7 Michigan Craft Beers That Make a Mint on the Black Market

A black market for beer? What would Michigan know about that?

There wasn't so much a Prohibition period in Michigan's beer history as there was a "let's work around Prohibition" era. Led by Bernhard Stroh and his massive Stroh's brewery in Detroit, Michigan's growing immigrant population and thriving beer culture spawned dozens of breweries. Even when those brewers' teetotaling, xenophobic neighbors decided to blame all of society's ills on alcohol, the more creative among them devised their own solutions to the draconian alcohol ban that the state imposed three years before federal Prohibition.

The most cunning and industrious among them was Detroit brewer John Zynda, who took it upon himself to dig a tunnel from his brewery to a garage across the street. He'd roll beer through the tunnel, send out a decoy truck filled with low-alcohol near beer and, when a lookout signaled that the coast was clear, would send a real beer shipment into the streets.

The beer drinkers of Michigan would not only seek this out but would eventually just head to the pubs of Windsor, Ontario, by boat after Canada did away with its partial Prohibition in 1927. Though there was little that either drinkers or brewers could do to stop the spate of post-Prohibition consolidation that swept up breweries after World War II -- and eventually brought down the hollowed remnants of Stroh's in 1999 -- it's that commitment to both the brewing process and a fervent base of cold-weather consumers that drove Michigan's craft beer movement.

When Larry Bell first opened his home brewing supply shop in Kalamazoo in 1983, there were just 93 breweries in the U.S. When his Bell's Brewery brewed its first beer out of a 15-gallon soup kettle in 1985, there were just 110 U.S. breweries. Three decades later, there would be nearly double that number of breweries (205) in Michigan alone, according to the Brewers Association craft beer industry group.

In 2015, Bell's became the 12th-largest brewery by volume and produced nearly 400,000 barrels worth of beer. Grand Rapids-based Founders not only ranks No. 20 in the country at nearly 300,000 barrels, but has grown so rapidly from just 41,000 barrels in 2011 that it inspired Spanish brewer Mahou San Miguel to buy a 30% stake in it back in 2014. It isn't the only Michigan brewer to attract a buyer's interest, as Longmont, Colo.-based brewer Oskar Blues and Boston-based private equity firm Fireman Capital's combined United Craft Brews outright bought Comstock, Mich.-based Perrin Brewing last year.

Granted, Michigan has had a somewhat conflicted relationship with craft beer in recent years. It's been on the sidelines as West Coast brewers expand east into Virginia, North Carolina and even Illinois. It's opted to help out local brewers rather than attracting new ones, but it's watched as Detroit-based Atwater Brewing opened a second facility beyond its borders in Austin. It watched as Western Michigan's Pilot Malt House -- which supplies grain to brewers -- expanded to Virginia rather than build larger facilities in its home state.

Yet this state has produced some tremendous beers that have worked their way into today's online beer black market. We, again, went browsing at MyBeerCellar.com and found ten great Michigan beers that are fetching piles of cash from covetous beer geeks around the world:

7. 2006 Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout
7. 2006 Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout

The Brew

Price: $99 plus $10.75 shipping

This bourbon-barrel-aged stout is a fine argument for shopping around, even on the black market. Earlier this summer, we saw it listed for $135 plus shipping. Granted, Total Wine sells single 12-ounce bottles of it for $6 (a $36 six-pack), but the 2006 is Batch 1 of what would become one of this Grand Rapids brewer's most sought-after offerings.

With Founders marking its 20th anniversary next year, this 10% ABV beer (12.4% in modern incarnations) is a fine way to celebrate the occasion. Brewed with coffee and chocolate, there's a lot of bitterness that mellows out considerably a decade later. Don't be afraid to open this one up -- it has a museum-piece price, but it has a blend of elements that makes it worth tasting after a decade or so in stasis.

6. 2007 Kuhnhenn Raspberry Eisenbock
6. 2007 Kuhnhenn Raspberry Eisenbock

The Brew

Price: $100 plus shipping

This 15-year-old brewery in Warren is considered one of Michigan's best, but would likely still be a hardware store today if the Home Depot and Lowe's hadn't started squeezing Eric and Bren Kuhnhenn's parents out of business.

The brothers eventually converted their parents' hardware store, which the family had run since 1972, into a homebrewing supply shop in 1998. In 2001, however, they began selling their own beer. By 2014, they were able to expand to a full production facility and tasting room, but this raspberry eisenbock -- a rich, 15.5% alcohol-by-volume chocolate-laden lager brewed with Michigan raspberry -- is a holdover from the original facility.

These 375-milliliter bottles went for $30 apiece the last time they were offered in 2014 -- with only 3,600 bottles (300 cases) produced for what was then considered a bigger batch. Kuhnhenn represents a lot of what Michigan craft beer gets right -- local producers, local sourcing, community-dependent growth -- and we aren't at all surprised that its earlier offerings are starting to command steeper prices as the word gets out.

5. 2010 Jolly Pumpkin Lambicus Dexterius and Perseguidor 5
5. 2010 Jolly Pumpkin Lambicus Dexterius and Perseguidor 5

The Brew

Price: $150

When Ron Jeffries first opened this brewery in Dexter, Mich. back in 2004, there weren't a whole lot of breweries in the U.S. doing barrel-aging and even fewer using the spontaneous fermentation methods of Belgium's lambic breweries. Even now, Brewers Association economist Bart Watson estimates there are little more than 30 breweries in the U.S. trying their hand at lambic brewing methods and various blends.

Jolly Pumpkin has since expanded to locations in Detroit, Traverse City and Ann Arbor, it grew into spontaneous fermentation before all but the earliest U.S. stewards of that particular Belgian brewing method (think Russian River, Allagash). In fact, Lambicus Dexterius entered its earliest stages in 2005, when Jolly Pumpkin placed its first batch in the open-air coolship and allowed wild yeast to collect before placing it in barrels to spontaneously ferment. Jolly Pumpkin repeated the process for multiple batches, blended the results together in a gueuze-style offering, and sold just 60 cases of it -- mostly in Michigan -- back in 2010.

Jolly Pumpkin became fairly adept at blending its beers by creating blends of its La Roja Flanders Red and starting the Persiguidor ("pursuer") program in 2006. This fifth and final batch in that program combines a multi-batch blend of La Roja, a multi-batch blend of its Luciérnaga Belgian-style pale ale and a multi-batch blend of its Bam Biére farmhouse ale. Only 20 cases were produced.

The sheer effort that went into each of these beers warrants a premium, but the rarity of each style -- never mind the good fortune of finding both of them at once -- makes them even more precious.

4. 2003 Bell's Batch 6,000, 2010 Bell's Batch 9,000 and 10,000
4. 2003 Bell's Batch 6,000, 2010 Bell's Batch 9,000 and 10,000

The Brew

Price: $90 plus $10 shipping

Bell's grew so quickly that it wrapped up its "batch" series six years ago, opting to no longer mark the milestones.

The last time it did so in 2010, however, owner Larry Bell dumped in 131 malts, 58 bittering hops and 32 flavor and aroma hops as a tribute to all of the ingredients the brewery had used throughout the years. That was a marked turn away from the 9,000, which released earlier in 2010 as a rich 12%-ABV blend of molasses and brewers' licorice. That beer in no way resembled 2003's 6,000, which was a 10.5% barleywine.

These beers are ideally supposed to mellow with age into a more caramel-and-chocolate sweetness, but various collectors' accounts say that they're still fairly potent years later. Bell's just keeps plugging away, as Larry Bell hands the reins over to the next generation of Bell's -- and takes them from shareholders -- but there are still plenty of treasures left in the brewery's library.

3. 2014 Dark Horse Top Fuel
3. 2014 Dark Horse Top Fuel

The Brew

Price: $41.20 plus $15.45 shipping

This is yet another Michigan brewery preparing to celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, but Dark Horse has managed to keep its distribution radius a bit tighter than many other brewers of its vintage.

It does much of its business in Michigan and, with the exception of outliers like South Dakota, Massachusetts and North Carolina, keeps its beers along the shores of the Great Lakes. That means when it makes a particularly rare beer like this 10.5% ABV barleywine, it just doesn't get around much. While it's likely still a bit young and fiery in Year 2, it's closer to being a somewhat mellower, more confectionery version of its original self fairly soon.

2. 2013 and 2014 New Holland Blue Sunday Sour
2. 2013 and 2014 New Holland Blue Sunday Sour

The Brew

Price: $160 shipping

Every so often, a brewers name gets thrown around as a potential target for acquisition simply because folks either don't know what's going on with it or haven't bothered to ask in a while.

That's clearly the case with New Holland, which has ticked along steadily for 20 years but just broke ground on a new brewpub and distillery in Grand Rapids last year. Though New Holland now distributes its beers through more than 15 states, it hasn't physically expanded beyond its home in Holland, Mich. For the last two decades -- even when it began distilling gin, rum and whiskey in 2005. Yet original brewmaster John Haggerty's departure in 2012 and this latest expansion created concerns that have seemed unfounded thus far.

Its oak-aged Dragon's Milk is still flowing, its barrel program is still at the core of its business and its sour beers -- including this blend of barrel sours first produced in 2007 -- are a natural extension of its artisanal-branded mission. However, if you want these two, you're going to have to buy the eight other beers that go with it. The lot includes selections from Ithaca, Cascade, The Bruery, Fantome, Surly and Goose Island, but if you want some idea of where the next few years might be taking Michigan brewers, it's worth scooping up these New Holland sours.

1. 2011 Arcadia Bourbon Barrel Aged 15th Anniversary
1. 2011 Arcadia Bourbon Barrel Aged 15th Anniversary

The Brew

Price: $100 plus $15 shipping

Arcadia officially turns 20 years old in September, and it's one of the few breweries in the country that hitched itself to English styles and stuck with them.

It's traded up from the English brewing system it had in Battle Creek to a U.S.-built brewhouse in Kalamazoo, but it still holds to a blend of English malts and Michigan and Pacific Northwest hops. Its year-round beer list is a throwback filled with Scotch Ale, Extra Special Bitter, Blonde Ale, Rye Ale and various IPAs, but its house yeast strain is created in its open fermenters using a method that's a bit more Belgian than it may care to admit.

It also cares so deeply about its smoked barbecue and wood-fired pizza -- and its Twisted Tail food truck -- that it raises understandable questions about whether it's paying enough attention to the beer side of the equation. However, its considerable seasonal, limited-release and pub-only offerings lay that to rest, as does this bourbon-barrel-aged, cherry-infused sour brown ale that falls somewhere on the flavor spectrum between a cherry-laden kriek and a tart Flanders Red.

Arcadia is one of the few U.S. craft breweries that has not only held onto the English beer styles from the initial craft boom of 20 years ago, but is thriving with them. It's only in 12 states and D.C., but it's managed to find both shelf and tap space in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and St. Louis. It can show of the Belgian brewing skills and background when it has to, but this anniversary beer represents one of the rare moments when stepping out of character seemed necessary.

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This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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