In a state revered for its beer, Traverse City might just be the best getaway for beer lovers in Michigan.
With water as clear and brilliantly blue as the Caribbean, activities to fill the clear-cut four seasons, and plenty of beer, wine, and spirits to keep even the thirstiest tourists satiated, Northern Michigan has it all. Plus, it’s the self-proclaimed “Cherry Capital of the World” celebrated with the annual National Cherry Festival at the end of June.
Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, and even Detroit might be better individual cities in terms of their beer offerings, but the Grand Traverse area is a true vacation getaway. There beer lovers can relax away from the hustle and bustle while indulging in a diverse array of quality food and beverage options.
Michiganders, along with select Midwesterners, are well aware of the city’s offerings, but the relative seclusion—Traverse City, a city of approximately 15,000, rests miles off the nearest interstate—helps make it a true vacation spot, says Chris Fredrickson, co-founder of Traverse City Whiskey.
“It’s a bit off the grid,” Fredrickson says. “You can comfortably and confidently disconnect. You don’t arrive by chance—you have to make a thoughtful effort to visit Traverse City.”
Once in Traverse City, visitors have the run of a quaint downtown and the region surrounding it. One caveat: The summer does bring a whole new population of part-time residents and tourists, largely from around Michigan. Along with the cherry festival, the summer also welcomes the Traverse City Film Festival, an annual event started in 2005 by filmmaker Michael Moore.
Within Traverse City, there’s plenty of quality breweries like North Peak, Right Brain Brewery, Workshop Brewing, Brewery Terra Firma, The Filling Station, and Jolly Pumpkin—a brewpub outpost on Mission Peninsula.
Nearby, visitors can drive to a variety of incredible breweries, wineries, distilleries, and outdoor activities. Approximately 40 minutes to the west sit the world-renowned Sleeping Bear Dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan. Up and down the Lake Michigan coast on either side of Traverse City is ripe with small communities with their own worthy attractions, all the way down to Chicago, across the Mackinac Bridge, and down to Detroit. Mackinac Island, too, is a magical place where no “horseless carriages”—a.k.a. cars—are allowed. Try some fudge.
Head 40 minutes up the Leland Peninsula to the Instagrammable fishing village of Leland and make stops at Mitten Brewing Co.’s northern outpost in Northport and the incredible Tandem Cider in Suttons Bay. Also, a short drive away, albeit in separate directions, are the stellar Stormcloud Brewing and Short’s Brewing.
Feeling Spirited? Check out Fredrickson’s TC Whiskey or the superb Grand Traverse Distillery. A short drive away is Iron Fish Distillery, an incredible farm-to-bottle experience.
Want some wine? More than 30 wineries dot the region, but Old Mission Peninsula, surrounded by the Grand Traverse Bay, boasts some excellent winemakers, like 2 Lads, Chateau Grand Traverse, and Mari Vineyards.
The Traverse City area is not just for drinking, however. In the heat of the summer, the beaches can be as beautiful as the Caribbean. In the cold, snowy winter, the slopes and plains scream ski.
“The destination itself, and generally up north, it offers recreation year round when you come up as a couple or with a group of friends,” Fredrickson says. “You having hiking, biking, sightseeing, waterskiing, boating in the summer. In the winter, there’s skiing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling. Any time of the year you visit, you’re bound to find a nice balance of recreation.”
You can choose to stretch your wings and check out the region, but if you want to stay in town, there’s plenty to explore in the small city itself.
Since 2014, Rare Bird Brewpub has churned out some fantastic brews. Whether it’s the Blood Orange You Witty? or Heaven & Helles or She’s a Real Brut, a nod to the area’s wine production made with sauvignon blanc grapes, there’s plenty on tap to entice even the pickiest beer drinkers. The brewery also churns out a small selection of gluten-reduced beers.
Recently, Rare Bird brewed a collaboration with Short’s: Shake Your Pineapple, a milkshake IPA with lactose and pineapple. The brewery has some tasty food offerings as well, including hoisin-glazed pork belly tacos and curry chicken sandwich.
For a city a little off the beaten path, 7 Monks has put its stamp on the beer world as an elite beer bar. Now with a few outposts, including one in Grand Rapids, 7 Monks tap list curation is among the best in the nation with handles from Michigan, the U.S., and across the globe. That’s a nice change from the many bars focusing so intently on purely local.
There’s a general focus on Belgian and Belgian-inspired brews, so if you’re craving a Delirium Tremens, a Belgian-style wit from Japan, or Tank 7 from Kansas City, 7 Monks has got it. The Michigan focus also brings in hot grabs like Speciation Artisan Ales and Blackrock’s Brewery.
In the same building is the 7 Monk’s sister establishment, Low Bar, focused on whiskey with the same attention to detail.
On the main drag, The Little Fleet’s incredible collection of food trucks and an indoor eating and bar area could almost make visitor do a double take.
All summer long, seven food trucks are open for lunch and dinner. Whether you’re hankering for barbecue, tacos, or frozen custard, The Little Fleet probably has the craving covered. The family-friendly setting has a full bar too, which is open all year long. A solid beer list and cocktails made with juices squeezed by hand daily fills out The Little Fleet’s comprehensive offerings.
The national craft brewing boom set the stage for a similar distillery boom in Michigan, and many of them focus on a diverse portfolio led by clear spirits as their whiskey ages away.
Traverse City Whiskey was founded in 2012 and, as with many whiskey distillers, it started sourcing product to get it on the shelves. Now making its own, the distillery now continuously puts out new expressions, including its Barrel Proof Bourbon, which recently won Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
The brand is perhaps most known for its American Cherry Edition, containing 10 pounds of Montmorency sour cherries, a homage to the city’s prolific cherry production. The downtown distillery and cocktail bar is definitely worth a stop.
Top photo courtesy of 7 Monks Taproom on Facebook.