The west coast of Michigan is a magnificent stretch of sugar sand beaches and the largest collection of freshwater dunes in the world. Years ago, as college students, we drove out to these beaches late at night with our friends. We drank macro brew under the stars, while listening to the waves crashing on the shore.
Michigan has over 70 breweries, and almost a third of them make their home close to the shores of Lake Michigan.
Michigan’s lakefront towns still welcome tourists from Chicago, and day-trippers from other parts of Michigan. They attract a steady stream of visitors to their beaches, state parks, bed-and-breakfasts and tiny vintage hotels. The local climate is friendly to fruit growers: 75 percent of the nation’s tart cherries, over 250 million pounds, are grown here annually; and those same hardwood cherry trees also produce a flourishing furniture industry.
Dutch Calvinists were among the first to settle in the area during the 1840s. Their cultural, religious and business influences remain firmly rooted. Until last year, Sunday sales of alcohol were banned to varying degrees in many communities. On the surface at least, it seems an unlikely place for the brewing industry to gain a strong foothold. But it has, and in an impressive way.
Michigan has over 70 breweries, and almost a third of them make their home close to the shores of Lake Michigan. When you consider that most of the population is concentrated on the opposite side of the state, it’s an amazing demographic.
Let’s begin our journey just north of the Indiana state line in a city called Benton Harbor. Owner and brewmaster Steve Berthel of The Livery is betting on an economic turnaround. This downtrodden community has more available lakefront land than anywhere else on Michigan’s west coast, so he just might be putting his chips on a winner.
In 2005 Steve renovated the Palace Livery, located in what’s known today as the arts district. The “9-barrel Berthel” brewhouse was cobbled together at a cost of only $60,000. The fermenters are English grundys from Cameron and Tettington.
Steve, a woodworker, cyclist and music lover, did much of the restoration work himself. The bottom level has an L-shaped wooden bar and stools made from secondhand wood. If you look closely at the posts in the taproom, you’ll see the cribbing marks courtesy of the horses in the original livery.
Part of The Livery’s charm is being the only brewpub in Michigan with both a stage and a mezzanine. Upstairs you can see more of Steve’s handiwork. It has a state-of-the-art sound system and regularly showcases national acts.
There are normally 12 house beers on tap, including a hand pull and two to four lagers. They’re not just the usual suspects. The lineup spans the spectrum from pale ales to high-gravity ones. Steve uses generous amounts of Continental malt because he believes that his customers deserve to taste the rich flavors those malts impart.
Are Benton Harbor’s worst days over? Only time will tell. But if they are, Steve Berthel’s vision of making The Livery a destination for both beer geeks and locals will be one reason for the turnaround.
Holland in Bloom
Not far up the road, you’ll find New Holland Brewing, where craft brewing is considered an artistic pursuit. Their logo speaks volumes: “Art in Fermented Form.” They’re genuine, and they’re on a steady course, making good, reliable, balanced beer.
New Holland is the story of two childhood friends, Brett Vander Kamp and Jason Spaulding, who roomed together at Hope College. Several years later they teamed up to pursue a dream of brewing beer in the unlikeliest of places: Holland. It’s located in Ottawa County, which until recently even banned the sale of beer and wine on Sunday. Most people contemplating a brewery would stop right there and look someplace else.
But young people have the gifts of optimism and determination, not to mention a different perspective. They reasoned that the area was starving for new business. Besides, a new bar hadn’t opened in Holland for years. Yes, money was an obstacle, but Brett and Jason said, “This is America. Let’s do it.”
Lo and behold, they did. It turned out that as strait-laced as Holland was, starting up a brewery there was very easy. By June 1997, they were open for business, brewing beer in an old factory they’d converted to a brewhouse.
Fast forward several years. John Haggerty is head brewer now and busy expanding New Holland’s offerings at two new locations. The brewery turns out four year-round beers, four seasonals, and a rotating series of six high-gravity beers. But the brewing fun really begins with the ten to 12 experimental beers, plus the ones they brew for special occasions like Holland’s annual Tulip Time Festival.
New Holland was one of Michigan’s first breweries to join both the barrel-aging and high-gravity brewing trends. Sitting in storage are more than 200 bourbon barrels filled with beer in various stages of fermentation. The plan is to develop a library of beers that customers can someday enjoy while comparing the same label across multiple vintages.
Several years ago, New Holland also added a two-barrel distillery to their operation. In addition to a line of artisanal spirits, they’re applying a brewer’s unique perspective to distilling. Imagine the possibilities—and the fun—of tasting a style of beer, then tasting that same beer distilled as a spirit.
A short trip inland brings us to Grand Rapids and another brewery started by another pair of Hope College graduates: Founders Brewing Co. Officially, it’s the Canal Street Brewing Co., named after the area where the city’s breweries clustered in the late nineteenth century. The original labels bore a picture of the men who founded those breweries. Locals started calling the beer “Founders.”
The modern pair of founders, Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers, are Grand Rapids natives who decided to go into craft brewing after graduation. Brewing operations began in October 1997 in a refurbished brass-stamping factory.
At first, they brewed a fairly tame lineup of beer: an amber, a pale ale and a wheat. They were modestly successful but asked themselves, “Is that all there is?” Luckily, they decided it wasn’t. “Making beers we want to drink” is now Founders’ slogan and they haven’t looked back.
In 2007 Mike and Dave opened a new facility close to the heart of downtown. They had the brewery and taproom custom-built to accommodate entertainment and the various events that showcase their beer—16 on tap in the tasting room. Check out the chalkboards—one for high gravity beers, and one for the not quite so adventuresome.
Founders enjoys an almost cult-like following around Michigan. People, including yours truly, have been known to get up early on a Saturday morning and drive hundreds of miles to the brewery to buy a case, or two, of a limited release. They concentrate on big and unusual beers, like the Kentucky Breakfast Stout, for example. Released once a year in March, it’s bourbon barrel-aged for two years and weighs in at 10 percent ABV. Or, Devil Dancer, a triple India Pale Ale that packs a 13 percent ABV punch and is dry-hopped with ten different varieties for 26 days. Let’s just call it dancing with the devil in heaven.
And now we get to the part where we have to say, “So many breweries, so little space available to write about them.” We’ve showed you around a few of our favorites, but if you’re visiting west Michigan, there are other establishments you should add to your beer traveler’s itinerary too.