Traversing the beer scene in Traverse City, Michigan

Traversing the beer scene in Traverse City, Michigan

Traverse City, Michigan has oft been named a top beer destination in the US, and a paradise for craft beer lovers world-wide. This small town along the shore of Lake Michigan, well technically the Grand Traverse Bay off of the lake, has an incredible beer scene with a dozen breweries, brewpubs, and taprooms. Most are easily accessible on foot in downtown, meaning you can make a pretty awesome beer crawl through this veritable craft beer haven. This summer, we make a pilgrimage, and though we only make it to 8, almost having to literally crawl by the end, it is enough to cement this town as a great destination for beer lovers.

Michigan may not be the first place you think of when you picture great beach towns and picturesque blue waters. It definitely wasn’t for us. If not for a destination wedding further up the mitten of Michigan at Mackinac Island, we probably would have never visited this amazing part of the country. The Great Lakes are pretty great. Like big great. We think the whole thing is overblown when we first arrive at Sleeping Bear Dunes, a national lakeshore about 30 minutes west of Traverse City, preserved for the huge sand dunes and complex ecology of the area. When we see the lake we presume was Lake Michigan, we are unimpressed. “You can see the other side!” I lament. This turns out to be a small inland lake that feeds to the greater lake.

The dunes are no joke. Apexing them to reach the lake shore, named one of the best in the country, is no easy task. When we first arrive, I see a trail map noting a 3.5-mile hike across the dunes to the lake and back, estimated at 3-4 hours. I figure this is at a relaxed Midwest pace, and there was no way fast East Coast walkers like us will take more than half that time. In an hour we make it up 4 dunes, maybe .5 miles in. When we finally get a glimpse of the immense lake stretching over the horizon, we decide it is the perfect point to turn back. The view is suitably awe-inspiring and the dunes have taken more than enough out of us. We feel pretty pleased with ourselves for making it until a father carrying two toddlers on his shoulders comes bounding up the path quickly passing us. I’m really more of a long-distance guy I tell myself to feel a bit better about it.

Back in town, we decide crawling between breweries was more our speed than crawling up sand dunes. Leave that for the camels. First, we check in at The Park Place Hotel, a little slice of la Belle Epoch in Michigan. The hotel had likely been at its height in the last century, but it makes due for exploring the town being well located within a short walk to the downtown. The air conditioning also works well, an oddity in a state that only gets hot for a few months a year.

We begin our tour at Right Brain Brewing, a little away from the downtown. We start here as it’s the only one we feel a drive to is needed. Inside is a massive warehouse-like space with an odd assortment of utterly random decor. A giant cardboard Star Wars TIE Fighter hangs from the ceiling. There are arcade games and even bubble hockey. Hanging from other rafters are a selection of malt bags from around the world. There is an outside section with picnic tables along a little stream and railroads tracks that confuse us as the inside is packed and no one is outside on a beautiful sunny day, so we head inside as well. The brews are a bit off-centered with a ton of interesting combinations with flavors we don’t normally associate with a beer like birthday cake, Thai peanut sauce, and local Michigan honey. A short-time special is a pale ale brewed with grilled asparagus. This may actually be my favorite, evoking memories of summers past. The flights here are huge, maybe 6 or even 8oz, so we head off after one.

Next stop: The Filling Station. All aboard. This brewery in an old train depot keeps up the train theme from the beer names to even the train shaped holder for the beer the flights come in. With a pretty wide selection of brews, any place that offers both a double IPA and a Roggenbier is no stranger to interesting styles, we find it hard to pick just six for the flight. Somehow we manage to make our selection, and equally puzzling is how a flatbread pizza, made from the spent barley malt from brewing, topped with spicy chicken and bacon also finds its way to our table. Mystery solved, I order it after seeing other tables get some. The outdoor space here along the train tracks with an outlet to the bay in the distance is absolutely perfect on a sunny day. As a result, we find it difficult to leave, but eventually, must in order to continue the tour.

A bit closer to town, but still away from downtown in the old warehouse district, Rare Bird Brewpub offers a large bar, a huge area of booths, and a lounge section that evokes the feeling of a Starbucks with a large sofa and armchairs. Though they offer a nice selection of craft beers beyond their own, we get a flight of their six brews, mostly light, including a lager, pilsner, and two IPAs. The IPAs are nice, with a hint of citrus and a tiny taste of resin, leaving my tongue a little sticky like a good IPA should. The waiter is the friendliest of the staff we’ve encountered so far, and we make a connection commiserating about a crass party visiting for a 21st birthday. When they try to order shots we decide it’s time to move on in search for some vitamin B.

We find craft beer – or at least outside beer – perfection at North Peak Brewing, on the western edge of town. At this brewery, which we don’t realize the immensity of until we get lost looking for the restroom when leaving, we find an incredible outside section. A little sun on our heads, in this area it stays light until nearly 10 at night and even at 4 or 5 feels like midday, feels perfect with a sunny tangy IPA. A flight of the six brews on tap outside, there are another six additional ones inside, comes in plastic cups but still tastes great. All this walking and drinking has made us quite peckish by this point, so we also try the hot wings which are suitably spicy. 

The Amber Ale is perhaps the most effective at putting out the burn and satisfying the thirst we’ve worked up. North Peak is apparently so popular with the locals that they even have bike and run clubs that meet here, get in their workout, and come back to recover with some brews. I briefly consider moving. All I get at the end of my runs is a walk up a steep hill and whatever happens to be in the fridge. Ok, maybe that isn’t so bad. North Peak solidifies itself as my favorite Traverse City brewery because of this space though.

Next, at The Workshop, we find another good outdoor space made even better by a large selection of beer. A flight here offers a few unique choices like a Saison with a pleasant note of tartness and a bold amber ale. Inside seems nice for a less picturesque day, with tables actually made of workshop equipment like sawhorses and clamps, but today is all about the great outdoors. When the sun begins to set, we discover that the long sunsets of Michigan come with blinding intensity and make like Seinfeld characters and sit on the same side of the table. Yadda yadda yadda.

7 Monks Taproom is known as one of the top voted beer bars in the country. A comfortable inside space is paired with a great selection of beers, both top notch crafts like Pliny and tons of local Michigan brews. We make our way through the Michigan menu, it might take another year of visits to get through the entirety. It’s been two breweries again since we’ve eaten, so we’ve worked up quite an appetite. We go for the kimchi chicken nachos and an order of garlic fries. They end up pairing with a pilsner better than we even dreamed. It’s nearly as good as a Kolsch with a Taco Bell CrunchWrap Supreme.

Last up, at Mackinaw Brewing, the most centrally located brewery, right in the smack of downtown, we sample quickly. The pale ale, made with Michigan hops is my choice, mainly because of the number of hop farms we see while traversing what feels like all of Michigan. I knew Washington State grew a lot of hops, but Michigan seems to be trying to catch up. I figure grabbing some to take home probably won’t go over well through security at the airport. Michigan brewers seem nearly as proud of their hops as all Michigan natives are of the Mackinaw Bridge, or what they call, the Mighty Mac. This five-mile bridge to the Upper Peninsula (or UP to locals) can be found on license plates, several beer bottle labels, and on items as varied as fudge and soap. Bellies full of nachos and local hops, we call it a night.

No trip to Northwest Michigan in search of beer is complete without a visit to Short’s Brewing in nearby Bellaire. This large taproom and pub offer a huge selection of beer for any taste. Even with two flights here, we barely scratch the tap list. We grab a table outside on the patio where the dogs nearly outnumber the humans. We find the dogs a bit easier to understand as their humans have thick Michigan accents. Think Minnesota soccer mom crossed with Jim Gaffigan. Soooo… anyway. The pizza here, also from spent grains from the brewing process, is incredible. I’ve made spent grain pizza multiple times from homebrewing and the crust turns out nothing like this chewy crust. I think they may be cheating it’s so good. Perhaps part of the incredible flavor is the thick cut bacon that adorns it. Bacon turns out to go pretty well with a cocoa porter.

Before leaving Traverse City, we would be remiss if we didn’t stop at the Grand Traverse Pie Company for a cherry pie. Traverse City is after all the cherry capital of the world. I think this might be an honor the town has given itself, but I have to admire the chutzpah it takes to name yourself the world capital of a fruit. It does appear to be well earned though as the pie here is magnificent. At the end of it, it’s clear I enjoy the pie as I have nearly as much cherry on my face as my 1-year-old infants have food after a meal. Just in case a slice of cherry pie isn’t enough, we also grab a cup of the cherry flavored coffee which is pretty good. The sour-sweet earthiness of the cherry works well with the same qualities of coffee beans. It’s almost enough to give us the energy to make the endless drive back to Detroit and home.

Michigan was never on our top list for travel within the US. We didn’t figure there was much to see in tmitten-shapedped state, but we were completely wrong to dismiss it. Not only is there incredible natural beauty along the lake shores, but there is amazing food and beer to be found throughout the state. A visit to Traverse City quickly changes our mind about the state and makes converts of us. In fact, we even agree we’ll soon be back with the boys in tow.

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