their local watering hole where they knew the brewer and where the process of manufacturing what they were drinking was shared. Babb says there was an openness about it that he really liked, and he’s happy to see it now taking place in Kalamazoo and across the United States.
“People want a destination for social interaction, not just being immersed in social media and texting. The craft brew pub became that,” he says.
Craft breweries did quite well during the worst parts of the pandemic, tilting their business plans to offer curbside food and growler service in lieu of folks cozying up to the bar, Babb says. Still, the market for craft beer locally is getting a bit saturated, he says.
“Craft brewers have explored the front lines,” Babb says. “I don’t really know what’s left.”
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas for growth. The emerging markets for non-alcoholic and gluten-free beer mean that those brewers who think outside the box have opportunities to succeed, he says. Sometimes it’s not about catching a beer buzz.
“Some people in the younger generations don’t really want the alcohol — or (want) a little alcohol — but they want the flavor,” he says. “Think of the seltzers we’re seeing, or various cannabis-infused products.”
Not surprisingly, Babb does some brewing himself, crafting small batches for himself and his wife, Linda — who also serves as his official taste-tester — as well as for those who live near his westside Kalamazoo home.
“You could say I’m pretty popular in the neighborhood,” he says.