By Rich Warren
Ann Arbor has it all — world-class museums, an amazing culinary scene, impressive entertainment venues, a storied university, and the largest football stadium in the U.S. And the city has developed a beer, wine, and cocktail scene that is unsurpassed for cities of its size.
Here are some “best bets” of places to imbibe.
Nearly two dozen microbreweries can be found within easy reach of Ann Arbor. In the city’s bustling downtown, Arbor Brewing Company has been pulling in crowds since 1995, when its proprietors helped to nurture the nascent craft-brewing industry. Its beers include a pilsner with hops imported from Germany as well as the Strawberry Blonde Ale with lots of malt to stand up to the fruit. “Very poundable” is one assessment I overheard from a first-time quaffer.
Not far away, the Jolly Pumpkin Café and Brewery is among the first all-sour beer producers in the country, using wild yeast and bacteria not found in traditional breweries, imparting distinctive flavors and aromas. An array of unfiltered, unpasteurized, Belgian-style beers is available as well as several barrel-aged sour beers.
Outside the downtown area, HOMES Brewery, an acronym for the five Great Lakes, emphasizes hop-forward beers, sours, and even a cream ale made with coffee. Its Metaform line of beers is brewed with milk sugars with flavors like peach, pawpaw, and pineapple-cherry. A Korean-inspired food menu offers tasty choices. Over at Wolverine State Brewing Co., the emphasis is on American premium lagers, although the brewery also recently started experimenting with sours. Its most popular beer, the Gulo Gulo, named for the genus and species of wolverines, is an IPA, with the Raucher, a smoked lager, also occasionally in the rotation.
Pileated Brewing Company, opened in 2017 by two home-brewing schoolteachers, produces only about a dozen beers and about a hundred barrels per year, but all are made with great attention to creating singular flavors, like the Morrigan, a smoked Celtic red ale, and the Juice Wolf, with three times the amount of hops in other IPAs. Its bottle-conditioned beers are hand-stirred and hand-bottled and described by owners as “defiantly and rebelliously out-of-bounds.”
Over in neighboring Ypsilanti, or “Ypsi” as the locals refer to it, 734 Brewing Company takes pride in pricing their craft beers to be competitive with more mass-produced beers. Many of its cream and amber ales, IPAs, and fruited cream ales are meant to be entry-level samplings for those new to the craft-beer scene. Mariah Gavin, one of three female head brewers in Michigan, has a background in microbiology and says she like to think her creations “combine both science and art.”
At the Ypsi Alehouse, an ever-changing array of beers includes red, brown, amber, and pale ales as well as wheat beers, porters, and stouts, as well a high-quality pub fare menu. The fries, flavored with paprika, garlic, and onion, are to die for. Sample the Blue Racer, a honey-wheat beer with blueberries floating up and down in it like a Lava Lamp. Or ask co-owner Ted Badgerow, who has been making craft beer since 1982, to lead you in singing the “Ypsilanti Song.” He’ll likely oblige.
Wine lovers will find plenty to love in Ann Arbor, too. Enophiles simply can’t miss The Earle, a popular downtown destination since 1977. The restaurant, located in the basement of a former historic hotel, boasts a wine cellar with a stunning 1,200 selections from every corner of the earth, many at very affordable price points. The book-length wine list has nine pages just of French reds. Each year for more than two decades, The Earle has received Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence, and for good reason. Legendary sommelier Steve Goldberg, now officially retired but still frequently on hand, built the wine cellar to its pre-eminence and in 2018 passed the baton to current sommelier Caitlin Buquet, who is happy to suggest pairings with the various courses of your meal. The Earle offers cuisine from various provinces of France and Italy; the duck breast is a best seller.
Across town, York, formerly known as Morgan and York, is described by owner Tommy York as a “neighborhood oasis.” It boasts an impressive, highly curated wine selection. The wine list’s strengths include regional French selections — Rosés are flying off the shelf, and the wines of Burgundy are enjoying a resurgence, York says. In the front of the establishment, long tables allow people to dine communally on the offerings of two on-site food establishments, one offering barbecue and another offering classic deli fare, artisanal sandwiches, and cheese boards with specialty cheeses from around the world. A newly installed bar offers both beer and wine as well as half a dozen “cocktails with a twist,” such as a Celery Gimlet and a Margarita Verde.
Places to imbibe high-quality cocktails include The Last Word, chosen by Michigan Radio listeners as the top craft cocktail bar in the state, and Nightcap, which merges science with cocktail-making, using liquid nitrogen to muddle herbs and a centrifuge to separate liquids for layered drinks. Opened just last year, the Blue LLama Jazz Club offers cocktails and dining along with live musicians playing jazz and world music. Another option is Bløm Meadworks, which makes a variety of small-batch seasonal meads and ciders using Michigan honey, fruits, and spices.
Clearly Ann Arbor’s drinks scene is flourishing, and its future is as bright as the maize color on the University of Michigan football helmets. As for the blues, well … there will be plenty of time for that in November.