Roll out the Barrel

Savor robust craft brews throughout the state with an array of seasonal packages, pairings, tours and events this winter.
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Noel Special Ale
Photography courtesy North Peak Brewing Co.

WITH ITS BLEND of fresh water and creative talent, Michigan’s craft beer industry is taking the state and the country by storm. Ranking fifth nationwide in breweries — already over 130 and counting — the Great Beer State is a burgeoning market for unique brews.

As such, a thriving avenue for seasonal winter brews has also evolved — beers boasting heavy chocolate, coffee and caramel flavors that equate to a full, toasted feeling from the inside out on the coldest days (and nights!). Paired with a winter brew, classic fare like stews, soups and other hearty meals catapult to a new culinary experience.

“Whether using flavorful fruits and spices in holiday beers or brewing a high-gravity Imperial Stout, Belgian Tripel or Winter Warmer, this is the time of year when the brewers get to craft full-bodied, rich beers,” says Eric Briggeman, long-time president of the Michigan Brewers Guild and director of brewing operations for Rochester Mills Beer Co. in Rochester and Auburn Hills.

The bourbon-barrel-aged Snow Dazed Winter Ale from Rochester Mills is the perfect beer for those cold winter nights. With plenty of flavor and a good balance of malt and hops, its dark brown copper hue and higher alcohol content make it an ideal companion for robust dishes like roast turkey, bread pudding and cheeses like cheddar, Asiago and Colby.

“Finding the source (as my husband Chris says) has led us to adventures we would have otherwise missed. With every beer, I learn more about our state, its people and the plethora of fun it has to offer.”
— Kerry McLean

Delivering a smooth, rich, creamy flavor with pronounced malt character and brewed strong to help fend of the cold weather chill, the Winter Marzen from Cheboygan Brewing Co. is another gift in a glass.

Cheboygan Winter Marzen
Photography courtesy Cheboygan Brewing Co.

Known for its vast array of unique flavors, Short’s Brewing Company in Bellaire delivers countless options for seasonal sipping. The Wintertime Fun Ale, available exclusively at the tap room, is a deep brown English Strong Ale. Brewed with milk chocolate, marshmallow, cinnamon and peppermint, it’s a pleasant grab bag of flavors and aromas.

There’s also New Holland’s Cabin Fever, a brown ale that appeals to a variety of palates and extends comfort in just as many ways: Its rich character is fit for the stock pot, too, as an ingredient in seasonal roasts, soups and stews.

And then — “Conceived in a dimly lit room on a blistery cold night in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan” — the Reserve Special Black Ale from Dark Horse Brewing in Marshall is a hefty brew touted for its incredible thick presence on the pour and being dark as a starless night in the glass.

Though not much can beat savoring your favorite in a hefty mug at home by a crackling fire as the wind chill drops, ordering up a glass at the brewery or pub where it’s crafted creates a whole new level of enjoyment. And — with countless breweries spread out through Michigan’s two peninsulas — there’s no shortage of nearby locales to claim your pint or sampler.

“Finding the source (as my husband Chris says) has led us to adventures we would have otherwise missed,” shares Michigan Brewers Guild Enthusiast Kerry McLean in the 2014 edition of Michigan — the Great Beer State magazine (“Traveling Michigan, Brewery By Brewery,” page 20, mibeer.com). “With every beer, I learn more about our state, its people and the plethora of fun it has to offer.”

A few top brewery stops

In a state steeped in pride for its strong-rooted agricultural heritage, “beercations” are the latest draw for visitors seeking flavorful experiences. “Travel focused on the craft brewing industry is a hot ticket,” expresses the Michigan Brewers Guild (mibeer.com/beer-tourism). “Some communities are even offering special hotel and spa packages, unique transportation and tours, ale trails and even brew-your-own options.”

Beer labels
Photography courtesy Griffin Claw Brewery, Rochester Mills Beer Co., & Schmohz Brewery

While becoming a Michigan Brewers Guild Enthusiast ($45 annual membership) includes VIP Tours & Tastings throughout the state at participating member brewpubs, among other benefits, and the guild highlights more than a few beer-centric communities in the Great Lakes State online, following are few touted tours and special events that inspire dashing through the snow to regional breweries this season.

Grand Rapids: Voted BeerCity USA in 2012 and 2013, ranked among the Top 10 Best Vacation Cities for Beer Lovers (thestreet.com) and home to Hopcat, rated #1 brewpub in the U.S. (ratebeer.com), Grand Rapids serves up a craft beer tour map that makes forging your own path to over 30 local craft breweries easy (experiencegr.com/restaurants/craft-beer).

Personalized, guided tours offering a behind-the-scenes look at everything from fermenting to bottling are also offered at Founders and Brewery Vivant, with insider views available, too, at the Tap Room at Schmohz Brewery (experiencegr.com/things-to-do/tours/beer).

Special Event: 10th Annual Winter Beer Festival on Friday, Feb. 27 (3-7 p.m.) and Saturday, Feb. 28 (1-6 p.m.) at Fifth Third Ball Park in Comstock Park, just north of Grand Rapids. This past season’s celebration showcased 88 Michigan breweries and almost 800 different craft beers (mibeer.com).

Kalamazoo: Bearing accolades from such sources as U.S. World & News Report (“8 Undervalued Beer Cities in the World,” April 2014), Business Insider (#3 Beer Town in America, 2013) and liveability.com (#4 Top Beer City, 2012), Kalamazoo is home to the state’s oldest and largest producer, Bell’s Brewery, Inc., and is punctuated by an array of intriguing local breweries, brew-centric restaurants and pubs, over half of which are within walking distance from one another (discoverkalamazoo.com/kalamazoo-brewery-map-177).

Bell's Christmas Ale
Photography courtesy Bell’s Brewery Inc.

Special Event: Venture to Bell’s on Dec. 5 for the brewery’s 14th Annual “Eccentric Day.” As the name implies, this amply-attended, day-long celebration (which kicks off bright and right at 9 a.m.) only admits those in unconventional attire (bellsbeer.com).

Traverse City: Cited by Draft magazine as one of America’s three newest Emerging Beer Towns, this renowned culinary region’s locally-grown flair is ever-catapulting in large part to TC’s burgeoning craft brew scene, both in downtown pubs and tap rooms near Grand Traverse Bay and stretching out along Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas. Brewmasters here are especially noted for their adventurous experimentation with local ingredients and unique flavor offerings.

Special Event: Winter Microbrew & Music Fest, Feb. 7 (4-10 p.m.), an outdoor celebration combining live entertainment, craft beer and local bites in heated tents at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons (traversecity.com; microbrewandmusic.com).

For more events and to learn more about Michigan: The Great Beer State, visit mibeer.com.


Tai Alexander is a northern Michigan freelance writer.

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