Not that long ago, going up north for the weekend meant stepping back in time by leaving cellphone coverage and craft beverages behind for a few days.
While wireless connections are still lacking in many areas, even the most remote expanses of northern Michigan have started to embrace the craft beer and craft spirit revolution. And once you commit to going off the beaten path, what you’ll find in many cases are some real gems.
For this story, Revue packed up the station wagon and hit the highway headed north to explore what the destinations of Frankfort and Ludington have to offer.
Iron Fish Distillery
14234 Dzuibanek Road, Thompsonville
(231) 378-3474, ironfishdistillery.com
Getting to Iron Fish takes commitment. You head south off of M-115 just east of Crystal Mountain and make a right on a dirt road that seems to go on forever. But then after a turn, the trees open up and you’re treated to a panorama of grain fields and what the owners bill as Michigan’s first (legal) farm-based distillery. The idea for Iron Fish started as somewhat of a pipe dream for two brothers-in-law during a Scotch-drinking trip in Scotland, one that became reality on Labor Day last year. The distillery grows about 25 percent of the grain used in its spirits and sources the rest from local farmers, according to co-founder David Wallace. After starting with clear spirits like vodka, rum, and white whiskey, the distillery now offers a range of products including the outstanding Michigan Woodland Gin, made with 15 botanicals and barrel-aged for a golden color. Their future plans call for whiskey — they use an outside source for their current products (including bourbon finished in maple and tawny port barrels) while their own whiskey ages in barrels — as well as fruit-based spirits in partnership with local growers. The extensive cocktail list is impressive, and also features fresh ingredients grown onsite.
Stormcloud Brewing Co.
303 Main St., Frankfort
(231) 352-0118, stormcloudbrewing.com
Downtown Frankfort is the quintessential northern Michigan town, with plenty of antique stores, T-shirt shops and unique eateries. Four years ago, Stormcloud opened its doors and has been earning praise for its Belgian-inspired beers ever since. At the start, the goal was to differentiate the brewery from the Traverse City brewing scene, said co-owner Brian Confer, a former professional photographer who learned to make beer after converting his darkroom for homebrewing. That led him to find a signature Belgian yeast strain that lends a spicy and phenolic character to Stormcloud’s beers, whether in an American pale ale or a Belgian dubbel or tripel. The demand for Stormcloud’s beer drew the owners to build a new production facility east of town, where they plan to expand into canning and bottling. The move will also allow them to open up more distribution, particularly in West Michigan, Confer said. (Pro tip: The food is also legit. Be sure to try the garlic and parmesan popcorn and the Stormchos.)
Starving Artist Brewing Co.
634 S. Stiles Road, Ludington
(231) 794-1399, starvingartist.beer
The phrase “born in a barn” rings true for Starving Artist Brewing. Founder Andy Thomas launched the project in his backyard barn in June 2015 after selling a downtown Ludington art gallery he’d owned for a decade. Thomas knew he didn’t want to operate and staff a taproom, but he opens his eclectic barn-based brewery on the weekends for tastings and sales of cans, bottles and growler fills — and guaranteed belly laughs. After several product iterations, the brewery has doubled down on full-flavored beers on the higher end of the ABV spectrum, with most brews clocking in at 7.5 percent and above. Starving Artist has garnered attention for its experimentation with big and bold IPAs like the super-smooth 10 percent ABV Blood Forge, but it’s far from being a one-trick pony. The affable Thomas likes to push the boundaries of beer, with offerings like Coal Chamber (a smoked porter), Rubenesque (a sessionable sweet milk stout), and Absinthe Minded (a beer that mimics the anise-flavored spirit). He’s also playing with water chemistry to accentuate certain flavors in beers and improve mouthfeel. As the old adage goes, an artist’s work is never done. (The Revue team will gladly volunteer to try them all!)
The Mitten Bar
109 W. Ludington Ave., Ludington,
(231) 843-7616, facebook.com/mittenbar
The fun part about traveling is discovering new places that just feel like home the second you walk in. Mitten Bar is one of those places. Brian and Megan Josefowicz have garnered a broad following for their beer bar on the main drag in downtown Ludington. It features a wide selection of all-Michigan beers, and you’re bound to run into hard-to-find, limited-edition and barrel-aged beers on tap. The cozy bar often features massive Michigan brewery tap takeovers, as well as live music and “Bend and Brew” yoga. Because Mitten is connected to the owners’ other ventures — Barley & Rye, a whiskey bar with a Mexican-inspired menu, and Sportsman’s Restaurant and Bar, an Irish pub — you’ll never lack for options. We found ourselves wanting to hang out there all day and tip back the various tastes of Michigan.
DESTINATIONS ALONG THE WAY
St. Ambrose Cellars
841 S. Pioneer Road, Beulah
(231) 383-4262, stambrose-mead-wine.com
Meadery and winery on a farm setting, offering fresh, quaffable takes on mead
Ludington Bay Brewing Co.
515 S. James St., Ludington
(231) 239-6690, ludingtonbaybrewing.com
Brand-new brewery in a gorgeous space with a diverse taplist and great food options
Jamesport Brewing Co.
410 S. James St., Ludington
(231) 845-2522, jamesportbrewingcompany.com
Delicious food options, deck seating with a view of Pere Marquette Lake, and traditional to-style beers
North Channel Brewing Co. (Coming soon)
86 Washington St., Manistee
Expects to open later in 2017 with brewer Bill Joslyn — formerly of Oskar Blues, Schlafly and Boulder Beer