With more than 200 breweries scattered throughout both peninsulas serving thousands of beers to millions of thirsty customers, the question naturally arises: What are the best brews that Michigan has to offer?
The answer is more complicated than it might seem. Two popular websites, BeerAdvocate.com and RateBeer.com, annually publish subjective "best of" lists that are weighted heavily toward trendy styles like imperial stouts and double IPAs. Michigan has excellent examples of both, but there are other ways of approaching the subject that use published guidelines and also take into account unusual or overlooked styles. Here's a rundown of six of the Mitten's top tipples, according to the Internet, national beer competitions, and credentialed beer professionals.
Two top-rated beers on the Internet
KBS (BA #16, RB #16)
Founders Brewing Co.
11.2% ABV, imperial stout
Originally called Kentucky Breakfast Stout before somebody complained a Michigan beer shouldn't be named after another state, KBS is a bourbon barrel aged imperial stout that is the best known beer from one of Michigan's best known breweries. Its seductive dark color and rich, chocolatey-java aroma bespeak of good things to come, including a complex, full-bodied array of flavors, from mocha and roasted malt to bourbon and vanilla notes, with a dry, woody finish. This beer has a reputation for a reason, and the reason is "damn, this tastes like unicorns having sex, or anyway, something awesome like that."
Hopslam (BA #83, RB #36)
10% ABV, double IPA
Long before the beer nerd world was all like "OMG HOPZ!" Bell's was turning out bitter classics like Two Hearted Ale (which is ranked No. 2 on yet another "best" list compiled by national homebrewing mag Zymurgy). But some years ago, Michigan's oldest brewery decided to go above and beyond when it introduced the winter seasonal Hopslam Ale, described on the label as "a biting, bitter tongue bruiser of an ale." That's what you get when you marry a massive malt bill to six different hop varietals, including a ginormous Simcoe dry-hop infusion, and top it all off with a splash of honey. Despite its high ABV, the beer is deceptively drinkable, giving rise to the practice of changing its name into a verb: Hopslammed.
Two medal-winning beers
DRIPA (Gold, 2012 World Beer Cup)
Kuhnhenn Brewing Co.
9.5% ABV, double IPA
DRIPA (Double Rice India Pale Ale) may be Warren-based Kuhnhenn Brewing's flagship beer, but that doesn't mean it's for the faint of heart. Brewed with a time-consuming mash that includes plenty of American long-grain rice, DRIPA sports mega-citrus hop aroma and bitter notes that are well-balanced with the cereal malt flavors, finishing with a crisp, dry touch that masks the high ABV surprisingly well. This brew won a gold medal at the 2012 World Beer Cup in the IPA category, which is really hard to do considering that category tends to have the most entries of any. It also achieved another impressive accolade: It's one of my IPA-loving girlfriend's favorite beers. Look for it to be available in bottles sometime this year.
Nectar Des Dieux (Gold, 2010 GABF; Silver, 2012 World Beer Cup)
9% ABV, Belgian-style tripel
In 2014, Bastone Brewery of Royal Oak and its brewer, Rockne Van Meter, were named Small Brewpub and Small Brewpub Brewer of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. Van Meter is no stranger to medals: Over the years, he has brought home so much hardware he'd double over in pain if he tried to wear all of it around his neck. Among his acclaimed creations is Nectar Des Dieux, a Belgian-style tripel ale that medaled not only in the GABF but also the equally prestigious World Beer Cup. Its aroma of candied fruit with a whiff of banana gives way to a mouthful of flavors, including a mild sugary sweetness balanced with a taste of bitter grassiness leading into a dry finish with only a touch of warming alcohol.
Two beer experts' picks
9% ABV, sour ale
Ten years ago wild-fermented sour ales were a delight known only to a few discriminating beer drinkers in the know. Today, they are arguably the hottest trend in the craft beer world, with more breweries releasing more varieties of sours than ever before. Certified Cicerone® (the rough equivalent of a beer sommelier) Annette May of KnowBeer.org selected Arbor Brewing's Demetrius Sour Ale as a great exemplar of the Belgian-aged pale ale style. This limited-edition, bottle-conditioned beer begins life as Arbor's Mr. Delicious Imperial IPA and is transformed after months in the cocoon of an oak barrel teeming with micro-critters into a funky and tart yet versatile brew that pairs equally well with salads, fish, steak, earthy cheeses, and desserts like crème brulee.
Griffin Claw Brewing Co.
5% ABV, Czech pilsner
Pilsner is a "beer category that is greatly overlooked and underappreciated," says Certified Cicerone® Bobby Vedder of Lake Orion-based Powers Distributing. He holds up Grand Trunk from Griffin Claw Brewing of Birmingham as a great craft antidote to mass-produced industrial lagers labeled as pilsners, thanks to its subtle tones of toasty malt and an understated citrus hop finish. "It's a seemingly simple brew," says Vedder, but "it stands up with the world's best and is made right in our backyard." And it's also widely available in 16-ounce. cans, perfect for summer sipping on whichever Michigan beach you prefer.
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