Michigan Craft Beer Scene - More Room To Grow

Founders Infiltrator Double IPA
Founders Infiltrator Double IPA

All photos courtesy Dorothy Hernandez.

Based on the number of breweries per capita, Michigan is the nation’s fifth largest craft beer state in terms of the number of brewpubs, breweries, and microbreweries. The 'Great Lakes State' is also home to the reigning 'Beer City USA,' Grand Rapids. In just a couple of decades, Michigan’s craft beer industry has become a significant force on the national scene, with many brewers winning major awards and brewery behemoths expanding beyond the state’s borders.

Part of the reason for Michigan’s incredible craft beer growth is the camaraderie among the brewers, whether it’s a fledgling brewpub or one of the state’s beer pioneers like Bell’s. Whenever you speak to a Michigan brewer, they are quick to talk up their peers. It seems like a new brewery or brewpub is popping up on a regular basis, but instead of cutthroat competition, their fellow brewers welcome them with open arms.

Here’s a look at three different breweries that we visited recently. Even though all three are at different stages in terms of progress and plans, they all agree on one thing: It’s all about making the best beer possible.

Bottling at Founders
Bottling at Founders

Founders Brewing Co., Grand Rapids

This Grand Rapids landmark needs no introduction. Established in 1997, it has been one of the leaders of Michigan’s craft beer scene, and it’s starting to become more widely known in the U.S., with its expansion to other states including Kansas, Nebraska and Texas.

Last year, Founders completed a $26 million expansion project, which added a beer garden as well as expanded the taproom and production facility. On the day we visited, the temps were in the 40s and it was sunny — practically tropical according to Michiganians’ standards in the winter. The fire pits and freestanding heaters provided enough warmth to enjoy a couple of triple-hopped Infiltrator Imperial/double IPAs while soaking up some rare rays of sunshine.

The taproom has been expanded but it seems it’s still not enough room as patrons jostle for seats on a first-come, first-serve basis. It’s usually standing room only.

The production facility, also on site, has also been expanded for a capacity of 340,000 barrels a year. The brewery produced 71,000 barrels last year and expects to brew about 125,000 this year. It’s the second largest brewery in terms of volume in Michigan.

They’ve also added event space, where we concluded our tour with a tasting of six beers: Red’s Rye IPA (a refreshing pour in which Amarillo hops are balanced with imported Belgian malts, resulting in a clean grapefruit finish); Grand Rapids Stout (boasting fresh roasted coffee flavor); the aforementioned Infiltrator; Backwoods Bastard (aged in bourbon barrels meant to be sipped, especially since it has a nice scotch aroma); Rubaeus (a glorious fruit beer made with fresh raspberries that tastes like the best jam you’ve ever had — try mixing it with a Breakfast Stout for a richer taste), and KBS of the 2010 vintage (an imperial stout brewed with coffee and chocolates, then cave-aged in oak bourbon barrels for a year — it’s as good as it sounds).

Hard to believe that when it first started, Founders was struggling and faced the threat of shutdown. In fact, the name of one of its most popular products, the Bolt Cutter (a 15 percent ABV barleywine), is a reminder of their financial woes back in the day. The brewery was defaulting on its

Founders Taproom
Founders Taproom

loan, and the bank threatened to chain the doors. Dave Engers, co-founder and vice president of brand & education, bought a pair of bolt cutters in case it happened. It was then they decided to just brew the beers that they wanted to, and their tagline “Brewed for Us” embodies this spirit of trying to make the best beer possible. Now they are known for bold, flavorful brews as well as their popular Backstage Series; one standout is Doom, which is Founders’ award-winning specialty Imperial IPA Double Trouble aged in Bourbon barrels.

Along with its dedication to craft, the menu may only have a few categories (mainly sandwiches as well as a variety of shareables - pizzas, soups, and salads) but what a selection! The sandwich selection will pose many tough choices for diners, including nearly 30 creations, many of which are named after Founders beers. We like it hot, so we’re partial to the Devil Dancer; this is not for the faint of heart. With jalapeno, chipotle, and banana peppers, it’ll melt your face off (and this is coming from someone who douses everything that isn’t ice cream with Sriracha).

Founders has improved what was already a destination— a must on any beer lover’s itinerary.

rm pint.
rm pint.

Rochester Mills Production Brewery, Auburn Hills

Founded in 1998 as a brewpub in Rochester, Mich., Rochester Mills Beer Co. is a contemporary of Founders. It opened the doors to its state-of-the-art production facility in 2012, and the expansion will allow the company to brew up to an additional 100,000 barrels per year. There’s also room to grow in the converted car-seat-making facility: There is capacity to produce more than 200,000 barrels.

There is a 50-barrel brewhouse, seven new fermentation tanks, and a high-speed canning and bottling line that greatly expands Rochester Mills’ reach. With its new capacity for canning and distribution, popular brews such as the Cornerstone IPA, a well-balanced IPA with a strong malty backbone, and the popular Milkshake Stout, a rich and tasty treat in a pint glass, are now available in 16-ounce aluminum cans for businesses and consumers.

The 48,000-square-foot production brewery also has a taproom/tasting room featuring several brews on tap. There’s no food at the Auburn Hills site — for eats, you’ll have to go to the brewpub, where brewery favorites like mac and cheese (comes with lobster or buffalo chicken) and Brewmaster’s Shepherd’s Pie bring in the foodies.

One cool feature that we saw during the tour is the Siemens-developed computer brewing system that allows the brewers to fire up the process with a few clicks of a mouse. It has the functionality to automate the system, making for a high-tech brewing process.

Leading the brewing team is Eric Briggeman, director of brewing operations and the current president of the Michigan Brewers Guild. He is also is the former brewer of Big Buck Brewery and Rochester Mills Beer Co.

“We have some of the best brewers in the state” Mike Plesz, president and founder of the Rochester Mills Production Brewery who also had stakes in local breweries Detroit Beer Co. and Royal Oak Beer Co., said in 2012. “This expansion is an investment in our future to make sure that they are ready to make as much beer as necessary to meet the demand.”

They also like to have fun, it seems. While on the tour, we spotted a ping pong table as well as a pool table. Happy brewers make for yummy beers!

51 north sign.
51 north sign.

51 North Brewery, Lake Orion

This brewpub may be the new kid on the block — and much smaller in scale — but it has big ambitions. During a recent tour, “beer czar” Adam Beratta says 51 North Brewery, which also makes wines and meads, another hot commodity in Michigan, has a four- to five-year plan. Open only a year, it made 400 barrels in 2013 and is only looking up from there. But there is no rush as “it’s all about the quality,” Beratta told us during the tour of the seven-barrel system housed in the back of the brewpub.

Opened by husband and wife Don and Mary Gindhart, 51 North Brewery has a lot of charm like its home village of Lake Orion, nearly 40 miles north of Detroit. The brewpub is housed in a former gas station, fitting for a business born and bred in the state that put the nation on four wheels. The high ceilings and woodwork make for an attractive setting for drinking and feasting.

The food menu, which was designed by Mary, features familiar favorites and classics — with a twist. We tried pulled pork-stuffed jalapenos, the spicier and zestier cousin of jalapeno poppers, and the Heavenly Havana, a tasty take on the popular Cuban sandwich. Soups, salads, and pita pizzas round out the menu.

51 north adam
51 north adam

Flights are also available. Here’s what we tried:

Paint Creek Tangerine Wheat: Light and fresh Hefeweizen ... the taste of fresh tangerines definitely comes through.

Coconut Porter: Brimming with fresh coconut flavor goodness. Sinfully good — I wanted to drown in it.

Velvet Moose Oatmeal Stout: Chocolate and oatmeal ... what’s not to like? If you really want to indulge yourself, try it with a cookie. You’re welcome.

Wind Walker Brown Ale: A classic English brown ale.

Spencer Island Rye Pale Ale: A refreshing American pale ale with good, malty rye flavor.

Dog Way IPA: Just like Goldilocks would’ve liked — an easy drinking brew that’s not too dark or too hoppy.

We also tried the Coconut Lime Mead, which was our favorite: The richness of the coconut and the bright acidity of the lime balance each other out, resulting in a smooth and flavorful mead.

From big brewery to cozy brewpub, Michigan definitely has a lot to toast about!