"Beer in Colorado" is dedicated to that divine elixir born of the marriage of water, malt, hops, and yeast as interpreted
by those living in Colorado. Follow the author as he visits every brewery in the state, creates experimental homebrews,
attends beer festivals, tries interesting beers from around the world, and spreads the good word of beer. Prost!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Great Lake, Great Beer: Pt. 4

To read Part 3 of our Lake Michigan beer adventure, click here.

With a carload of people, Nicole and I, along with my parents, siblings, and siblings’ significant others, headed inland to “Beer City USA” AKA Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Grand Rapids calls itself “Beer City USA” because twice it won Charlie Papazian’s famous (now defunct) internet poll.  I’m not sure if winning a web-based popularity contest warrants a metro-wide rebranding, even if Grand Rapids did claim the top spot more than once.  Don’t misunderstand, I think very highly of the beers made in Michigan’s second largest city; it’s just that I also think the “Beer City USA” poll is an inexact crock and should be given little credence.  I can hardly blame the municipal government for latching onto the moniker, though.  “Beer City USA” sure as hell beats Grand Rapids’ official nickname—“Furniture City.”

Iffy though Grand Rapids’ beer accolades might be, I applaud their branding efforts.  Disregarding the “Beer City USA” poll, it remains a fine town for ale and lager.  Why shouldn’t Grand Rapids advertise that fact?  Why shouldn’t there be billboards erected hours outside city limits informing drivers of the beer destination that lies ahead?  Why shouldn’t they be proud of their brewing culture? 

Do you know who doesn’t laud their breweries with such enthusiasm?  The more obvious beer hotspots like San Diego and Denver.  I’ve seen a few brew signs go up around the Mile High City during Great American Beer Festival season but, besides that, Denver’s beer culture is implied, hardly ever stated plainly.  Why is the situation as such?  Is it because the tourism boards of San Diego and Denver focus on the more evident draws (e.g. the beaches of San Diego, the mountains of Denver) and beer just isn’t on the radar?  Are they protecting their civic reputation by downplaying the cities’ affinity for mind-altering substances?  Are they keeping beer culture hush-hush, underground, trying not to oversell it so as to retain the “cool factor” of the brewing industry?  I simply don’t know.  All I know is, driving the eastern plains towards Denver, I’ve never seen a billboard extolling my city’s strong craft community (although it does seem change is on the horizon). 

Inside Founders
Our first brewery was the biggest and most famous in the area, Founders Brewing Co.  What can be said about Founders that beer geeks don’t already know?  They’re a juggernaut of the craft beer world, they’ve got a contender in Beer Advocate’s top 10 highest-rated beers list, and it was the most recommended brewery when I asked where in Grand Rapids I should visit.  Chances are you’ve had Founders even if you don’t live in a state where they distribute (e.g. Colorado). 

My M.O. when it comes to drinking at well-known breweries like Founders is never ordering from the year-round menu.  What’s the point?  Why talk about All Day IPA when every other beer geek’s probably already had it?  I want to bring something new to the conversation.  Go small and go rare whenever you can; be a beer adventurer, take the ale less traveled by.  For me, that meant Barrel Aged Spite—a beer far removed from the flagships.

Barrel Aged Spite
I drank Barrel Aged Spite in the Founders taproom with its handsome, curved bar constructed of rustic wood.  A chili beer, Barrel Aged Spite lost much of its peppery bite from its rest in the barrel, the flavor is heavier on oak and bourbon, but it’s still an interesting, creative beer with at least a little spiciness left to tingle the tongue. 

Our next Grand Rapids brewery, while boasting far less fame than Founders, is becoming a larger part of the collective craft beer consciousness.  Collaboration with New Belgium Brewing, achievements in LEED certification, a devotion to French and Belgian ales, and a taproom built in a refurbished funeral chapel with stained glass windows, vaulted cross-beamed ceilings, and a bar shaped in a Gothic pointed arch will get any brewery some recognition and Brewery Vivant deserves every ounce of acknowledgment they accrue.

Taking our seats at a long, wooden table—one of many that outline the edges of the bar area—our group settled in with an order of frites, a charcuterie platter, and several footed glasses of fine Franco/Belgo ale.  Most notably, the sour-tinged Farm Hand saison, the aptly named Sgt. Peppercorn Rye (the titular ingredient is not to be ignored), the powerful and lavish Whisky Rooster aged in Jack Daniels barrels, and The Cheetah, a merciless Belgian strong dark ale that, with 14.2% ABV, can drop a beer geek quicker than its namesake drops a Thomson’s gazelle.  Brewery Vivant’s beers are so good they seem inspired from on high.  They don’t simply serve the beer in a holy space, the recipes are equally divine. 

Inside Vivant
Keeping the brew tour train chugging along, we finished our beers at Brewery Vivant and skedaddled to Harmony Brewing Company, a neighborhood pub-style watering hole with an interior accented with worn timber and a pleasant roadside patio with vibrantly colored picnic tables on which we staked our claim.

There was one aspect about Harmony I particularly appreciated.  Berliner Weissbiers have slowly climbed the ladder of obscurity and to the near-forefront of advanced-palate craft beers; the sour beer trend is in full swing and the revival of Berliner Weisse is partially to thank.  However, even though American brewers have resurrected the German native’s career, Berliner Weisse in the United States typically misses a key component: the syrup.  In Berlin, people traditionally order the demonymic drink with Himbeere (raspberry syrup) or Waldmeister (woodruff syrup) to sweeten and tone down the beer’s acidic sharpness.  In America, we drink Berliner Weisse straight-up, no syrup.  Syrup’s usually not even an option; brewers make the beer and omit the condiments.  Thus, when I saw a selection of homemade syrups accompanying Harmony’s Grand Jollification Berliner Weisse—juniper, strawberry, cherry, black rose tea, and probably a few more—I jumped at the chance to drink like a true German.  I went with the juniper syrup and, overall, I don’t regret my decision.  Nicole, however, has the nose of a bloodhound (in ability, not appearance) and thought the syrup/beer combination smelled like old cheese and fungal feet.  Now, I usually defer to Nicole's olfactory prowess but, in this case, I have to disagree.  I thought the juniper syrup added a refreshing coniferous flavor.  In the end, I still favor my Berliner Weissbiers “American-style.”  The syrup adds too much sugar for my liking.  What I relish in Berliner Weisse is its tartness; I’m not looking to ruin that with counteracting saccharinity.
Grand Jollification with juniper syrup
Our last brewery in Grand Rapids was Schmohz Brewing Company, situated in a drab, gray building trimmed in maroon awning.  It’s a dark, dive bar atmosphere and unrefined with its cafeteria chairs, drop tiled ceiling, concrete floors, and pinball machine in the corner.  It emits a vibe more akin to a biker bar or factory worker's pub than a craft brewery. 

Inside Schmohz
That’s not a condemnation, mind you, merely an observation.  In fact, I’d prefer if more breweries plopped their operations into dingier settings, got back to the roots of the craft beer revolution.  The industry as a whole has become too polite; it’s very nearly lost its edge.  However, when the taproom looks like the headquarters for Hell’s Angels or an illegal gambling den, it re-instills the sense of adventure once prevalent at all small brewing operations.  I admire Schmohz for retaining craft beer’s anarchistic spirit.  Not everyone must follow suit, a chic brewery here and there is fine, but I appreciate that the down-to-earth aura of craft hasn’t completely evaporated.  Also, Schmohz’s John T. Pilsner was pretty good; nothing too fancy, it’s straightforward and it gets the job done just like the building in which it was birthed. 

John T. Pilsner
That sums up Nicole and I’s Lake Michigan beercation.  We drove back west, stopped in cooler-than-you’d-think downtown Omaha to enjoy the rooftop patio at Upstream Brewing Company, and finally arrived back in Denver.  We had ourselves a rollicking good time skirting along the shoreline, visiting great Midwestern cities, and partaking in local beer but, no matter where we go, we’re happy to hang our hats in Colorado.  It’s our home.  It’s where our favorite beers are made.  It’s where we want to end up at the end of any journey.  I credit the Lake Michigan area for its undeniably vivacious beer scene but nothing can tear me away from my Rocky Mountain brews.  


Upstream in Omaha
Schmohz lacks a bit in subtlety
Case in point

Monday, September 8, 2014

Great Lake, Great Beer: Pt. 3

To read Part 2 of our Lake Michigan beer adventure, click here.

With a view like that, who cares about the house itself?
Having crossed the sixth state line of our beercation, Nicole and I finally arrived in Grand Haven, Michigan, where we’d spend a week celebrating my parents’ 40th anniversary with sun, surf, and suds.

We—including my parents, my two sisters and their boyfriends, my brother and his wife and kids, and my two maternal aunts—stayed at a rental property located in the cul-de-sac of a long, snaky road that wound through the dunes and past impressive beach homes all with commanding views of Lake Michigan.  Like so many of the houses on that secluded stretch, our domicile was massive; built atop a hill, surrounded by woodlands, shoreline adjacent (via a steep, sandy downhill), and featuring a pool, our place was a palace—a very tacky palace. 

Enjoying the beach
Everybody agreed the size and location of the house was primo.  The décor, however, left much to be desired.  The black, white, and red color scheme, akin to a cold and emotionless modern art gallery, was anything but homey.  The cavernous main floor with nary a soft surface echoed like a high school gymnasium; each toe dragged across the concrete floor screeched like a Chihuahua at the vet’s office.  Privacy was clearly not a priority during construction, either, as bath tubs sat before large, curtain-less windows, balconies and toilets were separated by nothing but clear panes (again, curtain-less), and most of the bedrooms had glass doors with curtains—sheer, see-through curtains.  It was an exhibitionist’s playground and a family vacationer’s hell.  Overall, the place exuded the ambiance of somebody with a lot of money and no taste; it looked like a house in which the snooty neighbors in Christmas Vacation might live.

Odd Side's taproom
We overlooked those obvious deficiencies, though, when we overlooked something else: the vastness of the lake from our soaring perch among the trees.  The beer made us all more forgiving, too.  Most of the time, the family and I imbibed poolside or lakeside because that’s what the trip was all about—relaxing, lounging by water, and drinking copiously.  But, Grand Haven and nearby Spring Lake are both homes to craft breweries and, being so conveniently located, their siren call was enough to coax us from our private retreat and into their public taprooms.
A touch insensitive (but funny)

Odd Side Ales sits across the street from the Grand River channel and is located in an old piano factory that’s since been turned into a multi-tenant shopping and dining center.  Its taproom uses light sparingly; with worn-wood floors and timbered pillars and ceilings, even the beaming summer sun had a hard time penetrating this dark alcove.  It’s a decidedly rustic, non-modern, and convivial space.  Juxtaposing Odd Side’s traditional charms were vivid beer posters advertising tongue-in-cheek, pop-culture-referencing, and mildly-offensive labels: Morningwood Stout, Oh, Me So Hoppy to Wheat You (billed as “A derisious wheat ale with a hoppy finish that lingers long time!”), Bean Flicker Blonde…etc.  If you don’t understand why these are funny/uncouth, look them up on Urban Dictionary—I already had to explain them to members of my family and I’d rather not relive the experience.  Do your own research.  

Like, a whole bunch of Odd Side beers
Many, many flights were downed at our table so it’s hard to remember details on any particular beer.  I recollect Wheatermelon, a spritzy and refreshing watermelon wheat beer, Mayan Mocha Stout, a thick and luxurious dark beer, and the Pineapple IPA.  Even if the specifics evade me, I don’t remember being disappointed by anything at Odd Side.  

Old Boys’ Brewhouse, the other brewery in the area, resides on the tip of a peninsula jutting out into the braided, meandering Grand River.  Only 1.8 miles from Odd Side, Old Boys’ was actually the closest brewery to our rental property even though it’s technically in a different town.

Approaching Old Boys’, I felt both over and underwhelmed.  The stilted grain silo and cavernous three-story vestibule kept my eyes turned upwards as if I were entering a cathedral.  On the other hand, I couldn’t shake a feeling of mundaneness; yes, it’s a big entrance but it’s basically a blank brick wall with a few windows.  Immense though Old Boys’ might be, it’s featurelessly immense.  Plus, I realized after spotting the bone-shaped logo, Old Boys’ is another dog-themed brewery.  Can we please, as the collective brewing community, stop doing that?  I love dogs but naming your brewery for the family pet has been done to death.  It’s passé.  It’s trite.  It’s not original and it ensures you’ll blend in with the herd rather than stick out.  Just quit it.  When The Onion has enough fodder to satirize craft brewers for uncreative canine appellations then that’s a pretty good indication the trend is over.  Old Boys’ was founded in 1997, before the practice became rampant, so I’m actually going to give them a pass on this one; it might have been a novel idea in the late 90’s when they first opened.  All you new breweries, though?  Keep Fido out of it.

Old Boys' patio
Nicole and I sat on Old Boys’ back patio and my opinion of the place became increasingly more positive.  The patio’s laid out near an expanse of lawn terminating at the river’s edge.  A boardwalk skirts the banks and leisure boats putt-putt through the narrow strait, headed for the docks on either side of our little protuberance of land.  The overall atmosphere is not unlike that found at a mid-level country club.  I felt I ought to be wearing a knitted white vest, tennis shoes, and a visor.  Can we get a croquet set over here?   

My interest was further piqued as I perused the beer menu.  Wow!  I wasn’t expecting such advanced beers; from the ho-hum exterior, I’d assume Old Boys’ merely brewed the standards—IPA, amber, a non-confrontational stout or porter, and a lighter offering—usually a wheat.  Basically, I predicted gateway craft beers, nothing unconventional.  Surely, these brewers don’t cater to radical palates and yet, there they were in front of me: Irascible, an American wild ale aged in Bourbon barrels with Michigan-picked cherry juice added, The Flapjacker, a maple syrup-infused brown ale, Magnum Breakfast Stout, a hefty beer showcasing Sumatran and South American coffee and Ugandan vanilla beans, and several more Nicole and I didn’t have the alcohol-tolerance to order (we had to drive home, after all). 

Left to right: Irascible, The Flapjacker, & Magnum Breakfast Stout

Old Boys’ is truly old at 17 years—a geezer by craft beer standards—but it can be taught new tricks; there’s nothing weary about Old Boys’, their beer is fresh, experimental, and young at heart.  To them I say, “Good boy!  Stay (in business)!” 

Old school dune buggy
As I mentioned earlier, the majority of the week centered on drinking at home, floating in the pool and lake.  We even visited the city beach but the wind was ferocious and nobody wanted to stay very long (here’s a tip for drinking at the beach where alcohol is technically not allowed: bring craft cans because the high school kids who enforce the beach laws are only accustomed to big domestic brands; they won’t immediately comprehend the design of, say, Sun King Brewery’s Sunlight Cream Ale unless they get a really close look at it).  We took a few other excursions to ride the dunes at Silver Lake and to boost Nicole’s roller coaster count up and over the 100 mark at Michigan’s Adventure where a perennial favorite, Shivering Timbers, has been thrilling guests since 1998.  It was on our final day when we really got into the craft beer groove.  Driving an hour east to the state’s premier craft beer city, we arrived in Grand Rapids and visited four of their esteemed breweries.

But we’ll get to that in a later post.



Odd Side's wall of beer posters