Ralph Waldo Emerson long ago wrote the often-cited line, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
While that may be true, it’s nice to know that the destination is worth the trip, especially when the endpoint is a craft brewery.
At Revue, we’ll admit to being spoiled. There’s more than a handful of breweries and top-notch craft beer bars within stumbling distance of our office in Grand Rapids, at the corner of Monroe Center and Ionia Avenue. But it’s just refreshing sometimes to hit the road and see where our meanderings take us. It’s a bonus when those journeys lead to great new beers.
For this edition of Revue’s occasional beer road trip series, we headed south out of Grand Rapids with just a skeleton of a plan to explore five breweries.
Little did we know the 150-mile journey would lead us to discover some new favorites along the way, including recently launched small-town pubs, a young brewery that’s on the forefront of reviving classic German-style beers, and humble but growing producers making some high-quality liquid.
Territorial Brewing Co. vies for the title of being the best hidden gem in the Michigan craft beer scene. Tiny Springfield, Mich. — located on the eastern edge of the sprawling Battle Creek Air National Guard Base and the W.K. Kellogg Airport west of the Cereal City — is incredibly lucky. We wholeheartedly believe that if this brewery were in a larger city, its status would be on par with the old-guard of Michigan’s brewery scene. Trust us, that’s no hyperbole.
The brewery and pub is tucked away in a small building with ample parking. Inside, the styling connotes an Old World beer hall, with flags of all the German states ringing the room. The attractive wooden bar and large tables all feature reclaimed lumber from demolished buildings in Kalamazoo. So far, so good.
Fans of German-style lagers take note: Territorial’s menu has you covered. (It was refreshing to find not a single IPA on the tap list when Revue visited.) The brewery, started two years ago next month by Charles Grantier and Tim Davis, brews every imaginable variation of the traditional style, including pilsner, pale lager and golden lager, as well as other favorites like the hefeweizen, berliner weisse, marzen and bock. But brewer Davis also stretches deep into the catalog of German beer styles with a gose and a (new-to-us) Lichtenhainer, or smoked sour.
Grantier and Davis may have started Territorial on a shoestring budget — their almost entirely repurposed “Franken-brew” equipment only cost about $100,000 — but they’ve poured their time and effort into perfecting their brewing process. One small example of where Territorial invested to help improve its quality: The brewery mills all its grain in-house, which allows the malt-forward beers to shine in a way rarely seen in American craft beer, and certainly not at a brewery of this size.
Our favorites were Three Nancies, a total malt bomb of a maibock; Kenny Lagers, a clean and refreshing helles lager; Leelou, a hopped-up imperial pilsner made with Cascade hops from nearby Hop Head Farms in Hickory Corners; and the 2016 Best of Craft Beer Awards gold medal-winning Samsquamch Block Party, a smoky sour ale with a unique aroma and a lingering smoke finish.
We were also fond of the Ole, a Danish-style pilsner fermented with brettanomyces yeast for a citrusy and funky flavor, and the Avenue A Amber, a malty pale with a nice medium body.
And then there’s the food. Lovers of German staples like spaetzle, schnitzel, wurst and more will no doubt like what they see on the menu, but that first bite is enough to induce euphoria. Chef Richard Centala calls the menu German-inspired, as he takes liberties to add his own modern twist to age-old recipes. Schmeckt gut!
Grantier hinted that an expansion is in the works for Territorial. While we selfishly wish that plan included a location within walking distance of Revue’s global headquarters in downtown Grand Rapids, we’d settle for broader distribution of Territorial’s beers. Along with Cedar Springs Brewing Co., Territorial is championing the German-style craft beer renaissance in West Michigan. To that, we say: Prost!
One of the newest additions to West Michigan’s craft beer scene, OpenRoad Brewery opened in July along Wayland’s Main Street district. At Revue, we’re happy to see the craft brewery movement beginning to take hold in outlying communities. OpenRoad offers a cafe-like atmosphere that’s one part coffee shop and one part craft brewer with a dash of small-town diner. Revue didn’t sample any of the food menu, but the beers we tried were all solid. The Hell Yeah Hefe was very clean and true to style, with the expected banana and clove flavors from the German yeast. The 90 MPH IPA was similarly crisp and clean with just enough malty backbone to it. The Blonde Yell-Ale Submarine embodied everything a blonde ale should: It was flavorful, medium-bodied and crushable, without a trace of hop bitterness. However, the surprise beer was Road Rage Double IPA, a very smooth drinker for 9.8 percent ABV. Its resinous hops mix with honey-like sweetness for a clean sipper.
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to drink and dine inside a rustic mill, well, you’ve come to the right place. The interior at Old Mill features a lot of interesting woodwork and views of passing trains. (Be sure to look for the large wall display of Pez dispensers outside the bathrooms.) As a brewpub, Old Mill features a range of in-house and outside pours, but its own beers certainly merit a taste. Revue especially liked the Crazy Beaver Cream Ale, which featured a refreshing mix of vanilla notes and creamy malts. The Sunshine Stout and Railside Red are also worth a try. Old Mill offers a full pub menu, and the dishes we saw looked very tasty. We’d definitely come back again when hungry, or just when we’re looking for a reason to pull off U.S. 131 between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids.
An editor’s pick in the Revue Best of the West Awards earlier this year, Tibbs Brewing is another example of a brewery making the most of a shoestring budget. To hear owner Kevin Tibbs describe it, the company’s start was a mix of happy accidents and a DIY ethos that pervades everything about the brewery, from its space to its equipment. Tibbs Brewing has grown steadily since it opened in 2013, recently expanding with a downstairs pub, music venue and brewhouse, all without the company taking on debt or outside investors. At Revue, we love Tibb Brewing’s Belgians and were surprised to learn that Tibbs, himself, is no fan of the style. Nevertheless, he and his team make balanced Belgians — including a hybrid of dubbel and tripel style ales called Big “O” — that mix just the right amount of traditional flavors without overdoing the spice or banana notes. Other favorites during our stop included the Ben Jonesin Chocolate Toffee Porter and the Common Law IPA — not to mention Tibbs’ own non-alcoholic root beer.
We decided to round out the day of brewery sampling with a stop to Railtown Brewing, another editor’s pick in Revue’s Best of the West Awards. Like Tibbs, Railtown remains a staff favorite brewery because it’s situated off the beaten path and makes a strong portfolio of beers that hold up well from top to bottom. As fans of Railtown’s Citra Warrior double IPA, we were intrigued by the new Ninja Training Camp, a lower ABV pale ale that’s the base of Citra Warrior without the addition of honey. Like its predecessor, Ninja Training Camp didn’t disappoint. We also enjoyed the coffee-forward Javatose! Blonde, as well as the Boysen Bliss, a fruit beer with plenty of tart to keep the sweetness in check. By the time this story hits the stands, Railtown Brewing hopes to have opened its expansion, which includes a raised stage and new sound system for live music, as well as additional seating for the pub and more production space. Co-owners Justin Buiter and Gim Lee expect the additional room will free up space to start a barrel-aging program, as well as afford the brewery more capacity for distribution.