Thursday, July 3, 2014

NHC Day 1-2: Michigan Bound!

This has been a summer of beer-related travel for me and I have found myself doing several long travelogues about my trips.  Hopefully this has been entertaining (and maybe educational if folks plan on going to these places...) and not just me sticking my tongue out at my readers!  Recently Sj and I drove to Grand Rapids, Michigan for the National Homebrewer's Conference.  The actual conference goes from Thursday to Saturday, but many people like us head there early for preconference events.  The location of the conference changes every year and this was the perfect excuse for us to finally visit the state of Michigan and try some of the state's fantastic breweries.  I've broken this up into days to give a feel for how the basic flow of the week was, including brewery visits, lectures, parties and other events.  I am not a lush...

Day 1: To Michigan!

Our first day started with a slightly late start (is anyone surprised?) but we were in the car and rolling before 11 AM.  We started from Waconia, MN and drove through Wisconsin, past ludicrous traffic around Chicago, through some terrible roads in Indiana, and arrived at Grand Rapids in just over 12 hours.  Driving my Camry hybrid we made the whole trip on just one tank of gas, coasting into town on fumes and having to fill up at the world's shadiest gas station.  We checked into our hotel and immediately headed out for food!

I had heard good things about the HopCat brewpub and it has been rated highly in Beer Advocate and Ratebeer.  We made a quick walk through the darkening evening, seeing the bright yellow sign loom before us like a grinning beacon to beery goodness.  I love the black cat holding a beer logo for this place!  We were greeted inside by a large banner welcoming homebrewers--good to know that the town had been warned!  We were arriving late and the kitchen was only doing a limited bar menu, but we were so hungry that we didn't want to go looking for something else.  Besides, they had a huge beer menu!  They don't really do samples, but our waitress was great and brought me a taste of each of the house beers.  Those were mostly mediocre.  The Jerk beer had an interesting array of tropical and spicy flavors, but I wouldn't drink much of it.  The Blueberry Sour was quite disgusting (coming from a sour beer lover) with hot burning acid and enteric flavor.  I appreciate the effort, but ended up ordering a cask Oak Aged Hatter from New Holland.  It was only later that I noticed the huge bottle beer list on the back of the menu!  They had pricy but very rare Belgian beers on there for up to $40!  The bar food was decent, but not light!  I had the tasty but deadly (to my heart) Crack Fries with cheese.  I really liked the vibe in this place and the staff was great, but more as a beer bar than a brewpub.  After this it was off to bed!

Day 2:  6 Breweries in 1 Day!

Day 2 began with an awful early morning coffee from the ghetto Starbucks in the Courtyard Hotel.  One of the preconference events was a Michigan brewery tour, and we had signed up for it ahead of time.  We joined a crowded bus full of homebrewers and headed out for our first stop.  The bus tour was scheduled for 4 brewery visits from 10-6, making our stops pretty fast in order to keep a schedule.

Our first stop on this trip was the Old Mill Brewpub & Grill is located in the historic 1870 Sunshine Flour Mill building, at one point the second largest supplier of buckwheat nationally.  This is a newer brewery, located between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids.  I love the use of an old building that is full of character!  The owner, Scott, was an incredibly energetic and dynamic tour guide.  He would often jump up on chairs, tables, and ladders giving his talk in a rousing voice from such precarious positions!  Honestly this guy reminded me a lot of my friend Tim Roets, who is opening his own brewery here in Minnesota soon.  The brewer, Phil was there as well, but was much more reserved.  The day we were there, they were just upgrading from a tiny 1/2 barrel brew system and installing their larger 3 barrel system.  They have a large banquet hall on the second floor that I'm guessing does well for events.  They cater and have a full kitchen as well--we did try a nice bowl of chili and a salad while there.   They had four house beers on tap during our visit including the humorously named Crazy Beaver Cream Ale, and a wonderful oatmeal stout.  We even got to tour the creepy old basement which apparently was featured on a ghost hunting TV show in the past!

Always a showman!

Second stop on our tour was Latitude 42, a newer brewery in Portage, MI.  This is in a large building with a huge bar and several seating areas.  I can tell this place was built with the intention of having room to grow and is able to fit large crowds of thirsty beer drinkers.  We were lucky enough to get a tour by brewer Scott Freitas, previously of Maui Brewing.  A bearded and friendly chap, he was kind enough to share brewing with coconut secrets with me!  A bit of Hawaii entered into the brewhouse with some tribal designs on the stainless and a stuffed bust of a hammerhead shark on the wall.  We had just enough time to order a beer sampler, but even by splitting a sampler each, Sj and I were not able to try all the beers they had to offer!  All of the beers were solid and nearly everything was dry and easy to drink, even the 9.7% Double Chin.  My favorite of their beers was the Island Fever coconut stout--light, smooth, with subtle coconut flavors.  The Mango Mama was not mango-y at all and not nearly as good as Town Hall's mango IPA of the same name.  We didn't have a lot of time here, but I enjoyed what time we had. 

Back on the bus we headed for the newly built  Arcadia Ales in Kalamazoo.  The freshly minted building didn't even have a sign yet, just the celtic knot symbol of the brewery.  The place was spacious with a long bar and plenty of high tables.  Garage style doors opened up onto a large backyard seating area and the weather was perfect for that on the day we arrived.  Somewhere, a ball got dropped since the one bartender didn't know that she would be dealing with a huge busload of  beer geeks.  Most of us were also high maintenance and wanted samplers, making for a long wait until we had drinks in hand.  While I waited for our sampler, Sj headed over the small kitchen where they were serving up some of the best BBQ ribs and pulled pork I have had outside of Missouri!

Best chandelier ever?

I had never tried their beers before, but had heard of them.  I really liked every one of their beers that I tried, but even with two samplers I couldn't try them all.  Talk about a large tap list!  Everyone loved Big Dick's English Old Ale.  My personal favorite was the Deliverance barrel aged double porter--huge and complex with a boozy but not over-the-top finish.  Later in the Michigan trip I tried their Scottish ale and would seek that one out if you can find it.

Our final official tour stop was Bell's Eccentric Café, just down the road from Acadia in Kalamazoo.  If you haven't tried some Bells beers you might just be a hermit living in a cave.  The café itself is a small tasting room with loads of old beer signs, posters, and tribal art on the walls.  The small bar serves up many Bells favorites like Two Hearted (way better fresh on tap here than when it gets to MN in the bottle).  They also have several pub only smaller experimental batches on tap.  Sj and I ordered two samplers and shared so we could try as many as possible.  Just like Latitude 42 and Acadia, we still didn't try everything!  My favorite at the time was the Experimental Hop 2014 number 2 that had a bright melon-like flavor and a light and refreshing session feel.  They also have a small kitchen to fulfill your eating needs., but I didn't get a chance to try that out.

Sj looking happy, and Tom looking thoughtful...

Just around the corner is the Bells General Store where they had homebrew supplies, beer and plenty of swag to sell us.  As usual on this jaunt, our time was fleeting and I had to almost run over here to grab a sign and some other Bells items before our bus left without me!

Our official tour was about over, minus the drive back to Grand Rapids.  The tour was fun and got us to many places, but I felt that we didn't have quite enough time in each place to really enjoy it.  I would have liked either hitting one less place or ending our trip later in the day.  One could order food at any place we went, but there was short time and no official longer "lunch time" so many of us were ordering food, getting it 10 minutes before we were supposed to leave and then snarfing it down fast.  Just a small quibble, but the trip was certainly worth it.

Brewery Vivant!

One of the other pre-conference events was a beer and food pairing "experience" at Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids.  I had not signed on for this after being burned with a similar experience at Pike Brewing during the Seattle NHC.  At that one they charged $40, ran out of food and only gave us tiny samples of beers.  In retrospect (my friend Mike took part in this tasting and said it was fantastic) I wish I had done it!  A few on our bus were running late for this event and talked our driver into making a detour for them.  Sj and I decided to hop off there too and managed to get seated in a corner table for an early dinner.  Vivant is a newer brewery that focuses on Belgian styles of varying types.    The brewery is in an old funeral parlor and the bar is actually located in the old chapel, having a cool backdrop of stained glass behind it!  When we arrived my friend Chris was at the bar talking with a brewer and I got to spend a few minutes talking to them.

I really enjoyed the beers here, though some were better than others.  The Solitude was a very dry and pleasant Abbey style beer and I ended up buying a few cans to bring home.  Their flagship beer is the Big Red Coq--a hoppy Belgian ale.  Always fun to say the name of this beer!  We snacked on duck confit nachos as we worked through our samplers, reveling in the tastes and the surroundings.  Mike eventually finished his tasting outside and we all headed out for our hotel.

On the way home we passed very close to the centrally located Grand Rapids Brewing Co.  Could we really visit 6 breweries in one day?  Never one to pass up a challenge, I pushed to get us all inside and try out the beer.  This is actually the Midwest's first Certified Organic brewery and opened in 2012.  Only later did we find out that the owners of HopCat actually own this and two other local bars.  The place is huge and well appointed.  The clientele was mostly young and hip, frat boys, and some post-work suits.  The crowd was probably somewhat bigger due to the NHC folks trickling in but I don't think there were that many of "us" in there this evening.  The place reminded me a lot of a Rock Bottom, with a slick and well-planned out look and feel to it.  We tried a couple beers but had no room left for food.  Sj had the stout that was tolerable, but fairly watery.  I had the terrible plastic tasting maibock that I certainly did not finish.  Not my favorite brewery of the day for sure.

So six breweries in one day under my belt, it was time to head home for sleep and recuperation.  It was cool trying all of these places and only one was below par.  My favorite brewery of the day was probably Vivant, but Acadia was a close second.  I loved the passion of the brewer for Old Mill and the nifty old building.

Up Next: NHC Day 3--4 More Breweries!

No comments: