Brewery Showcase | Keweenaw Brewing Company (Houghton, MI)
There must be a phrase (I’m assuming in German) for the relief felt when seeing the chaliced lines of a passing lane. This would be a feeling I don’t have often; driving 61 mph in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is what following drivers call “in the way.” However, at the twenty-five mile mark into my eighty-eight-mile trip, I found myself going 35 through meandering Michigamme, stalled weaving behind a service van with Wyoming plates. Already behind schedule on the one day the sun shone for what felt like the first time this winter, I just wanted to move, and my ever present patience wore thin for another fifteen minutes until I finally found my Linderung von Unannehmlichkeiten. Upon driving parallel to each other, I gave the Wyoming driver the thumbs-up — the Midwestern symbol for “Hey, all right.” However, my road companion mistook this for something else, and I received the bird in return, which I suppose I deserved for instigating communication. I offered a stronger, more deliberate thumb, which he took as sarcasm, and then replied with a stronger, more deliberate bird. I realized sometimes there’s no reaching people as I gunned it to a speed considered normal (which is anywhere from 75 mph to Jesus Christ) with no other reason than to make up for lost time. It had nothing to do with upsetting the Wyoming driver of a windowless van — I did not obsessively check my rear view mirror.
The original plan for this trip was to enjoy another Houghton weekend. Luckily, I have friends in the area who live up on a hill that somewhat overlooks the Portage Lake Bridge (a beautiful and annoying double-deck vertical lift bridge), which serves as the connection between northern Houghton and southern Hancock. It’s the starting point of Copper Island (which it is so rarely called; here, people call it the beginning of the Keweenaw Peninsula) . My friends live in a modest rental with a driveway, garage, back yard, and a small front deck. To look up and down their street is to jump to historical conclusions; all of the houses are almost the same design: two-story compacts, designed and built in unison to quickly house copper miners in the 1960s (I have no idea if this is true). Four blocks south of the house is my main destination, Keweenaw Brewing Company (from here on out, KBC), which, for purposes outside of this showcase, is actually always my main destination when coming this far west of Marquette county.
Nestled downtown near the Portage Lake pathway, KBC does not call attention to itself, and if you’re walking the one-way Sheldon Ave (Houghton’s commercial district), you could walk right by without ever knowing. If you’re like me, you could walk right by it even when you are looking for it, for it blends in nicely with other Sheldon businesses — large bay windows, brick exteriors, and covered awnings. (That’s the road side. the back patio area is more evident with a large mural and an unmistakable sign.) Until about a few weeks ago, the Houghton Tap Room was the only location I knew about, but in an e-mail correspondence with Paul Boissevain, owner of KBC, I am invited down to the South Range location to “see where the real work gets done.”
The “real work” Boissevain refers to is the 100bbl tank fermenters and the 50bbl brew house where all of KBC cans are produced. These gold cans are what KBC is known for — it’s what every college student in the UP graduates into after denouncing MGD tallboys and 30 packs of stuff you can pay for after returning your last three 30 packs (we’re Michigan, friends; that’s $0.10 per return), it’s what every hiker, camper, and beach goer takes on trips because bottles break and fit so poorly in coolers, and it’s what every liquor store clerk shrugs toward when tourists ask, “Is there anything local?”. However, it’s KBC’s reputation for quality that lingers with their loyal drinkers and leaves them no question on what to order on tap at taverns and restaurants. When I visit my friends, even though they’re a steep four blocks uphill from the Houghton Tap Room, even though that’s where we’re eventually headed, there’s always a couple of six packs waiting on the bottom shelf of their refrigerator.
I knew how to find South Range (“Go south on M-26” is just about as detailed as it needs to be), but I’ve never seen South Range, or the brewery before. Being familiar with Houghton’s KBC location and its aesthetic, I figured it’d be easy to spot; I imagined, as their beer somehow provokes, the brewery to be an inconspicuously sturdy bricked building — large, boxed and industrial sized. The same way I imagine old mortuaries. What I didn’t know was that description fits almost every unmarked building on the main drag (and quite a few on the side streets, condemned or not). Luckily, the Post Office (also rectangular and bricked) was able to point me back in the direction I came from with an added: “You’ll see it.” I did not. The South Range Brewery is easy to miss if you believed it would be evidently located on the highway, like I did. However, it is minimally blocked from the roadside by an apartment building (still, though, easy to see from the highway.) It was in fact industrial sized, but not old and not bricked.
Upon leaving Houghton (only ten minutes away), I gave myself an hour to find the brewery. I found it with fifteen minutes to spare, which left me time to appreciate the sun and watch snow from the apartment building’s roof melting into a heavy stream like a waterfall, only to be distracted elsewhere to a building’s resident duct taping a side view mirror onto her car. This seems too important of an event not to report. I do not know what any of this means, but I so badly want to, so much so that I’m somewhat distracted during my tour inside the brewery, and all my questions about the tanks and the distribution of KBC and their process seem awfully arbitrary to what I’m feeling within this industrial-grade atmosphere. I cannot quite contain the understanding within myself that whatever calls me to Houghton is born where I stand, that the years of complying the same unconscious urge to visit has called me even closer to its home. To say divine is blasphemous; to say nirvana is inaccurate. There may not be a word, but if there were a term for when the wind returns the spore to the source, let it be reserved for the seventeen seconds of dead air on my tape recorder as Boissevain waits patiently for me to stop staring at the canning machine.
Three years after the Houghton Tap Room location opened in 2004, the South Range Brewery was opened to meet their increasing distribution. Its first year produced 2,290 bbls and has only increased since opening. Last year’s numbers are calculated at 11,000 bbl, meaning (if you choose to trust my arithmetic (which you should never)) KBC produced the equivalent of 3.6 million 12 oz. cans (33,000 more than in 2014). Here at South Range, what’s brewed is their top six: Pick Axe Blonde Ale, Red Jacket Amber Ale, Lift Bridge Brown Ale, Old Ore Dock Scotch Ale, November Gale Pale Ale, the summer seasonal Belgian-style UP Wit Bier, and their most popular, the Widow Maker Black Ale. Widow Maker is half of what KBC sells to their distribution area, reaching the entire state of Michigan, as well as the more populated places of Minnesota like the Twin Cities and Duluth, and Wisconsin’s Fox River Valley.
“The Widow Maker took us by surprise by how it took off,” says Boissevain, “and now there’s nothing else out there quite like it. Upper Hand (of Escanaba, MI, a 2014 division of Kalamazoo, MI’s Bell’s Brewery) has a black, but it’s a lot heavier and hoppier.” And so far, Boissevain adds, nobody makes a black ale quite like KBC. Throw in the Pick Axe and the Red Jacket, and you’re looking at the three beers make up eighty to ninety percent of KBC’s total numbers.
All of (let’s call it) the Super Six, whether it be found in can or on tap in Houghton, is brewed at the South Range Brewery, but that doesn’t mean they’re limited solely to their best sellers. The six are always around, but it leaves three of the nine taps open for more creative endeavors. As Boissevain says, it’s up to the brewers (for which there’s two) to come in in the morning and figure out what they want to make that day. Two of the three open taps are reserved for a stout and an IPA (what kind is open to interpretation by the brewers) and one left open for whatever. During my visit, the featured tap was the Orange Wit, a murky-colored Belgian with the spice you’d hope to expect at the end of winter. Whatever’s on these three open taps are brewed on site, eight to ten bbl at a time, and all go relatively quickly.
It’s difficult not to come around for more than one drink. Something about the aesthetic inside is overtly welcoming. First time adventurers, as I once was, will question themselves why they haven’t come around sooner. The Houghton location was designed with a laid-back coffee house in mind. I found the inside to be more ski-lodge like, with its wooden floor planks, glossy slab tables, and their wooden and brick walls. You’ll find novelties hanging from the walls — beer can art (don’t question it, just buy one), professionally framed photography, and oddities like a four-foot wood carving of a bear and some kind of massive boat (that I’m sure has a specific name and purpose and means something to people who know boats who would be angry with me for calling it a boat) suspended from the ceiling. Call it quirky but manageable, warmly domicile like — exactly what you’d want to see in a camping-enthusiast weekend-warrior suburbanite’s garage-turned-tavern, before the divorce.
Fantastic atmosphere aside, the beer at the Houghton Tap Room is always the highlight — though, not to belittle the other endearing attributes: the prime location, the great use of large windows and natural light, the view to the north, the kind and loyal patrons — local and visitor alike — the fantastic staff, and Pizza Works (who are pretty damn good) just a few doors down who will walk your order right to your table (but go ahead and bring any food you want in with you.) Try to distance yourself from the feeling that you’re in a UP institution, a point of reference to the craft beer scene in all of Michigan, and just think about the beer you’ve ordered. You’re not here for odd recipes or gargantuan and questionable innovation — that’s gung-ho brio local drinkers know they don’t want. You’re here, like everybody, for unassuming and perfected qualities and for traditional favorites morphed into something you could call homestyle. What’s here has been waiting for you, has been brewed for you.
You won’t break the bank here either; at $2.75 a pint, you can pick up the night’s table and keep your friends for under $20, and since KBC brews all session ales under 6% ABV, you’ll never feel wrecked. Be responsible and find a driver anyway, for the Houghton/Hancock area has some of the more aggressive and impatient UP drivers on some of the most confusing roadways for unpracticed motorists. Tip for your driver: If you want to go to Hancock, stay right. If you want M-26, stay left, then immediately merge right. If you want to go back east, you have head west.
And for me, to go east is to go back home by way of U.S. 41. At forty-four miles west of Houghton is the U.S. 41/M-28 junction, and the exact middle of my trip. Here is the car pool parking lot where I stop to physically halve my drive, breathe a little country-pine air, and think about the city I just left, the city I enjoy, the city where I can see myself living. How strange it is to be at the end of two lines — only here can I define home by stalling at an intersection and choosing left or choosing right, only here can I separate and stretch the definitions of habituating and belonging, only here can I know that either which way I turn, I am both kind of right and kind of wrong.
Location & Hours
408 Shelden Ave, Houghton, MI 49931
Parting tip: take cash, otherwise you’ll have a $10 minimum on your card; you will be reimbursed the difference in black KBC poker chips, which represent one beer per chip. As I’m getting ready to leave South Range, Boissevain leads me into his office and hands me a handful of poker chips. “You know what these are for,” he says. I’m not a hugging man, and having just met, a two-second handshake feels appropriate.