Michigan’s Wackiest Beers: Here’s What’s Inside

Michigan’s beer scene is one of the best in the country. With more than 200 breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs across the state, Michigan is truly a dream destination for both beer enthusiasts and those just looking to explore craft beer for the first time.

Read more on some of the more unique flavors that pop up at various breweries in the Great Lakes state, courtesy of guest blogger Chad Cramblet of the Awesome Mitten.

Take a minute to think about your favorite beer. Is it a stout, sweet and malty with just a subtle hop bitterness? Is it a hoppy IPA that is perfectly balanced with a slight sweetness? Can you taste the hops, the malt, the smoked pig’s head, the watermelon candy or maybe the freshly picked jalapeno peppers?

At its core, beer is simply a combination of water, grain, hops and yeast. It is the different combinations and varieties of these ingredients that create most of the beers that we know and love. However, we are lucky enough to live in a time (now) and place (Michigan) where breweries are taking a more artistic approach to beer, not afraid to play with unique ingredients to create something unique and, in some cases, flat out weird.

With the ever-growing number of small breweries in Michigan, there is no shortage of unique brews being served in taprooms and beer festivals throughout the state. Brewing beer in smaller batches than some of the bigger names in beer, many Michigan brewers have more wiggle room when it comes to incorporating unusual ingredients in their recipes. Whether the goal is for the ingredient to be the focal point or simply a supporting character, nothing is off limits when it comes to experimentation.

Photo Courtesy of Shorts Brewing

Photo Courtesy of Short’s Brewing

But what is it that makes a beer using strange ingredients a success and not just a novelty? For head brewer Tony Hansen of Short’s Brewing Company in Bellaire, that is pretty simple:

“Whether you are trying to single out and highlight the ingredient or make it work with other elements to create something complex, it has to be something that leaves the customer wanting more,” Hansen said. “I’ve tasted a lot of strange beers that were made with weird ingredients that sounded interesting but were undrinkable.

“In my opinion, these beers may have attracted or created a long line (at a beer festival), but they were not a success.”

Though some brewers may start with a traditional recipe and figure out how to add a unique ingredient into the mix, for Hansen the creative process starts with the the ingredient itself.

“I start with the weird or unique ingredients first (and then) figure out if I want it to be the dominant flavor or complemented with other flavors to create a broader concept,” Hansen said.

After he has an idea of what the ingredient will contribute to his vision, he chooses a base beer that has the right characteristics to complete the puzzle.

“Of course, the base beer might have to be manipulated a bit from traditional style to fit just right, but that’s what makes it fun.”

While many beer drinkers prefer to stick with beer-flavored beer, for those who prefer to take a drink on the wild side here are a list of a few of the strange beers that Michigan breweries have produced. Since most of these are produced in limited quantities and served exclusively in tap rooms or at beer festivals, make sure to check out breweries’ websites to see what’s available before making a pilgrimage to check out any of the beers listed below.

Spicy

Peter Piper Pepper Pale Ale
Rockford Brewing Company, Rockford

Also a part of RBC’s Permaculture Series, this pale ale utilizes serrano, jalapeno, banana and hungarian wax peppers from Heidi’s Farmstand in Lowell. You can expect a finish of fresh peppers without an overwhelmingly spicy bite. Also try Hot Peter; Peter Piper Pepper Pale Ale cask conditioned on a blend of peppers.

ABV: 5%

Photo Courtesty of Rockford Brewing

Photo Courtesy of Rockford Brewing

440 Pepper Smoker
Original Gravity Brewing CompanyMilan

Description: This Amber Ale uses a German smoked malt that adds a balanced smoky flavor that works well with the heat from the fresh jalapenos that are added during several stages of the brewing process.

ABV: 5.6%

Sweet

Watermelon Weizen
Hideout Brewery, Grand Rapids

This wheat beer’s green color might come as a bit of a surprise, but that is because it is brewed with over one thousand watermelon candies which makes it a little tart, a little sweet and a lot refreshing.

ABV: 5.3%

Hipster Brunch Stout
Odd Side Ales, Grand Haven

This dark, boozy stout was aged in bourbon barrels along with coffee, maple syrup and bacon. While made with breakfast ingredients, the sweet and complex flavors present in this beer would also be great for dessert.

ABV: 10%

Barrel Aged Sweet Potato Souffle
Odd Side Ales, Grand Haven

This boozy, spiced strong ale is brewed with sweet potatoes and aged in rye whiskey barrels. Skip the sweet potato casserole and make this the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving table.

ABV: 10%, IBU: 31

Cherry Pie Whole
Right Brain Brewery, Traverse City

Tapped annually in July, this amber ale is brewed with 80 entire cherry pies — crusts and all — from Grand Traverse Pie Company. Released just in time for the National Cherry Festival, you can expect the tart-sweet flavor of cherries and a crackery finish from the crusts.

ABV: 5.4%

Ain’t Jemima
Rockford Brewing Company, Rockford

As part of its ongoing Permaculture Series which seeks to utilize unique ingredients from local agriculture, Ain’t Jemima replaced the water in the brewing process with fresh sap from local maple trees. This series has also produced beers made with butternut squash, plums, rhubarb and several other unique ingredients. Keep an eye on their website to see what’s next!

ABV: 7.6%

Savory

Mangalista Pig Porter
Right Brain Brewery, Traverse City

A rich, chocolaty porter that is brewed with smoked pig heads and bones. While the vegetarians will want to steer clear, this is the beer that put the spotlight on Right Brain when it was named the 2011 Gold Medal Winner for Best Experimental Beer at the Great American Beer Festival.

ABV: 7%

Photo Courtesy of Great Lakes Prep

Photo Courtesy of Great Lakes Prep

OMGWTFBBQ
Short’s Brewing Company, Bellaire

This barbecue-themed experimental amber ale is brewed with tomatoes, brown sugar, molasses, spices and smoked hops. While it’s smokiness and slight spiciness harken to barbecue sauce, the malty backbone remind you that this is a surprisingly drinkable beer.

ABV: 6.7%

Spear Beer
Right Brain Brewery, Traverse City

A light-bodied ale with nutty, earthy and sweet notes from real asparagus! They also add real lemon zest to add a little brightness to the mix. Though it might sound weird, which is why it made this list, it is a must-try for asparagus fans.

ABV: 5.3%

This is simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the unique offerings that Michigan breweries have to offer. With well over 150 breweries and brewpubs across the state, you are never far from a beer infused with Michigan’s bountiful produce and creativity.

What are your favorite wacky Pure Michigan brews? Let us know in the comments below!

chad gambletMeet the Blogger: Chad Cramblet

Chad lives in Rockford with his wife and two dogs and enjoy to spend his time cooking and eating tasty vegetarian food, sampling craft beer, and listening to the Detroit Tigers play on the radio. After enjoying the Michigan craft beer scene for years as a consumer, he was recently employed as an assistant brewer at Newaygo Brewing Company. Since graduating from Cornerstone University in 2011, he’s also worked at Biggby Coffee, covered high school sports for MLive and contributed to The Awesome Mitten. With its natural beauty, craft beer and love for baseball, there’s no place he’d rather be, even with the frigid winters.

Autumn’s Favorite Foods: Pumpkin and Apple

Fall is in full swing and with it comes fantastic seasonal flavors! Read more on how to get your fix of the autumn’s iconic flavors on an orchard excursion or at a restaurant, shop or brewery near you.

Pumpkin spice season
This übertrendy flavor pops up everywhere these days, but Michigan’s offerings prove especially unique, with pumpkin spice appearing in martinis, craft beer, soup and other fresh finds.

After a show at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, nearby Centaur Bar specializes in martinis. Pumpkin spice, rum and coffee liquor warm tipplers’ cheeks in the two-story lounge. Across town, Germack Pistachio Company roasts pepitas (pumpkin seeds) a few blocks from their Eastern Market store. The third-generation owners recently expanded their operation of nuts and seeds to coffee roasting and hard-to-find spices.

With hints of cinnamon and nutmeg and toasted walnuts,
 the seasonal pumpkin muffins at Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann
 Arbor rank as a staff favorite. Store associates wear vintage aprons 
and pearls at Sweetie-licious Bakery and Cafe in Dewitt (and Grand Rapids). The family recipe behind Mommy’s Pumpkin Pie inspires a buttery crust and creamy, spiced pumpkin filling.

Mommy’s Pumpkin Pie at Sweetie-licious Bakery and Cafe in Dewitt, Photo Courtesy of Blaine Moats

Mommy’s Pumpkin Pie at Sweetie-licious Bakery and Cafe in Dewitt, Photo Courtesy of Blaine Moats

Four types of pumpkin ice cream—cinnamon pumpkin crisp, pumpkin chip, pumpkin roll
and, for the purist, 
plain pumpkin—draw pumpkin spice-lovers to Moomers Homemade Ice Cream in Traverse City. And the 1950s-theme House of Flavors churns out seasonal pumpkin pie ice cream in Ludington.

Crunchy pralines complement pumpkin cheesecake 
at The Underground Cheesecake Company
 in Traverse City. 
Hearty pumpkin cake doughnuts fill cases at Cops and Doughnuts,
 a police-owned bakery
 in Clare since 1896 (through a name and ownership change). Pumpkin seed salsa sold by American Spoon in Petoskey adds zest to chicken tacos.

American Spoon in Petoskey, Photo Courtesy of American Spoon

American Spoon in Petoskey, Photo Courtesy of American Spoon

Pumpkin spice goes boozy at a number of craft breweries, including the coffee-spiked Pumpkin Spice Latte, an ale at Detroit’s Atwater Brewery, the British-inspired Jaw- Jacker Pumpkin Spiced Ale at Battle Creek’s Arcadia Brewing Company and Ichabod, made with pumpkin, nutmeg and cinnamon, served seasonally at New Holland Brewing.

New Holland Brewing in Holland, Photo Courtesy of Nate Luke

New Holland Brewing in Holland, Photo Courtesy of Nate Luke

Apple country
It’s easy to get the ripest, crispest, sweetest and tartest apples. Just stop at any of the too-many-to-count fruit stands and farm markets that spring up from the 850 family-owned farms growing apples in Michigan.

The orchards of the state’s southwest corner draw visitors year-round, but fall brings the experience to fruition. Purchase a peck or two of Gala, McIntosh and Honeycrisp apples, or pick some at Crane’s Pie Pantry Restaurant and Winery and U-Pick farm in Fennville. Standing amid 100 acres of sweet-scented fruit trees with roots back to 1916, visitors wander the grounds painted in fall colors and sample treats, including apple pie, apple crisp and apple cider doughnuts.

Apple picking at Crane’s Orchard in Fennville, Photo Courtesy of Johnny Quirin

Apple picking at Crane’s Orchard in Fennville, Photo Courtesy of Johnny Quirin

In downtown Fennville, more flavors come into play at the rustic eatery Salt of the Earth, starring vegetables, meats, berries and fruits from the local landscape. Less than 5 miles away, Virtue Farm crafts Virtue Cider from Michigan apples.

Sampling at Virtue Cider in Fennville, Photo Courtesy of Johnny Quirin

Sampling at Virtue Cider in Fennville, Photo Courtesy of Johnny Quirin

The fifth generation is still growing apples (and peaches and cherries) at Fruit Acres Farm Market and U-Pick, a Coloma farm established in 1846. A half-mile south, sip on fresh-pressed cider at Grandpa’s Cider Mill.

Check out the Pure Michigan Fall Travel Guide for more great seasonal travel ideas.

Where’s your favorite spot to enjoy the flavors of fall? Let us know in the comments!

Return of the Grapes: A Tale of Triumph in the Great Lakes State

This year, Michigan’s wineries have seen a rebounded crop after a couple years of less-than-stellar growth. Read more below to learn about the industry and where to stop to sip wine during your fall color tour this season. 

For two years in a row, Michigan’s devastated vineyard managers looked out over rows of vines and confirmed the suspicions of the state’s thriving wine industry; Mother Nature had taketh away.

Extremely cold winter spells, better known by the dramatic moniker – Polar Vortex, paralyzed the majority of the state’s vines in 2014 and 2015. The grapes that did make it in 2015 were forced from the vines by a fluke August hailstorm, ripping a scab off of winemakers’ tenderly healing hearts.

Photo Courtesy of MI Grape & Wine Industry Council

Photo Courtesy of MI Grape & Wine Industry Council

Michigan winemakers treaded so carefully across March 2016 you could barely hear a whisper of “so good, so far.” Same thing with April, May and June. Reports came in from the Leelanau Peninsula that a June hail storm had damaged the entire region. Calls quickly went out to multiple wineries in the region to find out that they were mostly untouched. Phew.

Into late August, winery owners could be heard raising their voices just a little. The strong vines were producing an excellent crop and veraison was occurring from south to north.  A few photos began to surface on Instagram. Fingers crossed – but no boasting, no planning, no mention of harvest. Many Michigan winemakers consider themselves farmers first, with a no frills grit that carries them through each season.

September… beautiful September! The sun, the heat! Warm nights and gentle rains! Wineries across the state started posting their harvest events and festivals. Then finally last week, the glorious battle cry rang out across the state. From Berrien County, “Onward Merlot, Pinot Noir!” From Traverse City, “Vidal!” “Riesling!” “Chardonnay!” From Jackson, “Marquette – You glorious grape!” The harvest and pressing of Michigan fruit has put everyone in high gear and will keep them very busy with this for the next couple months.

Photo Courtesy of MI Grape & Wine Industry Council

Photo Courtesy of MI Grape & Wine Industry Council

Michigan wineries expect to bottle over 2.3 million gallons of wine this year, and welcome over 2 million thirsty visitors through their doors. As the industry has grown to welcome 124 wineries statewide, so has the reputation not only for stellar Rieslings – but also internationally awarded sparkling, elegant rosés and well-balanced red vinifera wines.

So 2016 will be known as the year that Michigan wineries rebounded – the great American story of triumph over tragedy. Farmers never take these abundant years for granted; rather they embrace humility and pour their energy into their trade. Michigan wine is the product of a patient art.

Michigan wines – like our people – are totally Midwestern. They are resilient, honest, hard-working, and authentic to their cool climate, Great Lakes terroir.  Happy Harvest Michigan – you deserve it.

Photo Courtesy of MI Grape & Wine Industry Council

Photo Courtesy of MI Grape & Wine Industry Council

Want to do a little treasure hunting on your Michigan fall color tour this year? Seek out these award winning gems:

Chateau Fontaine, 2015 Woodland WhiteLeelanau Peninsula– 100% Auxerrois grape, best of class winner multiple years at the Michigan Wine Competition. Captures the essence of northern Michigan’s summer sunlight – crisp, relaxed, buoyant and lovely.

Black Star Farms, Sirius RaspberryLeelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas – Looking for an ultimate dessert wine? This crowd pleaser expresses the very finest of this Michigan fruit. Buy an extra bottle to bring to your next dinner party!

L. Mawby, GraceLeelanau Peninsula – This Pinot Noir Brut sparkling wine is bottled in the traditional method. An elegant and inspiring wine from one of Michigan’s most notable winemakers.

Chateau Grand Traverse, 2012 Merlot ReserveOld Mission Peninsula – This red has depth of character, winning several awards from around the country. It has been described as clean, classy, well balanced and suave.

Fenn Valley Vineyards, 2015 TraminetteFennville – This wine captures you at the nose and takes you all the way through the finish. A distinct varietal spice is well balanced with the sweetness of the fruit. It will be a new favorite!

St Julian Winery, Sweet Nancie Peach SparklingPaw Paw - Vibrant & joyful, characteristic of your fondest Michigan memories. Peach essence in every little bubble, what could be better?

Lemon Creek Winery, 2012 Shiraz Berrien Springs – You’ve found rubies!  Balanced acidity and fine-grained tannins integrate with oak — delivering complex fruit flavors through an extended finish.

For more information on Michigan wines, visit this page.

Jenelle Jagmin is promotion specialist for the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council. Founded in 1985, the council was established within the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development. For more information, and plan your trip to Michigan wine country, visit michiganwines.com.

Where are your favorite spots to sip Michigan wine? Share in the comments!