Hop Aboard: Metro Detroit's Best Microbrews

Since the Stroh's Brewery opened in 1850 in Detroit, Michigan has had a booming beer industry. Beer has always had a way of keeping the economy chugging along, as it continues to do even now. Michigan is the sixth-largest state for craft breweries, a local industry that just keeps growing.

Currently there are nearly 90 craft breweries in the state of Michigan producing hundreds of different styles of handcrafted beer. Michigan's brewing industry contributes more than $24 million in wages and has a total economic impact of over $133 million annually.

2009 has been a big year for Michigan beers. The winners of the 2009 Great American Beer Festival (the Emmy Awards of beer) were just announced in September, with Great "Beer" State brews sweeping up seven medal competitions. October brought the inaugural Detroit Beer Week, a celebration of local brews with coordinating events held all over Metro Detroit, followed by the first-ever Harvest Beer Festival hosted by the Michigan Brewer's Guild and featuring over 40 Michigan breweries inside Detroit's Eastern Market.

Craft beer connoisseurs can rattle off the names of their favorite Michigan breweries, but to the novice, the local craft brewing industry is still largely a mystery. Most are familiar with the cleverly-named "Ghettoblaster Ale" from Motor City Brewing Works located in Detroit's iconoclastic and trendy Midtown neighborhood, and the WAB (rhymes with "stab") in "fashionable Ferndale" is a hipster hangout du jour. But better brews are being served in markedly less trendy neighborhoods.

Hidden in the industrial parks of Warren, the strip malls of Shelby Township, and the far-flung reaches of Wayne County are some of the state's best breweries.

If you've ever taken the Groesbeck exit off of I-696, then you've driven right by Dragonmead Microbrewery and probably never noticed it. Located right off the service drive, Dragonmead's full brewing operation and tap room is located in a Warren industrial park.

"We wanted a place with easy access for trucks to get in and out," explains Larry Channell, one of three partners in the business who came from humble home brewing beginnings.

If the Great American Beer Festival is the Emmys of beer, then the World Beer Cup —held only on alternating years—is its Oscars. Dragonmead has taken home medals in the last three WBC competitions, including a gold for its Final Absolution Trippel, a Belgian-style ale that goes down smooth as the Belgian Candi Sugar it's fermented with but will have you wobbling after two tasty pints. "Our goal is to have every style of beer in the world at all times, and have all of them be excellent examples of that style of beer making."

At any point in time they might have 45-47 different beers on tap, though they usually have over 60 beers available. "This is the highest-variety taproom in the world," Larry says with confidence. "We created our niche in the market by doing something that no one else was trying to do."

Located on the polar opposite end of Warren in a former hardware store at the wholly unglamorous corner of Mound and Chicago Rd., Kuhnhenn Brewing Company has its roots in home brewing. Brothers Bret and Eric Kuhnhenn began as home brewers who owned a hardware store. They started selling home brewing supplies in their store and eventually converted the space fully into a brewery, moving the home brewing supplies store across the parking lot where BIY-ers (brew-it-yourself) can still purchase all they need to make their own beer, wine, and even cheese.

"We have a huge home brewer crowd," Bret states. "We even have a home brew club that meets here on the first Wednesday of every month to share recipes and sample each other's beers."

Kuhnhenn is especially known for its experimental strong ales, such as 4th Dementia Old Ale which took a Bronze at this year's GABF. One of their most popular events is their Winter Solstice Party, featuring five new strong beer releases, which draws in crowds from all over the region.

"One year this group of guys from Iowa drove all the way out here and had just enough money to buy the beer; they didn't even have enough for gas to get home!" Bret recalls. Never underestimate the lengths one will go for good beer.

From Kuhnhenn head north towards Lakeside Mall and you're in the neighborhood of Sherwood Brewing Company. Visit just once, and the welcoming Lisa Sherwood will know your name and the names of your significant other and children, your occupation, and your favorite beers. Lisa, who owns the brewpub with her husband (and head brewer) Ray, strives to make every person who comes through their door feel like they're part of the family. They've been named WDIV's "Best Brewpub in Metro Detroit" three years in a row for their trifecta of great beer, phenomenal food, and inviting atmosphere.

"Our customers describe it as being like their own living room, only without the kids and they don't have to get their own beer!" laughs Lisa, whose jovial nature is infectious.

Ray was a home brewer for 12 years and even brewed for Kuhnhenn and Harper's in East Lansing before finally seeing out his dream to open his own brewery. They chose this remote location north of Hall Rd. (that's M-59 for non-Eastsiders) because "there was nothing like this in north Macomb County," Lisa explains. "This is a high-traffic area that's growing and finally getting some attention. It's close to home and there are a lot of small businesses supported here."

Tucked away in Plymouth's Old Town sits Liberty Street Brewing Company. When I first met their head brewer Joe Walters, he tried to give me a concussion. Okay, not really, but ever since then I've had a soft spot in my heart for Liberty Street.

Joe and his partners Josh Traylor and Jim Satterfield opened up Liberty Street on December 8, 2008 after deciding to open their own brewery years before when Joe and Jim were still home brewers. They chose this historic 1895 building in Old Town Plymouth because they really liked the location.

"We really want to be a part of the Old Town community," says Josh. "It's very welcoming and has a lot of local charm, and even though we're kind of hidden away we have very loyal regulars." Still in its infancy, Liberty Street is already building a reputation for itself as a cutting edge microbrewery. Their Clementine Lemon Thyme summer wheat ale was a tremendous success, as was their Red Velvet Porter served around Valentine's Day.

There is a slogan popular in the craft brewing industry: "Think globally and drink locally." By drinking Michigan beer, not only are you experiencing some of the finest in artisanal brewing, but you're also supporting the local economy. Lucky for you, promoting the locals doesn't mean you have to sacrifice quality: Michigan's small-batch craft brewers are cranking out some of the best beer in the country.

Whether you're a recent Bud Light Lime convert, a home brewer with a decade of experience, or a seasoned connoisseur with a refined palate for hops and malts, the community of Michigan's brewers will openly embrace you, and you don't have to be a fashion-forward trendy hipster type in a progressive cosmopolitan neighborhood either. From Shelby Township to Old Town Plymouth, you're never far from superior local suds in Metro Detroit.

Nicole Rupersburg likes Detroit and to eat (not to mention, drink). She also writes this blog: diningindetroit.blogspot.com. Her previous article for Metromode was The Best Of Metro Detroit's Rude Food. Send feedback here.


Pouring another draft at Kuhnhenn Brewery - Warren

Kuhnhenn Brewery offers a wide selection of beers - Warren

Enjoying a little " Final Absolution " at Dragonmead Microbrewery - Warren

Dragonmead Microbrewery - Warren

Kuhnhenn's brings out the Viking in everyone

Kuhnhenn's servers get into the spirit of Okctoberfest

Four beer sampler at Sherwood Brewery Shelby Twp

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D Contact Marvin here