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At Traverse City’s Brewpubs, It’s Not Always About the Beer

For a community with slightly more than 15,000 residents, Traverse City certainly makes a lot of beer. At last count, the area had 19 craft breweries and brewpubs – with more popping up all the time – and is nationally recognized as a center of creative craft brewing.

It’s all on display during the week of November 11th to 17th at Traverse City Beer Week, a parade of tastings, dinners, games, workshops and lectures devoted to the area’s celebrated craft beer industry — particularly the many microbreweries, brewpubs and craft beer taprooms in the Traverse City area.

But the beer itself is only half the story. The enjoyment of a malt beverage can be influenced, for good or ill, by the atmosphere of the place that’s serving it. Some people like quiet, well-lighted places, some enjoy dark cellars with lots of music playing, and some (this being northern Michigan) prefer the Great Outdoors. Fortunately, the area has brewpubs to suit almost every taste.

Many of the area’s breweries, for instance, started in former downtown storefronts. Mackinaw Brewing Company, Traverse City’s original brewpub, inhabits a gracious brick building at the corner of Cass and Front streets that used to house a Big Boy – and it’s still more restaurant than tavern, with an extensive menu of smoked meats and fresh seafood to complement their beers and a lot of dining traffic at the lunch and dinner hours.

It’s much the same story in Bellaire, where Short’s Brewing Company – started in a former downtown hardware store – is deliberately trying to revive the idea of “hominess” by creating a pub atmosphere where customers can get meals and live entertainment in addition to their huge selection of house-brewed beers. (One of the things they can’t do, though, is watch TV. The idea here is for people to have conversations with each other.)

That’s even more true at Brewery Ferment, located in a century-old storefront in Traverse City’s Old Town district, which feels like a neighborhood drop-in center. There’s a limited snack menu, though customers are welcome to bring their own food, and the emphasis is decidedly on beer and conversation. It’s a small place with lots of cheerful natural lighting from the big picture windows.

Although moved into a former village eatery, the Lake Ann Brewing Company isn’t a restaurant; hungry guests are invited to order from the pizzeria next door, which will deliver the food to their table. It’s got the atmosphere of a relaxed Up North tavern: pine-paneled walls, mounted fish, and an outdoor beer garden with picnic tables.

For some craft brewers, a storefront isn’t big enough – they take over entire warehouses and other old industrial sites, as Right Brain Brewery has done – twice. Right Brain’s most recent home is a sprawling warehouse on 16th Street, and even though they still have their own hair salon next door, there’s plenty of huge space left over for pub customers, art exhibits, games for the family and any number of other activities. It’s a big space, but it’s filled with lots of smaller spaces, and very kid-friendly.

A very different atmosphere prevails at the North Peak Brewing Company, which inhabits a former candy factory on West Front Street. North Peak is decidedly a restaurant that serves craft beer; almost every inch of its high-ceilinged space is taken up by tables and booths for diners, and the bar has an array of TVs. Downstairs, its sister property, Kilkenny’s Irish Public House, specializes in handcrafted Irish ales, porters and stouts. Kilkenny’s has a snug “man-cave” feel, with lots of overstuffed chairs and cozy nooks for conversation and contemplation. At night, there’s frequently a band.

Workshop Brewing Company moved into the Garland Street warehouse space that gave birth to Right Brain, but its original look and feel has been changed to a sort of “proletarian chic” motif. In good weather there’s a sidewalk seating area. In addition to their in–house beers, there’s a solid menu of snacks, pizzas, salad and sandwiches. An even more intimate use of reclaimed space is the Rare Bird Brewpub on Lake Street, probably because of the lower ceilings, interior paneling and cozy booths. It’s really as much a restaurant as a brewpub, and the eclectic menu includes items like pork belly banh mi.

Some local brewpubs inhabit even more interesting places. The Filling Station occupies Traverse City’s former railroad depot at the north end of Boardman Lake, where you can enjoy beers and fire-baked flatbread pizzas indoors or (in good weather) at tables along the tracks.

The Jolly Pumpkin is a laid-back brewpub at Bowers Harbor on the Old Mission Peninsula, known for years as The Bowery. Its change of menu didn’t really change its style: a country-inflected pub furnished in reclaimed barnwood and ironmongery featuring a solid, slightly upscale food menu as well as beers and ales by Jolly Pumpkin, North Peak and Old Mission Beer Co.

A different take on rural brewing can be found at Brewery Terra Firma, the area’s first “farm to mug” brewery, which was started on a century-old farm south of Traverse City and grows most of its own ingredients. There’s no old barnwood in their taproom; it’s a bright airy space, built from scratch, and they don’t serve meals – although customers are welcome to bring their own food.

The most “outdoorsy” brewpub in the area has got to be the Hop Lot Brewing Company of Suttons Bay. Like Jolly Pumpkin, their taproom involves a lot of natural wood and reclaimed barn lumber – but the real draw is their sprawling outdoor beer garden: nearly an acre of picnic tables and outdoor games in the woods behind the brewhouse.

For information about these and other activities and attractions in Michigan’s scenic Traverse City area, and as assistance with lodging, dining and other activities, contact Traverse City Tourism at www.traversecity.com or 1-800-TRAVERSE.