Road Trip!: Breweries & Brewpubs
The craft beer revolution has brought good, locally produced beer to almost every corner of this land in recent years. There are still some obvious locations where the great beers of the present and future continue to ferment — Portland, Denver, Northern California come to mind — but there's a surprising amount of options nearby.
If you head west from Pittsburgh, Northern Ohio and Southern Michigan have a good and growing cluster of microbreweries, brew-pubs and other destinations for beer fans. Michigan, in particular, seems to have a great little brewery and/or brew-pub in almost every little town, and Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids seemingly have them on every corner.
It's easy to put together a beer-theme road trip from Pittsburgh that can be done in a weekend or so. This particular itinerary tries to keep things moving geographically, with a few nearby sites of interest thrown in.
Of course, if you're going to be drinking, we suggest you have somebody else do the driving.
Great Lakes Brewing Co.
First, you should stop at the 100-plus-year-old West Side Market in Cleveland, which is amazing — imagine if Pittsburgh's Strip District was stuffed under one giant roof (minus the bootleg Stillers gear, of course).
Get some of Iron Chef Michael Symon's all-time favorite beef jerky, then walk down the street to Great Lakes Brewing Co., a brewpub that can compete with the big boys in any state.
Some of their best-known brews include Burning River Pale Ale — got to admire their attempt to “own” the fact that the Cuyahoga River once caught fire — the dark, bittersweet, hoppy Edmund Fitzgerald Porter and the rich, crisp Eliot Ness Amber Lager.
Fat Head's Brewery & Saloon
Fat Head's was there near the beginning for two big changes in Pittsburgh: bars starting to offer a great selection of craft and imported beers, and the South Side turning into a major nightlife destination.
Then, after playing a big part in expanding the local market for good beer, they decided to open a brewery. In Cleveland. Whatever, Fat Head's — you're dead to me now.
Just kidding ... it's not clear why they chose our Rust Belt arch-rivals for this honor, but that's all (burning) water under the bridge now. Fat Head's knows what it's doing. You can also try brews like Fat Head's Battle Axe Baltic Porter and Head Hunter IPA at the South Side location, if you're not up for a road trip.
However, Fat Head's gigantic sandwiches are possibly an even better reason to visit than the beer.
Details: w ww.fatheadscleveland.com.
Thirsty Dog Brewing Co.
I've never been to this Akron brewery, but I did buy Thirsty Dog's “Old Leghumper” (a malty, dark-brown porter) for a few beer-geek friends, and they loved it.
Most of their beers have funny dog-related names — Stud Service Stout, Labrador Lager, Cerberus Belgian Tripel — which should be kind of unappetizing, but isn't. Two that buck that trend, Siberian Night and Hoppus Maximus, have a trail of awards that go back to 2001.
Plus, Akron itself is an interesting little city that has had some under-the-radar success at rebuilding its urban core in recent years. They have a great art museum and a weird hotel built into an old grain silo near the University of Akron (go Zips!).
Ann Arbor Brewpubs
Beer, the lifeblood of most college towns, is as much a reason for Ann Arbor's existence as football. Ann Arbor's extremely pedestrian-friendly downtown has a bunch, all close together: Arbor Brewing, Blue Tractor, Jolly Pumpkin and Grizzly Peak. Then there's Wolverine State Brewing Co. on the West Side, and, well, probably a few more that have popped up suddenly. Why not take a walk and try ‘em all?
Whatever you're in the mood for, there's probably a craft brew here to suit your taste. The only problem is figuring out whether it's Arbor Brewing's Buzz Saw IPA, Grizzly's Bear Paw Porter, Jolly Pumpkin's Madrugada Obscura “Dark Dawn,” Blue Tractor's Bearded Pig Pilsner, et cetera...or maybe one of each?
Dark Horse Brewing Co .
Central Michigan can be a cold, bleak expanse of flat, snowy nothingness in the winter.
One possible response is the route that Dark Horse Brewing (in Marshall, Mich.) takes — total irreverence. From the goofy artwork on the bottles, to the “Women of the Dark Horse” (in vintage pin-up poses) charity calendar, to the rambling, off-the-wall employee introductions on the website, Dark Horse seems to be having exactly the right amount of fun. It's as if the company employees were told, “You brew (good) beer for a living, people — act like it.”
Dark Horse Boffo Brown Ale and Crooked Tree IPA are good places to start. The brewpub's food menu seems to incorporate quite a bit of the beer, too: “Lobster Bisque With Raspberry Ale” and “Chili Made With Reserve Special Black Ale” make good examples..
Supposedly, Dark Horse was offered a lucrative opportunity to showcase its beer in a Nickelback music video — and turned it down. Somebody in this world still has standards, at least.
Come on, you've always wondered a little bit about the place named Kalamazoo. Now, you have a reason to visit.
Bell's Brewery is a heavyweight in the Midwestern craft-beer world, and the beers are quite easy to find. Even in Pittsburgh, you don't have to look far to find Bell's Oberon, a smooth, summery wheat beer, the hop-lovers ultimate Hopslam Ale, and the roasted coffee and chocolate-tinted Hell Hath No Fury ... Ale. But Bell's brews plenty of good beers that don't make it across state lines as often, so you'll want to check those out, too.
Go first to Bell's Eccentric Cafe in downtown Kalamazoo, for food, beer and occasional live music. Bell's General Store next door also stocks home-brewing supplies.
Founder's Brewing Co.
Any beer bar worth its weight in hops has at least a few different Founder's beers for sale, and probably puts them on tap with regularity. They pride themselves in experimentation and pushing the frontiers of flavor pretty far in all directions, making beer for serious beer aficionados.
Just about any ranking system for beer puts them at the top, including Ratebeer.com's second-best brewery in the world in 2011.
The dark ruby-red Dirty Bastard, brewed with seven imported malts, is a perennial favorite, as is the hoppy, bitter, grapefruit-accented Red's Rye PA.
The mid-sized Western Michigan city of Grand Rapids won the title of “Beer City U.S.A.” (tied with Asheville, N.C.) in 2012, so this is as good a place as any to end a beer tour.