Two thirds of The Hop Review have roots in Michigan. Despite that fact, neither of us have spent much time in the southwest part of the state and, perhaps more egregiously, haven't taken the time to stop in Kalamazoo (widely considered the second best beer city in Michigan) for a brew on our way back to Chicago.
On an recent May Saturday morning, we woke up early, jumped in our car, and set out on a mission to change that. Luckily for us, there are more than enough beer-themed distractions scattered between Chicago and Kalamazoo to break up the trip and allow us the opportunity to check in with some of the Midwest's finest breweries along the I-94 corridor.
Stop #1 - Paw Paw Brewing Company - Paw Paw, Michigan
Located about two hours drive from downtown Chicago, Paw Paw Brewing Company's tap room is an unassuming building a couple minutes drive from the interstate. As we arrived a little before the tap room opened, we stopped into the nearby production facility to take a look. As is typical in small town USA, they were happy to show us around and talk shop. The facility is medium sized by micro standards and the space affords them plenty of room to grow.
The tap room itself (located about a mile away) has a decidedly local but welcoming feel. The small batch setup means there's a large but constantly rotating beer list. We'd recommend getting a flight and choosing the brews that most appeal to you. We were lucky enough to run into head brewer Trevor Klimek who took a few minutes to chat with us about his creations. The mile-a-minute brewer obviously takes pride in his work and is passionate about his small town brewery.
Watch this space for our upcoming chat with Paw Paw's head brewer Trevor!
If you're in the area with a little time to spare, consider stopping by St. Julian Winery to sample from their impressive wine and cider list.
Stop #2 - Arcadia Ales - Kalamazoo, MI
Based in Battle Creek, MI, Arcadia has grown exponentially since their start in 1996 and they're now available across the Midwest. The latest step in their expansion is the new Kalamazoo tap room and production facility that will allow them to drastically increase their footprint.
Not officially opened until May 8th, we got the chance to check out the new space alongside founder Tim Surprise, prior to their grand opening. The entire Arcadia facility is, for lack of a better word, stunning. The huge, bright, airy bar area is complemented with a kitchen serving some fantastic looking BBQ, cooked right out back. The beautiful new brewery, with a potential capacity of 30,000 barrels a year, means you'll be seeing a whole lot more of Arcadia country-wide in the coming months.
Check back here for our upcoming interview with founder Tim Surprise.
Stop #3 - Bell's Brewing Production Facility - Comstock, MI
There's perhaps no brewery with more street cred in the Midwest than Bell's. Founded in 1985 (ancient in craft beer terms), Bell's consistently puts out some of the best, diverse, yet always approachable beers around. We were able to set up a private tour of their stunning, relatively new, production facility just outside of the city. Clearly built with tours in mind, every metal surface shines and is surrounded by beautifully hand crafted wood. Each area of the brewery has a viewing platform or window so visitors can watch the magic happen up close. Of particular interest to us were the colossal wooden barrel open fermentors, re-purposed from Stroh's in Detroit.
Any beer nerd yet to make the trip to Comstock should move this to the top of their bucket list immediately. It is not to be missed.
Stop #4 - Bell's Eccentric Café - Kalamazoo, MI
If you want to see how far a brewery can come, check out Bell's origins at the aptly named Eccentric Café. This is where it all started and, nowadays, where the company chooses to experiment. The laid back bar has several beers on tap you'll only find here and is complete with a beer garden and concert venue (Mustard Plug was rehearsing during our visit). This is a great example of why people love Bell's; it's a huge company with reach across the globe, but a brewery that has not forgotten where it started and the local community who made it what it is today.
Stop #5 - Tibbs Brewing Company - Kalamazoo, MI
Following a quick stop into the awesome stock market themed Kalamazoo Beer Exchange, our group headed for Tibbs Brewing Company, a place none of us had ever heard of but came highly recommended from the locals. Tibbs is located on a street corner near downtown Kzoo. Throughout our group, everyone's first impression was that it did not feel like a brewery; instead it felt more like sitting in a old school diner waiting for your milkshake to arrive. The rather harsh lighting and atmosphere that spurs memories of childhood tends to clash with how we expect to feel at a local brewery.
That's not to say we didn't like the beer. Tibbs seems to know what they do well and they stick to it. The best example was the well received and named Citra Your Ass Down IPA which is, hands down, one of the most citrus heavy ales we've every tasted. The other beers on tap were all solid and were great representations of the described style.
Stop #6 - Greenbush Brewing Company - Sawyer, MI
Greenbush has long been a favorite stopping point for us during a long road trip between Chicago and Michigan. Located less than a mile from the highway and just about the only thing in town, the brewery is literally a can't miss location. Before we get to the beer, let's stop to mention the food. The BBQ at Greenbush could be worthy of it's own article and should absolutely be the first thing you try when stopping in.
Beer wise, Greenbush knows their trade. We chatted with Head Brewer Peter Hasbrouck, who walked us through their surprisingly simple facility. It's impressive to think that when you have a Greenbush brew in-hand, that beer was brewed and bottled in this very small space, right between their kitchen and parking lot. Greenbush's beer has become more readily available in the Chicago area thanks, in part, to a recent expansion to an across the street facility.
For more on Greenbush, keep an eye out for our interview with Head Brewer Peter Hasbrouck!
Stop #7 - Journeyman Distillery - Three Oaks, MI
Just ten minutes drive from Greenbush is Journeyman Distillery. While obviously not a brewery, the craft liquor movement has followed closely in the footsteps of craft beer and the owners and patrons of these establishments share a lot in common with their brewing brethren. We're glad we took the time to stop in, as Journeyman is, without a doubt, one of the more beautiful establishments we've visited. Located down a nondescript back street in the tiny town of Three Oaks, you'd be excused for missing it completely. Once inside, we were greeted warmly by the host and invited to look around. The entire building oozes history and authenticity. We could go on about this forever but check out the video below for a closer look.
The day we visited was bottling day, which meant a crew of local volunteers in-house to fill, wax seal, and package each and every bottle for distribution. With a long drive still ahead of us, we needed to be careful but the two of us split their flight of white liquors. We don't claim much knowledge on the distilling process, but we can tell you that what we tasted was damn good. The bartender took the time to explain the properties of each sample and the process behind its creation. Whether or not craft liquor is your thing, take the time to step off the highway and sample the goods at Journeyman.
Stop #8 - Four Fathers Brewing - Valparaiso, IN
Our last stop on our tour was, admittedly, a place we didn't know quite what to expect going in. We know Four Fathers Brewing is a brand new, nano brewery located in Valparaiso, Indiana. And there ended our prior knowledge.
Immediately upon arriving, it was clear just how small their operation is. The property is part of a strip mall-like building but don't let that put you off. The tiny tap room is well decorated, includes a window into the brewery and, as should be required in all breweries, includes complimentary popcorn. Beth and Kim, co-owners and wives of Head Brewers Jason and Colin, invited us back to take a look at their setup. Brewing on a 2.5 barrel system, the guys focus on a constantly rotating set of six taps. We sampled a few of them, including a Journeyman barrel aged stout, and were consistently impressed with the variety and quality of the beer. It says a lot for the future of a tiny start-up when the beers you're brewing right out of the gate are among some of the best we had on our trip.
The thing that really stuck out to us, however, was the enthusiasm and passion the four owners have for what they've started. We chatted with all of them for over an hour and covered everything from their love of Valpo and the local beer scene to their plans for the future.
Keep it here for our upcoming in depth interview with the Four Fathers crew!
With eight visits down in less than 36 hours and more than enough beer in our bellies to last a week, we called it a day and hit the Skyway for the return leg. As we discovered, the I-94 corridor is a craft beer (and liquor) gold mine, and we barely scratched the surface. There are a number of breweries in Kalamazoo (Gonzo's Biggdogg, Boatyard) or nearby (Dark Horse, The Livery, etc) which we simply didn't have the time to check out. You won't find us complaining though. That just means we'll have to make another trip!
Check out some of the other images from our trip in the gallery below and keep any eye out for our interviews with several of these breweries!