What's a guy to do with 200 miles of driving in western Michigan to cover? Visit breweries, of course.

By Ethan Fixell
September 28, 2015
Michigan beer
Credit: Courtesy of Short's Brewing Company

My wife recently expressed interest in visiting her grandmother in Petoskey, Michigan. As much as I love both ladies, Petoskey is far. Really far. Like, "Look, is that Canada?" far. On the other hand, western coastal Michigan is not only beautiful in the summertime—it's some of the most fertile beer country in the United States. So I figured if we're gonna travel to the inner depths of Mordor to see Gammy, I might as well also take advantage of being able to visit some of the incredible breweries the state has to offer.

The following is the journal I kept detailing my trip, which began a day earlier than that of my wife so I could get in some "bonus" drinking:

Thursday, 3 p.m.

Grand Rapids, Michigan: Founders Brewing Company

Michigan beer
Credit: Courtesy of Founders Brewing Company

Entering the Founders taproom takes me back to visiting Disney World for the first time. The bright, spacious, glorious taproom offers all of the wonder and joy that the famous theme park does—minus the rides and plus eighteen taps of world-class beer.

Upon arrival, I immediately order 5-ounce pours of anything I can't get in New York, which includes Mosaic Promise -- brewed exclusively with Mosaic hops and Golden Promise malt -- and Untombed Ale: a blood-red brew made from an ancient Egyptian recipe. Rubaeus, their raspberry ale, is stunning served on nitro. And Rye Death, a 10.8% ABV ryewine, does, indeed, almost kill me. But everything is delicious.

Of course, with all of this high-gravity beer, I need something to mop up all of the alcohol (safety first). I order a limited edition treat: Founders's entry for the annual Grand Rapids Grandwich competition, an Untombed Ale-marinated skirt steak sandwich featuring hop-pickled asparagus, charred radicchio, mashed sweet potatoes, and a smoky-horseradish Mornay sauce. Incredible.

My stomach sings with delight. I've done enough damage in this place—and I need to save some room for tomorrow when I'll be visiting two breweries in one day...

Friday, 1 p.m.

Traverse City, Michigan: Right Brain Brewery

Michigan Beer
Credit: Courtesy of Ethan Fixell

I pick up my wife at the Traverse City airport, and hightail it directly to Right Brain Brewery.

"Don't you...want to see downtown?" she proposes.

"Beer first, downtown later," I say, blowing through a stop sign.

At the funky, lofty space, we meet Right Brain owner Russell Springsteen, a former hair-stylist turned brewer who still cuts hair once a month in the Salon Saloon attached next door. ("You sip, we snip," they say.) As Russell describes each of the experimental, aggressively flavored beers he's brewed, he quickly proves his reputation as a mad brewing scientist of sorts.

The menu is culinary driven, as demonstrated by the Mangalitsa Pig Porter brewed with smoked pig bones. And the Cherry Pie Whole—a sweet, biscuity amber ale brewed with 80 real cherry pies (crust and all!) from Grand Traverse Pie Company—is an absolute Michigan Must when in season. Even my wife – historically not the most devoted of beer fans—swoons over the complex, sophisticated flavor profiles of these unconventional brews: especially the spicy cilantro-infused Thai Peanut beer made with cilantro, Serrano peppers, coconut, and peanut butter. As a pescatarian, however, she is not willing to try what she calls "the pig juice."

Friday, 4:15 p.m.

Bellaire, Michigan: Short's Brewing Company

Short's Brewing Company
Credit: Courtesy of Short's Brewing Company

With our bellies full of delicious gastronomically-inspired beer, my wife and I drive an hour north to the tiny little town of Bellaire (no relation to The Fresh Prince), arriving at the cozy, old-fashioned taproom of Short's Brewing.

The beer is as experimental and innovative as that of any other brewery, but their recipes are classy and restrained. Jack Archiable, their resident "Brewstorian," gives us a tour of the brewery, enlightens us on its history, and invites us to sample its delicious products.

Though their Bellaire Brown, a full-bodied brown ale, and Huma Lupa Licious, a rich, complex, citrusy IPA, are perhaps their most widely critically acclaimed brews, the most intriguing Short's brews feature fruit in a dessert-like manner: Shortsicle is a nitro-poured cream ale brewed with milk sugar, orange zest, and vanilla bean. Key Lime Pie is made with fresh limes, graham cracker, and marshmallow fluff. And Soft Parade – a rye ale fermented with 200 pounds of pureed strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries—is rightfully the brewery's best-seller.

I barely get a sip of each before my wife manages to polish off our entire flight, working up a nice buzz. For a moment, I get upset about being forced to drive—until I remember that she's a lifelong New Yorker without a license.

Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

Petoskey, Michigan: Beards Brewery

Michigan Beer
Credit: Courtesy of Ethan Fixell

At last we arrive in Petoskey, where Grandma surprisingly expresses interest in joining us for a few beers at Beards Brewery. The taproom might be tiny, but the warm ambiance impresses even Grandma, who calls it "just lovely." The comfiest bar I've ever been to features a cushy upholstered couch, a skylight, and a vast array of board games to occupy customers and help them make new friends.

But it's the beer that truly makes Beards a destination worth visiting. We order a flight of every beer on tap, and quickly discover that the flagship "Luna" wheat saison is a crisp, refreshing treat. Meanwhile, the featured brew of the month—a Tree Blood Maple Sap Stout—is easily one of the standouts of the bunch.

Grandma, however, is less easily impressed. While tasting Jack the Stripper—a medium bodied, chocolatey porter—my wife detects notes of pistachio. Suggests a skeptical Grandma, "Maybe you just burped up some of your lunch?"

However, Grandma's interest is finally piqued when she tastes my personal favorite of the day, McCarthy's Revenge, a malty red ale featuring Centennial hops and cold-extracted coffee from Petoskey's local Roast & Toast. "Well that's different!" she exclaims.

She gets even more excited about the Whiskey Barrel Brimley Stout: "It's got a nice smoothness!" she notes. I explain that, at 7% ABV, this aged beer has the most alcohol. She smiles mischievously and finishes the glass.

"Satisfied?" I ask her.

"To me, the fun is being together," she replies. "That's what makes it special."

Maybe so, Grandma. But drinking great beer is pretty damned fun, too.