Traverse City may be known for its cherries and wine, but the Northwest Michigan town has been slowly making a name for itself because of its thriving craft beer scene.
The city of around 15,000 people has no fewer than 10 microbreweries or brewpubs — and that’s not even counting many more beer producers that continue to pop up in nearby towns like Acme, Lake Ann and Suttons Bay. (Lest you fudgies forget: Short’s Brewing Co. is actually based 40 miles away in Bellaire.)
In many ways, Traverse City breweries mirror their West Michigan counterparts with their purposeful focus on craft and farm-to-glass ingredients — and there’s also no shortage of interesting characters involved with the companies, either.
With that in mind, the dedicated team at REVUE West Michigan decided to make the ultimate sacrifice of leaving their desks for a day last month to head north to Traverse City to sample some beers. Here are some of the highlights.
Right Brain Brewery
225 East 16th St., Traverse City
(231) 944-1239, rightbrainbrewery.com
Patrons learn to expect the unexpected at Right Brain. After all, this is the brewery that made a name for itself by brewing the Mangalitsa Pig Porter, a beer with pig heads and bones. (Seriously — and it’s damn delicious.) The brewery also shares a building with a salon, a nod to founder Russell Springsteen’s former career as a hair stylist.
Right Brain has served up its “culinary-inspired” craft brews for eight years and has grown distribution of its 16-ounce cans and specialty bomber bottles to cover most of the state.
The mainstays, including CEO Stout, Willpower Pale Ale and Smooth Operator Cream Ale, were all on tap — along with four to five different IPAs at a time — but a visit to the taproom isn’t complete without sampling the latest in experimental beers. We tried everything from the spicy Thai Peanut brown ale to Spear Beer, a pale ale made with asparagus.
The space itself is open and airy and full of interesting art, including several ArtPrize-related pieces. There’s a mix of intimate settings and long picnic tables for large groups and families — perfect for observing an indoor game of cornhole or for playing board games.
Springsteen said he loves to see people come in for conversation and games — and, of course, the beer. The results speak for themselves, he said, noting the company has been growing at a fast clip. (Heh, barber humor.) Right Brain continues to expand its production capacity, which is now at 5,500 barrels just to meet the demand from thirsty patrons.
“We’re just trying to keep up and make better beer,” he said.
The Workshop Brewing Company
221 Garland St., Traverse City
(231) 421-8977, traversecityworkshop.com
Channel your inner Bolshevik and head to The Workshop to grab a round of honest ales after an honest day of working for the man.
The worker-centered iconography at the pub is a testament to founder Pete Kirkwood’s vision of a locally-focused brewery built on a mantra of “nature, community, craft.”
Power to the proletariat!
While The Workshop certainly embraces experimentation, the microbrewery features traditional, true-to-style offerings, most of them made with as many organic ingredients as possible — and all of them named after workers’ tools.
The tap list generally has nine “Journeyman” beers ranging in style from Tenpenny blonde ale, Sickle saison and Ball Peen ESB to 10 lb. Sledge IPA, Uncapper stock ale and Pry Bar porter, plus a handful of seasonals. (Pro tip: Try the saison and the ESB.)
“You should not be judged for your taste. We wanted everyone to feel welcomed,” Kirkwood said.
Revue also indulged in the Wrecking Bar, a nitro imperial porter aged in locally sourced bourbon barrels. The brewery plans to add wine and cider this month.
The Workshop’s beers share the spotlight with the company’s food offerings, many of which use beer as ingredients. We tried (and recommend) the Workshop Nachos made with pulled pork and black beans, as well as the Pork Belly Confit.
For Kirkwood’s part, he’s focused on growing a Zingerman’s-style network of locally-sourced, worker-centered businesses. This year he opened the adjacent Remedy Café, a breakfast joint.
“There’s a deeply rooted culture of support for local food and drink in Traverse City,” he said.
511 S Union St., Traverse City
(231) 735-8113, breweryferment.com
Tucked away in a small storefront in Traverse City’s Old Town neighborhood, Brewery Ferment’s taproom offers a laid-back vibe in which to enjoy the founders’ innovative approach to traditional beer styles. The brewery has five “approachable” flagship styles but is known for its sour beers.
Since Ferment works on a 1-barrel system, “it allows us to experiment and do all sorts of crazy things,” said co-owner Kirsten Jones.
Her brother, Dustin, serves as head brewer.
The beers range the gamut from a traditional wit, brown and pale ale to the weird, including the very strong LSBT — an ale made with lapsang souchong tea that tastes smoky, almost like drinking a summer bonfire. Another way they experiment is with locally sourced herbs and fruits. Living on Yarrow-ed Thyme, for example, uses yarrow as the bittering agent and contains no hops.
A fashion designer, Kirsten also sells unique beer-themed jewelry and apparel at the taproom. A favorite among Revue staffers was the resin-encased hops jewelry.
The Filling Station Microbrewery
642 Railroad Place, Traverse City
(231) 946-8168, thefillingstationmicrobrewery.com
We wound down our northern exposure beer tour with what was intended to be a quick stop at The Filling Station, a former train depot that was converted into a microbrewery. However, good beer, inviting outdoor seating and the prospect of a tasty artisan pizza (or two) convinced us to stay awhile and enjoy. They make a refreshing Erding Helles Lager, an array of IPAs — we opted for the balanced Huntington IPA — and the roasty London Porter.
In fact, the porter paired well with dessert, a slice of heaven known as the S’more Caboose. Get this: It’s a pizza crust made with graham cracker crumbs that’s spread with Nutella, topped with marshmallows, drizzled with chocolate and caramel sauce and then roasted like a s’more. O.M.Effing.G. What a way to cap off the trip.
Cheers until next time, Traverse City.
Beer City (North)?
Traverse City has a thriving and creative craft beer culture. Here are some of the other microbreweries and brewpubs to check out on your next northern adventure.
Production brewery not open to public. Look for its beers on tap around town.
Brewery Terra Firma
2959 Hartman Rd.
Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales
13512 Peninsula Drive (Old Mission Peninsula)
Mackinaw Brewing Co.
161 East Front St.
North Peak Brewing Co.
400 West Front St.
Rare Bird Brewpub
229 Lake Ave.