Continued…. After crossing the massive Mackinac Bridge, we’re on main land Michigan en route to Traverse City, where we have a hotel reservation and a nose for good beer. The road is empty and though the sun is exposing the colorful treetops, a dense fog gives way to a freakish yet mercifully brief snowstorm before evaporating into a picturesque glorious morning. After many off the beaten path stops to stroll through the towns and walk the shores of North Eastern Lake Michigan, we’re in the quaint quasi-cosmopolitan town of Traverse City just after lunch.
Getting some work in, we’re cleaned up, fed, and seeking a brewery. Of the nine breweries in Traverse City we chose to hit the Right Brain Brewery because it was close to our hotel, maybe not the best criteria for choosing somewhere to go, but the logic was sound, as we were exhausted and wanted to relax. The place was an open warehouse, featuring a cleverly constructed wrap around bar and a large, if not imposing list of beers. We wanted a sampler, though the process of getting one was, to put it lightly, convoluted. The beer however was OK, but could have been far more enjoyable if the folks pouring it weren’t so arrogant and aloof. Cleaning glassware in front of us, the only two people at the bar, wasn’t completely distasteful as it’s a function of any working bar, but grabbing unfinished tasting glasses from our tray is. Especially when they are unapologetically slammed back in front of us after we mentioned we weren’t finished, all the while bitching about working to the other staffers around, it soured the overall experience almost too much. Service is tricky, but as an old-hand bar keep from New York, who spent nearly a decade in fine dining, bistros, cafes, hotels and on boats, I’ve had my share of shitty days, scumbag non-paying thief proprietors and rude clientele, but that’s the job.
Despite the prickly petulance and the gross unprofessionalism of the childlike staff, the beer was good. I enjoyed their IPA, as it is hard to screw that brewery staple up, but their yeast strain was nice, and a little familiar, adding this almost chewy, boozy, hop, malt blend, it was a direct knock out, well done. Though ultimately taking the prize for me was the very memorable Schrute Farms Beet Saison. Expressing again that excellent yeast strain with a delectable beet, hop balance that was shockingly earthy and delicious, this is one truly fun and easy drinking beer.
Beer to me is as much about community as it is about the yeast, barely, hops and water, it’s the harmony and truth of these four natural elements that bring folks together at the end of their day. It’s the shared moment, company, spirit and memories created that make up the experience of beer and I often find I would rather drink average beer, even pay more for it, so long as I’m surrounded by good people.
Next it was on to a brief stop in Grand Rapids, a beautiful city with impressive art-deco architecture, our stay was thwarted by a city-wide art walk that had attracted throngs of visitors making us feel claustrophobic like New York had for 14 years, so we decided to head to Lansing instead.
Parking in front of a bombed out YMCA that could’ve been used as a soundstage for “The Hurt Locker” we found ourselves taking an enjoyable and circuitous walk along Lansing’s river front park trails, which were a lovely feature to a city that seemed downright closed up. Landing on bar stools in a chic capital district bar called the Midtown Brewing Company, we drank some delicious local beer. For me it was the Arcadia Ales, Hop Rocket! Coming in at an afternoon empty stomach friendly 9%, this fruit forward malty brew veiled it’s booze well and made for a true craft beer drinking experience. I say that alluding to the focus you need while drinking this brew, it’s power is palpable and entirely engulfing. Adoring things that vacuum you into their presence, this beer held my attention long after the glass was empty, leaving tones of it’s flavor on my palate until the shot of tequila I had with dinner burned them away. Julie soaked in a lovely Bier de Garde from Brewery Vivant that was a lightly carb’d perfect summer Belgian, that boldly swam into her head at a compellingly cruel 9%. Regardless of the extra long walk we had to take after happy hour, the beers were good and the place was comfortable, affording us an enjoyable experience in Lansing.
All afternoon I had been seeing plain looking billboards along the highway with a number written on them, like a mantra: 1-800-Fun-Town. After passing the 20th billboard I mentioned it to, Julie, she saw the 21st and immediately used her robot phone device to decipher what 1-800-Fun-Town was….the slogan for Frankenmuth, Michigan. Peeling a few more layers off that onion from the internet Frankenmuth is apparently a replica of Bavaria in Michigan, with among other features an authentic German Brewery. As luck would have it, we weren’t far, and little Bavaria, Frankenmuth, wasn’t really out of our way, so naturally we were going to make a stop.
As the gorgeous sunset immersed us in a gold and orange twilight, my lizard brain started reaching for a narrative of articles I may or may not have read about a German enclave of skinheads, swastikas, guns, racism and hatred based in rural Michigan. Reminding myself of a dark documentary I saw titled, ”Blood in the Face,” about fringe neo-Nazi hate groups also based somewhere in Michigan, I began to convince myself that Frankenmuth was that place.
When we reached the exit to 1-800-Fun-Town, I had just about scared the pants off both of us, yet our curiosity was feverish. It was total darkness when the speed limit on the two lane slowed to 30 mph, expecting a fascist boarder crossing and hearing the crackling historical recordings of der furor in our heads, we were greeted by an enormous, year-round keep Christ in Christmas display, abounded with holiday trees, north pole bric-a-brac, yards of Jesus accessories, wise men, Mary, Joseph, lambs, Crucifixes and mangers, this Christmas glut stretched on for nearly half a mile. Any trepidation we had before about being shot, beaten, and chased out of town just took a sharp turn for the worse. Having a dark and riotous sense of humor Julie started mimicking a Herzog esq hackneyed voiceover, “A liberal white couple drawn in by the promise of fun and beer drive right into a ‘Pure Michigan’ trap. Once they take their first sip of beer, their liberal, cynical minds are taken over by the locals.”
The deeper into town we went, the more incredible the place became. It really was a replica of a German city transplanted here in the middle of Michigan! Having spent an incredible week in Munich just a few years back, we could have been driving through Alexander Platz. The architecture, the cuckoo clocks, the signs, women and men dressed in Lederhosen, fudge shops, Wiener schnitzel, pretzel shops, polka grooves blasting outside of restaurants, chain hotels decked out with Tudor style accoutrements, this was no cult town, this was a truly and staggeringly side splittingly funny schmaltzy tourist trap. Chin deep in a case of the giggles, our initial fright from my powerful imaginations transformed us into laughing hyenas. When we found a place to park on Gerbels Avenue I just about fell out of the car laughing, though still looking over my shoulder for a militia of skinhead psychos to abduct us and engage us in an evening of depraved German Dungeon Porn.
Respectfully sobering our chuckles we walked through town, maybe it was the turpentine tequila we bought at the Meijer earlier, but whatever the reason we felt a buzz with the place and our reception of it. Wandering in to the shops we marveled at the exacting detail, eventually and mercifully winding up at the Frankenmuth Brewery.
The place was packed, but there were two spots at the bar and I had a delicious Oktoberfest. Julie a Bavarian Heffe. The beers were spot on German recipes, full of that dank Rhine water flavor (or at least that’s what my brain told me it was), hops, and barley, blended according to the Rheinheitsgebot of 1516 (or 1487 or 974 A.D. depending on who you ask) decree. Damn we’re back in Munich, except this time, without the jet lag and sadly without our friends Pat and Meghan.
It was foggy again the next morning, like thick soup. We’re up early and taking a walk through the glorious Lake Huron marshland at a state park near Bay City. I go for a spin on my first fat tire bike before we head to town and enjoy another Art Walk that’s taking place.
Michigan was a thoroughly enjoyable state. We saw just about every inch of it. From Detroit to Kalamazoo, from the U.P. to Flint, oh yeah, Flint. For our last night of ‘Pure Michigan’, we got a hotel room in Flint. Suffering from some sort of stomach bug, it was an early night for me, we did however take a walk through the city and were gutted by all of the desolation of a once great metropolis. When you think of the rust belt, this is exactly the place. If Detroit is a zombieland, then Flint is worse. At least Detroit has some revitalization going on, but Flint has been left to crumble away, hidden and ignored. Michigan is an interesting hybrid of glorious raw nature, exceptional small cities, world-class beer and is, of course, the very definition of the rust-belt. I’m glad we spent so much time here, seeking it’s charm, beauty, people and brew, but on this last day surrounded by stark urban decay, I can’t help but think that American Craft beer could rebound these lost cities and mold a future, like Ford’s Model T?…to be continued