Let’s return to 2008. It was the midst of the Great Recession, and the worst downturn since 1929 hit Grayling, population approximately 1,900, rather hard.
The city — nicknamed the world’s canoeing capital and Rivertown — is situated on the banks of the world-famous Au Sable River and typically hosts hordes of summer canoeists and families, as well as those who come to the nearby National Guard training camp. And it was hurting.
Fast-forward to 2022. Grayling has now hitched its tourism future to more than canoeing and Camp Grayling. Mixed into that outdoor-oriented brew are barley, hops, and yeast. Beer, breweries, and dispensaries now dot the town, complementing its natural draws, and a new state law is responsible for Grayling’s latest nickname: Brew City North.
It all started with reinventing what the town is, says Jill Tremonti, former chairperson for Grayling Main Street, comprising local businesses and leaders who decided to breathe new life into town. “We were able to sit down and figure out what the issues were and focus on what we could change,” she says.
The Social District designation also helped. A 2020 state law allows local governments to designate an area where people can stroll the streets with cups of beer, wine, or mixed drinks in hand.
Many Michigan towns took advantage of the new designation. So did Grayling, in July 2021, in time for the annual Au-Sable River Festival that culminates in the 120-mile AuSable River Canoe Marathon.
“Paddle Hard Brewery started the change, (which then changed) the feel of downtown,” Tremonti explains, adding that now there’s even another nickname for Grayling’s social district: Brew Avenue.
Paddle Hard opened in 2014. It’s been owned by Josie Swander and her family since 2020. “We took over an existing successful business and then had some entirely new challenges,” Swander, the business manager, says. “I came from a food and beverage background before we took this leap. My parents, my brother, and I grew up here, and it’s been a cumulative dream to have a restaurant.”
Paddle Hard’s 28 beers on tap include seasonal specials and five staples, and it also has a full pub food menu. The brewery outgrew its on-site equipment, so the beer is now brewed in Zeeland. Swander says more types of beer are planned.
“The Social District has been an incredible asset for the community,” she adds. “I think everybody is seeing more foot traffic. In the last year, three new businesses popped up on Main Street. Now you can grab a drink and mingle.”
Owner and brewmaster Jason Malone opened Rolling Oak Brewery Co. in 2016. Radel Rosin is manager and also brewmaster. He began brewing in his basement and calls the brewery and accompanying food truck “a hobby gone crazy.”
“I had been looking for a place for probably three or four years when I saw the location (a former icehouse). Our first beer was a vanilla porter,” Malone recalls. The most popular, he says, is a rich, dark peanut butter porter. Root beer and cream soda varieties also are house-made.
For a unique taste of Grayling, lift a Good Ale. Each batch is made with 10 to 20 dozen donuts from Goodale’s Bakery, just across the street. “What they’re adding is a vanilla-type flavor, and they give the beer a bready flavor that makes it well-rounded,” Rosin says.
Dead Bear Brewing Co. opened on Halloween 2014. Owners Jean and Travis Krebs keep the establishment’s 11-plus house beers and other Michigan-made beers (21 taps total) flowing, and offer comfort foods such as Reuben egg rolls, and made-to-order mac and cheese.
“Breweries are a community. I like having the multiples here because it means more people who love craft beer are going to swing into Grayling,” Jean Krebs says.
Matthew Shaw owns Michigan Brew, just west of Paddle Hard. A newcomer last May, his establishment is decidedly different. “We’re technically a coffee shop, but we also have brews,” Shaw says. “There wasn’t really a well-rounded place here where you could get what you wanted to drink and enjoy a coffee-shop vibe.”
Shaw offers 50 different beers, including Rolling Oak Brewing Co., and has a health-conscious menu: There’s not a deep-fryer in sight. A former bank manager who escaped corporate life, Shaw grew up in nearby Mio.
Ray’s BBQ, Brews & Blues sits alongside the AuSable River, a fly cast from the historic Old AuSable Fly Shop. Linda Matas and Jeffery Gardner own both, and have had the fly shop since 2008.
The restaurant, featuring 30 taps — 25 are always Michigan beers — opened in 2017. Their best-seller is Short’s Local’s Light, brewed in Bellaire. Ray’s served 18 tons of house-smoked brisket in 2021, and Friday’s fish is never frozen.
“We thought it would be a great idea, being on the river with beer and barbecue. How do you go wrong with that?” Matas asks.
“We’ve got a lot of building in town now,” Gardner adds. “The metamorphosis has really happened.”
Grayling Visitor’s Bureau