Happy Winter Beer Fest, Michigan. Even the sun came out to play.
It’s winter in Michigan, which means the only real thing to do is drink beer and eat food. In keeping with such expectations, I hit the road down south (45 minutes south) to Kalamazoo to check out some local breweries on a recent Tuesday.
Rupert’s Brew House is located just off Main Street in Kalamazoo, MI. It has a hole-in-the-wall vibe created by dim natural afternoon light that filters in through windows that line both walls. It’s cozy. On one side, an exposed brick wall hosts a fireplace. On the other side, deep burgundy walls and draped fabrics add texture and warmth.
The most notable decoration in this place, however, is a mastiff great dane named Captn Stooby. He makes his presence known by calmly greeting all comers and then settling back in by the fireplace. He also makes his appearance in the brewery logo and in various beer names.
In business for slightly over a year, Rupert’s focuses on beer production over food. There is a BYOF (Bring Your Own Food) policy, though there are some salty snacks available in house.
Rupert’s has live music six days a week. In particular, Tuesday nights are Jazz Jam nights, Wednesday nights are open mike, and on Thursdays, all pints are $3.50. They also boast a new line of house-made liquors.
In order to get a real grasp of what Rupert’s has to offer, I just decided to try it all.
It quickly became apparent as customers came in throughout the afternoon that the Peanut Butter Stout was a house staple. I have to admit, I was quite partial myself. This beer led with a peanut butter scent. It was sweet while being lighter in body. Malts contributed to the flavor by providing a platform but were not too over-poweringly roasty.
I found myself liking the Double High IPA. A well-rounded IPA with piney and citrus hops, the Double High was also rich in sweetness with an almost syrupy texture. With a clear golden color, it’s also pretty to look at.
Remember how I said that Captn Stooby showed in many different places in Rupert’s? He also has a beer named after him. The Mastiff Drool Stout is a solid choice for a cold day. The nose is predominantly chocolatey with a light body and slightly smoky malts.
Finally, the M-43 Porter was definitely the sweetest beer I had at Rupert’s. There was a good roasty-chocolatey flavor paired with a lighter body.
My visit was punctuated by a great conversation with my bartender, Anna. Her enthusiasm for the brewery made it easy to relax and enjoy a beer. Between the embracing atmosphere and the tasty beverages, Rupert’s Brew House is a must-stop in Kalamazoo.
Beer to try: the Multigrain Mutt. It was perhaps the most sessionable beer that I had. It gets its name from the oats and rye with which it is made. There was a light dried fruit flavor supported by a backbone of rye, all surrounded by a delicious creamy, smooth mouthfeel.
As threatened, I am back in action in 2014. I’ll admit: it hasn’t been easy. As I’m sure you’re all aware, there hasn’t been a day in 2014 when there wasn’t any snow on the ground. Nevertheless, there comes a time when you have to admit that humans simply weren’t genetically-engineered for hibernating and, since it’s unlikely that the frozen precipitation is going to end any time soon, you have to thumb your nose at Mother Nature and go about your business, Michigan-drift style.
And so my boyfriend and I arrived at the appropriately-named Mitten Brewing Company, intrepid explorers in the northern wilds that is Grand Rapids under a foot of snow (it’s actually more likely that cabin fever fueled this expedition than any sort of adventurous inclination).
The Mitten is the current resident in a space that used to be Engine House No. 9, a firehouse that dates back to the early 1900’s. Owners Chris Andrus and Max Trierweiler kept it classy and maintained the historic look of the interior. Exposed brick walls encircle the taproom floor, the garage doors remain, incorporated into the front wall, and the original fire pole still stands near the front of the brewery. Andrus and Trierweiler are ardent Tigers fans, and it shows; seats from the original Tiger Stadium sit in the waiting area. This all makes for a casual, comfy spot that’s welcoming for all ages.
Being only slightly peckish, we didn’t opt for large amounts of food during our visit. I had been looking forward to trying the caramel corn, as I hear that it’s fantastic, but all I can report with certainty is that other people like it. Instead, we opted for peanuts and a beer sampler. Other menu options include a thin crust pizza preceded by a host of bar-appropriate appetizers.
My first beer was the Big Train Strong Ale, light mahogany in color with a little bit of a citrus hops scent that doesn’t overpower in the taste. A smooth mouthfeel carries most of this beer, making it very easy to drink.
The Black Betsy Coffee Stout has bold coffee notes (that sound amazing as I finish this post at 6am) and sweet, dark fruit flavors that finish off with roasted malts. The light body makes this stout both flavorful and sessionable.
The Raspberry Hard Cider was a little more interesting. A strong raspberry scent confirms the fruit content. The cider is very sweet and reminded me more of a jam than a cider.
The Mitten is the kind of neighborhood pub atmosphere that you want to visit on a weeknight to grab a pint with friends. With TVs set up at strategic locations it’s also the perfect place to catch the game- just like the owners intended. Like all of Grand Rapids’ breweries, it adds a unique flavor to the local beer scene.
Beer to try: Death to Flying Things. How should you cope with Michigan’s brutal winter? By drinking lots of really dark beer made in Michigan. The Death to Flying Things is just that- an Imperial Stout aged in a bourbon barrel. Expect dark fruits, vanilla tones, and a strong roasty finish. It may not melt the snow, but it will put hair on your chest.
I’ll admit that my first experience of Harmony, shortly after they opened, was less than dazzling. Like a lot of breweries that have opened in the past couple of years, original supply fell drastically short of demand and, as a result, the beers left to be drunk upon my arrival were not the greatest. However, I’m happy to report the selection this episode was much more satisfactory.
Harmony is located just off a busy intersection in Eastown, Grand Rapids, folded in behind a Subway. Harmony was put together with elbow-grease and love out of an old liquor store that had long since seen its glory days. It’s a small, simple space without much ornamentation.
I visited on a blustery Sunday night, perfect for indulging in one of the few mitigating factors in Michigan winters: beer. (On a complete tangent: winter seems to have arrived exceptionally early this year and I’m not quite sure I’m ok with it) It was quiet with only a few other guests. We perched on a high table next to the kitchen door, where we could see the wood fire stove wherein the pizza is cooked.
Speaking of pizza- they have it. And it’s amazing. In fact, it was recently named in the top 5 best pizzas in the state of Michigan. It’s made Neapolitan-style, which, for all you pizza-aficionados out there, is the ancestor of the modern-day pizza. The pizza is a flat crust and cooked at 700 degrees for just 90 seconds. The finished product ranges from the ultra-traditional margherita to the hog-heavy crispy pig, a pie loaded with prosciutto, pepperoni, ham, mozzarella, and a little bit of basil to lighten it up.
They have some other victuals to balance out the menu selections, which is definite plus for someone like me, who loves to eat and drink all at the same time (Of course, I just love to eat all the time too). There’s a whole passel of sandwiches, soups, and salads. All sections of the menu are pretty balanced to please all palates: there are many meat-laden selections for the eaters of flesh, as well as dishes of the garden variety for those less inclined.
The first beer to try was the Crossroads Rye PA, a mildly hoppy ale. It features a slightly piney scent that follows with piney and bitter hops flavor. I thought the rye was a very subtle flavor in this light ale. For the IPA lover, maybe a little mild. For the non-IPA fan, it’s worth a shot. And, for the mushroom connoisseur, pair the Rye PA with the Good Earth, a pizza pie topped with spinach, mushrooms, jarlsberg cheese, carmelized onions, and basil.
I was surprised- in a good way- by the Gingerbread Man. You may have already guessed it, you crafty beer lover you, but this beer tastes like gingerbread. If Christmas was a perfume, I’m pretty sure it would smell something like this. Nutmeg and ginger tones begin this scent, and the ginger really cares through the taste. There’s a good level of carbonation, making it light and crisp on the palate. A hops burst on the end of the sip makes this beer surprisingly not too sweet. I’ve had a number of Christmas beers that were just plain too syrupy, so this was a refreshing alternative.
Gotta admit, seeing grapefruit in the name of a beer put me on edge- beers featuring this astringent fruit can be exceedingly bitter and/or sour and not in the good way. Never fear, beer fans, the Grapefruit Moon Shandy is neither of those. Instead, this beer has a pleasant, smooth mouthfeel and slightly sweet grapefruit flavor. The tingle of hops just pops in the after taste.
The Brownson is a classic brown ale, perfect for sipping while staring at the falling snow and dreaming of warmer climes. There’s a nice malt backbone complimented by a dark fruit flavor. It’s a solid winter beer, but at 6% it can’t quite be sessionable.
I suppose at some point here I should mention that I had a great experience. The beer was great, the food delectable, and the service fantastic. It’s hard work to find a place that manages to balance all three components of a great beer drinking session, but I’d say Harmony nailed this one. Prost, to a job well done.
Beer to try: The Daydream Believer was a thoroughly satisfying coffee flavored beer. Much like that black cup o’ joe you clutch in the morning the tantalizing scent of roasted beans wafts away from this dark wonder. A roasted malt provides the base, followed by layers of bold coffee and lingering dark fruit end notes. This lovely creation pairs well with roasted nuts.
So, initially when I had to go on hiatus, I was pretty upset. It felt like waving the white flag, sticking my head in the sand, backing down when I am the first to admit that I am one of the most stubborn, hard-headed people out there. Visiting all of Michigan’s breweries in one year? That’s sort of a life time badge of Bad Ass. However, when I was forced to slow down to focus on keeping my health intact, I realized something else: Michigan beer is not a one-year sprint. The major reason I became so interested in Michigan beer is for the community that goes hand in hand with the product. Beer is yeast and water and malt and hops and people and food and places. At first I kind of told myself this to placate the foiled blogger, but then the idea took hold and I grew to like it. All that is to say, Year of Beer is back in business. I still plan to visit all of the breweries in Michigan, it just might take me a couple years instead of one (because I’m pretty sure about 10 breweries opened up while I was MIA).
Every year around this time I start asking myself why I live in Michigan. No amount of hot apple cider or hot chocolate can cancel out a Michigan chill once its settled into my bones (unless I turn up the heat in my apartment to 75, which would likely be justification to file for bankruptcy after about 5 days). And then there’s the snow, which inhibits my ability to run. Even worse than the snow is the eternal capacity of the average person to drive like a moron once a snowflake touches the ground. In short, I hate winter.
The only caveat to a Michigan winter is a Michigan stout. While it may not result in a shoveled driveway, there are few things that make me feel better in winter than a full-bodied, deeply malty beer. Now that it’s over a week into November (exactly when that happened, I’m not sure), breweries are churning out the dark beers in full force. And what better way to kick off (again) Year of Beer than to visit Bell’s Eccentric Cafe in Kalamazoo for All Stouts Day?
Bell’s Brewery is roundly credited as pioneering the Michigan craft beer scene. Nowadays, Bell’s is well-known for producing a spectrum of beers, from the beloved Two Hearted Ale to annually-anticipated Oberon, but it wasn’t always like that. Bell’s began from the most humble of beginnings- a home brewing supply store in 1983 and sold its first commercial beer in 1985. It wasn’t for another 8 years until Bell’s opened Michigan’s first on-site pub in 1993. Since then, Bell’s story has been one of expansion. In 2003 a a large production facility opened in Comstock. Bell’s is now a household name in Michigan and 19 other states. The best part, though? Bell’s Eccentric Cafe still uses the original equipment that founder Larry Bell brewed on more than 20 years ago.
Sunday’s epic journey begins with five friends piling into a mid-size sedan at 10:45 on a Sunday morning and putting the rubber to the road. Our intrepid inebriates arrived at Bell’s Eccentric Cafe with time to spare (11:40) but were not the first to arrive. Fortunately, it was a stunningly beautiful day and queuing outside was no difficulty. At precisely 12pm the front doors yawned open and the tide (of about 50) people surged forth.
The interior of the Eccentric Cafe is just that- eccentric. The first room to the left features hardwood floors under an assortment of long, short, tall, square tables, each a little different from the rest. Sturdy brick walls are required to hold up a variety of masks, clocks, and other objects that one can hang on a wall. Its a space designed for conversation, open-minded people, and really good beer. Once inside we established ourselves at a long table and then got in line to order. A very important strategy when attending beer events (especially of the dark, malty, high ABV variety) is to bring a friend. There were 22 stouts on tap on Sunday and while I refuse to actually make a decision and limit myself to just the 6 beers in a sampler, I know that I am incapable of drinking 24 tastings of heavy beers. Our game plan was simple: four of us teamed up to order 6 of the 22 beers in a sampler for ourselves (doubling up on the barrel-aged) so that we could all share. It worked out great.
Bell’s Black Note is like the greaser hanging out by the dumpster behind the school, smoking a cigarette instead of combating childhood obesity in gym class; you know shouldn’t like him because 11% alcohol will knock you off your feet before you realize what’s happened but you just can’t help yourself. And falling just feels so good. This isn’t the first time I’ve had Black Note, but I was just as excited to try it again. With deep chocolate undertones, a smooth mouthfeel, and lingering notes of dried fruit all wrapped in a bourbon barrel, this bad boy will linger on your palate and leave you swooning.
Every family needs a holiday Grinch and I enthusiastically embrace that role in my own (Mostly because not even if Hell froze over, pigs flew, and Republicans and Democrats reconciled their differences and got to work- all in the same day- would there ever be a reason to play Christmas songs before Thanksgiving. Never.). That being said, Harry Magill’s Spiced Stout is Christmas in a pint glass and I have no regrets. In terms of body, it fits right in the middle of the range. Notes of nutmeg and ginger spice up this malt-forward beverage. Its so good it almost makes me want to deck the halls with boughs of holly. Almost.
A final highlight from the day was the Cherry Stout. With a subtle rather than robust-in-your-face chocolate malt body, the Cherry Stout was a nice breather from some of the heavier stouts we tried on Sunday. Made with real Michigan cherries, there is no sickly-sweet candy cherry flavor in this beer; instead, its a tart pucker on the end of a smooth taste.
Another important strategy to stave off a drunken stagger is to eat and beer events usually have rich, delicious food in spades. For all Stouts Day, Bell’s had a special menu laid out. I had the lentil loaf (made of lentils, carrots and rice) with mashed potatoes and mushroom shallot-stout gravy. It was the perfect hearty, earthy answer to the decadent chocolicious tones touted in many of the stouts. Also on the menu: Lamb Shepard’s pie (a delicious mass of lamb, mashed potatoes, and assorted vegetables), seafood stew, and a Smoked Turkey Leg with stout glaze (judging by the size of it, I’d say that turkey was on enough steroids to win the Tour de France 7 times in a row).
We returned to Grand Rapids tired, full, slightly tipsy, and thoroughly please with ourselves after a hard day’s drinking. Year of Beer is back, baby.
I know it’s been a while since I posted or visited a brewery and I guess it’s time to explain why. Since earlier this summer I’ve been dealing with some pretty tough gastrointestinal problems. I’ve done a number of tests and consultations and managed to rule out a number of pretty serious things, but I still don’t have an answer. The newest course of action has me on an incredibly restrictive diet that allows for a small variety of food. In order to see if this will be effective, I need to maintain this diet for several months.
The good news is I can still have 12oz of beer a day (yay beer!). However, that’s a pretty small amount and makes it very difficult to actually enjoy a brewery visit. It’s a really tough decision, but I’ve decided to indefinitely suspend my Year of Beer quest (Suspend- not end! Never give up, never surrender!).
I want to say thank you to everyone, because, really, you’ve been awesome. I’ve loved the support from everyone and the companions who have joined me in my adventures. Also, I’d like to say a big thank you to the breweries for everything they’ve done to support my adventure. I still love the MI beer culture and I’m excited to return to it in the future.
Despite being a new kid on the block, Right Brain Brewing Company has already garnered quite the reputation for off the wall beers that somehow manage to both bend credulity and taste good. Some of the more notable off-the-wall batches include the Pie Whole (brewed using whole pies from Grand Traverse Pie Company) and the Mangalista Pig Porter (which uses real pig heads and apparently tastes like “bacon in a bottle”). Of course I was quite obliged to stop by on my (somewhat) recent visit to Traverse City. There I met up with Tim, a fellow AQ alum, former history study-er, and all-around nice guy. While there I managed to snag a little bit of time with Grant, the Operations Manager.
Maybe the best place to begin explaining Right Brain is with the new location, which is at 225 East 16th Street in Traverse City. It’s a little off the beaten path, so don’t be alarmed or dissuaded in your quest if you find yourself straying from the tree-lined downtown and amid clapboard homes instead. Right Brain has only been titillating customers with eccentric brews from the 16th Street location since Labor Day of 2012. The bar is housed in what used to be a factory that made trim moldings. (I never knew trim molding was made in factories, but I suppose it does need to be made somewhere.) In a massive team building project, staff and community members constructed the magnificent quirkiness that is now the Right Brain taproom over summer 2012.
The owner of Right Brain, Russell, didn’t always own a brewery renowned for bending the rules and creating off the wall brews. In fact, he used to be a barber. He started brewing on the side and quickly became known for his creative products. As word spread about his beer, demand multiplied until, finally, Russell decided that he should open a facility that could handle public need.
Back to the taproom, however. Not only the beer is directed by Russell’s inventiveness; when Russell decided to open a taproom, he wanted to make sure it was a community center and not just a watering hole. For that reason, there are no TVs, no smoking, and no food (Nonetheless, there are some small snacks available and recent acquisition Chef Mike is adding some interesting victuals. Like waffle sandwiches.), all endeavoring to create an atmosphere ripe for conversation. The decor is a mix of brilliant hues, non-matching seating set-ups, and local artwork. The walls are bright solid hues presided over by a tall ceiling.
Right Brain distribution has grown by leaps and bounds since opening the new facility and they plan to add one more option for their far away fans; cans. Coming to a beer distributor near you (soon), Right Brain plans to distribute at least the Willpower in cans. To take on this new part of business, they plan to use the mobile canning line that has been making its rounds throughout the great Mitten state.
While I was visiting I made sure, with Tim’s help, to sample quite of a few of the beers available (I didn’t want to place restrictions on my experience). The first of many was the Flying Squirrel, a creamy brown ale with a full body. It has a slight coffee aroma and delicious chocolate malt undertones. I enjoyed it at the time, but sitting in my 80 degree apartment, I have to advise on drinking in the fall, rather than during the height of Michigan humidity.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with the CEO Stout, which was voted favorite stout in Michigan in a recent Drink Michigan poll. It’s produced from a proprietary blend of beans from Great Northern Roasting Company that only go into the stout. The coffee flavor is perfectly balanced with malts and spares the drinker from an overpowering roasty flavor that is the bane of a many a coffee-flavored ale.
While I was visiting, the Spear Beer was on tap. If you haven’t heard of this offbeat brew by now, prepare to have your mind blown. Every year Right Brain get 80 pounds of the first batch of asparagus from Norconk Farms and they dump it all in a batch of beer they call the Spear Beer. Though I initially tried for the novelty factor, I enjoyed it. It was crisp and refreshing while maintaining a good roasted asparagus flavor. And yes. It did make my pee smell.
The Looping Owl is the drunken 10 weeks-aged version of the Northern Hawk Owl Amber Ales, one of Right Brain’s signature beers. The Looping Owl maintains the caramel and nutty tones that make the Northern Hawk Owl so delicious, but adds enough whiskey from the aging to be present and not crush the rest of the flavor. A creamy mouthfeel makes this beer a pleasure to gulp down.
Whether you’re an adventurous beer drinker or someone who just enjoys a quality beverage and good company, Right Brain is a destination of choice. With a fun, quirky atmosphere and a staff who aim to please (and achieve said goal), it’s well-worth the trip. If that’s not enough to convince you, there’s always between 15 and 25 deliciously strange beers on tap, so odds are you’ll find something you like.
Beer to try: The Hundred Horses. This medium body beauty features everything I want in a malt-forward beer. With sweet malts and distinct chestnut flavor, this beer is a must-try.