By Brian Spencer
In a sea of anonymous Michigan strip malls — faceless dry cleaners and auto parts shops, hair salons and takeout Chinese joints named “China House” and “Chop Suey” — a graying gentleman named Rocky is perched on a stock ladder, rearranging liquor bottles at Beer Baron, one of hundreds of Michigan party stores located within shitty strip malls in a somewhat shitty part of town. Across the way, the old Livonia Marketplace mall, and a few blocks down Clarenceville Middle School, which I once visited, twentysomething years ago, by school bus, for a middle-school basketball away game.
Now 35, driving a
tin can rented Nissan Versa, and on the hunt for Michigan craft beers, a quick online search (“best craft beer shop michigan”) has led me to Rocky and his party store. As I say, it doesn’t look like much from the outside; it looks like a Michigan party store. Project pictures of 100 different convenience stores from 100 different countries on a big wall and I could without fail pick out the one from Michigan, but describing them is something else entirely. You know them when you see them, and when you see them, you really don’t see anything but the beer or smokes or liquor or scratch-off tickets that are inside.
Indoors, Beer Baron looks like — you got it — an old Michigan party store. There are liquor bottles jammed onto shelves behind a long checkout area (if that’s what you want to call it), snacks, racks of wine bottles, lottery tickets; the only thing missing from 20 years ago are the baseball and hockey cards my middle-school friends and I would sometimes steal, sometimes purchase. The one key difference: a jackpot of craft beer. If there’s a craft beer rainbow in Michigan, this is the pot of gold at the end of it.
I’m not sure where to begin. Like a bottling line on pause, the shelves at Beer Baron are tightly packed with as many bottles that’ll fit. Grouped together here by country of origin, there by state of origin, here by bottle size, there by beer type, the selection is dizzying, interesting, somewhat eclectic, and very local. Founders, Arbor Brewing, Dark Horse Brewing, Saugatuck Brewing, Odd Side Ales, New Holland Brewing, Atwater Brewing, Short’s Brewing, Motor City Brewing, Jolly Pumpkin — someone said that Michigan has the second-most microbreweries of any state in the country (which I don’t think is true?), and a sizable chunk of them are represented at Beer Baron. If you have a favorite that isn’t, the staff will apparently do as much as possible to fix that.
“This is amazing. And coming from Singapore, where we don’t have anything like this at these prices… I honestly feel like a kid in the candy store. I might be a minute.”
Genuinely pleased, Rocky comes down from the ladder and thanks me for saying so. “Well, look at this, look at this.” He walks over to the cash register and pulls a sheet of paper out of a thick stack; it’s a black-and-white printout of an article that appeared in DRAFT Magazine about two years ago that names Beer Baron as one of the 10 best craft beer bottle shops in the country. He’s beaming, like a grandfather pulling out pictures of grandkids from his wallet.
He walks me across the store to the cooler door, which is plastered with other taped-up articles singing Beer Baron’s praises, and points to one from CBS News; Beer Baron is at the top of a list of Michigan specialty booze stores. “You see this one, this one was on CBS. They have other ones here…” (he silently traces his finger along their names) “… but we’re the only ones that made the national story.”
Rocky tells me that it was with the help of his two sons — one an architect, the other a former owner of a now-closed small grocery store in New Hudson — that Beer Baron essentially became the Beer Baron by shifting focus to craft beers some four years ago. The shop itself has a history dating back to 1945, then a meat market called Country Style Market located just down the road from its current location.
It moved here in 2000 and became Beer Baron in 2008, a “beer store with wine and liquor, not a wine store with beer.” Business is booming; Rocky says he’s now shipping outside of the state and that most of his customers come from “above 10 Mile.” (That last bit is only relevant to metro Detroiters, a populace that seems to know every road, and the roads that you should take to best get to that road, like the back of their Michigan-shaped hand.)
My sources say the prices at Beer Baron are somewhat higher than your average party store stocking craft beer — and it’s amazing to see just how many have jumped on the bandwagon in recent years — but I found them quite reasonable. The shop claims to have the largest “build your own six pack” section in the metropolitan Detroit area, which is a perfect option for sampling the myriad beers lining these shelves; the bonus is that all custom six-packs are discounted by 15-percent. Most Michigan 12-ounce bottles range from $2.50 – $4; the total for my two six-packs with tax was $33, including a somewhat pricier bottle of Ommegang Hennepin (New York). That’s not bad in my book.
Beyond Michigan craft beers you’ll also find a deep selection of domestic and international imports: Rogue, Stone Brewing, Mikkeller, Ommegang, Brooklyn Beer, etc.; there are far too many to list. A number of seasonal beers are displayed near the cash register, and to help further guide you through the maze, small Beer Advocate signs are hung under those with particularly high scores from the craft beer bible.
Hallelujah, craft-beer brothers and sisters: salvation is in a shitty strip mall.
Beer Baron is located at 19610 Middlebelt Rd., just south of 8 Mile, in Livonia, MI. 248-987-6563. Mon – Thu 10am – 9pm; Fri – Sat 10am – 10pm; Sun 12:30pm – 7pm.
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