Something wonderful has happened with Michigan beer. A gradual loosening of brewing laws has caused the craft beer industry to take off throughout the state. In just a few decades, we’ve seen more than 80 brewpubs and microbreweries sprout up, with more opening all the time. And, instead of competing against one another, Michigan’s craft brewers seem to be coming together and helping each other, a kind of synergy seldom found in modern business.
In fact, you could argue that, in the last five years, the profile of Michigan craft beer has risen such that, nationally, many regard this as one of the top 10 beer states. From long-timers like Bell’s to award-winning breweries such as Jolly Pumpkin, brewing has reached a critical mass and made North Americans sit up and take notice.
That’s good news for the state’s craft brewers. But when will more Michiganders notice the wealth that’s in their own back yard? Judging by the statistics, only one mug in 20 poured in Michigan is of beer brewed within the state. By those measures, we lag behind others such as Washington, Oregon, California — where instate craft brewers can garner 10 percent or more of their states’ markets. Is that kind of notoriety at home just around the corner?
If that is going to happen, it starts with education. And for beer drinkers, that means educating the palate. Perhaps some Michiganders stubbornly resist craft beer because the first time they tried it, they were tossed in the deep end of the pool. One thing about craft beer: It can use a lot of hops, giving the brew a bitter flavor. Some trace the hops craze back to 1980, when Sierra Nevada released its hoppy Pale Ale. Ever since, the craft beer scene of the 1990s and 2000s tended to go a little overboard on the hops, if only to show you that this was anything but mass-produced beer. How insane did the trend get? Well, the hoppiness of beer is generally measured in “international bitterness units” or IBUs. Generally speaking (and with some exceptions) more IBUs means the beer will be more bitter. For instance, your standard American lager will have anywhere from 8 IBUs to 15 IBUs. New Holland Brewing’s Full Circle ale is one of the less hoppy craft beers, and it weighs in at around 30 IBUs. From there, it gets more extreme, which is kind of silly. Unless you have an unusually well-trained palate, you’re probably not going to be able to notice much difference with anything that ranks higher than 60 IBUs. But, just as some guys will drink tabasco sauce to show they can take it, some folks will drink Short’s Dan’s Pink Skirt to show they can stand a palate-shriveling 159 IBUs.
Now that microbreweries and brewpubs are more common sights, some small brewers are toning it down, producing beers that provide a gentle learning curve for the newcomer. We’ve arranged a little chart here which shows a steady progression of gradually hoppier Michigan brews, with varied alcohol content, which is always measured in percent alcohol by volume (percent ABV).
Speaking of percent ABV, one thing you’ll notice about craft beer is that it can pack much more of a wallop than what Dad drank in a can. While most mass-produced beers are less than 5 percent ABV, most craft beers fall north of that. In fact, the “craft beer” scene can also include higher-alcohol creations such as barley wines. Here is a fairly good range of tasty Michigan brews arranged from 5 percent ABV on up.