There were four small distilleries in Michigan at the end of 2008.
Now there are close to 120.
Kris Berglund could take as much credit for that as anyone.
Prior to 2008, a distilling license in Michigan cost $1,000 and didn’t allow distillers to sell their products on site.
Berglund, a Michigan State University professor and founder of the university’s Artisan Distilling Program, helped retool state laws, dropping the price of a license to $100 and letting distillers establish tasting rooms at their facilities.
“That was the catalyst that sparked everything for the Michigan distilling industry,” said Rick Wyble, the president and head distiller of American Fifth Spirits in Lansing. “Without that, it made no financial sense for people to get into this.”
Berglund died in December at the age of 63. His memorial service at Michigan State was held last week.
The industry he helped to create is still humming along.
Michigan distilleries invested about $19.7 million here in 2017 and made more than 60,000 gallons of spirits, according to estimates from the Michigan Craft Distillers Association.
That same year, craft distillers in Michigan used 1,365,000 pounds of Michigan grain and 960,000 pounds of Michigan fruit and juice.
In 1996, the state legislature created a new and inexpensive class of distilling license that would allow wineries to make liquors distilled from fruit.
Berglund, a distinguished professor of chemical engineering and food science at MSU, saw the potential for Michigan’s fruit growers, who were interested. So were three wineries: Black Star Farms, Chateau Chantal and St. Julian.
Berglund took a group to Germany to learn distilling. By 1998, he was holding weekend distilling seminars. Those seminars and a distilling guide he wrote and made available for free would educate a generation of craft distillers.
Jon O’Connor, who co-founded Long Road Distillery in Grand Rapids, took Berglund’s workshop when he started out in the industry and was amazed that people were coming from across the country to learn from him.
“The knowledge needed to do this was much harder to get then,” he said. “We were fortunate to have someone like Kris.”
When Mark Moseler started researching the distilling industry a decade ago, he kept running across Berglund’s name.
“This industry I’m in didn’t exist before Kris Berglund,” said Moseler, the owner of Northern Latitudes Distillery in Lake Leelanau. “Not one of us would be here without him in the state of Michigan.”
Berglund also was key in launching new distilleries by helping recipe test and connecting owners with contract distilling options.
As a mentor, Berglund was always eager to share advice and encouragement, friends say.
“He taught like a big brother or mentor, not like a professor,” said Scott Graham, the executive director of the Michigan Brewers Guild. “He was really hands on.”
In 2008, then-state Rep. Barb Byrum sponsored a proposal that allowed for the establishment of licensed small distillers. For a $100 licensing fee, distillers could make whatever they wanted, sell it on the premises, and distribute to retail outlets.
Berglund helped write the legislation and advocated for its passage.
MSU Professor Kris Berglund at Michigan Brewing Company. (Photo: Courtesy photo)
Byrum said she was intrigued about the idea’s potential to create more jobs in the state and boost the state’s agriculture industry.
“He was a brilliant man but was very patient and kind when communicating,” Byrum said of Berglund.
Five years after the law changed, Berglund and his wife, Dianne Holmanopened Red Cedar Spirits, an East Lansing distillery that has done contract distilling for many of Michigan’s craft distilleries in their early stages. Holman is the owner.
Holman said whether it was through seminars or drafting legislation, Berglund was committed to spreading information and education beyond Michigan State.
“He just saw that as part of the full role of the university to bring knowledge to everyone,” she said. “That’s just how he was.”