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Resorting in Central Michigan: Saugatuck Brewing Company

Reading Time: 6 minutes read

“It’s all for the good of the beer, and beer is good.” – Kim Kowalski, Mountain Town Brewery

Hey beer faces! It’s been a while, eh? My bad. I could tell you all about how busy I’ve been, blah, blah, etc. Or, we could get on with talking about beer. Oh do, let’s.


Kerry O'Donohue doesn't pose at all by the fermentation vessels. Photo by Kimberly Ann
Kerry O’Donohue doesn’t pose at all by the fermentation vessels.
Photo by Kimberly Ann

Some of you may not know this, but Central Michigan in the spring ain’t exactly sunshine and roses. It’s more like cold, and wind, with enough overcast and rain to keep things interesting. Not unlike Upstate New York, really. So it is on the day I drag a friend (you have her to thank for the photos) to the Saugatuck Brewing Company.

Saugatuck, Michigan is a small resort town (2013 census data puts the population at 929. Thanks, Google) on Kalamazoo Lake. With its shingled houses and touristy waterfront district, Saugatuck has a coastal feel. Hailing as I do from the Pac Northwest, the rainy weather only serves to strengthen the impression of a coastal village near the end of its “off season.”

In a fit of ambitious planning, I’ve contacted a brewery, a coffee shop, and a restaurant, so we’re looking at a full afternoon. Kerry O’Donohue, Vice President of Saugatuck Brewing Company, gets us on a 2pm tour, and even announces to the rest of the group that they’ve got beer journalists along for the ride. This, I don’t expect, but it’s not untrue. At the time, my article on Rauchbier graces the front page of Great Lakes Brewing News, a stack of which is available in the brewery vestibule.

What this actually means is that I feel the need to act, you know, professional, during the whole thing. At a brewery tour. With tastings. Ha!

We only drink to stave off the cold

If you’ve been on one brewery, tour, you’ve mostly been on all of them. Particularly if you’re already familiar with the process of making beer. Regardless, it’s always cool to learn about a particular brewery, and get a feel for the features that make them unique. Also, brewery tours/tastings are a great source for impressions and quotes from people who aren’t necessarily steeped in craft beer culture.

Photo by Kimberly Ann
Photo by Kimberly Ann

On the tour, the first beer we get to try is the Bonfire Brown. Clean and hoppy, it’s a good example of an American brown ale. There’s a hint of smoke that I enjoy, and it’s roasty on the finish. My guess on the grain bill is primarily American 2 row, with some Crystal and Amber. Like much of the country, Saugatuck Brewing uses hop pellets from the Pacific Northwest. As far as I know, they don’t make any whole leaf hopped beers.

According to Kerry, Saugatuck has good water, but they also filter it. When asked if they ever brew sours, he replies that they don’t usually, but they released one a few months prior to our visit. Mostly, they make fairly clean ales.

Random observation: of 13 tour guests (not including the two of us), 10 are women. Eight are “ladies of a certain age.”

Next up is the Neapolitan Milk Stout. At 6% ABV, it’s not super strong, but definitely above a session. This is one is not for the faint of heart, where flavored beers are concerned. The nose is redolent of all three; vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. And it figures, because they use flavor extracts in the Neapolitan. With its pink label and strong, sweet flavors, I figure I have the target demographic pegged. To test this hypothesis, I turn to one of the ladies on the tour, and ask her opinion of the beer.

“I don’t like stout, but I kinda like this. It doesn’t have that aftertaste that kinda comes with stout.”

There’s also a barrel aged version, which I later give to a friend, to see if he can lure his champagne-and-caviar girlfriend into liking a beer. Good luck, buddy.

According to Kerry, Neapolitan accounts for approximately 25% of their distributor beer sales. They also make a Blueberry Maple stout, which is similar to the Neapolitan, but with, yep, blueberry and maple extract flavors.

 So…unique features?

Copper brew on premise mash tuns. Photo by Kimberly Ann
Copper brew on premise mash tuns.
Photo by Kimberly Ann

Saugatuck Brewing Company does a fine job, and I’m impressed with how welcoming and friendly they are. This is fairly representative of the craft beer community in general, and one of the major reasons (besides tasty libations, of course) that I love interacting with, and writing for and about craft beer folks; the American craft beer industry is growing at a much-talked-about rate, but at its core, it’s still much more of a community than a business. I would venture to say that motorcycle culture is very similar in that way, but that’s a subject for another time.

Oh, right. Unique stuff. Saugatuck is the only brewery in the state, and the only one that I’ve heard of, with a brew on premise program. Wine stores sometimes do this, but I’ve never before encountered a brewery that will let customers (for a fee) come in and use the brewery’s purpose-built system to brew a beer that they then get to bottle and take home. Like home brewing, but with better gear than most of us can afford, and without the commitment of building your own system.

Near the end of our visit, we pass a group of folks engaged in bottling their creation: a 9% ABV clone of Dragon’s Milk. They let me taste it; even before carbonation, it’s not half bad.

Dexter Gauntlett talks about the Brew on Premise program. Photo by Kimberly Ann
Dexter Gauntlett talks about the Brew on Premise program.
Photo by Kimberly Ann

When he’s done helping the customers with the bottling, Dexter Gauntlett, the Brew on Premise Manager, takes a few minutes to chat with us. The program seems to be fairly popular; according to Dexter, they do about 400 of those batches per year. He’s from the Midwest, but spent 25 years in California, before deciding to settle in Michigan. In case you’re also wondering why someone would leave sunny California for lake-effect-weather-afflicted Michigan, he’s friends with the Saugatuck Brewing Company founder, and I guess he figures helping people brew in Saugatuck is better than whatever he was doing in California. Probably less frenetic, at any rate.

One more for the road

Before I go, Kerry and I sit down over a pint, while Kimberly goes to investigate the antiques mall next door. Being the driver (that’s what happens when you bring a photog who doesn’t drive a manual transmission), I decide to check out the Backyard IPA. At 4.5%, it’s squarely in session territory.

The sign says it all. Photo by Kimberly Ann
The sign says it all.
Photo by Kimberly Ann

I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again, but it’s difficult to make a session IPA that’s as interesting and complex as its higher grave cousins. Well, okay. The Brits do it, but Americans tend to struggle in this department. Even so, Backyard is a solid IPA, and a good choice when you need something lighter. Or on one of those summer days that Michigan might occasionally get.

Backyard IPA. Photo by Kimberly Ann
Backyard IPA.
Photo by Kimberly Ann

At this point, it should be noted that Saugatuck Brewing Company is not on the waterfront. It’s a couple of miles up the road (Blue Star Highway, to be more precise), in a large warehouse-type building that also houses the Saugatuck Antique Pavilion. The brewery’s original location is across the way; it now houses the roasting facility for Uncommon Coffee Roasters.

Michigan Beers

On this, my first trip to Michigan, I get the impression that the state likes its craft beer, and has a decently well-developed beer scene. Kerry confirms this observation, noting that Michigan is number five in the US for breweries (the most recent Brewers Association stats put it sixth, which is still impressive). Saugatuck is not a huge operation; actually, they claim to be a microbrewery, which, according to the Brewers Association page on Market Segments, would mean they produce “less than 15,000 barrels (17,600 hectoliters) of beer per year with 75 percent or more of its beer sold off-site.”

The front end of the brewery is actually a pub, with a good-sized food menu, and 16 rotating taps. We don’t eat there this time, so I can’t report on the food. But according to the website, it’s all made in-house. Even the bread and salad dressings.

Photo by Kimberly Ann

I find Central Michigan in general to be somewhat odd, with pockets of almost-suspicion and indifference, mixed with a friendly, helpful manner that’s almost the exact opposite of the first observation. Don’t ask me how that works. In the beer segment, though, I’ve encountered an entirely warm and welcoming attitude. What can I say? Craft beer people are awesome.


City of Saugatuck.” Pure Michigan. Accessed July 01, 2016.
Craft Beer Industry Market Segments.” Brewers Association. Accessed July 01, 2016.
Craft Beer Sales by State: Michigan.” Brewers Association. 2014. Accessed July 01, 2016.
Menu.” Saugatuck Brewing Company. Accessed July 01, 2016.

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Pacific Northwest native, travel and craft beverage writer. Exploring the intersections where beer (and coffee and spirits), food, travel and culture meet.

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