Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Exciting News, and Less Exciting News

We'll start with the good stuff first:

We are entering Colorado's much vaunted drinking season. In this state, fall is made for lovers of malted and distilled beverages. The manic bike/camp/paddle/hike/go go go summer season is winding down, and while you may have hit the Labor Day Ski Sales, you're not hitting the slopes until mid-October (at best). No, now is the time to wind down, rest up, and prepare for lots of early mornings, cold snowy days, and long hours on I-70. What accompaniment to this transition, but a cool beverage? Thankfully, Colorado and Denver specifically have recognized this pairing, and have done their best to satisfy your needs. To wit:

1) The Denver Beer Fest: Holy Crap. Culminating in the Great American Beer Festival, the Denver Beer fest is a week long parade of non-stop beer-fueled goodness. Events by breweries large and small, local and foreign , you simply cannot go wrong during the Denver Beer Fest. Never overlook that Denver's current mayor made his fortune brewing. The Great American Beer Festival is something that everyone should attend once, because you will never see such a collection of awesome (and occasionally terrible, but always funky) beers in your life. Just don't drop your sample glass.

2) Oktoberfest: Every mountain town has their own, and having attended a few, Breckenridge consistently comes out a winner. I wish I had the words to express how great these all are. Fall in the mountains is an experience enough; pair changing leaves, a low key vibe, and good Oktoberfest beer (the one time of the year I REALLY get into Paulaner) and you'll never miss it again. Secretly, in my book this one tops Great American Beer Fest. So, not so much of a secret.

Starting this Thursday, Brandon and I are going to embark on fully exploring both these events and the local breweries that support them. Look for at least weekly updates from your humble writing staff.

Finally, less exciting news:

Our readers may have noticed that our tagline is: 'Beer, Whiskey, Bikes, and Skis'. Some reading this may accuse us of adding the last two words merely to make it look as though we aren't total alcoholics, but this isn't (quite) true. Both of us are known to hit the slopes as much as possible through the winter (and beyond), and I've been on bikes in one form or another for some time. Its worth noting today the passing of cycling legend Laurent Fignon, who died this morning. Most notably, Fignon was a two time Tour de France winner who gave it all in some of the most cut-throat days of cycling. Known for his ponytail and glasses, Fignon was nicknamed 'The Professor', but he would put the hammer down on anyone who interpreted that as weakness. As a winner of both Classics and several Grand Tours, he was a hero to many, including myself. If you are having a cold one while reading our latest post, please raise it to the Professor.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Michigan: Jolly Pumpkin Artesian Ales (Ann Arbor)

My visit to Jolly Pumpkin emerged from a lucky confluence of time, location, and necessity. I was driving to Detroit Metro Airport from Flint, by way of MBC, celebrating the arrest of the Flint Stabber along the way. Ann Arbor is only marginally out of the way, I had a late flight, and Jolly Pumpkin was on my list. I had already failed to reach Kalamazoo during this trip (and so no Bell’s). And I was stymied by an awkwardly managed Atwater Block (they are in transition right now, sure, pick up your phone or post your hours, man). I really needed a win. Plus, Jolly Pumpkin has shown up on a number of “best of” brewery lists, and anyone in my Detroit crew who had been there only had good things to say. So I fought the drive-time traffic through downtown Ann Arbor and pulled up a stool.

Sometimes breweries—like bands—produce variations on a theme. Jolly Pumpkin is such a brewery. I don’t mean this as a criticism. Their palate is sophisticated, rich, and spicy. They advertise their style as: “traditional rustic country style beers.” Everything was really enjoyable. This might be the best beer I’ve found brewed in Lower (non “Up North”) Michigan. I wouldn’t normally expect such bold brewing from a place that pays Main Street rent. Downtown breweries are generally more concerned with volume, and therefore value accessibility over creativity in brewing. Jolly Pumpkin actually brews off-site, in nearby Dexter, and uses the downtown location for tasting. This probably allows for more productive use of their pub space, which, in turn, frees them up to make more than just a pale, a blonde, and an IPA.

Final note: Eric Asimov, a wine critic for the New York Times, recently conducted a blind taste test to determine who made the best Belgian beer. 20 different beers, from the U.S. and from Belgium, were tasted. The number one Belgian beer, internationally? Jolly motherloving Pumpkin. Read the article here.

Weizen Bam Biere
. Super sour. Gets into the corners of your jaw kind of sour. Not at all subtle. Good little sting at the end. The Detroit Brewer I ran into in Traverse recommended this beer. Solid recommendation.

Beliportico. VERY woody aroma. A little darker than copper. Strong woody taste, but chaperoned by sweetness. Enjoyable grapefruit on the back end. Very sophisticated brew. I really like it, but I don’t know if I could have 16 oz of it.

IPA. Again, this beer tastes like it’s being served out of a wooden barrel; again, this is a really positive element. And again, this is a complex and interesting beer. Not too hoppy or flowery, as many IPAs are these days.

Bam Biere. Grapefruit on the back end (I sense a number of themes here). Rich and spicy taste. Bronze medal winner at GABF in 2009, according to their website.

Bam Noire. Finally, some malt. Keeps the spiciness, but ventures out from the theme unifying the first four beers. Still has that bite on the end. Still very tasty.

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Michigan: Michigan Brewing Company (Webberville)

I met my friend Katie for lunch at Michigan Brewing Company’s Webberville location, which includes a brewery, a pub, a local beer store, and “Things Beer,” a brewing supply shop. One stop shopping. The beer was good, the food was good, and the service was exactly what I expected. I went to school not too far from here, went out to eat every now and again, and the lack of formality brought back memories. It’s the kind of atmosphere where your waitress might yell over to the bartender about last night’s party at the busboy’s, while you’re giving your order. God bless you, rural Michigan.

MBC offers two different kinds of beer: MBC beer and Celis. Celis is a brand of Belgian-style beer that MBC bought and now brews. For samplers, you can get either an 8-beer or a 16-. At 3 oz. each, I figured the 8 at least gave me a fighting chance of getting home. The sampler itself was one of the best parts of my lunch. It came out on a two-tiered board with individual nameplates for each beer. Katie suggested it might be used for a game show, but I think it looks more like 8 beery choir members, or a showcase for delicious trophies. Anyway, I can’t tell you what a difference this makes over having 8 beers dropped down in front of you while the bartender mumbles the names, possibly in the right order.

MBC has been around for 4 years. Bartender told me they had moved recently, that they used to be located a little closer to the freeway. I don’t know how that would be possible; you can practically feel the semis rumble down I-96 from the dining room. This bar is bright and clean, and there’s a nice deck outside. However, as it was eyeball-meltingly hot today, I opted for a table inside.

Lastly, I owe Katie a shout-out. Anyone who drops everything (including their 2-year-old) at a moment’s notice and drives 45 minutes to buy you lunch deserves a special thanks.

Celis White. Cloudly, looks like white grape juice. Very light taste but spicy, goes down easy. Nothing objectionable about this beer.

Grand Cru. Clearer and a little heavier than the White, but similar spicy flavor.

Nut Brown. Sweet, not too malty. The nutty flavor that eventually presents itself on the back end is almost a peanut shell taste. I like it, though.

Mai Bock. Bartender recommendation, but I was not a huge fan. Tastes like a bock. Nothing special.

Pale Ale, IPA. Both pretty standard, nothing out of the ordinary.

Imperial Ale
. Fantastic. I think this is their best offering. Sweeter than the IPA, pleasantly hoppy.

Barley Wine
. Sweet, as you’d expect. Deserty. But delicious.

. This is the Kid Rock beer. I didn’t catch what his connection to the brewery was, but I know he lives (lived?) not too far from here, in Ortonville. The beer is a light American lager. It’s not bad, though Bartender was reluctant to even serve it. It is exactly what it says it is: light beer. Has a nice bread flavor, though. Not terrible. One of the other patrons told me it was his favorite beer here. He added that he usually drinks Bud Light, and this was the closest thing to that. So . . . go drink Bud Light, right? Bud Light is not beer of Kid Rock, I guess.

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Michigan: Liberty Street Brewing (Plymouth)

Liberty Street Brewing is a fascinating place. It’s the opposite of every other local brewery I’ve encountered: located in an historic enclave of an historical downtown, instead of the heart of the industrial district. Fine art on display instead of local art for purchase. Polished wood floors and area rugs instead of polished concrete. Oak paneling, granite-tiled bar and tables, bronze statues, elegantly exposed brick, stained glass on the door, a water fountain – I felt like I was in a grandly restored Victorian home instead of a brewery.

Liberty Street has been open for nearly two years now, and Bartender tells me business is good. That’s impressive news for any business in southeastern Michigan. The bartender was very chipper and helpful. The brewmaster was present and presumably available for questioning, though I did not have time to chat today. Notably missing: the bike jersey. Notably present: flies. (Hey, at least they weren’t mosquitoes.)

My favorite funny, back-visiting-my-roots moment of this trip was seeing that Baked Potato had played a local beer festival Liberty had participated the weekend before. Baked Potato is this band that some of my classmates started up in middle school. I used to have one of their tapes--it was really good. It's nice to see they have persevered.

Clementine LemonThyme (5.4%). I tried this one with cautious curiosity. Citrus fruits and herbs? I figured you couldn’t sell a beer like that unless it was awesome. And it was actually pretty good. I could taste the Clementine, the lemon, and the thyme, a unique combination impossible to ignore or forget. The official description says it is also spicy. I would respectfully disagree, and call it herby. Herbally. Herbish. The bartender described it as, “Like an Oberon, but with different flavors,” which I thought was more funny than accurate.

Naked Sunday. Belgian Tripel (11.0%). Sweetly decadent. Rich and heavy. A dessert beer, and a good one. I can see how you might have a supply of it on hand if you wanted to get someone naked on a Sunday in this conservative Metro-Detroit suburb.

Swheat Cherry Wheat (5.0%). The maraschino cherry odor smacked me in the face before I ever got the beer to my lips. I say ‘odor’ because it really wasn’t enjoyable. The flavor wasn’t any better. It tasted like watered-down maraschino cherry juice. It was brand-new when I was there. Perhaps they’ll work out the recipe in time.

Foreign Extra Stout (5.9%). Holy smoky. The smoky, woodchip flavor was loud. Loud and strong. If that makes sense. But it does kind of taper off into a nice mellowness a couple seconds after it’s out of your mouth. Not bad.

Liberty One. Their award-winning porter. Bartender tells me the award came from the slightly misnamed World Expo of Beer. The WEB is, in fact, a beer expo, but on a smaller scale than "world" would imply and offers about a tenth of the beers GABF does. Anyway, Liberty One is Bartender’s favorite. It's more subtle than most porters I’ve had recently. Not so obscenely malty; the malt is more in the background, allowing some of the other complex to get some. Good porter.

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Michigan: Founders Brewing Co. (Grand Rapids)

Beer in a barn. Founders is a huge, barn-like structure located on the outskirts of downtown Grand Rapids. The wide-open dining room is littered with tables of varying sizes and has a stage at one end, where they might have live music on any given night. Founders was not on my list of Michigan breweries, but it made more sense to stop there instead of trekking out to Kalamazoo after a long day of fighting The Man. Plus my cousin Brendan—who was supposed to trek with me that evening—talked me into staying in G-Rap with him so he could hang out with his mom. I don't mean this as a slight, but let's look at this for what it is: Brendan is 25 years old and about to start med school; he has lived in Dallas for the past few years in order to teach underprivileged urban kids and do volunteer work; he has a science degree from University of Michigan and can sight read guitar music like no one I know; and he won’t break a date with his mom. So Brendan, Aunt Beth, Uncle Fred, and I had dinner at Founders.

I did not detect any kind of underlying theme at Founders, other than being generally innovative with their beers like the other Michigan breweries. Their big seller is the Centennial IPA, which is distributed all over the state, but most of their other brews sounded experimental and interesting.

Lastly, if you are wondering about the yellow kayak hanging from the ceiling in the picture above, I have an explanation. Founders is supporting a local movement to "Bring the rapids back to Grand Rapids." Apparently the city's namesake is as rare as the Michigan wolverine. The brewery donated $50k to a local group to help turn GR into a kayaking destination. That leaves them about $9.95M shy, so please donate, unless you are hydrophobic or do not support public transportation because it threatens personal freedoms.

Centennial IPA
. This is not an intrusively hoppy IPA, but a mellow one with floral notes that kind of float along, appearing and then disappearing. Just a little honey sweetness on the front end. Very pleasant. When I asked the bartender what he recommended, this was the first name out of his mouth. Definitely has the kind of staying power that a flagship beer requires.

Red’s Rye PA. The standout flavor in this beer is celery. I’m not kidding, and I’m also not offended; somehow it works. It’s kind of like, when you’re eating a bunch of candy, and, even though candy is delicious, you really just want some carrot sticks to wash it down with, because you’re sure one more piece of candy will cause a tooth to fall out. This beer is the healthy-feeling carrot stick. Very different. Pragmatic. No nonsense. Just here to be beer. But still complex enough to be interesting. And fascinating. If I come here again, I will likely have one.

Oatmeal Stout. I honestly don’t remember much about this beer. I got to talking with my family and note-taking went to the wayside. I remember that this was the first beer I finished because I liked it so much. I know, useless. I guess if you like my recommendations in general, you’ll like this beer.

Bourbon Apple Cream Ale
. Much lighter than any bourbon beer I’ve had. Beers that get aged in bourbon barrels tend to be darker beers. The Apple Cream was light and sweet, very easy to drink. It didn’t get great reviews at Beeradvocate.com, but I liked it.

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Monday, August 9, 2010

Michigan: Right Brain Brewery (Traverse City)

I need to clear a guilty conscience. When I started this review, I was waiting impatiently at the bar, not getting served. I typed out something rather rude about this and then sat there with my screen fully exposed. That was a mistake. But I was in a hurry, there was no beer coming my way, and Right Brain has a long and tasty-sounding menu. Another patron suddenly appeared behind me, ninja-like, to likewise order beer. I shrunk my screen immediately—in the way only someone with a guilty conscience would do—but I was sure I had been busted. I had. And he was a regular. And a brewer at a brewery in Detroit. One that’s on my list, that I will be visiting later this week. Dang. The lesson here: don’t taste beer in a hurry, or as a pretentious jerk.

Anyway, I got to picking the brain (don’t know which side) of Detroit Brewer to find out what kind of beers he’s into. I love the subjectivity, accessibility, and simplicity of this question, so I tend to ask it a lot. You don’t have to be a professional to know what you like; there’s no wrong answer. But it’s also interesting to find out what brewers are drinking. Detroit Brewer mentioned Black IPAs. It’s a new category at GABF this year. He’s also really into good wheat beers. Like Oberon? Not like Oberon. When I mentioned Oberon, he just smiled broadly, like he was acknowledging a point, and then went on to say that he likes wheat beers that have a real flavor quality, or something. Sour wheats, Belgians, perhaps a saison.. The smile was the more interesting component of his answer. It said, rather plainly, that, “Oberon is loved by everyone because it is the Bud Light of craft beers.” It’s a sentiment I can appreciate even though Bell’s beers have long been the highlight of my drinking life.

Enough with the forewords. Right Brain, as the name suggests, focuses on the creative. The beers are nearly all combinations you would never find anywhere else. The taproom itself is abundant with creativity. Art lines the walls and dangles from the ceiling. They offer some good merch, including a sharp looking hockey jersey. Their mug club rack is very colorful and diverse. Evidently one of those do-it-yourself ceramics places is around the corner, so each clubby gets to decorate his/her own mug. Even the location is creative. There is a “Warehouse District” in Traverse City that is about a block long, and Right Brain managed to hide themselves deep within it. Seriously, bring your GPS.

Before I get to the beers themselves, I want to say that I really like this brewery. I like their attitude and I like their beers. Chuck will tell you that starting a brewery with 15 different beers that change all the time is a terrible marketing move. Chuck’s probably right—he tends to be. But starting a brewery with 15, rotating flavors will get me in the door every time, again and again. This approach is a definite trend (if you can have a trend across two test subjects) in northern Michigan brewing: creative, interesting beer. I hope they prove Chuck very wrong.

Black Berry Rush. The official description: “light body blackberry nose with a hop finish.” 5.15%. Very good fruit beer, hits the combination of fruit and beer just right. This is an extremely difficult to do. Refreshing, tasty, not a girlie beer.

River Raft Brown. Nutty, dry, good. Bartender did not like it much, but I thought it was very drinkable. Made for the summer, so a little lighter, and it works.

Trotsky Stout. Good, roasty stout. Nothing weird or different about this, which is unusual for this place.

TC 350 IPA. Imperial IPA, 7.8%. SO very hoppy. Nice orange-amber color. Wonderful aroma. Very floral. Delicious. Taste does not overwhelm.

Distill My Heart Bourbon Stout
. aged in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels. “Absolutely a must try!” 7.1%. Bartender described it as “really bourbony.” Aroma was amazing: sweet bourbon, almost candy-like. Tasted like it smelled, but was not overpowering like some bourbon beers. Had that nice mellow woodiness to it.

Something Bright. Description: extra pale ale for the “something light” crowd. Bartender warned me away from this one. I heeded his advice.

Black (Eye) PA. “Chocolate in the nose. Made with 6 hop varieties and infused with Amarillo hops.” 6.6%. Huge hoppiness on the nose, can’t say I got much chocolate. Not expected from such a dark beer. Has a little bit of a bite on it. Heavy on the flavor, solid maltiness. I could definitely drink a couple of these, but then I’d need something a little lighter.

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Sunday, August 8, 2010

Michigan: Short's Brewing Company (Elk Rapids)

Short’s was born and raised in Bellaire, MI, but recently opened a sprawling production facility in Elk Rapids. They still operate the brewpub in Bellaire, which is where you would normally have to go to sample the brews; there is not so much as a taproom in Elk Rapids. But today I get lucky. Through an odd series of events, I stumble onto the production facility and poke around. It turns out that, today only, and for the first time ever, they are holding “Short’s Fest.” The town has a summer festival every year called Harbor Days (Elk Rapids is a picturesque little town that sits on the East Arm of the Grand Traverse Bay), and Short’s Fest is the brewery’s participation. They have a good chunk of property cordoned off with long tables set up on one side and huge pile of beach sand in the middle. At the far end are two bars serving up 18 different Short’s brews. This is the best part quite independent of the beer. The “bars” are actually two halves of a boat, outfitted with wheels, that Short’s used as their float in the parade earlier this morning. I’ll throw a picture up so you know what I’m talking about.

Short’s is a young company (six years old this past May) that will not remain Michigan beer’s best kept secret for long. All the locals I spoke with assured me this company was about to explode, though their distribution appeared to be in-state only at the moment. But Short’s’ production and the beers themselves indicate the locals know exactly what they are talking about. To give you an idea of their production: Jack, our friendly and informative tour guide, told us the grain silo on the west side of the building holds 72,000 pounds of barley, and that Short’s goes through that supply in a month. Another production note, under the heading “You know you’re in Michigan when . . . “: some of the large brewing vats were created for that purpose, but many of them were just reappointed dairy containers.

The beers were most notably creative (on the order of Flying Dog), and secondly good. Unique flavors like Key Lime Pie and Agave Peach What were weird enough to want to sample, even if they were not all successful attempts. I did not get to try all 18 flavors since the samples came in 8 oz. glasses and I just didn’t have the time for alcohol poisoning. So I polled my table mates about a few of them, but I’m going to have to return another time to finish my research. I did notice that I generally enjoyed their darker beers more.

Agave Peach Wheat
. The color of apricot nectar and very carbonated. Not a lot of flavor, though. Mostly just tasted like a wheat beer, with very vague hints of peach. Bob, a new friend, claimed to taste some banana, but I’m pretty sure I overheard the bartender telling him this.

Black Cherry Porter. The first thing I wrote down after tasting this was “Awesome.” I even underlined it. Great combination of maltiness with sweet cherry flavor. Elk Rapids is in the region of Michigan that claims to be the cherry capital of the world. Whether it is out of obligation or because it really sells, most local food and beverage businesses will have something on the menu that involves cherries. For dinner tonight, I ate at a bistro in downtown Traverse City and had a pork chop in a dried cherry sauce. That sauce, like the Cherry Porter, was awesome. I also think cherries themselves are awesome. I should totally move here.

Locals Light. Bob’s wife—can’t remember her name—admitted that she is not a beer connoisseur and generally only drinks Bud Light. So she naturally started with the Locals Light. She was pleased; it was very reminiscent of Bud Light. That was good enough for me. I did not bother with this beer.

Pontius Road Pilsner
. Light, of course, with a medium bread flavor. Decent, but not really notable.

Plum Rye Bock
. If the Cherry Porter was the best offering today (it was), the plum was runner up. I couldn’t find a description online and I wasn’t taking too many notes at this point, but I think this was one of the barrel-aged beers. Short’s ages a few of its beers in old bourbon barrels. The Plum had that soft bourbon sting to it and a background of oaky goodness. It reminded me a little of that bourbon beer Breckenridge Brewery had out a little while ago.

Nicie Spicie
. Another beer that was reviewed by a kindly table mate. Her description: okay, better than the Key Lime.

Key Lime Pie
: I was more or less warned off this one by the Nicie Spicie reviewer. It was said to be too thick and heavy. She assured me that she is normally a huge key lime pie lover.

The Liberator
. Extremely hoppy, very strong flavor. The bartender was nice enough to pour me just a sip-sized sample, and that was all I needed. It was good, just overpowering. I could sit down and drink one and enjoy it. But it wasn’t great in the context of tasting lots of other beers.

Bellaire Brown
. Very woody, oaky taste. I heard a lot of good things about this beer. Maybe it was too built up, maybe my palette was overwhelmed by this point, I don’t know, but I didn’t think it lived up to the hype. Still, a solid brown.

Note for the Punctuation Police: Whether there is an apostrophe in their name is up for grabs. There isn’t one in their logo, as it appears on their building or on their website. But the logo on the sweet bike jersey they sell has one, as does their slogan (“Life is Short’s, drink it while you’re here.”), and they generally refer to themselves on the website that way. Plus, the company was started by a guy named “Short,” so the brewery name probably deserves an apostrophe.

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Regional Brew: Michigan

The Regional Brew series is all about surveying the craft beer of a particular area and reporting back what we find. The region could be anything from a collection of states to a single block in Ft. Collins, depending on how much time we have and how many breweries there are to cover.

This week I’m in Michigan. The best-known brewery in the state is Bell’s, out of Kalamazoo. But there are gobs of other fantastic breweries out here and, as usual, my list of targets far outweighs my free time. I need an underwriter.