MICHIGAN BEER SOJOURN, DAY I

Shaped like a mitten, all the better for beer clutching.

So, I went on a little beer trip recently.

Three nights, to be specific. Four days. All spent tooling around southwestern Michigan, sampling as many beers as it was biologically possible to sample and still continue driving to the next brewery. All in all, it wasn’t quite as intense as the similar four-night trip I took to Wisconsin back in August, but it was pretty close.
 
I’m going to break up this detailed synopsis of the trip, replete with photos from along the way, into three posts, one for each day/night cycle. Along the way I’ll be sure to punish you with reminiscences and impressions of all the brews I was lucky enough to come across. It will be extremely long, and I fully expect you to suffer greatly before all is said and done.
 
So come with me, won’t you, as I plunge into the brews of the Mitten State.*
 
*I should mention that the trip for me technically started on the way from my current home in central Illinois back to my hometown in the Chicago suburbs as I stopped at a favorite watering hole, the Blind Pig Brewery in Champaign. Check out the great things they’re doing with glasswork and slogans these days.

I know that Dr. Ripped would disagree, but I figure the rest of you are with me on this.

However, let us begin the actual trip in earnest.
 
I left my hometown in the southwest suburbs of Chicago early on a Monday morning, heading Northeast, hugging the Lake Michigan coastline, and eager for some Michigan suds. My first stop, though, would be before I ever left the adjoining state of Indiana.

Shoreline Brewing, Michigan City, Indiana

Shoreline Brewing is a small brewpub located in Michigan City, which is, as you might guess, fairly close to Michigan, all things being considered. It’s located kind of lost in the back of a semi-commercial, semi-residential area near the lake, and from the outside looks rather like an abandoned warehouse where Scooby and the gang might run in and out of doors down a long hallway, pursued by a masked man going “rargle argle bargle”. Which is to say, it really doesn’t look like much.

Welcome to our weirdly laid out, crooked-sign brewery. Honestly, why did they stick the bottle and the crooked sign so close together? It's not like there's anything else on this blank brick wall.

Inside, though, I’m happy to report that it’s a different story, and is quite cozy, in a wooden planked, ski-lodge sort of way. I bellied up to the bar as the clock struck 11 a.m. and they opened for the day, and promptly ordered a flight, along with a crab cake sandwich. This was the beer list I was presented with:

You know you're in good hands when there's a Hitchiker's Guide reference in the beer list.

Of these, my flight consisted of:
 
– Ly-Co-Ki-We: A pleasant, easy drinking kolsch, as I wasn’t about to make the first sip of beer on the trip an imperial IPA.
 
– Spontaneous Ale: A unique beer that was kind of like a mix between an English mild and an English IPA. I think the name describes the brewer’s state of mind in making it.
 
– Beltaine Scottish Ale: At only 5.4% abv, this was actually one of the best and most flavorful regular Scottish ales I’ve had. I suppose you could call it a 70 schilling or something like that. Very complex, velvety maltiness. The brewery’s #1 seller.
 
– Exponential Ale: A single-hopped citra pale ale. Pretty good from what I remember.
 
– Singing Sands: Your basic oatmeal stout.
 
– Sum Nug IPA: As you might guess, hopped with Summit and Nugget. Pretty decent, went good with a crab cake sandwich.
 
It was then time to move on. Crossing over the state border and into official Michigan brews, I detoured into the town of Benton Harbor, famous for being so fiscally screwed up that it was recently taken over by the state government, in an actual form of emergency dictatorship. I, however, wasn’t there to take in a crumbling local government but to make a stop at The Livery, Benton Harbor’s notable local brewpub and performance venue.
 
The Livery, Benton Harbor, Michigan
Welcome to The Livery. The fact that this was already the second time today that I had been confronted with my most deadly foe, the dreaded Papyrus Font, was something that seemed decidedly ominous to me at the time.

Fyne Maykers of Ye Olde Aels. Also: finally, a brewery offering "good food". It's enough to make you wonder why nobody thought of that before.

Inside, The Livery is a pretty darn interesting place, with three floors. The main bar, with taps for all of the place’s brews, is located in the basement, in a tiny bar area that has a small-town dive/vegan soup kitchen kind of vibe. The ground floor, on the other hand, is more of a countercultural coffeeshop, with obligatory weird crap (old bicycle in the rafters) and a stage for live music. Reading through the list of performers before departing on the trip, I was very surprised by how many folk musicians I really enjoyed (such as Canadian fiddler April Verch, who they even named a beer after) had played regularly on that stage. I also heard in talking to the bartenders that the bar regularly draws some interesting beer figures as well. Case in point: A few days before I was in town, Fritz Maytag apparently was in town and stopped by for a brew.

Remembering what kind of trip I was on, however, I quickly beat a path down to the bar, where I saw this:

That's a bunch of a lot of stuff.

Once again I ordered a flight, determined to make at least a token dent in the total number of beers, most of which I knew that I would never get to try. This time I even managed to snap a shot of the flight when it arrived, sidestepping the problem I seem to have of forgetting my camera until exactly one of the glasses remains.

See, I only took a swig out of that one on the left before remembering. That's pretty good, I think.

This time, my choices from the beer list were, from left to right:

– Special C, dark Czech lager: Probably the worst beer of the trip, to be honest. It had a very weird cidery taste, bordering on mild sourness. I had never tasted any of these flavors in a lager before, but was repulsed by them here. Didn’t finish the taster. Figure I just got a bad beer.

– Steep Canyon Bohemian Pils: Where the first was weird, this one was just plain, and seemingly not hopped heavily enough to make a real impression. Didn’t finish the taster.

– Thom’s Special Amber IPA: Much better. A malty and herbal, seemingly English-inspired brew that restored my faith in what was going on in the Livery fermenters.

– String of Ponies, dry-hopped pale: A hoppy, ideal session brew that just about any brewpub would be happy to have as a flagship.

– Dixie O’Flynn, dry stout: A fine dry stout that really didn’t stand out too much.

– The Taxman, Russian imperial stout: Okay, now HERE’s the one that stood out at The Livery. An absolutely huge, 12.75% abv RIS, at cellar temperature by the time I drank it, went off like a bomb in my mouth. Easily one of the top one or two most purely flavorful brews from the trip, full of raw, in-your-face aggression. Although somewhat unrefined or one-dimensional in its approach, it was undoubtedly a good dimension, and it left me somehow chastened. I scurried out of The Livery shortly thereafter, having met my match, but not before knocking back a bowl of the world’s spiciest and most sobriety granting carnitas stew.

You really have to eat like a maniac when you're on a trip like this. It helps when you find things as tasty as this.

Saugatuck Brewing Company, Saugatuck, Michigan

After that I was back on the road again, continuing to hug the Lake Michigan coast and making a quick jaunt further north, to the small city of Saugatuck. There, Saugatuck Brewing Company awaited, or at least it would have, had it not been closed for new employee training.

They let me use the bathroom. I award the urinals 2 hops.

This is just one of those things that is bound to happen on any trip like this. When you visit 15 or so breweries/beer bars in the span of a few days, one of them will be closed unexpectedly. You just suck it up and move on. I managed to later pick up a few Saugatuck brews in liquor package stores in Grand Rapids, although I haven’t gotten to any of them yet.

Anyway, I jumped back in my car and continued heading north to my last stop of the day…New Holland Brewing.

New Holland Brewing, Holland, Michigan

You learn things on a trip like this. One of the things I learned was how beautiful Holland, Michigan for some reason is. It’s really quite nice. New Holland Brewing is located right on the campus of Hope College. I was pretty damn envious of those college kids, having such a great brewer right in their backyard.

It was really difficult to get all the words in the brewery title into the frame. It's wide!

New Holland is very nice on the inside as well, with a great gift shop, tours, and a main bar area that is a good fusion between comfy and modernesque. I sat at the bar, had a brew, and ate some pita bread and hummus.

It's Monday afternoon, time for a beer.

The dynamic of visiting a larger brewery that distributes its beer nationally on a trip like this is different from visiting smaller brewpubs, as I had earlier in the day. Instead of feeling the need “I have to make sure I’m able to taste everything,” most of the beers are ones you’ve probably had before, which is liberating. At these breweries, you “have to” taste fewer beers, and can typically just focus on one or two brewpub exclusives that are served at the brewery and are not distributed. New Holland had three of these, a robust porter, california common beer, and an insane imperialized saison.

Check out the bottom right corner.

That saison–“Saison Cacoa”–is a freaking 11.5% abv monster, brewed with “spices” and aged on cacao nibs. It was the last beer of the day for me, a nightcap in the truest sense. Its beguiling combination of booze, spice and richness made it probably the most intense beer-drinking experience of this trip, right on the edge of what a person could legitimately be expected to consume 12 ounces of.

Behold, the uber saison.

I then headed to my cheap motel to mercifully sleep.

That’s it for Day I of this Michigan Beer Sojourn! Tune in again on Wednesday for Day II, and on Friday for Day III!

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12 comments

  1. Terwilliger · · Reply

    $8 for a 13oz pour? Wow, that’s pricey!

  2. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    Holy cow, you’re right. I never noticed that because all I was drinking there were tasters in the flight. I think that even says that the R.I.S. is $11 for a 13 oz’er. Yikes.

  3. Wait… you saw something called “Umami Wheat Wine” and didn’t order it? You have to go back.

  4. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    I was afraid its meaty texture might cause me to keel over on my stool, preemptively aborting the trip.

  5. That Rum Barrel-aged Pilgrim’s Dole is intriguing as well… I don’t even really know if I like wheat wines, I just hardly ever see them.

  6. Nice job, look forward to reading the rest. I have family in Michigan and I’m in OC, CA. Is it possible to make the pics linked to a bigger version? I find them hard to read.

  7. Huh…good question, Greg. I’ll see if I can figure out a way to make that happen.

  8. […] Monday, I told you about the first leg of my recent trip through southwestern Michigan, in which I visited destinations like Shoreline Brewing, The Livery […]

  9. […] I travelled through southwestern Michigan for three nights and four days, and have chronicled both Day I and Day II of the trip on this site (complete with photos and maps) earlier this week. What follows […]

  10. […] was going to be able to end this series with three parts, but they kept getting longer and longer. Day I was good, Day II was better, and Day III was the single most thrilling collection of sentences and […]

  11. My review of the livery was pretty similar. I was there a little over a year ago and haven’t been back. http://www.flickr.com/photos/junkyardracer/4531071492/in/set-72157622534047717

    I was going to give it another shot a few weeks ago, my brother in law said only if I was driving (gas) and I was buying all beers and food. He had no intention on giving them any more money.

  12. I didn’t DISLIKE the Livery, it was just up and down for me. A bad beer, some normal ones, and a really good one. And the stew was good–incredibly spicy, but good.

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