Big Brewpubs Add to Small-Town Charm in Michigan

The business model is thriving in tiny burgs across the state
witch's hat brewpub
Witch’s Hat: Colorful Mugs line the walls of this South Lyon brewpub

Southeastern Michigan is dotted with charming small towns. With populations of just around 10,000, they’re communal and inviting and often boast lively brewery scenes. But three particular brewpubs based just outside of Ann Arbor stand out.

Until 2015, Saline — with a population of less than 9,000 — had no brewpub to call its own. Salt Springs Brewery opened that year in a downtown building, which housed a Methodist church for nearly a century. Salt Springs transformed the 6,200-square-foot space into an elegant, upscale dining area, keeping some of the original features, including its striking stained-glass windows. Over a dozen beers are on tap at any time and the Saline brewery incorporates fresh, local ingredients such as hops and vegetables in both the beer and food respectively, with a menu that features poutine and banh mi to truffle fries and stout floats. The English Mild Ale makes a nice starter beer and the Cocoa Joe Stout is perfect with dessert — or even as dessert. “There are few brewpubs that can match the architectural beauty, and they embraced,  and we’re embraced, by the town,” says Chris Frey, a former Saline resident. 

In southwestern Michigan, Erin and Ryan Cottongim — a married couple from the city of South Lyon with a population of just over 11,000 — found themselves without jobs during the Great Recession. However, their temporary unemployment enabled them to pursue their dream of owning a brewery. Opened in 2011, the successful business outgrew its original 1,600-square-foot location, and has since moved into a larger space that now seats 100. Multiple taps of beer flow inside while food trucks can typically be found in the large parking lot. The Blueberry Lemonade Gose hit the spot this summer, offering the best of the season in a bottle. Hopheads will likely enjoy the Train Hopper IPA or the New England Style IPA, Defloured. Yet with so many styles (from Kolsch to bourbon barrel aged to even gluten-free), there is truly a beer for every palate. The brewery also runs an annual fundraiser, Fury for a Feast, that is now in its sixth year. The fundraiser features music, over a dozen barrel aged beers, and a charity raffle, with proceeds benefitting various local food banks. “Witch’s Hat does an awful lot of wonderful things for the community,” says Angie Williams, one of Witch’s Hat’s brewers. “It’s a pretty wonderful thing.”

“I love that we get to share a pint every day with familiar faces in our small-town brewery.” -Brad Sancho

In Milan — another little town outside Ann Arbor with a population of less than 6,000 — Original Gravity Brewing Co. has been serving up beer to patrons for over a decade. Owner Brad Sancho left a successful engineering job to open a brewpub that includes a biergarten and features live music, a farmers market, and old-school video games — all of which contribute to the sense of community that exists within its four walls. Regulars mix with first-timers at the bar, at the tables, or on the outdoor patio. Sancho says, “I love that we get to share a pint every day with familiar faces in our small-town brewery. We get to see the impact that we have on our community.” I recommend the smoky, malty 440 Pepper Smoker here. Another must-have is the Primordial Porter, a robust dark beer with hints of chocolate.