This July, I am embarking on an epic beer adventure— I’m heading to Detroit for the North American Science Fiction Convention (Detcon1) and I’m hitting as many breweries as I can on the way. I know a ton of Minnesota and Wisconsin Breweries, but I had no idea where to start with Illinois and Michigan. My friend, Dan Berger, was more than willing to provide me with suggestions. Since his email to me was SO good, I asked if I could share it with all of you. Enjoy! -Deanna
So, you want some brewery recommendations for the road trip from Minneapolis to Michigan, eh? Well, all I can say is that you have options. A lot of options. No, seriously. You could easily derail your trip in Wisconsin alone just getting started on the road to Detcon1. It’s that excessive.
I’m going to break this down state-by-state (leaving Minnesota in your hands, of course). I actually have the cheek to recommend a route for you to drive, too. The route is primarily an effort to avoid construction– not just for beer alone. (Just saying.)
As I am sure you already know, your route is more or less a no-brainer combination of I-94/I-90 until you hit Madison, WI. Here you have the option of continuing East on I-94 or diving south down I-90 through Rockford, IL— then bending southeast towards Chicago. Resist the temptation to take the I-90 fork to Rockford. Construction along I-90 is a clusterfuck from all reports (pardon my French, I rarely use the word “report” in polite company). My recommendation is to take I-94 into Illinois. Following that route also places you in reasonable proximity to a number of fine brewery options…
One Barrel Brewing and Ale Asylum Brewing are both a short distance off I-90 in Madison, WI– and within blocks of one another. I am unfamiliar with One Barrel, but I have had several Ale Asylum beers before and found them to be top-notch. Their Ambergeddon Amber Ale is particularly tasty. Madison has a number of other breweries in the area (Capitol Brewing comes to mind– but One Barrel & Ale Asylum are the most accessible from the interstate.) Judging from the reviews, it looks like either choice is a winner.
If you are in the mood for a side-trip, New Glarus (both the town and the Brewery), are definitely worth considering. You will eat some time driving out into the country to get there and back again, but the scenery is worth it and the beer is fantastic– particularly their Raspberry Tart and Belgian Red made with Wisconsin cherries. You’ve likely heard the hype about New Glarus already. Their fruit beers definitely earn it.
If you elect to continue east past Madison on I-94, Tyranena is well worth the stop for their beers. Never been there in person, but I’ve heard good things about their tasting room and beer garden– and it’s not far off the interstate at all. I really like their hoppy beers, but they also release a seasonal bourbon barrel-aged imperial coffee oatmeal porter (try saying that five times fast) called Devil Over A Barrel that is excellent.
If after all of that you still haven’t had enough chances to visit a brewery, you still have Sprecher and Lakefront Brewing in Milwaukee to look forward to. Lakefront is supposed to have one of the best brewery tours ever, but they fill up quickly. You may be able to purchase tickets in advance on their website, so look into that option if it appeals. Neither Lakefront nor Sprecher are the best beers on your route, but Sprecher does make some fine beer and even more amazing sodas… While Lakefront is by no means a slouch in the beer department.
Congratulations! You’ve made it to the flattest freakin’ state in the U.S.A. (Hopefully, you are still upright and alert behind the wheel.) Don’t worry, it won’t last. As you enter the northeast portion of our fair state, you will almost immediately be bombarded by beer options in Lake County. You are already familiar with Tighthead in Mundelein, IL (don’t think for a minute that I missed that, bucko), but you are likely still unacquainted with Lake Bluff Brewing in Lake Bluff, IL. Lake Bluff is a little bit of a drive east off I-94/294, but not too far from the US 41 exit at IL 176. This is good news, since US 41 happens to be free, multi-lane highway where 94/294 is a toll road. See? Instant beer money. (Seriously. The cash tolls on 94/294 are brutal.)
Anyway, the Lake Bluff village is full of classic Chicago North Shore charm– which could either be a selling point or grounds for revilement depending on your tastes. The brewery itself is tiny, particularly the tap room… But the beer is very good and the dining options in the immediate area are nice. And it’s Summer, which means seating on the sidewalk area is open for business!
Next stop is another brewery some small distance off the I-94 corridor, but a good option. Temperance Brewing is located in Evanston, IL— which, ironically, is also home of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement that brought about Prohibition. In keeping with that spirit, the Head Brewer of Temperance is a woman named Claudia Jendron, and she does some really top-notch work. It’s a little bit of a hike from the interstate, but worth checking out.
After that, you have a lot of brewery options in the city– but few with a tap room and easy access to I-94. Your best bets are probably either Revolution Brewing or Goose Island, both of which you likely have some familiarity with. Don’t plan on driving for a while if you hit Goose Island on a day when they are pouring their Bourbon County Brand Stout. Their sours may be a better choice for the season. Revolution makes a great flagship IPA, but this time of year they release Rosa– which is a very nice sessionable hibiscus ale. Either of these brew pubs are worth a visit.
There are a slew of breweries in the neighborhood of Windycon, but that is a topic for another day…
Yay! More flat Midwestern glacial graveyard! Indiana goes quick as you’re driving through its northwestern corner on the way to Michigan, which is probably just as well. The steel industry may be gone, but the general decay of the Rust Belt lingers on. Well, there are some signs of life to keep hope going. Maybe.
As soon as you cross the IL/IN border you are mere minutes away from one of the best (and best known) breweries in the Midwest: 3 Floyds in Munster, IN is about 5-10 minutes off I-94 and legendary for its Dark Lord Imperial Russian Stout (which it releases only once a year during a festival called– wait for it– Dark Lord Day!), and a citra-hopped pale ale called Zombie Dust (which it technically offers year round, but often sells out as soon as they pump out a new batch of bottles).
Be warned: 3 Floyds’ beers are not dainty Belgian flowers attempting to lure you with subtlety, at least not for the most part. Their beers tend to be hoppy, big and flavorful… And some of the best in the business:
Less well-known (but probably as good in their own way) is 18th Street Brewing in picturesque Gary, IN. I’ve never had a bad beer from 18th Street, and their legend is growing. Plus, it’s just a short divert off 90/94 by way of US 12 to the brew pub. No, Gary is not a pretty place, but this spot is nice and the beer is really, really good.
There are probably a couple of other breweries lurking in this section of the I-94 corridor but, honestly, this list is already well into over-kill territory— and about to become even more so. Moving on…
All right, you’re finally closing in on your destination… But behold! The width of Michigan spans between the IN/MI border and the apocalyptic urban carcass that is Detroit! And there, bristling like porcupine quills from the soft rolling back of the kettle moraine country, are more microbreweries than you can shake a UAW union card at. Excelsior!
Michigan poses something of a challenge in your brewery tour itinerary. There is a direct route to Detroit that continues along the I-94 corridor and provides you with ample and interesting beer opportunities. BUT– and it is a big-ass megalithic ubergigantor BUT– there is a somewhat longer route that takes you through probably the highest density of breweries in the state… With some of the finest among them.
Fortunately, you don’t need to make any major decisions right away. Literally 10-15 minutes after entering Michigan you can exit at Sawyer, MI and take in Greenbush Brewing. Greenbush is another lesser-known up-and-comer with some fantastic beers across a wide range of flavor profiles– as well as some excellent food. This one is worth the ease of the stop along your way, and then some.
After that you could go into the somewhat depressing lake town of Benton Harbor to take in a little-known gem called The Livery. Good food, good beer (and some interesting decor) make it a worthwhile stop for the curious.
After that, it’s decision time. The road to beer forks at the point where I-196 peels off from I-94 and continues north along the Lake Michigan shoreline– before turning east towards Lansing at Holland, MI.
But before taking the long road, we should probably stick to I-94 and the path of least resistance to the Motor City. After The Livery you could check out Paw Paw, MI which, among other things, is known for its winery and the fact that I had (and still have) cousins living within spitting distance of this town. A more recent addition to the area is Paw Paw Brewing Company— which aside from a couple of tell-tale “nothing pleases me” reviews, gets a lot of positive press from locals and visitors alike. I’ve never tried it, but I think I’ll need to soon.
After that, you hit the Kalamazoo area– where a number of brewing options present themselves. The best known of the bunch is probably Bell’s Brewery, which I include here for due diligence purposes. Take note: Bell’s production brewery is outside of town in Comstock, MI. What you will see in Kalamazoo itself (and the only part open to visitors) is the Bell’s Eccentric Cafe. The beer is good, with some unusual “won’t find it in stores pretty much ever” offerings rotating on an irregular basis. The food is good, but not amazing. The ambiance is nice, but do not expect any brewery tours here. It’s strictly, “Eat, drink, and be merry,” and they do all three very well. Never had a bad time, beer, or meal here– but after the third or fourth time I’m ready to try something new.
Also, I noticed that another friend of yours suggested Latitude 42 in Portage, MI— which is where one of my brothers happens to live. I know nothing about this place but it intrigues me (so I’m adding it to the list).
The next town east is Battle Creek, home of Arcadia Ales. I think they make beer or something. Actually, they’re pretty good.
A little further down I-94 a ways, and a place of more personal interest to me, is Dark Horse Brewing in Marshall, MI. Dark Horse makes excellent beer, and I’ve heard some good things about their tap room. Sadly, they will probably not have their Blueberry Stout out at the moment, but there should be plenty of choices… Really, really good choices at that.
After that, it’s a bit of a crap shoot. I see plenty of breweries popping up on Google maps, but none with which I have any familiarity. Within striking distance of the hotel I see Atwater Beer, Detroit Beer Co, and Motor City Beer.
They could be within striking-distance of some seriously massive meth labs too– for all I know. Yay, Detroit!
There are a number of other breweries on the way into town (in the halo of cities around Detroit), like Ann Arbor and such. I know nothing about these places. Arm yourself with Google Maps– and a few Ratebeer fact-finding searches– and you might just find a new classic lurking in the area.
Now let’s get back to that fork in the road heading north along the Lake Michigan shoreline along I-196. The first stop you come to is Holland, MI, where New Holland Brewing resides. New Holland has pretty impressive barrel aging and souring programs (Deanna Comment: Blue Sunday is one of my FAVORITE sours!), good food, and a sharp tap room/restaurant/gift shop. New Holland is a nice place, and it’s just warming up for the next stop, but well worth a look in its own right.
Then we arrive at what many consider one of the premier brewing capitols in the Midwest: Grand Rapids, MI. Grand Rapids is a place where you could easily stop for a night and take in the town. There are a good three or four breweries within walking distance of one another and a very nice river walk that runs through the middle of the city, as well as some really good dining and bar options. Some of the better beer stops in town are Brewery Vivant, Founders Brewing, Harmony Beer, and Mitten Brewing.
Of the four breweries above, I have been to Founders (fantastic location and great beer) sampled Brewery Vivant’s beer (excellent stuff, and friends have highly recommended the tap room), and get good vibes/word of mouth from Harmony and Mitten. Hideout is a bit further from the center of the city, but also appears worth a look-see.
After that, it’s a drive on I-96 all the way to Detroit. I’m not sure I can strictly recommend the Grand Rapids divert unless you have the time and the will, but it is a fun town with a lot of good beer in the works.
So there you have it, a Beer Nerd’s Checklist for the road to the Motor City. Let me know if you have any questions. Oh, and drive safe.
PS– Looking back over this letter, I feel like I didn’t even bother to invite Chicago to the party. There are four more breweries in the city proper that deserve mention, and many more (if we had all the time in the world to talk about them). Illinois tends to be seen as a beer state consisting of Goose Island and not much else worth mentioning, which is total crap.
Pipeworks Brewing is building a name for Illinois Beer on the back of their Ninja and Unicorn Imperial IPAs– as well as their Abduction series of impy stouts. They have a number of other beers worth investigating, but no tap room or bottle shop to sample their wares. As Don’t Drink Beer says, “Buy it at Binny’s!”
Probably the least ballyhooed and most consistently excellent beer being brewed in Chicago at the moment is from Spiteful Brewing. Like Pipeworks, Spiteful is a production brewery only that self-distributes bombers to local stores. Their Burning Bridges Brown Ale is a keeper, as are their GFY Imperial Stout and their IPAs. Yes, I am a hop head– and will continue to plug IPAs with shameless abandon.
Unlike Spiteful and Pipeworks, Halfacre does in fact have a tap room (as well as a gift shop and bottle shop). I am sure you are familiar with their Daisy Cutter, which is arguably the best pale ale made in Chicago– and a world class beer by any standard. Halfacre is too far away from the interstate to recommend as a quick stop along the road, but it is absolutely worth a visit.
Finally, we have a new kid in town that may not be open just yet, but is worth considering for future visits. Breakroom Brewery has been releasing a number of collaboration beers as they spool up their taproom and brewing operations. I’m not sure when they will be ready to come out and play, but their collaboration beer with Spiteful was dynamite. Keep your eyes peeled for these guys.
And finally, Geek Bar is coming to Chicago! Need I say more? No, I don’t. Behold the geeky goodness and tremble ye mortals!