By Brian Martucci
In mid-September, Blackrocks Brewery of Marquette, Michigan put the finishing touches on a new brewhouse on the outskirts of town and kicked its canning operation into high gear.
“What’s that?” you say. “Everyone knows that Marquette is in Wisconsin. Also, Blackrocks isn’t even a word. And why is there a picture of a snow-covered yellow house in this post about beer? ”
Alright, let’s back up. Blackrocks Brewery, which began in this yellow house, is one of three breweries that operate out of Marquette, the largest town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. If you’re not familiar with the U.P., it’s an oddly shaped spit of land that lies between Wisconsin, Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. It looks like northern Minnesota, but a little warmer and quite a bit snowier.
Why does it matter that Blackrocks just opened a 2,200-bbl canning facility in one of the least-densely populated places in the Lower 48? Why should you care that the place is pumping out three well-liked brews on a regular basis and inaugurating a quarterly “brewer’s choice” batch in collectible bombers?
For starters, everyone who’s spent a summer afternoon in its biergarten with one (or two or three) of the more than 200 craft brews the owners/head brewers have pumped out in the past three years agrees that this place is serious about its beer. Blackrocks has an off-the-chain rating of 4.5/5 on Yelp–a decent indicator–and more than measured up in The Growler‘s recent roundup of the U.P.’s most popular craft breweries.
Then there’s the variety. Setting aside the bombers, which will vary on a quarterly basis and probably won’t be available outside of a very limited geographical area, the brewery will can three beers on a regular basis:
- 51K IPA: A piney, floral, moderately hoppy brew that packs a fair punch at 7% ABV, but finishes with a crisp, malty tone that invites another sip. It’s not quite as light or drinkable as Bell’s beloved Two Hearted Ale, but its impressive complexity makes it one to watch.
- Grand Rabbits Cream Ale: This is a rare session beer that defies easy categorization. Its initial flavor profile evokes a maltier, less carbonated version of a typical macrobrew, but its aftertaste is all hops and butter. If that sounds weird, it kind of is. Chalk it up to the fact that Grand Rabbits is dry-hopped–hence the name, apparently (a rabbit hops, get it?). All things being equal, 5.5% ABV Grand Rabbits is probably Blackrocks’s ticket to the big dance.
- Coconut Brown Ale: At 5.8% ABV, Coconut Brown is just a tad lighter than the average brown and boasts the flavor profile that you’d expect from a well-rounded brew with “coconut” in its name. In the early going, this one has been scarcer than the other two, but it’s unclear whether this is accidental or by design.
Blackrocks is neither a small-town brewpub, nor a volume-first outlet that signs distribution contracts faster than it can control quality. The owners currently work with two U.P.-based distribution companies and look to keep it that way for the next 12 months or so. But given the intense demand for canned Blackrocks brews–several Marquette-area stores had sold out of their initial shipments within the first week of the brewery’s distribution period–it’s only a matter of time before distributors in lower Michigan, northern Wisconsin and the Duluth area start looking for their fix. There’s more competition in those markets, to be sure, but Grand Rabbits and 51K can hold their own against the Two Hearteds and Summit Pale Ales of the world.
Where do you fit into all this? Simple. If you’re visiting or passing through the U.P. during the next few months, stop into a gas station or grocery store (liquor laws are far more lenient in Michigan than in Minnesota) and ask for Blackrocks. You’ll be more likely to find it in larger population centers like Houghton or Marquette, but you might have some luck in smaller towns and villages, too. If this inaugural distribution push is successful–and all early indications suggest that it will be–look for these three brews, and possibly some others, in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota by late 2014. Since Blackrocks will probably have to expand its brewing capacity again before pushing into the Upper Midwest’s major metropolitan areas, we shouldn’t be holding our breath for places like The Ale Jail and Four Firkins to stock its offerings anytime soon.
Then again, consumer demand is a great motivator. What was it that the ghost of Jim Morrison said in Wayne’s World 2? Ah yes, that’s right: “If you book them, they will come.”