There is no zoo in Kalamazoo. Not since the Milham Park Zoo came to an end in the 1970s.
Orville Gibson began selling mandolins in this southwestern Michigan city in 1894. But his namesake guitar company left town 90 years later, about the time the last Checker cab also rolled off the line.
So what is it that keeps Kalamazoo zooming? Higher education, aerospace components, medical research and equipment, mint oil and other flavorings — and beer.
The first beer Larry Bell sold, in 1985, was made in a 15-gallon soup pot. Last year, Bell’s Brewery produced 463,890 barrels (one barrel equals 31 gallons). Free brewery tours, samples included, are offered at the Bell’s locations in Kalamazoo and Comstock, Mich., seven miles to the east (1-269-382-2332 or 1-269-382-2338; bellsbeer.com).
The country’s seventh-largest craft brewery, Bell’s is a big fish in a well-stocked barrel of Mitten State beermakers. And four more suds-obsessed cities are within easy driving distance of Kalamazoo: Grand Rapids, Lansing, East Lansing and Ann Arbor.
Bell’s Eccentric Cafe in downtown Kalamazoo — where you can drink, eat and listen to live music — is a good place to start. At the attached General Store, home-brewers buying a pound of pelletized hops will pay between $15.25 for Willamette hops (“triploid seedling of the English Fuggle variety”) and $31.25 for Sorachi Ace (“an extremely high alpha aroma variety with great bittering characteristics”).
Hops — the seed cones of Humulus lupulus — are where the action is in craft brewing, adding bitterness, aroma and a flavor characteristic often referred to as “zest.” Made with Centennial hops ($20.65 per pound), Bell’s highly rated Two Hearted Ale is an India Pale Ale, a style inspired by the hoppy English ales that survived the East India Company’s monthslong sails to India. In the 1990s, IPAs were the battleground of the IBU (International Bitterness Unit) wars, their extreme edge thrilling beer geeks. These days, hazy, milder New England IPAs are catching on, far from Vermont.
The craft beer movement has spurred regional hop growing, especially in Michigan, which is now a distant but significant fourth place in hops production after California, Oregon and Idaho. Ten years ago, according to Rob Sirrine of the Michigan State University Extension in Suttons Bay, only five acres of hops were strung for harvest statewide. This year, some 40 growers are working about 800 acres.
The smell of a trellis of cone-carrying bines (hop vines) at harvest time is “awesome,” says Rose Stahl, secretary of Hop Growers of Michigan (1-248-795-8940; hopgrowersofmichigan.com). She and her husband John own Mr. Wizard’s Hops (call or e-mail before visiting; 1-734-868-0171; mrwizardshops.com) in Monroe, between Ann Arbor and the Ohio border. “If you could capture that in a cologne,” muses Mitch Ringel, foreman at the six-acre — soon to be 16-acre — hopyard.
One way to see hops at their peak: On Aug. 25, a Hop Harvest Beer Tour will leave from the Radisson Plaza in Kalamazoo, visiting High Five Hops Farm in Marshall, halfway between Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor, and two breweries that High Five supplies ($69; 1-269-350-4598; westmichiganbeertours.com).
A flight of beer towns
A citrusy hop variety, Amarillo, is key to Red Rye IPA, a signature draft beer of Founders Brewing, based in Grand Rapids, 50 miles north of Kalamazoo. Michigan’s other big craft brewer, Founders stands out for its stouts, made with coffee, chocolate and oats. Its Kentucky Breakfast Stout is aged in bourbon barrels.
Grand Rapids is so infested with craft breweries that “Beer City” has replaced its “Furniture City” moniker. The Beer City Ale Trail (experiencegr.com) lists 37, ranging from Founders, which occupies a full city block, to Brewery Vivant, a funeral home refurbished to resemble a Belgian monastery. Visit eight and take home a Brewsader T-shirt.
For the less DIY-minded, Grand Rapids Beer Tours ($38-$58; 1-616-901-9719; grbeertours.com) offers a walking tour and six different van tours, including one to Kalamazoo.
Lansing, the state capital, is about 70 miles east of Grand Rapids. Just over the Grand River, Lansing Brewing Co. (1-517-371-2600; lansingbrewing company.com) is a revival of a defunct brand once famous for its Amber Cream Ale. Its Michigan Medley Session IPA, a farm-to-glass brew, uses a blend of three varieties of hops from Top Hops Farm in Goodrich to create “a mellow citrus note, while showcasing a ton of pineapple aromatics.”
Adjacent to the home of the minor league Lansing Lugnuts and across from two-year-old Michigrain Distillery (1-517-220-0560; michigrain.net), the brewery will run Oars & Ales kayak trips on July 21 and Aug. 18 ($50; eventbrite.com).
In East Lansing, not far from the Michigan State campus, is Ellison Brewery and Spirits (1-517-203-5498; ellisonbrewing.com), with a few-frills taproom — free popcorn, but that’s it — tucked behind a low-slung industrial building. Its Galaxy Evolution DDH (Double Dry-Hopped) IPA is both hazy and bracing. Newly released: five sour beers.
The fifth and final of this flight of Michigan brew towns is Ann Arbor, about 65 miles southeast of Lansing, sporting the University of Michigan’s maize and blue. Among its many brewpubs are Arbor Brewing (1-734-213-1393; arbor brewing.com), which opened in 1995 as the city’s first microbrewery; Wolverine State Brewing (1-734-369-2990; wolverinebeer.com), a seven-medal winner at the 2018 World Expo of Beer; and the year-old Homes Brewery (1-734-954-6637; homesbrewery.com), on USA Today’s and Beer Advocate’s best-new-brewery lists.
The Michigan Summer Beer Festival ($40-$45 in advance; mibeer.com) is July 27-28 in Riverside Park in Ypsilanti, 10 miles east of Ann Arbor.
Henderson Castle (1-269-344-1827; hendersoncastle.com) is a bed-and-breakfast in an 1895 Kalamazoo mansion. City Flats (cityflatshotel.com) is a minimalist boutique hotel in Grand Rapids. The decor at Graduate Ann Arbor (1-734-769-2200; graduatehotels.com) is high-style campus retro.
Kalamazoo is about 550 miles from the Twin Cities via Interstate 94. Alternatively, you can take the Lake Express Ferry from Milwaukee to Muskegon, Mich., about 40 miles from Grand Rapids. Several airlines fly from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Grand Rapids and to Detroit, about 40 miles from Ann Arbor.
Terry Robe is a freelance writer on travel and the arts based in Washington, D.C.