With my beer nerd boyfriend to guide me, we headed north to Traverse City, a Michigan tourist town best known for its wineries and fancy bed and breakfasts. But it’s not just a place to sip vino anymore. The brewery scene has exploded in recent years, along with distilleries and small-batch food producers, making it an artisanal sustenance paradise.
Our first stop was an hour-out-of-the-way detour in Ludington, two hours southwest of Traverse City (just keep hugging the coast instead of turning northeast at Grand Rapids). Starving Artist Brewing (634 S. Stiles Rd.) is perhaps the most country of all country breweries, hiding in the back of a residential lot in a barn behind a house. It features a small porch, an outdoor seating area, and an inclusive vibe (tagline: “Judge beer, not people”). There’s an outside window for ordering, with a giant chalkboard indicating what’s available. On this day, the brewer was pouring samples, and we tasted most of the lineup. We left with a four-pack of Pop Art, a grapefruit session ale that tastes like summer.
As we drove on, we experienced one of the great joys of a lazy road trip: stopping at any spot that catches your eye. I’d tried mead from St. Ambrose Cellars (841 S. Pioneer Rd., Beulah), but never visited the site where it is made. The meadery feels like a cross between a European monastery and a cozy house in the woods. There’s a variety of drinks onsite, including cysers, a cross between a cider and a mead, plus a full food menu and brewery.
After arriving in Traverse City, we wandered the warehouse district by the waterfront. Adrian, Michigan–based Mammoth Distilling (221 Garland St.) has a location here, and if you’re a lover of brown spirits, sample a flight of its excellent rye whiskeys. We headed 20 minutes north to Suttons Bay for dinner at tiny Wren (303 N. St. Joseph St.) — only to find a two-hour wait. Having nothing better to do, we killed time at the local casino — Leelanau Sands in Peshawbestown — which had only one blackjack table but a (very popular) euchre tournament and a chili cook-off! Ah, northern Michigan. Wren was worth the wait. Chef Adam McMarlin, originally from Detroit, had been cooking in Traverse City for years before opening his own spot in 2019. The menu changes daily. I had a perfectly cooked Denver steak, and my companion’s squab had him gleefully picking every scrap of meat off the bird’s tiny legs.
The next day, after we’d wandered downtown Traverse City and popped into shops like Rocket Fizz (111-B E. Front St.), a retro candy store with hundreds of indie sodas, it was time to get back to the beer. Hop Lot (658 SW Bay Shore Dr., Suttons Bay) doesn’t look like much from the road, but once you’re there, it’s just about perfect — firepits, giant trees, twinkling lights, and laughter everywhere from people having a great Saturday afternoon. We liked the beer enough to grab a growler of 10¢ Circus Show, a dry red ale, to take home. If you go in good weather, plan to spend the whole afternoon there. We, however, had more places to visit.
The Filling Station Microbrewery (642 Railroad Pl.) is in an old train station on the southern side of Traverse City. It had not only the best pizza I’d had in months (wood-fired, with a snappy cracker crust and roasted veggies) but a great lineup of beers, including the nonalcoholic Hop Water. Befitting the location, the tasting flights are shaped like trains. Adorable.
Our final meal was at Farm Club (10051 Lake Leelanau Dr.), an isolated restaurant and brewery on the edge of Traverse City that alone was worth the visit. This place takes farm-to-table seriously: The chefs cook with ingredients from their own fields. The don’t-miss starter is a platter of such veggies. When we went in March, that meant thick slices of watermelon radish, turnips, carrots, and beets, along with housemade soppressata and spicy tomato aïoli. I couldn’t stop eating the radicchio salad with pickled carrots and potatoes, and the chicken cassoulet with garlicky toast was good enough to make you wish for a permanent winter. As a brewery, Farm Club focuses on lighter styles of beer made with yeast gathered on the property. We were fans of the richer East Coast pale ale.
The list of places to visit could go on — I see you, Right Brain Brewery (225 E. 16th St.) — but that’s part of the beauty of the area. Everywhere you turn, there’s something delicious made right there.