Great Lakes, Indeed

By Susan R. Pollack

Michigan’s abundance of natural resources inspires residents to make things, from cars, furniture and appliances, to cereal and cement.

And now we can add adult craft beverages to that list.

What began as a trickle 30 years ago has swept like a tsunami of suds and spirits across Michigan as craft breweries, distilleries and tasting rooms threw open their doors.

In just one decade since the 2008 loosening of regulations and fees, Michigan’s distilled spirits industry has grown to more than 50 active distilleries.

“The growth has been exponential,” says Jon O’Connor, president of the Michigan Craft Distillers Association and co-owner of Long Road Distillers in Grand Rapids. “We’ve gone from a nascent industry to ranking in the top 10 in the nation.”

Beverages in the state’s burgeoning craft-cocktail culture include everything from gin, vodka, whiskey, rum, and rye to absinthe, aquavit, brandy, cider, mead and more. Most of the spirits are made in small batches, and they showcase fresh, Michigan-sourced grains, fruits and botanicals.

B. Nektar in Ferndale, for example, specializes in session meads: relatively low-alcohol beverages made from honey that pair well with food. The meadery works directly with local beekeepers that supply 3,000 pounds of honey each week. Favorites include “Kill All The Golfers,” blended with black tea, and “Zombie Killer,” made with Michigan tart cherries and apple cider.

Schramm’s Mead, also in Ferndale, adds fruit to honey wine to produce Melomel. Schramm’s Apple Reserve is a Cyser, or cider-based mead, made from more than 30 varieties of apples from trees that Ken Schramm personally grafted.

Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks produces kosher organic distilled spirits with local Midwestern grains and draws its unfiltered water from an aquifer underneath the distillery, while Iron Fish Distillery in Thompsonville is Michigan’s only on-the-farm distillery, growing its own grains and contracting with other Michigan-based grain growers. The distillery’s Michigan Woodland Gin, made from winter wheat, earned a shout-out from “Cigar & Spirits” magazine, which named it the world’s fourth-best gin in its January-February 2018 issue.

Michigan’s craft beer industry is hopping even more, with some 350 breweries and counting in all corners of the state. They range from Greenbush Brewing Company in the southwest corner (try the Dunegräs IPA) to the tip of the Upper Peninsula, where you’ll find favorites such as Widow Maker Black Ale at Keweenaw Brewing Co. in Houghton and, even farther north, Fish Camp IPA at Copper Harbor’s Brickside Brewery.

“There continues to be pretty significant growth not only in the number of breweries but also the volume of beer produced,” says Michigan Brewers Guild executive director Scott Graham. He predicts 25 to 30 new craft breweries will open in 2019 on top of more than 20 in 2018.

Many are turning out award-winning beer in a staggering array of styles — stouts, ales, ambers, IPAs, sours, porters, pilsners and lagers, including some aged in wine barrels or spirits barrels. And they’re incorporating imaginative flavors of all kinds: chocolate, coconut, coffee, toasted pecan, marshmallow, citrus, smoke, bacon, pineapple, cherry pie – you name it, and it’s a good bet Michigan beverage masters have made it.

Among the epicenters of Michigan’s brewing renaissance is Grand Rapids, which is living up to its reputation as “Beer City USA,” with its 80-plus breweries. Speciation Artisan Ales is one of the city’s newest, specializing in farmhouse ales, and aging many of its selections in barrels and foeders.

The surge in craft breweries is also evident in the Ann Arbor area, where patrons of Saline’s Salt Springs Brewery quaff Big Brown Bunny Porter and other brews in a 119-year-old former church with beautiful stained glass windows. HOMES Brewery, in west Ann Arbor, serves up IPAs and sours, complemented by Asian-inspired street food, in an old Culligan water company building.

Michigan breweries compete effectively on the national stage. For the past two years, two of Michigan’s pioneering and internationally-known breweries, Grand Rapids-based Founders Brewing Co. (perhaps best-known for All Day IPA and Breakfast Stout) and Kalamazoo’s Bell’s Brewery (famous for Two-Hearted and Oberon ales), were named the nation’s top two breweries by the American Homebrewers Association.

To explore, say cheers to craft beverage trails across the state:

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