Monday, July 7, 2014

NHC Day 3: 4 More Michigan Breweries!

Day 3 of our trip to Michigan for the 2014 NHC started way too early in the morning for me!  Sj and I had to grab coffee and head down to a different hotel lobby and meet up with our second bus tour group.  This group was a little bigger and was going to take us to four of the bigger breweries in Michigan.  No problem, we had done 6 breweries yesterday, we could handle four more!

Our first stop was to be at Jolly Pumpkin in Dexter, Michigan, about a 2 hour drive from Grand Rapids.  The brewery has only recently moved locations and does not currently have a tasting room at the brewery itself.  We were actually to be their first official tour and since they were still working on things they did not want us to take pictures.  As a result I have no visual proof I was there, but plenty of good memories!  Since they were not able to serve us beers, our tour guides poured us small samples (for a $5 fee) into plastic cups.  Anyone who has had Jolly Pumpkin beers before knows that they are quite effervescent and combined with a moving vehicle and small cups this process got messy!  We sampled some foamy cups of these great sour and wild ales as the bus continued the trek to the small town of Dexter.  When we arrived in town our bus suddenly slowed as it neared a low arched stone bridge.  Wait a second...there was no way we were getting the bus through that!  With images of our bus stuck under a bridge like Winnie the Pooh stuck in the honey tree, we waited to see what would happen.  At this point a huge line of cars was stuck behind us and there was no where to go.  One of our tour guides hopped off the bus to go under the bridge and scout out how far away the brewery was--if it was close we could all walk while the bus driver figured things out.  It wasn't that close!  Eventually one of our tour group jumped off to start directing traffic and give us room to reverse.  A kind stranger stopped his car and offered to lead us through some back roads (some unpaved dirt!) to the brewery.  This was shaping up to be an adventure!  But time was wasting and there were breweries to visit!

Finally we arrived in an out of the way industrial park.  The brewery is not incredibly well marked at this point, but we figured it out!  Jolly Pumpkin actually shares a building with the North Peak Brewing, separated into separate halves to decrease the chance of cross contamination with wild bacteria.  Right away we were taken in two separate groups, ours led by owner/brewer Ron Jeffries, and the other by another of the brewers.  The large building is very industrial and utilitarian--not the most photogenic (even if I could take pics!) of breweries I've been to.  The number of wooden barrels and mish-mash of foedors, however, was amazing!  Ron was quiet and somewhat soft spoken, but was one of the most informative and educational tour guides I have ever had.  I learned a lot about his sour beer production techniques and history in a short period of time.  Having recently been to Belgium and The Night of Great Thirst sour beer festival, this was really a cool tour!  The brewery opened in 2004 and was the first brewery to use the "Artisan Ales" moniker.  It is the only brewery to use only all wood fermentation.  Our tour actually took longer than expected, but trust me, no one was going stop Ron from telling us all great stories of the early days of craft brewing!  He gathered several cool beers for us to sample on the bus and sent us on our merry way. 

Ron Jeffries telling us tales!

We tried several of the beers, including some from North Peak, on the longish trip to our next brewery.  My favorite by far was the La Roja which I haven't had in years since Jolly Pumpkin stopped distributing in Minnesota.  This is a very tart and complex version of a Flanders Red, that tastes more like the expensive and rare  Rodenbach Vintage ale than the sweeter Rodenbach Grand Cru.  One of our poor tour guides ended up getting "bus sick" from walking back and forth trying to pour us beer.  While on the bus our tour guide got word from Dark Horse that their power had just gone out--trouble just kept haunting this trip!

Eventually we arrived at Dark Horse Brewing in Marshall, MI.  I've been a fan of Dark Horse beers for years and was very excited to check out this brewery.  Luckily the power had returned and our quest for beer was not stymied!  Our tour was large and the tour had limited size, resulting in us splitting our group in half.  Sj and I, as well as Denise and Ron (a really nice couple from the Twin Cities) found ourselves in the brewpub first.  The space is small, with reclaimed doors as tables and tons of old posters on the walls.  Classic folk and rock music played over the loud speakers.  The entire low ceiling of the pub was lined with multicolored ceramic mugs, giving this place a close, but homey and rustic feel.  I wish I lived close and could have my own unique mug here!  While waiting for our tour I had some really good chili and sipped on the hoppy Smells Like a Safety Meeting.  I'm sure there is a good story behind the name for that beer!

Dark Horse is one of the more unusual breweries I've been to.  The pub itself is actually attached to a family owned store.  Outside there is a new outdoor biergarten, but it started raining the second we passed through that.  Next to the brewery are small buildings featuring a Harley shop and the General Store.  The General Store sold homebrew supplies, Dark Horse merchandise and skateboard supplies.  We eventually went on the tour for an extra $10.  There seemed to be a lot of unusual decorations (life sized Jack Skellington hanging over the bottling line, a fish tank table in the pub), and re purposed materials in use.  Everywhere there was something new to look at.

More than meets the eye!

We eventually ended up in a small but hot upstairs tasting room, where we had 6 samples included in our tour fee.  This was pretty cool since we were able to try some smaller batch stuff not on tap downstairs in the pub.  There was a disgusting cherry beer, but also an amazing maple aged brown ale and the bourbon barrel aged Plead the 5th Stout.  We chugged these down fast and headed back to our bus.  Overall this was probably my favorite brewery of the day, with a true independent spirit and vibe notable throughout everything these guys do!

Perfect timing!
Our next stop was back to Bells Eccentric Cafe.  This stop had been included on the previous day's tour so I'm glossing over it here!  Having had the two samplers yesterday we knew what beers we wanted right away.  I had one of experimental hop beers and Sj tried the Baroness--a Munich Dunkel.

As a finish to our tour we were dropped at Founders Brewing right in Grand Rapids.  With thousands of homebrewers converging on the city around now, the place was insane!  I was a bit disappointed that we didn't have any tour organized.  My thoughts on the tour for this day were less than perfect.  Now, while some of the issues (Winnie the Pooh) maybe couldn't have been foreseen, other things could.  I think that these tours would do well to include the price of the Dark Horse tour and the extra Jolly Pumpkin beer into the base price.  I don't mind paying, but I don't want to get nickel and dimed during the tour.  I also think that a longer stop midway for lunch would be ideal.  Trying to wolf down chili before our tour of Dark Horse was possible, but would not have been if I'd ordered something more complex.  Also I signed up for a tour of 4 places but could have walked to Founders from my hotel...Still a fun day and getting to hang with Ron, Denise, Wendy, Dave, and Mike Sutor was well worth it!

With the nutty crush of humanity and lack of seating at Founders, we decided to forgo the stress and just walked back to the hotel and had dinner across from our hotel at Z's.

Later we were invited to a small party upstairs at Founders by one of our friends and I did finally get to enjoy their great beers!  They actually had a special Juniper Rye ale brewed in collaboration with my friend Chris German on tap, and that was by far the best Juniper beer I've ever had.  I also really loved the smooth low gravity Oatmeal Stout and would love to buy some of that for drinking at home!  Founders is one of my favorite craft breweries and I really love what they do.  Thanks!

Super secret upstairs bar at Founders!

Up Next: NHC Day 4!

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