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.
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.
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%
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%
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
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%
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%
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%
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%
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.
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.