Drink the Dunes with Saugatuck’s Oval Beach Blonde Ale

“Nature intended the mouth of the [Kalamazoo River] for a great city, and we think the time is not far distant when Saugatuck and Douglas will be under one incorporation. There is at present no railroad at Saugatuck, which we think was a great mistake on the part of the Chicago and West Michigan, for nature has made this place the shipping and commercial emporium of the [Michigan] fruit belt. Let the capitalists of Saugatuck watch their opportunity (now that business has revived, specie payments have been resumed and good times are assured), and their much need railroad facilities will be secured and Saugatuck assume that place in the business world which its geographical situation designed it to occupy.”

Donald C. Henderson, editor of the Allegan Journal and Saugatuck booster numero uno, in his Notes on Saugatuck in 1880.

Saugatuck certainly had a good location, right where the Kalamazoo River met the mighty Lake Michigan. Why couldn’t it one day rival Lake Michigan’s other great ports, Chicago and Milwaukee? It had only taken a decade for Chicago and Milwaukee to expand from populations of a few thousand to well over 20,000 people respectively, and now both cities were home to hundreds of thousands. Throw in a little American derring-do and it seemed anything was possible.

And indeed, following the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, Saugatuck’s lumber industry had boomed as Chicagoans bought supplies for the heroic rebuilding effort. Although Saugatuck had failed to turn that momentum into a wider industrial base by the end of the decade – when demand for local lumber finally died down – the area’s plentiful peach groves still held promise. West Michigan, Henderson figured, was ideally positioned to be the fruit basket of the heartland, with Allegan County representing the “creme da la creme of this great fruit region.” It wasn’t too late to capitalize on the investment the lumber industry had brought to Saugatuck.

But it wasn’t to be. Sure, Saugatuck’s peaches sold well enough in the Midwestern markets, but it never generated quite enough economic interest to warrant a railroad. Without that, you were small potatoes in turn of the 18th century America. Urbanization simply passed on by to the next stop, full speed ahead.

In some ways it was a blessing in disguise. No, Saugatuck never did mature into the powerhouse Henderson envisioned, but its quaint charm made it an ideal stop for vacationers from Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis, more than sustaining the local economy. The classic American storefronts, Victorian homes, and nearby beaches and sand dunes provided a welcomed escape for weary urbanites sick of the congestion and pollution in the big city.

Even today, Saugatuck is popular stop for tourists from Chicagoland and Metro Detroit, me included. The Saugatuck Dunes in particular hold a special place in my heart. It was my first sand dune, right up there with my first date, first kiss, and first beer.

Born from the eternal winds of Lake Michigan, the Saugatuck Dunes tower over the landscape, and after a steep ascent up a flight of wooden stairs, running down the side of ol’ “Mount Baldhead” has to rival what Neil Armstrong felt when he stepped on the moon. All that work, that sweat, forgotten in the giddy weightlessness of the moment, the bliss of defying gravity as you outjump Michael Jordon and tumble over into the soft sand.

Ah. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.

Now a few years older and too poor for a vacation, I hoped to recapture some of that magic with a beer, Saugatuck Brewing Company’s Oval Beach Blonde Ale. It was a lot to ask of a humble beer, but blog posts don’t write themselves, you know. I settled in with a six pack and hoped for the best.

Right off the bat, I was impressed by the way the beer poured out of bottle. It had a nice, modest head to it and a light gold color similar to Budweiser, but somehow deeper, richer. Watching the bubbles rise to the top and disappear as I held the glass in my mind, I felt my own troubles dissipate, too. The promise of the night ahead, that infinite time, expanded. Images of rolling dunes flitted in my mind.

I was more than ready for the initial ceremonial sip.

Taste-wise, the beer came off as dry and vaguely sweet, almost like a ginger ale. Modest wheat and lemon flavors rounded out the flavor profile. Not bad. Not bad at all. Breezy and playful. No, it’s not going to knock you out of your seat with intense hops or what have you, but it’s a pleasant way to drink the moon in, to let go of your surroundings and be one.

Somewhere, in the muggy haze of the third beer, I felt sorta like my teenage self, running down the dunes. Maybe I’d never be that free again, but maybe close to free is free enough.

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Saugatuck Brewing Company’s Oval Beach Blonde Ale gets 3 1/2 mittens out of 5.

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