26 October 2011

Beer Tourism: Michigan

On the weekend of October 16, Jess and I went up to Detroit for the Detroit Free Press Marathon. When I think of Detroit, I picture a Thunderdome-style apocalyptic world with overturned flaming cars and people fighting for gas. I'm pleased to report that this was not the case. The downtown area was fairly quiet, with a good variety of abandoned buildings, but it was also safe, walkable and full of good restaurants. Tons of different historic architectural styles made up the downtown area, which is cool if you're in to that (and we are).  After Jess finished up her second full marathon, and beat her Chicago time from last year to set a new personal record, we checked out the two rival coney dog shops. Lafayette was our favorite, but both were great. For dinner, we celebrated at Michael Symon's Roast. Now before I go on,

Check out this beer list.

Yeah, that's right, a huge selection of beer with a focus on sours. Jolly Pumpkin La Purcela was on draft so of course we got that. Lots of clove and cinnamon with a bit of winter squash behind the tartness. That was followed up with a bottle of Jolly Pumpkin's iO Saison, which was a really stellar fruity saison that gained its fruit notes from hibiscus. The food was incredible as well, my New York Strip Steak was topped with an entire piece of bone marrow! For dessert we split a Guinness ice cream sundae topped with pretzels. Sure, it's not a cheap place, but Jolly Pumpkin was about the same price as it is in a liquor store here. The beer list does not lie!

On Monday we embarked our trek across Michigan. First up, Kuhnhenn! We had heard a lot about Kuhnhenn, first sampling their beers at GABF in 2008. The brewery has expanded and remodeled and one could hardly tell that it had once been an auto parts shop. The brewery had a large U shaped bar in the center and featured 32 taps all of their own beer, with a few beer/wine hybrids. Why wine? They also have a 6 page wine list of all their own wines. I had a glass of their Cherry Ode'bruine which weighed in at 12% ABV but had almost no detectable alcohol presence. Dangerous! Jess had a Creme Brûlée Java Stout which was hands down the best example of that sub-style either of us had ever tried. Decadent burnt sugars and coffee without being cloyingly sweet.  We went through a sampler of some of their more standard styles (and a beer/wine hybrid) and were not disappointed. Food options are slim here, but the beers are top notch. This brewery is not to be missed.

Cherry Ode'bruine

Creme Brulee Java Stout

16 taps, on this side.  32 total.  All Kuhnhenn.

The tap list - click for bigger

Sampler paddle, the one on the far end is Export Stout mixed with Blueberry wine

After Kuhnhenn, we set off for Ann Arbor, to visit the Jolly Pumpkin pub. We were first met with 1.40/hr parking meters (so quit your bitching, Indy) and then found ourselves in a wonderfully comfortable European-inspired pub. Tons of dark wood and decor that, while kitschy, felt like it had been there for decades. Given the age of Jolly Pumpkin, this was the product of good interior design and not time. Besides a selection of 6-8 Jolly Pumpkin beers on tap, they also had an equal number of other Michigan taps, weighted toward North Peak. I had the Weizen Bam, which was a really great Belgian Wit interpretation, and Jess had a La Purcela (same pumpkin beer we had at Roast). For our next round, I had the standard Bam Biere and Jess went with a Tortuga Chocolate Stout on hand pull.  Seems that Tortuga is a Jolly Pumpkin brand that they apply to their non-sour styles.  Someone correct me if I'm wrong here, I can't find much info on it. The food was mostly sandwiches and pizzas. We got two pizzas and both were very good and provided us with a ton of leftovers. The Jolly Pumpkin pub left us missing Jolly Pumpkin's presence in Indianapolis. Their beer is easily worth the $12+ price tag it carried when in the state.

Bam Biere in the foreground, Chocolate Stout in the background

Next on our list was Dark Horse. We've heard a lot of good things about this brewery, and no one let us down with their recommendations. The brewpub looks like an old shed, on the outside and inside. The ceiling is adorned with handmade clay mug club mugs. The bar was full of friendly regulars and AMC's monster movie marathon was on the TV (YES!). Jess immediately grabbed a Perkulator doppelbock, which she proclaimed to be even better and more heavy on the coffee when fresh, and I grabbed a High Street Bombers Kolsch. The Kolsch was more of a creamy amber brewed with Kolsch yeast, but I wouldn't expect anything normal from Dark Horse. It had a fairly heavy body but was supposedly between 5 and 6% ABV. Our bartender provided us a sample of their Carmel Apple Aley which we incorrectly assumed to be a cider. While it did have some apple flavor, it was more of a burnt sugar laced brown ale with a background of apple. We grabbed a growler of this one before we hit the road, both sad that we didn't have more time to spend here.

High Street Bombers Kolsch

A view of the bar

The outside of the pub

We finally arrived in Grand Rapids, our destination for the day, in the early evening. The hotel valet kindly informed us that it was pint night at Founders, but we had other plans. Brewery Vivant was our dinner destination and easily won the award for best atmosphere. The brewpub is located in an old, small renovated church. The bar is situated where the alter would have been. Brewery Vivant focuses on Belgian beers with an American flair and a side project of making ciders. Farmhouse ales, abbey ales and even a chocolate stout made up a few of the 9 beers on tap that night. One of the most interesting was a tart barrel-aged cider/beer hybrid. The chocolate stout with Belgian yeast was as tasty as you imagine it would be and their house-staple Farmhouse Ale was a good sessionable beer.  Three of their varieties were available in 16oz cans.  I would be shorting you if I didn't mention how good and decadent their food is. The escargot was served with a scoop of tomato sorbet that was added to the dish to create a tomato cream sauce. The butternut squash agnolotti had a super rich butter and cream sauce that, while heavy, still allowed the lime zest and caramelized onions to come through. At the end of dinner we decided that our bodies could absorb no more and we should resume our journey in the morning.

A view of the bar from our table.

Dimly lit, but these are the 10 beers/ciders we sampled.  Very nice sampler tray.

On Tuesday, we had a couple stops before we started on our way home. First up was Founders, which was just starting to welcome the lunch crowd. We really lucked out, since all the beers from their Harvest Festival over the weekend were still on. I'm not sure why, but the Harvest Festival also welcome some barrel-aged chile beers. I started out with the more mild Barrel-aged Guajillo Spite which really carried an impressive balance between bourbon and heat. Jess had the standard Spite which was a chile beer with a blend of peppers. This one was spicy without being painful. Since we're both fans of chile beer, a growler of this came home with us. The Cascade Harvest Ale may not have had the variety of hops in the Harvest Ale, but it was a great example of a harvest ale, full of fresh, sticky hop goodness. It was the kind of beer that breweries would love to produce year-round. To finish things off, I tried the opposite end of the Barrel-aged Spite spectrum with the Habanero Spite. Holy crap this was just stupid. Insanely spicy and undrinkable, this beer would make a better chili base or glaze over grilled meat. I was fortunate enough to get a 4oz sample of the first Barrel-aged spite, but our second bartender felt that the Habanero could only be served as 8oz. Thanks bud.

Barrel-aged Guajillo Spite in the foreground, regular Spite in the background

The tap list, click for bigger

Cascade Harvest Ale

The Founders Bar - 16 taps wide

After Founders we headed over to the HopCat. For reference, parking in Grand Rapids is 1.50/hr. Who sets these prices in Michigan? The HopCat immediately felt like home. A well worn, dark wood bar, tons of vintage beer signage, an extensive beer list and big copper tap fixtures. The top of the bar was decorated with rare beer bottles that would make any Beer Advocate reader jealous. Jess ordered a really solid Oktoberfest from Short's and I had a chocolate stout from Odd Sides, which was also good but pretty much what you expect. We ordered a few appetizers and had a nice conversation with the bartender about local liquor stores and beer in Indiana.

The HopCat bar

Odd Sides Dutch Chocolate Stout

After we hit the road, we decided Bell's would be our last stop before heading home, just so we could get home at a reasonable hour. Driving through Kalamazoo gave me more of that Thunderdome feeling I was expecting in Detroit, but Bell's was a really well put together pub. Tons of wood and brick inside, tables, walls, everything. Custom stained glass windows and lots of vintage beer signs. Surprisingly enough, they had a huge collection of Terre Haute Brewing Co signage! I thought about mentioning that to our bartender, but she didn't look like she'd care. The tap list was fairly familiar and they were out of Cherry Stout, so we went with Le Batteur and Milk Stout. We had both previously, and they certainly did not disappoint. Le Batteur is a well-balanced farmhouse ale and the Milk Stout needs no explanation other than to say it wasn't overly sweet. It makes me feel like a beer snob to say I wish they had more wacky stuff on tap, when the reality is that they had 16 beers on that were all of great quality and very cheap.

Le Batteur

Ever-changing food menu

The tap list and a huge '76 Ale sign from Terre Haute Brewing Co.

A classic Kalamazoo Brewing Co. sign

Our trip to Michigan really just left us wishing we had more time to spend in Michigan. Of all the 1-state trips you could take, Michigan certainly tops the list for beer destinations. This is only one direction you could take your journey, as there are great breweries in all parts of Michigan. I feel like I owe it to Matt to let everyone know that the typical brewpub price for a pint of beer is 3.50-4.50, which means a brewery tour of Michigan can be very affordable as well.

I typed this epic on my cell phone and from memory, so there might be typos or sections where alcohol may have impaired my judgement.  Feel free to correct me in the comments.


  1. This was a great review. I have been trying to piece together a trip like this lately and your reviews and overall trip layout were fun to read and helpful.


  2. The hardest part was that we could have stayed all afternoon at each one of those bars and been completely happy. If we did it all again, we'd probably spend another day and only do 2 breweries per day.

    New Holland was on our list, but by the time we got to Bell's, it was already getting late in the afternoon and we had work in the morning.

    Actually, there were 6 breweries on our list besides New Holland that we didn't get to, just due to lack of time. The number of breweries in Michigan is insane.

  3. I will definitely have to add a trip to Michigan for breweries on my bucket list :)

  4. Great review, Rod. Incredible options for sure! MONK (http://www.midwestmonk.com/) has an Ode'bruine currently souring in an old Jim Beam barrel. Should be good in about...oh, I don't know a year?