By the time the first serious snow blankets northwestern Michigan, a village
of igloos has been firmly planted in the barren woods behind the taproom at Hop Lot Brewing Co., an idyllic winter landscape illuminated by strings of glimmering white lights and blazing campfires.
Inside the plastic igloos, small electric heaters warm the air, inviting drinkers to discard gloves, scarves and hats as they sip from a beer selection that includes winter-hardy suds like Woad Warrior, a Scotch ale, and The Great Outdoorsman, an oatmeal stout.
While it’s fun to grab a brew anytime at Hop Lot, the igloos have added a new dimension to winter imbibing — an apres-ski destination for snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, snowshoers and curious tourists. Not only are the geometric domes comfortable but the transparent plastic covering immerses guests in the woods — and the snow.
That Up North ambiance is exactly what brothers Steve and Drew Lutke had in mind when they opened Hop Lot Brewing Co. in spring 2015.
“When people come up here, they want to be outside,” said Steve Lutke, who is Hop Lot’s head brewmaster. “They want to sit by the fire, listen to music and have that Up North experience. Beer tastes better, the food tastes better when you’re enjoying them outdoors.”
The Lutke brothers, aided by Steve’s wife Sarah, have created a microbrewery destination amid the nearly three dozen wineries and distilleries on the Leelanau Peninsula.
Situated south of Suttons Bay on Route 22, Hop Lot has been a success almost from the get-go. On any given summer (and frequently fall) weekend, the parking lot overflows with cars and SUVs loaded with bicycles, kayaks and camping gear.
Originally from Holland, the Lutkes made the move north after spending years in Chicago pursuing far different careers. Drew managed a used hotel furniture store. Steve was a personal trainer with his own business; Sarah worked for an investment management firm.
The pull north grew as the family frequently visited Sarah’s hometown, Suttons Bay. They often brainstormed about how to shift their lives and raise a family in a small town. A microbrewery seemed a logical choice; Steve was a passionate homebrewer and had earned a certificate of brewing process and technology from the World Brewing Academy in Chicago.
“There was this explosive growth in the craft beer industry, and it just made sense,” Steve recalled. “But it was a big risk.”
Hop Lot focuses on traditional-style ales, including IPAs, blondes, browns, ambers, Scotch ales and stouts. Belgians and seasonals also are part of the menu. The food menu varies with the seasons; smoked meats are a summer staple. With a recent expansion, including creating a full-fledged kitchen, the menu will undergo some changes.
The expansion also included enlarging the taproom bathrooms and reconfiguring the beer garden. Small campsite-like pads were added in the back to accommodate private parties. A second fire pit and benches were added, as well as more room for kids to play.
The portable igloos, first unveiled in November 2017, weren’t part of the original business plan; they were discovered by happenstance.
“The igloos were an alternative to building something permanent,” said Steve Lutke, noting the tasting room could only accommodate about 50 people. “We found ourselves at capacity in the tasting room. Igloos were the perfect solution.”
On weekends, the eight igloos are in high demand. Each is outfitted with wicker chairs and a glass-covered wicker table and can seat up to eight people. Available by reservation or walk-in for one hour, the igloos include full menu and bar service. No deposits are required. Six to eight more igloos will be added in the back of the lot this winter, available weekends only.
Igloos are a hot commodity in the late fall and winter at restaurants, bars and breweries across Michigan and other cold climate states.
“It’s a fascinating idea and a great way to generate more business,” said Carl Borchgrevink, director of the School of Hospitality Business at Michigan State University. ”It’s especially great in Michigan where we don’t get enough sun in the winter — it gets people outside. It’s good for your well-being. It’s fun and different.”
Hop Lot’s friendly, cool ambiance — not to mention well-regarded beer — has secured a loyal following that includes regulars like Bill and Lynn Perkins, who live in Suttons Bay.
“This is a pretty nice place to be,” said Bill Perkins, as he nurses a pint of an IPA called Uncle Green Guy, sitting with friends in an igloo. “You still have to dress like you’re outside, but it’s not uncomfortable. If you get eight friends in here, it warms up pretty quickly.” ≈
Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based freelance writer. He enjoys writing about Michigan’s growing wine, beer and spirits scene.
By Greg Tasker – Photography by Greg Tasker & Corenne Kreiser.