Beer. Handcrafted local beer. Great Lakes regional handcrafted local beers. I had been reading for a long time that there was a new brewing tradition emerging back home in places like Michigan and Wisconsin and I tasted the first products of it through Bells Brewery; a little brewery in southern Michigan that was beginning to get a national presence. My absolute favorite of theirs was their astounding ‘Chocolate Cherry Stout’ featuring local cherries from Traverse City, Michigan. I bought my first six-pack of it a few Christmas’s ago while I was living in Washington, DC. I’ve always loved Guinness for its creamy smoothness so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to try another stout that had cherries and chocolate in it. After all it was Christmas so why not?

We made it to Asland, Wisconsin yesterday after waiting all morning for a weather window which didn’t arrive until 11 am. We saddled up and blasted through the 35 miles in just under two and a half hours; a time which included 2 stops. We would have liked to have gone further but we were held back by the lack of infrastructure done the road as well as the threat of the big rain filled weather systems that were present all around us.

We wanted to experience Ashland anyway. I had been telling Sarah for the last ten days how Ashland was one of those regional great lake cities that seemed to get featured in every last magazine and newspaper article that spoke of the new brewmeisters and beers that were beginning to flow out of the region.

Our first stop was for a late lunch at the local Ashland Baking Company for some hummus and fresh baked bread. The neighborhood was recently renovated in that post ‘90s Oregon grunge makeover that happens to so many turn of the twentieth century buildings in the early throes of gentrification. Both the Chequamegon Food Co-op and the hipster hangout Black Cat Coffehouse were right across Chapple Ave.from the bakery and the South Shore Brewery and Deepwater Grille was one block over and two blocks down located in another recently renovated historic building from the same era.

From a first glance these businesses sit at the epicenter and represent the effort to revitalize this small city of 9000 people. Northland College appears to be the intellectual engine that drives the music and arts bringing exuberant and idealist young people who share in the same DIY values of making/buying local for both economic and environmental sustainability.

The South Shore Brewery offered up a couple of good beers. I tried the ever popular but ever boring Nut Brown Ale but deciding to stick with their ESB which was a great value at just 4 bucks a pint. Sarah had to try one of their 22 oz. bottles of [Bourbon Barrel] Coffee Mint Stout, which she said tasted just like Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies; ‘something that was very good for what it was’, she said. But also went on to say that she’d never order it again. Our opinion was that while the South Shore Brewery was a good standard microbrewery offering up some good products with great value, it still had a long way to go to become excellent export worthy with a national presence.

By comparison we felt the same way about Hougton’s Keweenaw Brewing Company. They offered up wonderfully priced pints for $2.50 but their Pick Axe Blond with its low alcohol and Budweiser like taste was a bit too thin to get anything remotely excited about. Their Widow Maker Black Ale was also on the thin side and too undifferentiating to be noteworthy. And somehow their stout ended up on the opposite side of rich and creamy. The KBC fills a great local need but needs a lot of improvement if it wants to go national.

The Brickside Brewery of Copper Harbor on the other hand offered up a truly rich and creamy stout and was everything a stout should be to which we both gave a 9/10. Their IPA was unimpressive but we felt that their porter was very good but not amazing so we gave it an 8/10.

I apologize if it seems that I am picky or that I am throwing rocks at these new start up breweries. The truth is that I applaud their efforts and wish them every success. I am very happy to see these David’s duking it out with the Anheiser Busch Goliaths who have presumed for too many years that they knew what beer drinkers wanted. But I also think it is fair to say that listening to a little healthy 3rd party evaluation of anyone’s products and services are necessary if a business wants to improve and grow. (But if I am wrong in anything I’ve just said or written – it’s not like it wouldn’t be the first time.)