Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

June 16, 2007

Beer Diary:

I’ve Got A Beer In Kalamazoo

In which Eddie Glick continues his American Craft Beer Week road trip by visiting Bell’s Eccentric Cafe. Second of three parts.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
Contact Eddie»
The second destination on my road trip to celebrate American Craft Beer Week was a city known more for its funky name than for anything else: Kalamazoo. That is, of course, until Larry Bell began selling his home brew in 1985. It’s now, to Beer Dorks at least, a name synonomous with some of the best beer in the Midwest, if not the nation. Shocker that I’d be pointing the parental units’ Gremlin in that direction.

Kalamazoo is a city that was once a blue-collar powerhouse that hit hard times as the economy shifted, and is now going through a kind of renaissance. It’s not that big of a city (70,000) and is dominated by Western Michigan University, a surprisingly large college. Bell’s is no longer actually brewed in Kalamazoo, but a few miles down the road in Comstock. What is still in Kalamazoo is the Eccentric Cafe, the official Bell’s brew pub, a rehabbed depot station/warehouse sitting on Kalamazoo Avenue a few blocks off the revitalized downtown strip.

The place is huge: exposed ductwork hangs a good thirty feet overhead, with a giant space pushed out onto one side for a stage and a big balcony overlooking the entire bar area on the other. (The place also sports a huge outdoor area with both a beer garden and grassy yard that might be better described as a football field.) Other than the dozen or so African masks hanging over the bar I didn’t really get a feeling of “eccentric,” though. But I certainly did get the feeling of “have a beer.” And the beer was cheap. A 20-ounce tap of Bell’s for $3.00? Beat that. So I grabbed a snifter of Third Coast Old Ale (try not to confuse this with the Third Coast lager, which is a very different beer) and climbed up into the balcony to settle in before the band started.

And what a band: Delilah DeWylde and the Lost Boys. Old-school honky-tonk—steel guitar and all—with a hotter than Hell lead singer who also played the double bass, which is that giant-ass violin-looking thingy that you have to sit on the floor while you play. During some of the rowdier songs Delilah, in her Betty Page bangs, ass-length hair and cleavage-enhancing bodice, would somehow prop the bass on the floor and climb on top of it while she plucked and strummed and sang. I don’t care if you’re male or female, straight, bi or undecided, if this didn’t trip your trigger you either have an unhealthy fascination with horses or you’re dead. This was hot.

All the more reason to keep sampling the beers. The Third Coast Old Ale was a nice, drinkable old ale, with strong anise notes mixed with light chocolate. Like a lot of Bell’s products, it hid the alcohol very well. But I needed something lighter.

Unfortunately, the beer list was disappointingly short—Amber, Two Hearted, the Pale Ale and generic Lager, Old Ale and Oberon. They did have a lone tap-only house brew, Lakeview Bitter. I jumped all over that but was, again, a bit disappointed. A lighter body than I’d expected, with the sharp, ashy hop flavor I experienced back in Munster with the Decepticon. To clear my palate, I took in a Two Hearted, one of the Midwest’s finest IPAs. After that I noticed they had a special case to hold their stouts, old ales and ports at cellar temperature, 55°, which was a very classy touch. But I decided to pass on the big malt monsters and switched over for good to the amazingly drinkable Oberon.

What a beer. What a night. Sitting there watching Delilah go to town on that bass, I lost track of the number of Oberons I savored. Which was a Bad Thing.

Anyone who reads this web site regularly knows that I do not enjoy craft beer by getting drunk on it. My rule is, when I can no longer taste what I’m drinking, then I call it a night. But three things did an end around on my rule that night. The first being that I was drinking imperial pints of Oberon—20 ounces. Visually, it’s hard to tell an imperial pint from a regular pint, unless you were to sit them side-by-side. So, mentally, I was thinking of them as 16-ouncers. They did have regular pints available, but they were plastic cups. I ain’t drinking some of the Midwest’s best beer at the source in a fucking plastic cup. So the 20-ouncers it was.

The second thing working against me was just how damn good Oberon is. It’s light enough to appeal to a beer philistine, but has enough meat and complexity to keep Beer Dorks interested. That first sip alone is enough to hook you, but every subsequent swallow just keeps getting better and better. And as I sat and watched Delilah ride that double bass, the Oberon never tasted so good, or went down so smooth.

The third reason I got hammered that night was how deceptively strong Oberon is. It tastes so light that you assume it’s a classic session beer, one that you can have more than a few of at one sitting. Nope. It’s damn near 6 percent alcohol. Add those 20-ouncers of Oberon up with an Old Ale, a Two Hearted (7 percent) and a Lakeview Bitter, and—voila!—you’re drunk. So drunk, in fact, that as I was walking back to my hotel, I tripped and fell right on my face. If you were happening to be driving down Kalamazoo Avenue that particular Friday night around midnight and saw some chalk-faced goon chewing the sidewalk in front of a car dealership, you got a glimpse of Eddie Glick.

(Actually, I wasn’t that drunk; I was looking at my map to make sure I was going the right way when I tripped over a raised piece of sidewalk, something I’ve done while stone-cold sober.)

Once I got back to my hotel, and got the bleeding to stop, I collapsed into bed and slept like the dead. And in case you need to know, yes, I was hung over. The experience taught me a valuable lesson. Oberon is kind of like the sun so stylistically rendered on its label: it’s a beautiful, glowing giver of life, but too much of it and the next morning it stings like the dickens.

So I got up, threw some bacon and eggs down my gullet, and began to feel somewhat restored. By this time it was still too early to head to my next destination, so I decided to check out the Bell’s General Store, which is right across the parking lot from the Eccentric Cafe.

The front of the store is crammed with every piece of Bell’s gear you can imagine—hats, t-shirts, scarves, stickers, beer glasses, bottle openers, flip flops, frolf discs … and that’s just the stuff I initially noticed. There were two guys working the counter, one hunched over a copy of Randy Mosher’s Radical Brewing and the other, upon seeing my Beer Dorks tee, said, “Dude, I like your shirt.” I think Kalamazoo might be Potawatomi for “Beer Dork paradise.”

Deeper into the store I found virtually every Bell’s beer available in mix-and-match six packs (no Hopslam—d’oh!) and 5-liter mini-kegs of Oberon, which is so damn cool it makes me want to pee my pants just thinking about it. The store is also a first-rate home brew shop, with enough supplies and equipment to get newbies started as well as satisfy the needs of an all-grain pro.

Although I didn’t buy any brewing supplies or Bell’s gear, I did grab a case (or two) of assorted bottles and a mini-keg. I guess the Gremlin really wasn’t designed to handle that kind of cargo though, since it bottomed out as I pulled out of the parking lot and scraped the muffler. Too much more of that and people’d think it was an old beater car instead of a fine-tuned machine. Good thing I had only about 50 miles to drive until my next destination: Grand Rapids, home of Founders.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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