Travel Stories · Signifiers

Giving Thanks — An Reflective Side Trip to Battle Creek, MI

I’ve worn a pretty good path from Chicago to Grand Rapids over the last few years. Hillary’s family lives in GR, so we always find a way to stop off at Greenbush, New Holland or a couple of brew shops like Siciliano’s on the way.

But this year, we tried to pack in a double-header for Thanksgiving, driving south to Peoria for one side of the family, and north the next morning to GR for the other. This unusually long drive seemed worthy of a diversion, so we brainstormed for a bit and hit on Battle Creek, home to two of my favorite breweries: Arcadia and Dark Horse. After enjoying so many beers from these two southwestern Michigan standouts, we figured it was time to give thanks with a real visit.

We got a late start — big surprise after a Thanksgiving meal in Peoria. But the unexpected benefit of this was that we were cruising by Sawyer, MI right after Greenbush opened for the day. So already, we were altering our plans for our favorite new brewery. Scott was buzzing around the taproom hanging lights, greenery and trimming the tree. Jason was behind the bar, pretending to own the place. For Black Friday, the taproom was surprisingly well occupied. 

In honor of this dark holiday, I ordered a new black concoction under “group b” called Apathy — a medium-bodied, honey ladened oatmeal stout. A few of us toasted to our non-participation in one of American’s least flattering traditions and then we hit the road, Battle Creek bound.

Next stop Dark Horse. We really didn’t know what to expect, but after whizzing around the traffic circle on business 94 and heading south on S. Kalamazoo Ave, a large warehouse structure like a shelter for road salt rose above the road with the Dark Horse logo scrawled across it. We pulled into the lot, and after a few moments realized that the tasting room was the shingle-covered double wide. It was all starting to make sense. Everything I’ve seen from Dark Horse, from it’s logo to it’s wrinkled bottle labels to its website with 7 different fonts, has always struck me as a homebrew operation that grew up fast.

Inside, this perception could not have been more clear. Hand-made clay mugs lined the ceiling, stripped logs held up the bar, and the walls were decorated by various ephemera pinned up by its patrons. This entire brewery is cobbled-together. While bright and cheery in the day, I could easily imagine a transition into the evening, Dusk ‘til Dawn style, where the place reveals itself as a doublewide roadhouse on the edge of hell. Oh, and the calzones are amazing. 

Dark Horse is known for being a slashy. I don’t mean a liquor-store-slash-bar, I mean a brewery/taproom/pizzeria/skate shop/homebrew supply/general store…This is a place you might imagine a brilliant 12 year-old conceiving, where he could do all his favorite things, and then executing it with fervor. The place if fearless.

I had the Thirsty Trout Porter, a bright Baltic porter with nice coffee and malts and a base of hops for kick. We filled a growler with Crooked Tree IPA (which wound up in my brother-in-law’s fridge), let the calzone soak up the last bit of the alcohol and headed west into downtown Battle Creek for Arcadia. 

Along sleepy Michigan Ave on a holiday weekend we parked among sidewalk construction that made the area feel more like an underpopulated suburb than one of southwestern Michigan’s surviving working towns. And the exterior of Arcadia looked oddly like a recently built movie theater or office building. I checked the map to make sure I had the address right. 

After leaving the lively, dense quarters of Greenbush and Dark Horse, Arcadia was noticeably spacious and empty. Most of the staff was on break, eating, drinking and hanging out with their families, no doubt visiting after a long morning of Black Friday shopping. 

Arcadia is known for its dedication to traditional small-batch ale making using British equipment and their Ringwood yeast. Each brew has an incredible clarity of flavor and freshness. They don’t try to push bizarre ingredients or wow you with hop intensity. They just make iconic ales, and they try to make them perfectly.

I had the Loch Down, a Scottish ale with hints of raisin and a touch of smoke. Sitting there, drinking a beer with such clarity of intention, I found myself a little confused by the bar itself.

Arcadia is a brand in the middle of a transition — you can see it in their labeling. Older beers have an overwrought style with Gaelic patterns and typefaces. Founded in the 90s, Arcadia is still of that time. But newer beers express a different, more contemporary point of view with flat, French cycling poster aesthetics and sans serif type. Witsun and Sky High Rye are two great examples of where they’re heading. But the bar itself seems stuck somewhere in the middle. It lacks the warmth and maker quality of newer microbreweries, or the steadfast focus on their roots like Sprecher in Milwaukee. Between the traditional brewery, the 90s pub, and contemporary new branding elements, it just doesn’t come together they way Greenbush and Dark Horse seem to, almost effortlessly. 

On our way back to Chicago the next day, we stopped off at Greenbush one more time. While sipping an Ursus out of mug #80 at the bar, reflecting on this Thanksgiving weekend journey, I realized what I love about Greenbush, and other places with such a strong, but genuine point of view on their business.

Joel was behind the bar making hot beef sandwiches and chili. Jason was running his mouth and joking with the precision of a one-man theater troupe. The mugs hung over us like a chandelier among the Christmas decorations. Everything was in its place. And even though neither Scott nor Jill were in that day, the place shined with their presence and care. And every person working in their stead has an ownership mentality and a relationship with the beer that draws people in. 

So on this Thanksgiving, I started and ended with Greenbush. And with every visit, it feels a little more like part of going home. I can hardly wait ‘til their Feliz Mazel Tov Holiday Extravaganza this Saturday. 

Michael Kiser