Foaming beer steins of paddlin' porters, dirty blondes raise toast in St. Clair County

In the 1980s, sushi was the hot food trend, then in the 1990s and 2000s, it was gourmet coffee and everything organic. While Starbucks still rules, trends are shifting in an altogether different drink direction, veering from the caffeinated to the carbonated (and alcoholic). Welcome to 2016, the Year of the Craft Brew. The explosion of hand-crafted IPAs, stouts, and dirty blondes includes a trio of microbreweries in St. Clair County, each with their own specialty brews, each worth a thirsty, lingering visit.

The Michigan Brewers Guild was formed 20 years ago and hosts several festivals promoting and advocating Michigan craft beer. It has more than 200 breweries among its membership.

Its mission is to "promote and protect the Michigan craft beer industry with an overarching goal to help craft beer acquire 20 percent of the market by 2025," enough to support its claim for the mitten as "The Great Beer State."

Michigan contributes more than $144 million in wages with a total economic contribution of more than $277 million, according to the MGB. In terms of overall number breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs, Michigan ranks the fifth in the nation.

DIY Pub Crawl

Gather your friends, designate a sober driver, then start your own pub crawl with a twist, and call it the St. Clair County Beer Trail. Rather than the typical big-brand, boring brews, try one (or three, or four) craft brews at each location, working north to south. First stop: ThumbCoast Brewing Company in Port Huron.

ThumbCoast Brewing Company not too malty or hoppy

Dennis Doyle is the founder of ThumbCoast Brewing Company in downtown Port Huron. Like other craft breweries, it features a rotating menu of unique brews. What makes ThumbCoast different, says Doyle, is their dedication to creating a high-quality, well-balanced brew. It takes care and skill to craft a brew that's neither too malty nor hoppy and true to style.

ThumbCoast's Artisan Brewer, Corey Nebbeling, explains it's also the little details that set their brew apart.

"The coconut in our Paddlin' Porter isn't an extract," he says. "It's toasted right here by our own chef."

That carefully coconut-infused Paddlin' Porter is the first beer on your Beer Trail, a fall favorite, with sweet cocoa notes.

Another favorite, since the day ThumbCoast opened its doors is Right Hand Red, an American Red Ale, which pairs nicely, Doyle says, with the house specialty fish and chips-- beer-battered, of course.

Next, try one of two stellar IPAs (India pale ale), the ThumbCoast IPA (formerly known as the Hitchhiker IPA) or the New Age Confrontational Westerner.

For the designated driver, Nebbeling's also crafted a traditional root beer, reminiscent of those little root beer barrel hard candies Grandpa always has in his pockets. Before you leave, be sure to sign up for the Mug Club, too.

Harsens Island Brewery a Phinney family heritage

When you've finished at ThumbCoast, head south to Harsens Island Brewery (in Marysville, oddly enough -- not Harsens Island). The head brewer Brian Phinney has a unique Cherrywood-smoked brew, called Milo's World Famous IPA -- on tap year-round. They built the brewery in Marysville because it made sense economically, though they do plan to open a second taproom on the island, where the Phinney family has lived for 100 years.

If you're visiting in the fall, Phinney recommends the Turkey Shot Pumpkin Lager, named for the annual Labor Day Turkey Shoot on Harsens Island. There's also the Chili Stout, made with three kinds of chili. Is it spicy?

"It definitely has a kick to it," says Phinney.

Rounding out this stop on your craft brew crawl is a farmhouse ale, Stan the Man -- part of Harsens Island Brewery's Heritage Series (Be sure to read the letter on the back of the label; you won't be disappointed).

By now you might be hungry again. If so, you can nosh the fish tacos or green olive sliders, share the brewhouse nachos or mushroom and goat Cheese bruschetta or choose something else from the full menu options.

War Water Brewery salutes those lost at sea

Your last stop is War Water Brewery in St. Clair, in the heart of the Riverside Plaza. Their two most popular brews, says bartender Melanie Mahn-Bemiss, are the Rock-N-Rolla Double IPA, with a distinct grapefruit finish, and the Training Day APA (American Pale Ale), brewed with day drinking in mind. War Water is named for the dozen-plus battles fought from 1754 to 1814 on the Great Lakes, she says.

Also popular, especially in late summer or during an Indian Summer, are the Miss Ginger Witte, an urban wheat with a mild ginger flavor and the Danny Bräu, a doppelbock, which she describes as a German-style Octoberfest. If you want something lighter, bartender Chelsea Stephanides recommends the MexiCali Fiesta Lager, which is crisp and clean.

"You can even make it a little sweeter with a shot of berry," she suggests.

War Water doesn't have a kitchen of their own, but if you're peckish, they do partner with a rotating crew of local food vendors who deliver right to your table. Hungry Howie's pizza goes surprisingly well with the brew at War Water. Mahn-Bemiss suggests checking Facebook to see which food vendors and live entertainment will be featured during your visit.

St. Clair County's assortment of craft beer creativity also includes a new home business, Hoppily Ever After Hops Farm in Cottrellville Township. Scott and Shannon Schwab launched their unique business earlier this year and plan to partner with local breweries to provide sustainably-grown hops, plus provide a great backdrop for a wedding ceremony.

Think of Hoppily Ever After as a vineyard, but rather than growing grapes for wine, they grow hops for craft beer, the ideal venue for a beer-lover's wedding or to just to watch a St. Clair County sunset after a Beer Trail with friends.

Jennifer Knightstep is an author and writer living in St. Clair County.

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