Over the years, people have asked us where we “drink locally.” For us, “local” means Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan town where we’ve worked and played for years. The city’s population is only 114,110—Michigan Stadium could hold them all—but it offers something for every taste. Where else can you watch the Royal Shakespeare Company, then discuss the performance over a pint of cask-conditioned British bitter?
Ann Arbor is lucky enough to be the home of three brewpubs. Arbor Brewing Co. (114 E. Washington St.) is the state’s first and one of its finest. Its owners have created a true pub where the whole family can have a good time. Being homebrewers, they aren’t shy about offering hard-to-find styles, including a British mild and a genuine Düsseldorf-style altbier; and, during March, several varieties of stout. Fittingly for a college-town establishment, Arbor Brewing provides continuing education in the form of themed monthly tastings.
Not far away is Grizzly Peak Brewing Co. (120 W. Washington St.), which occupies the former site of the beloved Old German Restaurant. It’s a popular dining destination in its own right—pizzas made in the wood-fired oven are a favorite—and it celebrates holidays with brewer’s dinners featuring reserve ales from the cellar. Grizzly Peak serves five year-round ales, along with a rotating selection of nitro-conditioned and cask beers.
The city’s newest brewpub is Leopold Brothers of Ann Arbor (523 S. Main St.), which claims to be the world’s first “ecobrewery.” Everything, including the heat, water, and carbon dioxide from the brewing process, is recycled here. The brothers started with a lineup of unfiltered German-style beers and recently added British and American styles. A hangout for students and townies alike, Leopold Brothers offers entertainment ranging from dancing to bubble hockey.
Ashley’s Restaurant and Pub (338 S. State St.), on the edge of the university campus, calls itself “Michigan’s premier multi-tap,” and backs up that claim by offering more than 60 draft beers—the tap handles are clustered behind the bar—along with dozens of bottled beers and a cask selection or two. Ashley’s specializes in Michigan-made beers but stocks a wide range of North American microbrews and European classics.
One-time Beer Capital
Just east of Ann Arbor is the city of Ypsilanti, which, once every year, becomes the beer capital of the state. Riverside Park, in the city’s Depot Town district, hosts the Michigan Brewers Guild’s annual Summer Beer Festival, which attracts most of the state’s breweries. Festival goers can choose from more than 150 beers, and it has become a festival tradition for brew masters to bring out their pride-and-joy high gravity ales.
Some visitors remain in Depot Town for a post-festival pint or two. A favorite hangout is the Sidetrack Bar & Grill (56 E. Cross St.), whose huge wooden bar gives it a bit of an Old West flavor. When the weather is nice, there’s an outdoor patio where, if you’re lucky, you can wave to the crew of passing Amtrak trains. Sidetrack’s beer list features the Great Lakes region’s microbrews, including Frog Island beer brewed by the owner’s brother.
Other Backyard Breweries
Although Michigan was a relative latecomer to craft brewing—brewpubs weren’t legalized until 1994—its brewmasters quickly made up for lost time. There are nearly 70 breweries and brewpubs in the state. You’ll find them everywhere from the far reaches of the Upper Peninsula to the heart of the Motor City.
One that you should get to know is the Michigan Brewing Co. (2582 North M-52, Webberville). The concept of one’s “backyard” can be flexible, and we’ve stretched it to include this brewery, which is an hour’s drive from our home—if we drive like Michiganders. Its claim to fame? It’s the latest stop in the long, strange journey of Celis White, which began in Hoegaarden, Belgium, and took a detour in Austin, TX. After a multi-year hiatus for Celis, Michigan Brewing bought the brewery—lock, stock, and brew kettles—and moved production to Michigan, with the blessing of founding father Pierre Celis and his daughter, Christine, who brewed the beers here in America. Celis White has thrived in its new surroundings, winning a gold medal at the 2003 Great American Beer Festival.
As its name suggests, Michigan Brewing itself is a celebration of the state. The front entrance resembles a cabin from “Up North,” as they say here; the double glass doors are etched with the famed Mackinac Bridge; and the packaging for its Michigan brand beers commemorates the state’s heritage. The nine year-round beers range from an amber lager to a nut brown ale.
In recent years, the Detroit Lions and Tigers, along with the city’s opera company, have moved into luxurious new quarters in the center of Motown. Not far away is the Detroit Beer Co. (1529 Broadway), whose owners restored the historic Hartz Building and filled it with breweriana and television screens. Their five-beer lineup includes a stout, an India pale ale, and a version of an Irish red; there are seasonals as well. In its two-year existence, it’s become a popular place for beer and pub grub after a game—like this summer’s All-Star Game or next February’s Super Bowl XL, both of which will be played in Detroit.
The Detroit Beer Co. has sister pubs in Royal Oak and Rochester, both in the northern suburbs. That’s also where you’ll find the Berkley Front (3087 Twelve Mile Rd., Berkley), one of Metro Detroit’s favorite beer bars for over a decade. Its downstairs bar serves more than 40 beers on tap, plus dozens more in bottles. Tap selections include a number of nitro ales imported from Britain, as well as with several on handpulls. Michigan breweries represented here include Bell’s, Dragonmead, and Motor City Brewing Works.
Our concept of “backyard” is also flexible enough to include Toledo, which was once claimed by Michigan; in fact, the territorial governor was ready to go to war with Ohio over it. But we digress. One of the area’s most intriguing brewpubs is located on the edge of the city’s downtown, not far from the Mud Hens’ new ballpark.
Maumee Bay Brewing (27 Broadway) is inside what used to be the Oliver House Hotel. By late 19th-century standards, this was a state-of-the-art place of lodging, but the historic building had endured decades of decline before a couple from Michigan bought and renovated it. Rumor has it that “The Captain,” the building’s resident ghost, wasn’t very pleased about the makeover.
The brewpub is also a museum of breweriana that once belonged to the Oldenberg Brewery. The collection is so large that only part of it can be displayed at one time. Part of it is from the Buckeye Brewing Co., the best known of Toledo’s old-guard breweries and one that played a significant role in brewing history. Struggling to survive, Buckeye sold off its recipe for light beer and, more important, the trademarked word, “Lite.” Both wound up in the hands of Miller Brewing Co., which put its marketing muscle behind Miller Lite. An updated version of Buckeye beer is on tap, along with year-round and seasonal beers and a cask-conditioned ale.
I could go on and on, but…suffice it to say, there’s a world of beer in my Michigan backyard. If you happen to find yourself here, do yourself a favor and “drink locally.”
Paul Ruschmann is a writer, editor and researcher. Maryanne Nasiatka is a writer and photographer. They travel as much as their budget permits visiting many of the places where great beer is brewed and enjoyed.