By Susan R. Pollack
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, colloquially known as “da UP,” is the kind of place where beer comes with a side of snowshoeing, skiing and snowmobiling in winter, or hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, kayaking, rock-collecting or sightseeing in summer and fall.
These days, that beer increasingly is craft beer, and it’s barreling across the UP. Often small-batch brewed with fresh local ingredients — think blueberries, honey, maple syrup and more — these beers are hand-crafted with passion in a growing number of microbreweries and brewpubs.
From Ironwood’s Cold Iron Brewing on the Wisconsin border in the far western UP and Copper Harbor’s Brickside Brewery at the northern tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, to Sault St. Marie’s Lockside Brewery and Soo Brewing Company in the east, the Upper Peninsula is now home to some two dozen craft beer breweries. And more are in the works.
“The UP is catching up with the rest of the state,” says Sherry Kepsel, membership manager for the Michigan Brewers Guild, with nearly 300 member-locations. “Five years ago, there were only a handful, but new ones keep popping up. I’ve been to most … and every single one I visited is down-to-earth, friendly and welcoming. And they make some really good beer.”
Most are clustered in college towns — namely Houghton, Marquette and Sault Ste. Marie — while others have sprung up in unlikely locales such as Alpha, the nation’s smallest village with a brewery (population: 136). Located in a one-time school bus garage, Alpha Michigan Brewing Company is making a name in the western UP with beers like Bears Cave IPA and Naughty School Girl Cream Ale.
Forty miles north in Kingsford, on the Wisconsin border, 51st State Brewing Company specializes in nano-batches of ales, lagers and what owner Jeff Brickey describes as “some wild and crazy fringe beers.” The family-run brewery, with a wood-fired pizza oven and board games, is near Iron Mountain, an international ski jump capital.
Farther north, the scenic Keweenaw Peninsula in Lake Superior, jumping-off point for Isle Royale National Park, delights craft beer buffs with four eclectic breweries, from cozy Brickside Brewery, with six beers on tap, to Houghton’s Keweenaw Brewing Company, a UP powerhouse with a dozen brews and multi-state distribution. Widely known for its Widow Maker Black Ale, KBC boasts a lively taproom and patio.
Nearby, Copper Country Brewery at The Library restaurant offers classics like Miner’s IPA and fruit-infused seasonals. In Calumet, at Red Jacket Brewing Company in the historic Michigan House Café, the 1906 ceiling mural draws visitors in — and the Oatmeal Espress Stout brings them back.
In the eastern UP near Paradise, inside a state park, charming Tahquamenon Falls Brewery & Pub serves a changing array of brews including Lumberjack Lager, Honey Brown and Porcupine Pale ales.
Marquette, on Lake Superior, has been a craft beer hotbed since 1995, when Marquette Harbor Brewery, one of Michigan’s first brewpubs, opened in The Vierling, an historic downtown restaurant. Favorites among 10 brews include blueberry wheat, Pine Mountain IPA and Nitro Stout.
Minutes away, in an old car dealership, Ore Dock Brewing Company exudes industrial chic, serving Reclamation IPA and other beers and Breakwater hard seltzers. Upstairs space hosts live music and comedy.
Near Northern Michigan University in a converted yellow house, Blackrocks Brewery is a lively indoor-outdoor spot with bike-parts décor and live music. Its craft brews, including Coconut Brown and 51K IPA, are distributed around Michigan and Wisconsin.
In neighboring Ishpeming, Cognition Brewing Company produces eclectic beers in the renovated, historic Mather Inn, host in 1959 to Hollywood stars filming “Anatomy of a Murder.”
Among the UP’s newest breweries, Barrel & Beam outside Marquette, specializes in bottle-conditioned farmhouse ales. Open since October in south Marquette, Drifa Brewing, with nine diverse offerings, is Michigan’s first cooperatively owned craft brewery. And Upper Peninsula Brewing Company will open soon in Negaunee.
Down in Escanaba, on the UP’s Lake Michigan side, Upper Hand Brewery offers a friendly, knotty-pine taproom with a lineup that includes Deer Camp, Laughing Fish and Yooper Ale. It was established in 2014 by Larry Bell, who launched world-famous Bell’s Brewery — and Michigan’s craft beer industry — 35 years ago.
On either side of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the central UP, microbreweries in Grand Marais (Lake Superior Brewing Company at Dunes Saloon) and Munising (East Channel Brewing Company) cater to kayakers, mountain bikers and hikers. Try Itchee’s Pale Ale in Munising and the whitefish tacos, garlic parmesan popcorn and scotch eggs in Grand Marais.
The craft brewery industry is showing remarkable growth and staying power in all parts of Michigan, and the Upper Peninsula is a full participant in that growth trend.