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Traverse City foodie tour offers good company and flavors

Traveling is usually about getting away from home.

But when you travel with a group of people on a bus, you find common connections and hours from home, you talk about home.

Forty of us went north on a Cardinal tour bus from Mishawaka and Elkhart to Traverse City, Mich. We went with open eyes to take in the beauty and open gullets to take in the flavors. This was, after all, a Dining A La King foodie tour.

The group left on Sunday, Oct. 19, and returned Tuesday, Oct. 21. In between, we made some new friends and tasted some new things.

As you talk, on the bus or over a meal, you find out that the brother of someone from Mishawaka used to live behind a fellow traveler from Warsaw.

Small world.

You find out that subject of a Truth story and your current breakfast tale is the cousin of the person with whom you’re conversing.

At our first stop at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids was a Goshen couple who had considered coming on the trip and happened to be on an outing in Grand Rapids.

At Right Brain Brewery in Traverse City, a man from Kalamazoo found out where we were from and asked if I knew Jim and Rachel Shenk.

The Rachel who writes for Flavor 574/The Elkhart Truth? The one who makes great bread in Goshen? The Jim Shenk who makes musical instruments?

Yep. That’s them. The man had purchased one of Jim’s instruments.

Small world.

When we put the trip together with Edgerton’s Travel Service earlier this year, we couldn’t entirely predict the fall colors. We got lucky and saw great yellows and reds throughout Michigan as we traveled. The weather was also glorious at the right times.

As we toured Meijer Gardens, it was sunny and pleasant. The displays that include cacti, mums and sculptures fed the soul.

We traveled north and, after checking into our hotel mere feet from Lake Michigan, we headed to our first tasting.

Terra Firma Brewery makes beer using some of the ingredients grown on its 10-acre farm. The brewery has lowered its water usage to about a 3-to-1 ratio, meaning that it takes three gallons of water to make a gallon of beer. Some breweries are as high as 7-to-1, said Matt Heffron, taproom manager for the brewery. Heat from the brewing process is used to heat the building. Spent grain repays the soil as it’s spread on the farmland.

I was a fan of the Man in Black American Oatmeal Stout and Hallow-Giving Honey Oatmeal Pumpkin Ale, but I brought home a growler of the Hopping Chicken Harvest Ale.

To end that first day, we headed to Right Brain Brewery where the beer was good and we had plenty of time to enjoy that or soda. The kitchen staff valiantly fought to feed 40 people, but when you’re using waffles instead of bread and you only have two waffle makers, it takes a while.

Day two started at Higher Grounds Trading Co., which was founded in 2002 as a way to help coffee growers in Mexico. Owner Chris Treter bought a pallet of beans and started the business in his home. Now his company gets beans from 11 countries and roasts and sells at The Commons.

“There’s a new way of doing business that’s happening right now and it’s tied to the ethics of a company,” he said.

Higher Grounds pays $2 a pound to the growers for their coffee. The worldwide wholesale price is far lower, but they form relationships with the growers and help them raise and educate their families.

Coffee is the second-most traded commodity in the world behind oil, said Jennifer Yeatts, marketing manager.

Hearing Treter talk about fair trade and how he supports growers around the world was interesting and inspiring, but it was also remarkable to have Yeatts make Ethiopian and Sumatran coffees using two different brewing processes.

A french press steeps the grounds in hot water for four minutes and the resulting coffee is full of its oil, which covers the delicate flavors, but produces a hearty cup.

A Chemex has a paper filter and water is poured slowly over the grounds to extract the flavors without the oils. The resulting flavors tumble and roll over your tongue.

The lesson here is that different ways of making coffee will produce different flavors. It was amazing to have two coffees result in four very different sets of flavors in the cup.

If you want a better cup of coffee at home, don’t store coffee in the freezer, Treter said. “It’s damp and smelly,” she said. Buy fresh beans and store in an air-tight container before grinding.

Next door at Left Foot Charley, Bryan Ulbrich oversees making wines from small growers near Traverse City who have a half-acre to 12 acres, according to tasting room manager Meredith Lauzo.

Ulbrich, a Purdue grad, had an awkward left foot and looked like Charlie Brown as a boy, she said. He tries to make wine that’s unpretentious and flavorful, including a range of rieslings. There’s also the cider and apple wine that are nice.

Traverse City sits along the Lake Michigan at the base of two peninsulas. The small fingers of land sticking into the lake create microclimates that have longer growing seasons than other parts of the Midwest, according to Mike DuBois at Chateau Chantal, one of the largest and oldest wineries on the Mission Peninsula.

The views from the winery and bed and breakfast are stunning. Forty acres of grapes, all European varieties, surround property. The crop is smaller this year due to the harsh winter and cold spring, but the grapes that were still on the vine were producing sugars needed for the winemaking. Our group toured the winemaking facility.

The winery is best known for its late harvest riesling but also distills and makes interesting liqueurs made with fruit and wine.

Tip: The difference between red and white wines has to do with the skins. “The only way for red wine to become red is for the juice to spend time on the skins,” DuBois said.

Traverse City and the surrounding areas have rich histories. The lighthouse, which we visited, is at the 45th parallel, which is halfway between the equator and North Pole.

The natural landscape attracted lumber barons and others in the 1800s. Mission Table was originally a mansion built by J.W. Stickney. His wife, Genevieve, committed suicide there after he left most of his estate to her nurse, with whom he’d had an affair.

She still haunts the building, though none of our group encountered her as we had dinner at what’s now a farm-to-table restaurant on the Mission Peninsula.

The group ate lovely appetizers, including whitefish dip, and salads with a cherry vinaigrette. The entrees were beautiful and prepared well. We had plates of marinated hanger steak with demi-glace and Brussels sprouts, chicken breast with bacon, mushrooms, spinach and a bit of confit chicken thigh, and lake trout with couscous, pumpkin and kale.

We had a great meal together.

Local resident Sue Stein boarded our bus Tuesday morning for a short city tour to explain the history. In this city, 80 percent of the downtown shops are owned by local residents. There are a lot of festivals, but the biggest is the cherry festival that attracts as many as 500,000 people. “Our winters are so long you want to celebrate in the summer,” she said. “We’ll celebrate anything.”

It’s no longer summer, but we felt like we’d also gotten to celebrate in this town in northern Michigan. We headed south and got to spend a few hours in Saugatuck before returning home.

Three days away was a nice break. The food and drink was good and the company was even better. Thanks to tour manager Jill Sampsel and Tom Edgerton for their work to make the trip happen. And thanks to all those who went along for the ride. It was a great weekend and I’m proud to call you friends.

Where will we go next to eat and drink? I don’t know, but it’ll be fun to dream and plan.

I’m hungry. Let’s eat.

Marshall V. King is managing editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth. You can reach him at 574-296-5805,, and on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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