The Mitten State is known for many things. Great college football. Terrible professional football. Ruin porn. Yoopers. And the world’s largest weathervane. But for Aleheads, Michigan is something else entirely: a mid-western bastion of killer craft breweries.
While Bell’s and Founders* put the Great Lakes State on the craft beer map, Michigan is dotted from East to West and North to South with dozens of world-class ale factories. From Kuhnhenn to New Holland…from Short’s to Dark Horse…Michigan is a craft beer lover’s paradise. Seemingly every major city has its own unique brewing culture and Michiganders take their beer VERY seriously.
*Alas, I should probably point out that Founders is no longer actually considered a craft brewery. After selling a 30% ownership stake to Spanish brewing giant Mahou San Miguel, Founders no longer meets the threshold set by the Brewers Association (less than 25% owned or controlled by an “alcoholic beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer”). With the loss of Founders, Lagunitas and Ballast Point, the Brewers Association may have to start rethinking their definitions. Strange times to be an Alehead!
The Aleheads have hit up Portland, San Diego, Asheville, Denver, Philly, Boston, NYC and countless other beer destinations over the years. But despite being the home state of one of our own (the oft-loathed Slouch Sixpack), Michigan was curiously absent from our travelogues. Maybe it’s the wholly unfair negative PR hit that Detroit and Flint give the rest of the state. Maybe it’s the admittedly spread out nature of the big name Michigan breweries (try to make a road trip where you grab a pint at Kuhnhenn, Bell’s, Founders and Shorts and you’ll have driven around the entire lower peninsula). Or maybe it’s just the fact that any state that birthed Slouch Sixpack is one to be avoided…
Irregahdless (as they say back in my own, much-maligned home state), in mid-October, Doc, Slouch and I tied up our bindles, and rendezvoused at Detroit Metro for 48 hours of Pure Michigan Drinking. We meant to put together a write-up immediately afterwards, but then Slouch got a runny nose and Doc had an itchy butt and then I took a nap and then, whoa, hey…look at the time…it’s mid-December! Funny how that happens. So you’ll have to bear with me as my memories of a now two-month old drinking trip are more than a wee bit fuzzy. Nevertheless…away we go!
About 10 minutes after Doc and I met up at the Detroit airport (significantly nicer than I remember, by the way) Slouch arrived in something resembling a car and whisked us away to Warren, MI…a suburb just Northeast of Detroit. Our first stop, about 30 seconds after they opened, was the medieval-themed Dragonmead Microbrewery. Home of a bewildering number of beers, ciders and meads for such a small locale, Dragonmead was the perfect spot to launch our Michigan trip. Low-key, with super-friendly bartenders and a plethora of styles to choose from, we each got a six-brew flight so we could sample close to 20 beers between the three of us (sharing tasters was our M.O. throughout the trip…we were banking on the alcohol keeping Slouch’s herpes at bay while we sipped out of the same glasses).
Dragonmead’s brews were solid enough…there weren’t any slap-yourself-in-the-face standouts, but they got every style right and there weren’t any real clunkers in the bunch. Dragonmead did better with Stouts, Scotch Ales and a quite-good Belgian Strong Dark Ale called the Sin Eater than they did with IPAs or Pale Ales. Mostly, it just felt like a welcoming, neighborhood brewery where the staff enjoyed what they did. Not every brewery has to be a world-beater…as long as the beer is drinkable and the employees have a smile on their face, that’s usually enough for an hour of my time.
After polishing off our flights, we made the quick hop over to Kuhnhenn to tuck into their famous DRIPA (Double Rice IPA). It was as good as advertised…a resiny hop profile on top of an uber-clean, uber-crisp malt backbone, the DRIPA was probably the second best hop-forward brew of the trip. Kuhnhenn also nailed the American Pale Ale style with their Loonie Kuhnie, the Session IPA style with their Fluffer, and the good ol’ American IPA with their Thumper. The massive Imperial Creme Brulee Java Stout was another standout as was their Maple Pecan Detroitonator (a Bock). The only major letdown was the nigh-undrinkable Totally Roasted Cider, but that was our own damn fault for ordering a non-beer.
Kuhnhenn’s large central bar and eclectic decor made for a great spot for drinking and chatting. It was the first day of Oktoberfest so the bartenders were dressed in traditional German attire and were heavily pushing their Festbier (none of us are huge Marzen fans, but it was good as far as the style is concerned). I could have easily settled into a groove at Kuhnhenn, but we had a date in Kalamazoo and had to keep on schedule.
It was getting towards lunchtime so we made the drive to Ann Arbor to stop by the Jolly Pumpkin brewpub (not their flagship location, but a nice spot, nonetheless). We each grabbed a pint (of Oro de Calabaza, Golden Dragon and La Parcela) and some tasty grub. Jolly Pumpkin is a great lunch spot near the U of M campus. Good pub food along with Jolly Pumpkin’s always killer sour ales makes for a nice combo. After settling up, we continued our Westward trek with a stop in Marshall, Michigan.
Marshall feels like a town out of time. Driving to Dark Horse Brewing felt like driving through a suburb in the mid-1980s. It was simultaneously nostalgic and just a touch creepy. The Americans could film in Marshall without having to change a damn thing. Dark Horse is clearly a local haunt. The only stop on our trip where flights weren’t an option, it seemed like everyone knew everyone else and we were on the outside looking in. While this may seem off-putting, I actually love that places like Dark Horse exist. A large, production-level brewery in the middle of nowhere, Michigan that draws huge crowds early on a Friday afternoon from their local populace. That’s just a great sign for the craft beer industry.
Of course, it helps that Dark Horse makes very good, very interesting beer. Doc hit up their potent Sapient Trip Ale (a Tripel). Slouch worked his way through their even stronger (12%) Double Crooked Tree IPA. And I went with their odd, but fascinating Sasparilla 6 which, as the name implies, tasted like a root beer-flavored Imperial Stout. All three beers were excellent. If you can make a great DIPA, Tripel and Root Beer Stout under the same roof, you know your damn business. After wandering around the outdoor drinking grounds (complete with cornhole tables and hop bines hung over trellises), we hit the road to tackle our first white whale of the trip in Kalamazoo…Bell’s.
We usually plan our beer trips around one or two “big name” breweries with the understanding that they’ll probably be disappointing. Truth be told, the big boys are often a little too slick, a little too polished, and a little too “production-focused”. They may make fabulous beer, but that doesn’t always equate to a great place to stop for a drink. During our San Diego trip last year, Green Flash and Ballast Point, while making as good a product as anywhere in the country, were not the most memorable places to sit down for a round. Their focus is on churning out massive quantities of consistent, delicious beer…not catering to a couple of schmucks on a road trip looking to plunk down $5 for some taster glasses.
Despite all those concerns, our first big name stop of the trip, Bell’s Eccentric Cafe, did not disappoint. One of the issues with the big breweries is that they tend to have their “standards” on tap and maybe just one or two draft-only offerings (such was the case with Oskar Blues in Lyons, CO which only had one draft-only offering during our visit a few years back). While Bell’s had plenty of their old stand-bys (Two Hearted, Oarsman, Best Brown, etc.), they had dozens of draft-only one-offs for Aleheads to drool over. And we crushed ALL of them…despite a number of them topping out over 15% ABV.
We immediately ordered up both versions of Larry’s Stupid Quadrupid IPA (a “quadruple”, 15.1% IPA that came in both standard and grapefruit flavors), as well as the Double Two Hearted (an Imperial version of Bell’s best-in-class IPA), a Spruce Two Hearted (a pine-tree flavored IPA), and the Crazy Brewer which was just a hodgepodge of every flavoring imaginable. We also ordered up a variety of small bar bites to wash down the hugely strong beers (an absolute necessity).
Everything was killer at Bell’s but the Quadrupids, Double Two Hearted and weirdly perfect Lavender Saison stole the show. After rolling out of Bell’s, all three of us had been up for 18 hours straight and had been drinking for a good portion of that time. We only had so much enthusiasm left, but we still managed to power across the river to hit up Arcadia Ales.
We were immediately blown away by the Arcadia decor. A huge, sprawling complex with clean, modern lines, huge windows, gorgeous light fixtures, and high-end finishes everywhere, Arcadia was proof that craft beer has become a big-money business. It looked like the kind of place that should have turned us away in a heartbeat, but since craft brewing is one of the friendliest industries in the country, they even welcomed our smelly, old asses to the bar. Arcadia’s beers were quite good, although our tastebuds were a little burned out after the assault at Bell’s. The Hopmouth Double IPA and B-Craft Black IPA were winners and I enjoyed the Brown Cow sour ale as well as the coconut-flavored Porter Rico.
Unfortunately, we were dragging at that point so we probably didn’t give Arcadia the time or energy it deserved. We slogged back towards our hotel with one last stop at Gonzo’s BigDogg Brewing (it was quite literally in our path so we almost HAD to walk in and order a beer just to get back to the hotel). I remember nothing good or bad about Gonzo’s. Their beer was wet and contained alcohol. It’s not your fault, Gonzo. We were toast by that point.
And so to bed.
Feeling better than we had any right to, our triumvirate showered, caught up on SportsCenter, then grabbed an excellent breakfast at the Studio Grill in downtown Kalamazoo. After rehydrating, we went back to work and made the jaunt north from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids for our first stop of the day.
While we enjoyed every stop we made on our Michigan trip, there’s usually one clear “favorite” on these beer excursions. Maybe the time of day plays into it. Maybe it’s running into some particularly friendly people. Maybe it’s just how drunk/hungover/tired you are. Whatever the causes, one brewery generally stands out as the most memorable from each trip. For us, Perrin Brewing Company was that stop.
Located in a spacious warehouse in the middle of nowhere in Comstock, MI, Perrin requires you to go a bit out of your way to locate it…but it’s well worth the hike. Arriving more or less right as they opened, we were the first in the door and quickly got to work ordering up flights. Perrin nailed every style, from the Lotsa Problems Double IPA to the sticky-sweet Caramel Nitro, to the Uncle Louie’s Cocktail (a rarely seen Braggot-style brew) to the very unfortunately-named Poop Your Pants (a Bock), every beer was better than the last. Unless that beer was the Juicy, of course. The Juicy, an outrageously fresh, danker-than-hell Imperial IPA was the consensus best beer on the trip. Like biting into a whole hop cone, the Juicy was one of those brews (like Russian River’s Pliny the Elder, The Alchemist’s Heady Topper, Treehouse’s Julius, or Wicked Weed’s Pernicious) that showcases the ethereal beauty and otherwordly tastiness of the humble hop. It was a showstopper brew and one that had us all abuzz.
Sadly, Perrin was just our first stop on a very busy day, so we couldn’t linger and continue enjoying their crazy-good beers. Instead, we hopped in the car and hit up the Hideout Brewing Company.
Just as there’s one brewery that stands out on every trip, there’s always one that disappoints a bit. Hideout had the misfortune of coming right after our Perrin visit. Small, awkwardly laid out, with far too many options (I’d much rather a brewery did 5 beers really well than 50 beers just OK), Hideout wasn’t terrible…it just wasn’t anything special. Admittedly, the bartender was having trouble with the taplines and the CO2 so nothing he poured was going to be perfect, but the beers we sampled were thin, oddly flavored (most had a strange, cardboard aftertaste), and, worst of all, dull. Again, we had just sampled the lights-out brews at Perrin, so any location was going to suffer in comparison, but we didn’t linger at Hideout.*
*A caveat…while it may sound like I’m bashing Hideout, Doc, Slouch and I all agreed that the biggest problem with the place is that it seemed like the kind of brewery WE would open. It was kind of a mess. The guys working there were clearly just buddies who had ramped up their homebrewing hobby into a small business. They tried to brew every crazy damn thing they could think of. They had 5 different football games on TV plus some old movies. And all they had for food was peanuts and chips. It’s like some fraternity brothers just converted their house into a brewery. Nothing wrong with that…just hard to compare it to a more professional outfit.
The next stop was the baseball-themed Mitten Brewing Company. A tiny outfit located in what looked like a converted townhouse, Mitten had a friendly vibe and an upbeat staff that recommended everything. Their Black Betsy Coffee Stout and Dock’s No-No DIPA were standouts, and they probably had the best Harvest Ale of any brewery we went to (it was hop harvesting season during our visit so almost every brewery had a fresh hop option on the menu). Mitten would have been a great place to hang for a few hours, but we were getting hungry and we had unanimously agreed to dine at…
…Brewery Vivant. Kid Carboy had highly recommended stopping by this Belgian-focused brewery during our visit. I had sampled some of their excellent canned offerings over the years and was very excited to stop by and grab some of their awesome suds on draft. Vivant was second only to Founders in terms of crowds, but we managed to grab an outdoor table (it was pretty damn cold, but we drank enough to cancel out the low temps). We tucked into some fancier-than-necessary pub food including duck confit nachos, bone marrow, and an upscale Banh Mi. And of course we crushed some mighty fine Vivant beers like their Linnaeus Mango IPA, Tart Side of the Barrel (a BSDA), and the outrageously good Devastation (an Imperial IPA). Vivant was perhaps a touch pretentious (it feels a little bit like the kind of thing non-Aleheads mock us for…like the living embodiment of that Budweiser “Fussed Over” ad), but we dug it anyway. What’s a little beer snobbery when you get to drink barrel-aged sour ales and sop up some bone marrow on a spent grain pretzel with good friends? Ain’t nothing wrong with that. Also, they have a beer called Big Red Coq.
The winner for “chillest” brewery goes to Harmony Brewing Company where we stopped after lunch. Small and unassuming, Harmony looked like a great place to stop for a sandwich and a game of Scrabble with a friend. They had a nice selection of in-house beers, like the tasty Grapefruit Moon IPA and the Pumpkin Patch, as well as some guest taps from the likes of Beggars Brewery and Right Brain Brewery. We had the Double Trigger Stout from the former and the Chubby Squirrel Brown Ale from the latter since we knew we wouldn’t be stopping at either locale (both quite out of the way).
After a quiet moment at Harmony, we hit up the equally small, but far more modern-looking ELK Brewing Company. The lone bartender was working his ass off serving about 20 people by himself (all of whom were ordering flights…ELK was clearly a pit-stop for others on beer tours like us). Their Dankalicious IPA was very good (though not quite as great as the name implied) and I liked their refreshing Cucumber Saison. They had a nice Coffee Porter called the Rowster as well. ELK seemed a little yuppie-ish…it reminded me a bit of Culture Brewing in San Diego which also made great beer but looked like it had been started by a hedge fund manager interested in dabbling in craft beer for no particular reason. Whatever…the beer was good and the bartender was great, so I shouldn’t complain.
After ELK, it was time for the main event…Founders Brewing.
Founders has been a favorite amongst the Aleheads since the site was started. Their Breakfast Stout, KBS, Centennial IPA, Red’s Rye and Double Trouble are all personal favorites and they’re one of those craft breweries that every Alehead speaks of in breathless tones. Alas, that popularity means that a stop at their HQ in Grand Rapids is not going to be a restful, quiet affair. Founders was utterly mobbed. There wasn’t a seat to be had and the only way to order a beer was to stand in line at the one gap in the massive bar and wait 20 minutes to talk to a bartender. The facility is enormous and there must have been a thousand people drinking and yelling over each other. Founders suffered from the aforementioned “too few draft-only” offerings so it was a bit disappointing from the perspective of trying new brews, but it was still worth it for the spectacle. Much like kissing the Blarney Stone when you’re in Ireland, a visit to Founders may not technically be that enjoyable, but it’s still something every Alehead has to do. We grabbed three pints of Rye Death, reDANKulous and a Nitro Rubaeus and then hid in the corner, drank up and were on our way.
While hardly a “bust” (it’s still a goddamn world-class brewery), I can say quite frankly that Founders is simply too big, too bustling and too freaking popular to be a great stop for an Aleheads road trip. We prefer the places where we can catch our breath, talk to the bartender a bit, grab a flight, and linger for an hour or so and really get a sense of the place. Founders meteoric rise makes it one of the best breweries in the country…but not necessarily a great place to visit. Still, I’m glad I was able to check it off the bucket list.
After leaving Founders, we meandered through the rainy streets of Grand Rapids and found ourselves in the basement of a huge commercial building at a place called B.O.B.’s Brewery (B.O.B. stands for Big Old Building which was the name of the space where the brewery was located). Surprisingly decent, we grabbed pints of the Hop Sprocket IPA, the Full On IPA (you may have noticed that we like IPAs), and the Orange Julius-flavored (note: not a bad thing!) Tangerine Trees Cream Ale. We all commented on the good quality of the brews (unexpected considering we knew nothing of this strange, basement-level brewery), but with the night getting long and some stops still left to make, we hurried along and hit up Grand Rapids Brewing.
Grand Rapids Brewing was packed (it felt like more of a restaurant than a bar) and three, bedraggled, intoxicated weirdos who were just there for the beer were clearly not welcome. We tried to find any empty seat but all were reserved for those ordering food (I always find this a little irksome at a place that nominally calls itself a brewery, but I suppose I understand it from a business perspective). We managed to grab a stool at the corner of the bar and ordered some very high-quality brews. Much like Fort Collins, Grand Rapids seems like one of those cities that prides itself on churning out really good beer. When you get enough critical mass of breweries, the chaff tends to disappear and competition weeds out the weaker outfits. In Grand Rapids, you can get a good pint pretty much anywhere you go and Grand Rapids Brewing was no exception. Doc had Tennis’s Wet Hopped Pale Ale, Slouch tucked into a Last Dance with Abby Layne (a big, hoppy brown ale), and I tried an English Brown Ale called the Sun & Moon Art Prize (we were in Grand Rapids during the tremendously popular Art Prize festival…hence the crazy crowds). All were rock solid, but we were being not-so-subtly pushed out by a more well-heeled crowd, so we took our business to a locale where drunkards like us were appreciated…HopCat.
HopCat is THE beer bar in Grand Rapids. Though they have a few beers of their own, they mostly specialize in showcasing crazy, draft-only offerings from all over the Mitten State. Like everywhere else in Grand Rapids, HopCat was absolutely slammed, so we sidled up to a corner of the bar and turned on what was left of our rapidly waning charm to win over some wonderfully kind, middle-aged women who were being ignored completely by their husbands. They happily relinquished their barstools when a table opened up for them and we bellied up for a few late-night rounds. We sampled two of HopCat’s own offerings…the Contains Deez Nuts, a pecan-flavored Brown Ale (very good) and the Currfee Purrmkin Purr (we’re officially running our of beer names), an awesome pumpkin ale. We also had a killer sour called Raisin Hell from Round Barn Brewery, another pumpkin ale (it was October!) from Griffin Claw called the Screamin’ Pumpkin and a few offerings from Short’s (Huma Lupa Licious, Soft Parade, and Ermergerdness…all spot on). Short’s was probably the one, big name Michigan brewery we wish we could have checked out, but Bellaire was just too damn far. Somewhere along the line, we grabbed a pint of the Rice Reaper from Tapistry Brewing. I don’t remember it, but it was in Doc’s Untappd list from the trip, so I believe him.
Oh, we ate food at HopCat too. Mine had some sort of protein and carbohydrates in it. I think Doc and Slouch had the same.
And so to bed.
The three of us awoke a little banged up the next morning after a night in a pretty grim Travelodge (note to self: don’t let Slouch make hotel reservations). We showered up, then grabbed an outstanding breakfast at the Real Food Cafe. Nothing like salted meats, eggs and starch to soak up two days worth of beer. We got on the road with the intention of heading straight to the airport, but we made such good time that we had a few hours to kill after nearing Detroit.
So, since we’re incorrigible drunks, we stopped by Arbor Brewing in Ypsilanti for a few pre-flight rounds. Arbor was a super-relaxed, comfortable stop just off the beaten path. We grabbed some candied nuts and soft pretzels to munch on while we sipped some Buzzsaw IPA, Sour Mango Gypsi, Hoptown Brown IPA, Fischer’s Fresh Hop Ale, and Sacred Cow Cask-Conditioned IPA. With a couple of hours left until wheels up, Slouch dropped Doc and I off at the airport and we both sank into blissful sleep on our respective flights home.
Another successful Aleheads trip to one of the great beer states in our great beer nation. If you’re looking for a suds-fueled road trip in your future, do yourself a favor and head to Michigan. Tell ‘em Barley sent you. It won’t do you any good, but tell ‘em anyway.