Beery Respect for Benton Harbor, MI

June 27, 2009 at 10:18 am

Tom Keith

What do you think of, when you think of Benton Harbor, Michigan? Do you even think of Benton Harbor, ever? At least not since the 2003 race riots there? Well, maybe you’re aware of the city if you have an appliance from Whirlpool, or if you ever assembled an electronics kit from Heathkit. But do those really make you think about the city? Benton Harbor gets even less respect than Phil Spector in jail without his hairpiece.

Next time you think about Benton Harbor, think about the beer.

No, you can’t go to your local Sam’s or Binny’s to get the beer from Benton Harbor. Benton Harbor beer doesn’t come to you. You go to it*.

Specifically, you go to 190 5th Street. Here:


Talk about re-purposing. The Livery was a horse stable, built over one hundred years ago. It’s now a brewpub and music venue.

The upstairs music venue retains much of what I imagine must have been the original interior, when it actually was a livery. (I’m guessing the stage and sound system aren’t original to the building, though.)

But, unlike the Eccentric Café at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, you don’t need to pay a cover to drink the excellent beer when there’s music playing. The downstairs space, appropriately gritty, is a great place to get a beer, maybe play a board game, and chat a bit over some better-than-usual bar food.

And a good chat it is. The folks behind the bar are surprisingly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their beers.

Be sure to try one of the three real cask ales served via antique English-style beer engines. If you’re used to the beers from the corner tap, it might seem a bit warm, and not fizzy enough. If you’re used to some of the best beers at some of the best bars in London, you’ll feel right at home. I had the Malcom’s Best Bitter, an easy-drinking real ale that could be considered a lighter version of a British-style Pale Ale.

But the main reason to go is for the barrel-conditioned beers. Steve Berthel, brewmaster, explained to me that he and a friend took a trip to Heaven Hill Distilleries a few years back. Heaven Hill uses their Bourbon barrels only once, then sells them – and they’re reasonably cheap. So he picked up a few.

All sorts of beasties can find comfy homes in wooden barrels; most notably Brettanomyces. It’s noted for bringing flavors like “horse sweat” to beers. If that doesn’t sound especially appealing, try the Liverator, available as a barrel-aged doppelbock, somewhat accurately described as “Oreo cookies in a glass.” Dark, rich, caramely and malty, this is a big beer, at 8% ABV. Steve knows how to use those barrels. You’ll also know that if you try the smoky, malty sweet Kilt Tilter. It would make my Scottish ancestors proud.

And, Steve has the chutzpah to make a beer named Laughing Dragon – an IPA which laughs at convention, and is bittered, finished and dry-hopped only with the often-despised Chinook hop (described by some as having a “cat-piss” aroma). It’s very good.

“I don’t try to make traditional styles,” Steve says. “I want to invent beer styles of my own.”

Like so many brewmasters, he started homebrewing 18 years ago – with all the scorched surfaces that come from boilovers on the stovetop. Prior to opening The Livery, he brewed professionally at the late Kraftbraü in Kalamazoo (which is rumored to be coming back … no further details).

l to r: Special C Lager (clean, with a light roastiness), Laughing Dragon, Paris-Robbaix Pale Ale (slightly sharp, but very tasty), Malcolm’s Best Bitter, Liverator), Red Canoe (a creamy lager using traditional British hops), Old Flynn Stout (rich coffee flavors, tight head due to nitrogen tap), and Kilt Tilter Scotch Ale.

So, next time you spend two or three hours battling the traffic to your summer place in Union Pier, or New Buffalo, take a trip just a few miles north to Benton Harbor. Savor a barrel-aged beer. Listen to some live music. Then go back to your summer place, relaxed and satisfied in the knowledge that your life is now infinitesimally richer.

*unless you know a guy in Michigan – there are a few distributors who’ll sell you 1/4 and 1/2 kegs. But Steve’s not going to do bottles. Like most good brewpubs, though, you can get a growler (1/2 gallon bottle of their beer) to take home.