Boyne City is a small town of around 3,000 that has grown up where the Boyne River empties its quiet stream into Lake Charlevoix. It is somewhat off the beaten track, though the lake draws summer tourists and the nearby ski hills come alive in the winter months. Around a curve of the town’s main street, in an unassuming gray building, can be found the Boyne River Brewery which, since July 1, 1995 has consistently produced some of Michigan’s finest brews and one of the very best brown ales in the world. The story behind this achievement is one that stands in gentle challenge to the Goliathian, expansion driven, one size fits all, Walmarty ethos that dominates too much of our business culture and I am pleased to offer it up as I sit here sipping one of Boyne River’s remarkable Brown Ales.
In the late eighties Scott Hill was a man dissatisfied with a life in sales who derived great pleasure from homebrewing. Deciding that his passion should also be his vocation, Scott enrolled in the Siebel Brewing Institute of Chicago, the oldest brewing school in the country. Scott’s wife Cyndi accompanied him to Chicago and fondly tells the stories of living among an international beer community, as their nights would be occupied hanging with the varied assortment of folks drawn to learning about making good beer. Her stories, in fact, remind me a lot of the comraderie found on the forums here – nothing like a shared interest in quality beer to bring good folks together!
The Hills first contemplated making a go of brewing in Southeast Michigan, but the rapid pace of development down south necessitates a good deal of capital and a willingness to participate in a more aggressive growth oriented culture where microbreweries often have to hang on the edges of freeways or in industrial parks. Vacationing up north enabled the family to find Boyne City, a place where their laid back philosophy seemed to fit just fine – hence the birth of the “Home of Laid Back Ales.”
Boyne River Brewery is built in an older, rustic looking warehouse that has served many purposes over the years. Scott designed the interior and made the tables, while the unusual collection of chairs and stools was acquired at garage sales and the whole place seems decorated in the best community rummage sale tradition - with canoe paddles, fishing gear, skis, and banners from several Michigan colleges among the items in prominence. It is a warm, friendly and smoke free place, open only in the laid back hours of 12-7 Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. This gives the Hills a chance to participate in the community while keeping themselves sane for work in the microbrewery. In the beginning, the place operated as both a brewpub and a microbrewery, but the idea from the onset was to test both waters and, as we at RateBeer have discovered, sales of the bottled brew have done just fine. Accordingly, the Hills have rolled up the pub end of the business for now, though Cyndi says that an enterprising, and appropriately laid back, restraunteer would be welcome to make a go of it under the microbrewery’s friendly roof …
And the beer. You can usually find Log Jam and Lake Trout, two brews with appropriate northwoods names, at locations across Michigan. The first is a pleasant, lemony bitter and the second a shaggier, robust stout with a cult following among the brewery’s patrons, many of whom belong the “mug club” whose glasses and names adorn the wall behind the bar. Like Boyne River’s Pale, these are well crafted ales based on British malts but making subtle and interesting use of American hops, the signature action of Scott’s artistry.
The brewery itself is more diversified in its selection and Scott also makes seasonal and specialty forays in the best microbrew sense with a decent Hefe Weisen and chewy, cherry toned Oatmeal Stout available at my last visit. The brewery’s transition brew, their 10:30 ale, is quite simply one of the most flavorful of such beers that I’ve tried, hoppy enough to interest even my jaded palate. It is named for the town’s evening fire whistle and is a fine symbol of the outreach that a brewery like this can accomplish. Scott also makes a little wine (Boyne River Cellars) and a line of sodas named for his daughter Hannah, keeping his creative juices, and the tastes of his patrons, young and old, satisfied.
But the crown jewel, of course, is the Brown Ale, and it brings a humble, slightly amused smile to Scott’s face to hear me tell of its popularity on RateBeer. Boyne River Brown was his first brew, he informed me in his soft spoken manner, like his other beers an experiment based on a British tradition. Yeats has a poem where he explains how the best poets make poetry so that it seems effortless, though so much work went into it: "A line will take us hours maybe, yet if it does not seem a moments thought, our stitching and unstitching has been naught" (from "Adam's Curse"). That is how I feel about Scott’s Brown Ale. It has a rather unassuming, gentle malt front for a brown, so you don’t expect much from it at first, but when the hops settle into action they put more of the malt in play and the result is amazing – but of course, you’ve all heard me rave about it before.
I appreciate many things about the Hills’ fine little brewery. I respect the fact that they’ve made a go of it in a tiny town where they are admired and valued members of the community. I love the distinctive sense of place that the brewery conveys – too much of northern Michigan is kitsched up for the tourists and the Boyne River Brewery feels genuine to this northerner: just enough rough edges to the pine boards, easy going homestyle touches, nothing overstated or egregious. Michigan has a few chain pubs and marketing driven breweries, especially in the southeast Michigan area that the Hills left for Boyne City. But it also has classy, community based breweries of which this one is the epitome, a place where the brewer quietly brews what he likes to brew, for himself and for the folks around him. And this is, in retrospect, what the Boyne River brewery is all about– real ale made with deft, gentle touches for real people.