John Liberty began his professional career as a journalist, but now he’s “a craft beer ambassador” and says the two vocations aren’t really so far apart.
Liberty, a former Kalamazoo Gazette entertainment writer, and Aric Faber created West Michigan Beer Tours in 2013 to allow people to experience the area’s growing craft beer industry.
Liberty coordinates walking, biking and bus-riding tours of the region’s breweries. The tours include meeting brewers, sampling beers and hearing the back stories of the area’s burgeoning craft beer scene.
“I wrote about the craft brew scene at the Gazette and in the Kalamabrew blog,” the 36-year-old says. “I’m just sharing those stories in a different way now.”
How did West Michigan Beer Tours get started?
While I was an entertainment reporter at the Gazette, I and some coworkers launched Kalamabrew, a craft beer blog where we wrote about the personalities and happenings in the craft beer scene. At that time craft beer in Michigan was growing but still relatively small — 80 or 90 breweries, where now we’re up to 250-some and growing. Through the blog we made nice friendships with brewers and breweries in the region, met some cool people and learned a whole lot.
I play in the Kalamazoo Whiffle League, and one of my teammates, Aric Faber, was asking me about investment opportunities and what I knew about ownerships of some breweries, and I mentioned that I thought it would be great for this side of the state to have a business that would take people from brewery to brewery and tell them a little bit about the back stories of the brewers and the craft beer scene.
Aric, who’s entrepreneurial, liked the idea, saw a lawyer and bought a couple URLs. He asked me the next week if we should “make it real.” It took off pretty quick — we launched in spring 2013 and had our first official tour in spring 2014. We just kind of jumped in and ran with it as fast as we could.
The timing certainly was right. There was a void here that we have certainly filled. There are a lot of great breweries around, and people are flocking to those on their own. But trying to piece together a tour, especially when driving around to the breweries on your own, can be problematic. We solve all that by dealing with the planning issues and providing a fun, safe learning experience for craft beer lovers.
How big are your tour groups?
The sizes are all over the place. We’ve done a walking tour of downtown Kalamazoo breweries for two people, and we’ve had days with three full bus coaches of 50 people each, all going in different directions. We have a couple dates this summer with four tours going on simultaneously.
What has been your biggest challenge as a start-up?
That the demand has been so high and so fast, and just trying to keep up with the inquiries. There’s a lot of work from keeping up with the new breweries, juggling the calendar and getting ourselves in front of the right eyeballs through learning the Google monster and keeping social media happy. Trying to put all those things in place while leading tours and trying to find new people to help us keeps us busy.
What we’re doing isn’t necessarily unique, but the quality of the beer around here and the people making it are so outstanding that it makes our job easy. Once we get our groups in front of the brewers and they taste the beer, things take care of themselves.
The coordination takes some work, but it’s rewarding when it all comes together.
Any memorable moments stand out?
Something always seems to come up on a tour. We were running 50-some home brewers on a coach out to Jolly Pumpkin in Dexter, but our GPS didn’t tell us there was a historic arch stone bridge with a 16-foot clearance, which is less than a full coach is able to do. We stopped and joked about coating the top of the bus with butter, and then the driver looked at me and said, “John, we got a thing here.” Cars had started piling up behind us, and we had to put the coach in reverse to turn it around, which meant all the cars behind us had to back up, too.
While I was standing out on the road trying to help the driver turn the coach around, this random gentleman came along and asked, “You folks trying to go to Jolly Pumpkin?” I said, “We are.” And he said, “Follow me. I’ve got a shortcut for you.” He took us, in this big coach bus, through this residential neighborhood and then down this dusty, bumpy dirt road. He stopped and said, “Just go that way and it’s down there.” And it was. I wish I’d had a beer to give the guy.
What was the first craft beer you ever tasted?
A Bell’s Amber. A friend of mine had just gotten back from studying in Belgium and was telling me and our other friends all about the beer he experienced there. It made us all think a little differently about beer.
With craft beer a big part of your workday, do you still enjoy it?
Oh, yeah. Even without West Michigan Beer Tours, I’m a Michigan craft beer man all the way.