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Michigan's top beers cross over to Wisconsin market

At first pass, Huma Lupa Licious didn’t seem to stand out from other India pale ales. After a few more sips, however, it became easy to taste the craftsmanship at work.

The 7.7 percent ABV beer, brewed by Short’s Brewing Co. in Bellaire, Michigan, pours with a large, foamy off-white head, an aroma of citrus seeping through the froth. The blend of five different hops fully integrates with the malt base, giving the beer a creamy, smooth mouthfeel and tickling the palate with a slightly effervescent tingle.

We first sipped the beer in May at a dockside pub on Mackinac Island, Michigan’s all-purpose vacation destination, and made a mental note to bring some back to Wisconsin with us. We never did and, as it turns out, we didn’t have to. That same month Short’s began to distribute its flagship brands, including Huma Lupa Licious, in the Badger State.

This is notable for two reasons. First, brewery founders Joe and Leah Short originally vowed never to sell their beer outside of their home state, much like New Glarus Brewing Company’s Dan and Deb Carey say they will never again distribute their beer outside Wisconsin. In Short’s case, increased production capacity caused a change of tune. In addition to Wisconsin, the beer also is now available in Illinois and Pennsylvania.

Second, and more importantly perhaps, is that Short’s is one more excellent example of Michigan’s robust and rapidly growing craft beer industry. The increasing number Michigan brands moving across the big lake threaten to one day soon put Wisconsin brewers to the test.

The numbers tell the tale. According to Great Lakes Brewing News, Wisconsin had some 91 breweries and brewpubs up and running as of this past March serving a state population of around 6 million. Michigan, on the other hand, boasts 205 breweries serving a state population of around 10 million, according to the Michigan Brewers Guild. That number has spiked from just 92 breweries when we last visited Michigan, specifically Ann Arbor, in 2012.

Yet many of the brews in what some are now calling "The Great Beer State" are not yet available in Wisconsin. The brands that are available here, however, should put Michigan beers front and center on any Wisconsin beer-drinker’s radar screen.

If any brand has come to represent Michigan beer, it must be Kalamazoo-based Bell’s Brewery. Founder and former homebrewer Larry Bell arrived in the city in the 1970s to attend Kalamazoo College and, while working in a bakery, developed an interest in yeast and fermentation. He first operated a homebrew supply store and then in 1985, as legend has it, brewed his first batch of commercial beer in a 15-gallon soup pot.

Bell’s has gone on to become one of the country’s leading craft beer brands. In fact, the promise of summer remains elusive until the first shipments of Bell’s Oberon begin showing up in stores. Named for the king of the fairies in Medieval literature and best known as a character in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream, Oberon at 5.8 percent ABV is an American wheat ale that boasts a spicy hops character with elements of citrus on the nose and a creamy mouthfeel.

Unfortunately, Oberon is a spring and summer seasonal. Other times of the year our tastes turn to Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale, a 7 percent ABV American pale ale named for Michigan’s Two Hearted River, made popular in Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. We once wrote that Two-Hearted Ale was one of two beers we’d want if we were trapped on a desert island. Over the years that opinion hasn’t changed.

Following close on Bell’s heels is Founders Brewing Company, located in Grand Rapids, a Milwaukee-size community that calls itself “Beer City” due largely to the 43 breweries that call it home. The 19-year-old brewery made the news in late 2014 when it sold a 30 percent interest in its company to Mahou San Miguel, Spain’s largest brewery. The sale will provide Founders the capital necessary to continue brewing great beer.

Owners Dave Engbers and Mike Stevens learned early that success meant brewing the beers they loved to drink. Long-term limited offerings like Devil Dancer Triple IPA, which boast a whopping 112 international bittering units (IBUs) and 12 percent ABV, and the much sought-after Kentucky Breakfast Stout, cave-aged in oak bourbon barrels and chockfull of coffee and chocolate flavors at 12.4 percent ABV, demonstrate their no-holds-barred approach to brewing.

Regular offerings of note include Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale, which calls on seven malt varieties to give the 8 percent ABV beer the requisite smoky, peaty flavor. Seasonal favorite Azacca IPA capitalizes on its hops’ natural citrus and mango notes to top the recent trend of tropical IPAs. Now out of stock, we’re hoping it will return next year.

Other Michigan brewers have also made a splash on their side of the lake. Dark Horse Brewing Company, based in Marshall, prides itself in making “bad-ass beers.” It’s Crooked Tree IPA weighs in at 6.5% ABV and dry-hops its way to a bold piney-citrusy character, while its Raspberry Ale adds real raspberries late in the fermentation cycle, keeping the beer character ahead of the fruit in this light, 5 percent ABV brew.

New Holland Brewing Company, located in Holland, adds a Belgian spin to many of its beers and takes bolder steps in the beers’ alcohol levels. Black Tulip Belgian Tripel Ale carries an 8.8 percent ABV and a lot of unique characteristics, while Dragon’s Milk Bourbon Barrel Stout boasts roasted malt characteristics and a complex flavor profile. At 11 percent ABV, it’s a beer that truly lives up to its name.

Speaking of Belgian styles, the beers of Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales from Dexter, usually only available here around the holidays, occupy a unique spot in Michigan’s brewing scene. Brewmaster Ron Jeffries, a.k.a. “Captain Spooky,” has gone further down the Belgian rabbit hole than most brewers, with a strong emphasis on Belgian sours.

From Bam Noire to Calabaza Blanca, Jeffries’ beers occupy a category all their own. Come Christmas time, we will no doubt again buy several 22-ounce bottles of Noel de Calabaza, a beer mahogany in color and malty in substance, with flavors of raisins, figs and cashews.

Fans of The Grateful Dead know that the band's music has survived not because the musicians are the best at what they do, but because they are the only ones who do what they do. When it comes to beer, Captain Spooky is a little bit like that, too.

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