There are many fine things to do with Lake Michigan. Swim. Fish. Lie on its beaches. Watch the sunrise in Wisconsin. Watch the sunset in Michigan. One of its most enticing draws is driving around it; no matter where you start, you'll cover about 1,000 miles. The Lake Michigan Circle Tour was signposted in 1998 and since has become a road-tripping celebration of the upper Midwest. And what has sprung up along the way is a flourishing brewing region like nothing seen since Blatz, Pabst and Schlitz made Milwaukee famous.
Without veering more than a few miles from shore, you will pass dozens of breweries and brew pubs.
On a thirsty four-day drive around Lake Michigan, we drank well, met fine people and learned about the Midwest - its proud heritage, its passions and the beer that makes us raise our glasses. It's a highly recommended trip; just pace yourself or take along a designated driver.
First sips: The Michigan coast
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We got down to business quickly, just 36 miles into Michigan, at The Livery (190 Fifth St., Benton Harbor; www.liverybrew.com). It's a brew pub (that also plans to can its wares) in a former livery in Benton Harbor's low-slung brick downtown.
The Livery places a heavier emphasis on lagers than most American craft breweries, including a crisp, deft Bohemian pilsner and a dark Czech lager. But don't miss the ales, especially the amber India pale ale.
About 45 miles north we hit Saugatuck Brewing Co. (2948 Blue Star Highway, Douglas; www.saugatuckbrewing.com), which was the only place we stopped that had tanks in the corner for patrons to brew their own. But we didn't have time for that. Instead we sampled our way through a set of well-crafted, traditional styles - blonde, Irish ale, Scotch ale, Irish stout, porter and black IPA (the winner). Then the bartender told us and a tanned couple from Grand Rapids down the bar, "Our brewmaster is coming up to take you guys on a tour."
"Does it cost?" the tanned guy asked. "No, he just likes doing that kind of stuff," the bartender said.
Beers in hand (black IPA for me), we spent 45 minutes following brewery founder Barry Johnson, 59, who turned his home-brewing hobby into a vocation after retiring from sales in industrial cleaning supplies.
"It's a good time to be a craft-beer drinker," Johnson told us. "And it's a great time to be brewing in Michigan. Everyone's growing."
On we went to the picturesque town of Holland, where the main street is heavier with candy shops than chain stores. Better still it has New Holland Brewing (66 E. Eighth St.; www.newhollandbrew.com). Though it's one of Michigan's better-known breweries, New Holland retains charm in a wood-floored, tin-ceilinged antique barroom that was packed on a Wednesday afternoon. With 13 drafts and 15 cocktails mixed from house-made spirits, New Holland's greatest attribute is its variation - you can drink simple (a kolsch), bolder (a smoked doppelbock), then bolder still - "hopquila," a house-invented spirit that tastes like a whiskey/tequila hybrid. Which I did.
We finished our day at Odd Side Ales (41 Washington Ave., Grand Haven; www.oddsideales.com), one of our more fascinating stops with a menu including pineapple IPA, chocolate IPA and Fig Brewton - an ale meant to evoke Fig Newton cookies.
For the next 160 miles, the booze scene dwindled - just as well considering the riches waiting in Traverse City - but along the way we found Jamesport Brewing Co. (410 S. James St.; www.jamesportbrewingco.com) in Ludington, a town of 8,400 perched right on the lake, where locals pass workday lunch hours with bagged lunches on the beach.
Jamesport was similarly the first bar we had seen with a porch out back affording fine lake views. With a midday apricot wheat in hand, I met Tim Pulliam, 37, on that porch. Pulliam, who spends most of his week on the road for sales calls, often is in bars to woo clients.
"Pretty much any town you go to around here, you can hit a good brewery," he said. "And I don't think it's even peaked yet."
Getting primed for Upper Michigan
The beer dried up as we headed 100 miles north, but watching the flatlands give way to North Michigan's green hills was a worthy substitute. In Traverse City, the beer returned. Our first stop was Right Brain Brewery (221 Garland St.; www.rightbrainbrewery.com), which sits a block from the lapping lake. The menu was hop-heavy, but the standout was the Maya Mexican vanilla porter, a fine mix of throaty coffee and a trace of vanilla sweetness.
Before heading to the Upper Peninsula, we detoured up the Old Mission Peninsula to hit the combination Jolly Pumpkin and North Peak brew pub (13512 Peninsula Drive; www.jollypumpkin.com), which was a perfect mix on several levels: pub and high-end food, families and young drinkers, and Jolly Pumpkin and North Peak. Grabbing a spot at the bar for food and drink (both the pizza and bison sloppy Joe drew raves), we plowed through the inventiveness of Jolly Pumpkin beer (so adventurous but so cleanly executed) and the disciplined, finely crafted brews of North Peak (especially the wheat IPA). They're odd bedfellows but complement each other for a fine night of drinking.
We were about to enter another drought: the Upper Peninsula. There are ample breweries on the north end of the peninsula but fewer along Lake Michigan. We therefore relaxed for a 250-mile trip that brought us north to the Mackinac Bridge, then west along the peninsula's southern shore. We were plenty thirsty by the time we reached Hereford and Hops (624 Ludington St., Escanaba; www.herefordandhops.com), which was so novel in the mid-1990s that there was a two-month wait for reservations.
The beer was nothing exciting - the craft world has passed the brewery by during the last 15 years - but the scene was one of a kind. Regulars filled the stools, drinking from their green mug club mugs and correcting me that the rest of the state wasn't Michigan - it was "lower Michigan." In the back of the restaurant, diners picked thick steaks from a refrigerator and grilled them themselves on a giant flame-licking grill. The regulars don't mess much with the grill.
"If I'm going to spend that much on a steak, I want someone to cook it for me," one local said.
The Wisconsin coast
With home creeping into our minds, we dropped south into Green Bay for dinner at Hinterland (313 Dousman St.; www.hinterlandbeer.com), a brewery that has had the rare distinction of transforming itself into a true fine-dining restaurant. It also offered the option to go casual in the upstairs lounge, but with food this good, we declined. It's no exaggeration to say Hinterland served the best - let me repeat, the best - meal I've had in a brewery. Which it should for a $36 piece of whitefish. But the savory fish, fresh scallops and fire-roasted tofu made a difficult act for the beer to match, even though it did.
Hinterland keeps it simple, offering just half a dozen beers at a time, including three year-round bedrocks: a pale ale, an amber ale and a deft coffee stout.
Bellies full, we slept, preparing to finish up in Beer City, USA - Milwaukee. We made two stops, beginning at Sprecher (701W. Glendale Ave., Glendale; www.sprecherbrewery.com), which launched in 1985 as a brewery inspired by great German beer-makers. Founder Randal Sprecher started making root beer to occupy kids while their parents toured the brewery. It redefined his business and now outsells all other Sprecher products combined. When we visited, Sprecher had 29 beers and sodas on draft, and our tour guide, Mike, gave us a tip: mix a splash of the cream soda with the black Bavarian lager. "It's like cake," he said.
It was better than cake; it was also one of the most memorable drinks on our drive.
After so much beer and so many stops, it seemed impossible to be nearing the end of our trip. But we were, and it came in the form of one of the nation's great brewery tours - Lakefront (1872 N. Commerce St.; www.lakefrontbrewery.com). It's one of the few tours that isn't free, but it's a worthy deal. For $7 you're promised four 8-ounce beers that are closer to 10 ounces, and they're good beers: fresh, balanced and flavorful. I alternated my four between the well-hopped red ale and a black IPA. They make sure your glass isn't empty when the tour begins.
The hour tour is funny and irreverent, led by a guide reveling in his sleepy-eyed, slacker pose while touting the fact that MillerCoors spills more beer in a day than Lakefront - or any of the breweries we'd visited, for that matter - brews in a year. "Who's been on a brewery tour before?" he asked. A dozen hands went up. "When do they serve you beer?" "The end," everyone hollered.
"The end," he repeated. "We thought that was the dumbest thing ever. So we give it to you at the beginning!"
I raised my red ale to doing it right in the Midwest.