For many westerners, Michigan’s Highway 28 is part of a quick route from the prairies to Ontario. But for those who have time to stop and stare, it has marvelous views of Lake Superior. And for those who have time to stop and sip, it has some very good brewpubs. On a recent trip east, I pulled over several times to admire the splendour of what the poet Longfellow referred to as the “Gitchee Gumme” (the big water). And I visited four brew pubs.

My “tour’ began in Ishpeming, where North America’s first ski jump was built late in the 19th century. The sign by the highway at the west end of town announced “Jasper Ridge Brewery.” And so I turned left and entered “Jasper Ridge Country Village,” a group of over thirty businesses, including an RV park, two motels, a restaurant, a McDonalds, several stores, offices, and of course, the brew pub.

Grant Lyke has been the head brewer since the Jasper Ridge opened in 1996. A few years earlier, at a time when, as he remembers, “I used to drink what ever was the cheapest swill,” he tried a stout brewed by his boss. “It was phenomenal. I started to homebrew myself and when I heard about the job here I applied.”

He describes the beers he brews as balanced. “I follow style guidelines carefully. I want something that is very drinkable for the average customer.” At first, that meant brewing something that was mild and low hopped to serve as an entry level beer. That was an American wheat beer. “Ropes Golden wheat” remains one of the most popular of his beers, followed very closely by a blueberry wheat beer.

“But people have evolved and they’re now much more knowledgeable about microbrewed beers. They’re willing to try something new.” Lyke notes that his Red Earth Pale Ale, which makes generous use of Cascade hops is very popular. He also brews a stout that’s a cross between Irish dry and English sweet styles; an American style brown ale, which he says is “more bitter than the English style and is lighter bodied.” Other frequent offerings include “Rockin’ Raspberry Wheat;” “Sully’s Strong Ale,” a 7 per cent amber; and “Copper Kolsch.’

Marquette, the commercial and business center of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is a thirty minute drive east from Ishpeming. Once a major great lakes port, where freighters docked to load the region’s wealth of iron and copper ore, it is the home of Northern Michigan University, the alma mater of such NHL players as Steve Bozak, Dallas Drake, and Brad Werenka, and of the United States Olympic Training Center for Greco-Roman style wrestling, short track speed skating, boxing, weight lifting, and women’s freestyle wrestling.

Vierling Saloon and Marquette Harbor Brewery overlooks the inner harbor and the giant iron ore docks. It’s housed in a late 19th century building that was also the home to the original Vierling Saloon. Old prints and photographs decorate the walls, an old style bar faces one mirrored wall, and a large copper kettle (most likely originally used to make cheese) graces the “Sample room,” where over a century ago ladies were served. A few of the dining room tables are next to windows that provide a wonderful view of the harbor and waterfront park.

Terry and Kristi Doyle, who opened the restaurant in 1985, decided from the beginning to complement their meals with good imported beer, “like Bass and Guiness. The people who came here became accustomed to good beer, not the usual North American lagers. So, when we created the brewery in 1995, it wasn’t difficult to get people to try our own beers.”

Derek “Chumley” Anderson (who got his nickname because he was always trying to chum around with his older brother and his friends) has been in charge of the brewery since its opening. “It was on the job training,” he laughs, “The guy who sold us the equipment showed us how it worked and then left.” His first brew was a wheat beer, a mildly-hopped entry level beer with honey notes and a clean crisp finish. “It’s still our best selling beer and its the basis for our blueberry wheat beer. People get quite upset when we run out.”

The second most popular beer is Plank Road Pale Ale, an American style brew with a medium body, “that’s not too agressive.” The blonde ale is designed to be a nonthreatening entry level beer for people who aren’t familiar with microbrews.  “Chumley” also offers a stout that’s sweeter and fuller-bodied that Guiness, a red ale, that has caramel malts that make it sweeter than the pale and the stout. “It’s middle of the road and it has a good hop-malt balance.”  There are three rotating seasonals on tap. When I visited, the most popular of these was the Amarillo pale ale, with its citrussy/grapefruit notes.

If you visit the Vierling, ask for “Chumley.” If he’s not busy brewing, he’s more than happy to talk about beer; and he may give you a tour of the brewery. It’s down a steep staircase with stone lined walls. You think you’re going into an old European dungeon until you turn a corner and enter the brewery, which has a wonderful view of the harbor.

If you’re in Marquette between the hours of 5 pm and 10 pm, Thursday through Saturday, you can visit Blackrocks Brewery, the area’s newest and smallest microbrewery. It’s located on Third Street, which stretches half a mile from downtown to the Northern Michigan University campus, and which is home to such small businesses as a shoemaker, a barber shop, a surf shop,  the Local Artists Coop and Save the Wild UP. org, and restaurants with intriguing names like “Smart Basil Deli” and “Sweet Water Cafe.”

The brewery, which is housed in a renovated house, could be called, as one wag suggested, “the ultimate frat house.” There is a bike rack on the lawn and a large shaded veranda the length of the house’s front. The brewery is a one barrel (that’s just over 50 six packs) system, with eight fermenters and fits snugly into what must have been the house’s kitchen. The living room and the dining room now serve as the tap room, where everyone from university professors and students, to outdoor enthusiasts, to tourists enjoy the large variety of beers available.

Unlike the three brewpubs we visited, Blackrocks does not serve food. But patrons are welcome to bring takeout from the nearby restaurants or phone out for pizza. Some people even bring food, along with tablecloth and napkins, dishes and cutlery, from home.

The brewery was created by Andy Langlois and Dave Manson, two local homebrewing buddies. Along with Andrew Reeves (who has brewed professionally in lower Michigan), the two have turned out an incredible variety of different beers. “We’ve done nearly 50 beers since we opened in late December last year. We don’t have a standard house list. Wide variety is our strength. We like to brew what’s fun for us. We’d be bored with a limited list. I guess you could call us ecclectic, Langois explained.

In other words, if you visited once a week, there’d be a different offering of beers written on the chalk board by the front door.  There have been a variety of pales, IPAs, browns, porters, and stouts, along with a Scottish, a Scotch and three Belgium ales. One of the stouts uses chipotle as an additive and mint is included in one of the porters. Perhaps the most interesting beer of the lot — in name at least — a dark ale made in tribute to the first NHL player of African descent. It’s called Willie O’Ree Ale, and and the advertising copy notes: “We strive for this beer to have no barriers.”

Dunes Saloon and Lake Superior Brewery is situated in Grand Marais, a small village two hours east of Marquette. There are several scenic rest areas along Highway 28, each offering splendid views of the great lake. At Munising, switch to Highway 58. On the hour drive to Grand Marais, there are two must see vistas. Six miles out of Munising, turn left and follow the Miners’ Castle signs. You’ll be treated to a view of the Pictured Rocks, several miles of multicoloured cliffs stretching along Lake Superior. Just before you arrive at Grand Marais, make another left at the Log Chute sign. From the lookout, three hundred foot high  sand dunes slope down to the lake. In the late 19th century, when the area was a center for the lumber industry, a six hundred foot chute was built down one of the dunes to the water’s edge. The logs sent down the chute travelled so quickly that smoke often arose from the planking that formed the base of the chute.

The front windows of Dunes Saloon and Lake Superior Brewery look out on Grand Marais’ sheltered harbour, which, in the 19th century used to be visited by upward of 20 boats a day during the logging season. Now the windows look out on the pleasure craft belonging to summer residents who swell the population to over three times its winter size of under 500.

When you enter the saloon, it looks like a fairly typical north country sportsman’s bar. The ceilings and walls are panelled with white cedar; along the bar, in front of the large mirror, are rows of liquor bottles. Two stuffed lake salmon, a buck’s head, a lynx, and a coyote are attached to the walls. There is a pool table at one end of the room and a television above the bar.

But when you pass by the kitchen and walk through the short hallway into the narrow back room, the scene changes. Behind a glass wall that extends the length of the room stands the seven barrel brewing system.” The brewery is presided over by Dave Beckwith, who has been responsible for all the beers created there. Six beers are available year around: Puddingstone Light (a wheat beer), blueberry wheat, Sandstone Pale Ale, Cabin Fever ESB, Granite Brown, and Hematite Stout.

“The pale ale and the ESB are the favorites,” Beckwith notes. “The pale is like a West Coast IPA but not so hoppy. When I make the ESB, I leave the slurry from the pale ale at the bottom of the tank and brew the ESB on top of it. It helps to clarify the beer and give it an attractive red colour.” The brown features caramel and chocolate malts, along with syrup and sugar. The stout he describes as “less bitter than Guinness. It’s medium bodied and has a good mouth feel.” He notes that the wheat beer is popular with people new to craft beers. They like the different flavours.” And, as is the case across northern Michigan, he  has to make sure that there is a good supply of the blueberry wheat, especially in the summer.

To get back to Highway 28 from Grand Marais, head directly south on Highway 77 until you reach Seney, a town that, in the 1890s was referred to “Hell Town in the Pine.” There were over two dozen saloons and an equal number of brothels — and on Saturday nights when the loggers came to town, things got pretty wild. Head east on 28 until you reach Interstate 75. Then you can head north to Sault Ste Marie or south to the Mackinac Bridge and lower Michigan.

By the way, none of these breweries has packaged beer. But each one sells “growlers” — 64 ounce refillable bottles — of its products. If you haven’t exceeded your legal limit of alcohol to bring back to Canada, you might want to pick up a couple of these. And remember, to keep them cool and don’t keep them more than a day or so. They’ll go flat.

And so, next time, you’re heading east and taking the short-cut through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, slow down to enjoy the views and sample the brews.

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