Mitten Beer Quest | Michigan Woman Visits All 323 Michigan Breweries in 2017
As beer enthusiasts, we’ve all thought about it. Some of us may have even looked into the logistics of trying it, but very few of us could ever truly find the time, the money or the energy to visit every brewery in our home state over the course of one year. But that’s exactly what Emily Bennett accomplished in 2017 when she embarked on the Mitten Beer Quest, visiting every brewery in her home state of Michigan.
Sure, you’ve thought, I could do that. Big deal. I have weekends off, and it would be super fun! And true, it may not be too complicated in a state with a handful of breweries and low square mileage. But in 2017, Michigan recorded 323 breweries in operation, over a total of 56,539 square miles, which isn’t exactly a cake-walk. To visit nearly as many breweries as there are days over the span of a year takes a lot of research, planning, and an even larger amount of patience.
Her first task? Figure out the total number of breweries and where they were located. She used three sources: an outdated 2013 publication that listed 139 breweries, the Michigan Brewer’s Guild website, and the Michigan Beer Guide.
“I sat down at my table and started cross-referencing because I had no idea. No clue. I’m reading all these names and titles and addresses in cities that I didn’t know where they were, what they were or if they were even open. With any paper publication, as you know, as soon you go to print, it’s already outdated. So I started putting all those pieces together, working on a spreadsheet that was my life mind for the year, just started pulling information, pulling information, pulling information,” said Bennett. She then created a google map to help her navigate and plan. She also decided that she would equip herself with a breathalyzer, so she would never risk driving impairment.
Early on, her husband made a pretty accurate prediction as to what the year would bring.
“The second or third week of January [my husband Ben and I] were at Territorial Brewing in Battle Creek. In the bathrooms, they have these huge chalkboards. I’m sitting at the table, and my husband had gone to the bathroom, and my phone pops up this picture of him. On the board behind him, he wrote #shitshow and took a picture of it, and that’s what he called my whole trip this year.”
“I woke up the next day and realized I wasn’t going to be able to drink like that if I was going to survive an entire year,” said Bennett.
However, it was at the next brewery when it became apparent just what the trip would be.
“The first brewery I went to was Arclight Brewing, outside of [Founders and Hopcat]. I walked in, had a fabulous conversation with the woman that was tending bar. She told me all about the brewery, all about the beer; I was super impressed with her knowledge. Two local guys heard what I was attempting to do, and we had a great time. The two of them were just a riot, and all of a sudden it was the lightbulb going off in my head going, ‘Oh, this is going to be about the people I’m meeting along the way as well.’ I had an inkling then that that was going to be a primary piece to the trip, and by the end of that first weekend, I knew it was.”
The central theme surrounding the people she met and the stories that emerged grew stronger and stronger as the year went on. She was impressed by brewers, taken-in by local characters and charmed by servers.
“I saw some stuff this year that I was amazed at. And it was mostly the people. Tilted Axis—the best pizza that I’ve ever had. I had already been told at other places in the area, ‘Hey, if so and so is working, she’s one of the best servers in the county. She’s amazing.’ She was there that night, and I was able to look at her and say ‘Your reputation proceeds you. These other people really admire who you are and what you do.’ She ran down the beers with me: ‘Hey, what are you looking for, what’s your palate like,’ those types of things. And she was just very kind, very patient, and she was just nice. You could tell she loved what she did. And that was the difference; you can tell people love what they do,” Bennett said.
The love for what they do extends to the breweries as well. This is evident in that when Emily talks about her quest, she rarely mentions beer, and it’s not because it was bad. Quite the opposite.
“Ben and I were sitting at Harmony Hall the other night talking about the fact that with beer in Michigan, you’re gonna get a solid beer in 99.9 percent of the places you go to. You don’t have to worry so often about walking in and getting something that’s brewed incorrectly, fermented incorrectly, or served incorrectly. We are so fortunate in that because we have a very educated public in Michigan. Again, it’s more about the space, about the people, about the food, about what makes them unique. Those are the things that stuck out in my head,” said Bennett.
That being said, some beers stood out along the way. A Belgian Triple—Bennett’s favorite beer style—at Four Leaf Brewing in Clare, Michigan, nearly got her into trouble when the bartender served it to her in a pint glass. Careful not to drive with even the hint of intoxication, Bennett stayed until she felt comfortable and her breathalyzer showed her in good shape. She wasn’t too bothered by it though.
“It was so good I didn’t want to leave it there,” said Bennett.
Bennett was also impressed by a taco beer from Redline Brewing Company. “Some of the most complex beer I had all year… It’s amazing how frequently you don’t get that 3-dimensional complexity. His beers definitely hit that, hit that hard and solid. And he had really good standard true to style beer, but then he had these other ones—what the hell is this, and why is this in this glass, and okay can I have some more?” said Bennett.
But it was Transient Artisan Ales’ Solarium, a Gose, and Refraction, a Pale Ale, that were her favorites. “After all the strange, weird, different styles I’ve had, I am very tearful inside that I didn’t take home more of that. It was super complex, and it was just different enough to make you go, wait, what is this, what am I drinking?” explained Bennett.
Completing such an undertaking can also be difficult in the simple fact that one has to make a living and like most of us, Bennett has a day job. She’s a nurse practitioner in Hastings, Michigan, and can’t just run off to the next brewery whenever she’d like. So she planned trips and took long weekends, and some perks of her job also helped.
“As a nurse practitioner, I… will work somewhere between three and four 12 hour shifts in a week. So I’m blessed with these great big huge blocks of time off compared to most people. It’s not uncommon for me to have four or five days off in a row. It allowed me to be able to do a lot of this,” said Bennett.
However, that doesn’t mean it was easy. The real shit show began 75 breweries in, on Bennett’s first planned trip in May, when she was struck with a case of pneumonia and missed 25 breweries.
“I was in a panic,” said Bennett.
Bennett had purchased a teardrop camper she could haul behind her vehicle to save on hotel costs, so she spent a lot of time at campgrounds. During one of her campground stays, she chopped off the tip of one of her fingers. Thankfully, she was able to get to the emergency room in time, and they were able to reattach the tip.
Of course, she almost completely missed one brewery when Calumet, Michigan’s Michigan House Cafe & Red Jacket Brewing Company closed for nine days during Bennett’s September trip to the west side of the Upper Peninsula, at least a nine-hour drive. Bennett, her husband, and her friend Mark called everyone they could find to get the brewery opened even for 10 minutes so she could have a beer. They were unsuccessful, but she was able to get back up to the UP in December to check Red Jacket off the list.
However, even with all of that planning, Bennett would encounter other roadblocks based on her own stipulations. Her primary rule that she must have at least one beer at every brewery. But that requirement almost came under contention when two winery/breweries had no beer for her to taste.
“One of them had run out, and the other one hadn’t brewed beer in like six or eight weeks, so they ran out. So when I showed up, I’m like, great does this mean I failed? Do you count it? I was there,” said Bennett. “It became this debate because when I initially started, I had to have a beer at the location if they brewed it there. So all of a sudden, I’m on the phone with my mom, spewing four-letter words, and saying, I think I just failed. And she was like ‘Emily, you showed up.’ And she kept telling me; it’s all about the story, it’s all about the experience,” said Bennett.
This made her reevaluate what it meant to fail, and also helped to point out a few life lessons.
“I learned a couple things on this trip. Number one I learned patience, with myself mostly. Number two I learned my limitations of preparedness, and that it doesn’t matter how much you prepare for certain things, sometimes you just gotta cope with it. Sometimes it’s just gonna be what it’s gonna be. I learned that you’ve got to build in time for people. Going into certain places if I hadn’t stayed that extra 10 minutes and had that conversation with this person or that person, I might not have met three other people, or I might not have learned this, this, and this and made that connection with that person. And there are some people that I’m still in touch with. To be able to back off and say just because you set this goal at the beginning does not mean that it’s a failure at the end. I think learning those things about myself and about and being able to apply those to different parts of my life I think will become beneficial in the long run,” said Bennett.
Bennett had one helluva time over the course of the Mitten Beer Quest. She found small breweries like Upper Hand Brewery in Escanaba, which seats only about 15 to 20, and breweries with a unique taproom setting, like Roak Brewing, in Royal Oak.
“You walk in, they have got floor to ceiling I think they’re purple velvet curtains. They have all these gorgeous windows, all this beautiful lighting, their beer was really good. If you don’t research things before you go, you just walk in; you’re like ‘holy shit, who thought to do this?'” said Bennett.
Bennett lights up, however, when talking about the Michigan brewing industry as a whole. As a member of Fermenta, a nonprofit organization in Michigan that helps to promote women in the beer, wine, spirits, industry, she already knew the industry a little bit, but after this journey, she’s only grown to love the sense of camaraderie and community that comes with it.
“Just looking at the beer community in general, it’s about, in Michigan specifically, it’s about community, it’s about small communities. It’s about hearing the collaborations between breweries too. And the culture that was set up in Michigan a long time ago of breweries helping breweries,” reflected Bennett.
She also loves that breweries help to bring life back to spaces that were lost.
“That’s usually my first question. What was your building before? I’ve heard everything—Fetch Brewing over on the west side of the state, it was in a bank. The bank vault has all these stickers and posters on the walls, but the floor is made out of pennies. It’s a super cool space. So asking those particular type of questions when you walk in is so awesome,” said Bennett. “My home brewery in Hastings was a furniture store when I was a kid. It was a three-floor furniture store, and they completely redid the building when they bought it. I think it was empty when he bought it, so it was a massive undertaking and renovation. So it’s a really unique downtown space that wouldn’t have been saved otherwise.”
But what has become most important to Bennett is that enthusiasts support their breweries as much as the breweries support their communities. She thinks we can do that by venturing out of our comfort zones and giving different places our support, in Michigan and beyond.
“It’s our responsibility as enthusiasts to continue to support local breweries, not just our local breweries, but get off our asses, get in our cars, and drive somewhere else. Because without us continually exploring this state, these places are gonna start to close. We have to continue to give them our money. They’re providing us with a gift by sharing their grit and perseverance and soul. You know you open a brewery, you’re not gonna make a ton of money. This isn’t to get rich, this to do something that you really love. By seeking some of that responsibility and doing a lot of that traveling as individuals and as customers, you’re not only supporting that brewery, but you’re buying food from local places, whether they have a kitchen or not, you are visiting other places that you wouldn’t see or do otherwise. Two places that I keep talking about—Kitch-iti-kipi in the UP and Fishtown—I didn’t know either one of those places existed and I grew up in Michigan. These are landmarks and beautiful things in Michigan that if we don’t go and support them, they’re gonna go away. This is too cool of a place to not continue to support those things. That’s kind of my big platform moving forward. If you don’t know it’s there, why would you travel there? If you know it’s there, and think about traveling there, and then you have a brewery on top of it? Hell yeah, I’ll go see those things, I’ll go drive on an afternoon. You can get almost anywhere in Michigan in a couple hours, except Calumet,” noted Bennett.
As for what’s next for Emily Bennett, she will continue to visit every new brewery that opens in Michigan, but will she extend her journey to other states?
“If somebody wants to sponsor me? Hell yeah, I would,” said Bennett.
For more information go to Bennett’s website MittenBeerGirl.com. You can find her on all social media @mittenbeergirl. All images are courtesy of Emily Bennett.