West Michigan breweries have made a name for themselves with their creativity and ever-improving quality. It’s what’s helped put the region on the map as a beer destination, one that attracts people the world over. This selection is intended to nail down the 10 beers brewed in West Michigan that best exemplify the region’s craft beer. These are not necessarily the 10 best West Michigan-made beers, but rather the creative brews that have helped establish our beer culture, that have helped define the scene — or that helped move it forward.
Plead The 5th Imperial Stout
Dark Horse Brewing Co.
Here comes a heavy hitter. If you ever need to plead the fifth in a court of law, you may want to calm your nerves ahead of time by downing this massive imperial stout from Dark Horse. Clocking in at 11 percent ABV, Plead the 5th is all about dark malts, with chocolate and coffee notes that last for days. It’s one of those beers that’s universally respected in the local craft beer scene for taking imperial stouts to the next level.
Bell’s Brewery Inc.
While the explosion in popularity of Two Hearted and Oberon have allowed Bell’s to expand exponentially, the company credits Amber Ale as “the beer that helped build our brewery.” Amber is a lovely, clean, workaday beer that’s all about balance. As tame as it seems today, Bell’s made waves with this beer when it hit the streets in 1985. In that sense, Amber helped pave the way for the craft beer revolution in West Michigan and beyond.
Founders Brewing Co.
When Dave Engbers and Mike Stevens stared imminent failure in the face, they famously decided to brew beers that were different and stand out from the other breweries. The first “brewed for us” beer was Dirty Bastard, a giant, irreverent middle finger to the naysayers. For an 8.5-percent ABV scotch ale, it’s massively complex and malty — and frighteningly drinkable. It set the stage for Founders’ massive growth and put craft beer fans on notice that this was a new day for the brewery.
New Holland Brewing Co.
It will never sell like Dragon’s Milk — or get put out in dozens of different variations — but Pilgrim’s Dole has become a quiet favorite for many in New Holland’s vast catalog. The barleywine has won so many national competitions that the brewery probably had to build a new wing just to house the awards. And it’s easy to see why — Pilgrim’s Dole is rich and malt-forward, featuring complex notes of dried fruits. This is the beer you want to sip while snuggled up in a blanket in the middle of winter.
The French and Belgians have perfected the farmhouse tradition of brewing for centuries, and that’s what Jason and Kris Spaulding wanted to emulate when they opened Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids in 2010. Summed up in beer form, that vision comes to life with Farm Hand, a rustic, unfiltered saison that celebrates Michigan terroir, with more than enough complexity in its interplay of flavors.
Speciation Artisan Ales
If ever there was a beer to celebrate West Michigan, Genetic Drift would be it. Speciation harvested the yeast locally that it uses in this house Brett Saison, which it open-ferments to allow other microflora to add an extra layer of “local-ness” to each beer. The result is a complex melange of citrus, funk and various other flavors depending on the hop bill, which varies from batch to batch. By launching with Genetic Drift, Speciation showed the local scene just what all this wild ale hype was about. Many others have joined the bandwagon since.
Big Red Coq
Born in the early days of Brewery Vivant, Big Red Coq bends the lines of what a red ale can be. While other reds lean more malty, Big Red Coq bursts with citrusy hops, a testament to head brewer Jacob Derylo’s masterful ability to create a new fusion style. Although Brewery Vivant only intended to brew the beer once, it gained traction with customers, becoming one of the company’s top-sellers today. Plus, it’s always fun to hear how customers attempt to get by without having to utter the beer’s full name aloud when ordering it. (Our suggestion: Just hold the giggles, look your bartender in the eye and go for it.)
Two Hearted Ale
Bell’s Brewery Inc.
Just one whiff of this beer conjures up scenes of Hemingway’s autobiographical character Nick Adams as he does battle with giant brook trout in the log-strewn Two Hearted River in the Upper Peninsula. The piney aroma and flavor from the all-Centennial hop bill dominate this Kalamazoo classic, but it’s Two Hearted’s balance that really shines. It defined the IPA style for craft beer drinkers in West Michigan and across the Midwest, and continues to gain fans as Bell’s empire spreads nationwide.
Founders Brewing Co.
Once upon a time, in an era long ago, beer stores used to carry six-packs of Red’s Rye as a seasonal release in Founders’ lineup. Sadly, a few years ago, the brewery decided to stop bottling the beer — except for a brief return this year as part of the pub-only Mothership release — because of its notoriously short shelf life. (It’s still available on draft.) A favorite of Founders’ employees and hopheads in general, Red’s Rye offered a massive dose of Amarillo hops in a gorgeously red pour that finished with a bit of spice from the rye.
Perrin Brewing Co.
Out of nowhere, Perrin Black became ubiquitous on taphandles across the state when the brewery launched in 2011. Who was this upstart that seemed to take off over night? While everyone else duked it out with IPAs, Perrin played the contrarian card with a smooth, roasty ale that manages to be light and drinkable despite its dark appearance. It’s helped win over many a drinker who says he doesn’t like dark beers.