There are many fine things to do with Lake Michigan, but one of its more enticing draws is driving around it. The Lake Michigan Circle Tour was signposted in 1998 and since has become a road-tripping celebration of the Upper Midwest. And what has sprung up along the way is a flourishing brewing region like nothing seen since Blatz, Pabst and Schlitz made Milwaukee famous.
Without veering more than a few miles from shore, you will pass dozens of breweries and brewpubs. On a thirsty four-day, 1,000-mile drive around Lake Michigan, we drank well, met fine people and learned about the Midwest -- and the beer that makes us raise our glasses. Here are the highlights:
The Livery, Benton Harbor, Mich.: This brewpub in a former livery in Benton Harbor's low-slung brick downtown places a heavier emphasis on lagers than most American craft breweries, including a crisp, deft Bohemian pilsner and a dark Czech lager. But don't miss the ales, especially the amber India pale ale. (1-269-925-8760; www.liverybrew.com)
Saugatuck Brewing Co., Douglas, Mich.: Saugatuck Brewing was the only place we stopped that had tanks in the corner for patrons to brew their own. But we didn't have time for that. Instead we sampled our way through a set of well-crafted, traditional styles -- blonde, Irish ale, Scotch ale, Irish stout, porter and black IPA (the winner). Founder Barry Johnson, 59, who turned his home-brewing hobby into a vocation, treated us to a tour. "It's a good time to be a craft-beer drinker," Johnson told us. "And it's a great time to be brewing in Michigan. Everyone's growing." (1-269-857-7222; www. saugatuckbrewing.com)
New Holland Brewing, Holland, Mich.: Though it's one of Michigan's better-known breweries, New Holland retains charm in a wood-floored, tin-ceilinged antique barroom that was packed on a Wednesday afternoon. With 13 drafts and 15 cocktails mixed from house-made spirits, New Holland's greatest attribute is its variation -- you can drink simple (a kolsch), bolder (a smoked doppelbock), then bolder still -- "hopquila," a house-invented spirit that tastes like a whiskey-tequila hybrid. Which I did. (1-616-355-6422; www.newhollandbrew.com)
Odd Side Ales, Grand Haven, Mich.: Odd Side was one of our more fascinating stops, with a menu including pineapple IPA, chocolate IPA and Fig Brewton -- an ale meant to evoke Fig Newton cookies. (1-616-935-7326; www.oddsideales.com)
Jamesport Brewing Co., Ludington, Mich.: Ludington is a town of 8,400 perched right on the lake. Jamesport was the first bar we had seen with a porch out back affording fine views of the water, a perfect spot for a midday apricot wheat. (1-231-845-2522; www.jamesportbrewingco.com)
Right Brain Brewery, Traverse City, Mich.: The brewery sits a block from the lapping lake. The menu was hop-heavy, but the standout was the Maya Mexican vanilla porter, a fine mix of throaty coffee and a trace of vanilla sweetness. (1-231-944-1239; www.rightbrainbrewery.com)
Jolly Pumpkin and North Peak brewpub, Old Mission Peninsula, Mich.: The combination brewpub was a perfect mix on several levels: pub and high-end food, families and young drinkers, and Jolly Pumpkin and North Peak. Grabbing a spot at the bar for food and drink (both the pizza and bison sloppy Joe drew raves), we plowed through the inventiveness of Jolly Pumpkin beer and the disciplined, finely crafted brews of North Peak (especially the wheat IPA). They're odd bedfellows but complement each other for a fine night of drinking. (1-231-223-4333; jollypumpkin.com)
Hereford and Hops, Escanaba, Mich.: We were plenty thirsty from our long haul through the Upper Peninsula by the time we reached Hereford and Hops, which was so novel in the mid-1990s that there was a two-month wait for reservations. The beer was nothing exciting, but the scene was one of a kind. Regulars filled the stools, drinking from their green club mugs and correcting me that the rest of the state wasn't Michigan -- it was "Lower Michigan." In the back of the restaurant, diners picked thick steaks from a refrigerator and grilled them themselves on a giant flame-licking grill. The regulars don't mess much with the grill. "If I'm going to spend that much on a steak, I want someone to cook it for me," one local said. (1-906-789-1945; www.herefordandhops.com)
Hinterland, Green Bay, Wis.: We dropped south into Green Bay for dinner at Hinterland, a brewery that has had the rare distinction of transforming itself into a true fine-dining restaurant. It's no exaggeration to say Hinterland served the best meal I've had in a brewery. Which it should for a $36 piece of whitefish. The fish, fresh scallops and fire-roasted tofu made a difficult act for the beer to match, but it did. Hinterland keeps it simple, offering just half a dozen beers at a time, including three year-round bedrocks: a pale ale, an amber ale and a deft coffee stout. (1-920-438-8050; www.hinterlandbeer.com)
Sprecher, Glendale, Wis.: Sprecher started in 1985 as a brewery inspired by great German beermakers. Founder Randal Sprecher started making root beer to occupy kids while their parents toured the brewery. It now outsells all other Sprecher products combined. When we visited, Sprecher had 29 beers and sodas on draft, and our tour guide, Mike, gave us a tip: mix a splash of the cream soda with the black Bavarian lager. "It's like cake," he said. It was better than cake; it was also one of the most memorable drinks on our drive. (1-414-964-2739; www. sprecherbrewery.com)
Lakefront, Milwaukee: The end of our trip, in Beer City, USA, featured one of the nation's great brewery tours -- Lakefront (1-414-372-8800; www.lakefrontbrewery.com). It's one of the few tours that isn't free, but it's a worthy deal. For $7 you're promised four 8-ounce beers that are closer to 10 ounces, and they're good beers: fresh, balanced and flavorful. I alternated my four between the well-hopped red ale and a black IPA. They make sure your glass isn't empty when the tour begins.
The hour tour is funny and irreverent.
"Who's been on a brewery tour before?" our guide asked.
A dozen hands went up.
"When do they serve you beer?"
"The end," everyone hollered.
"The end," he repeated. "We thought that was the dumbest thing ever. So we give it to you at the beginning!"
I raised my red ale to doing it right in the Midwest.