Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

June 23, 2007

Beer Diary:

Dancing With The Devil In GR

In which Eddie Glick concludes his American Craft Beer Week road trip with a stop in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Third of three parts.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
Contact Eddie»
For those of you just joining me, the following is the final entry chronicling my road trip in the parents’ Gremlin to celebrate American Craft Beer Week. When last we visited, I was cruising out of Kalamazoo, hung over and well stocked with Bell’s brand beers, heading for Grand Rapids.

I spent less than 24 hours in Grand Rapids, but what I came away with was that this is a pretty cool town. I drove around a little bit and I saw a modern city that still held a sense of its history. Although no longer a town dependent on industry, it is now doing fairly well in the biotech sector. The downtown was clean and inviting, with lots of restaurants, bars and funky shops clustered around the new and impressive-looking DeVos Place Convention Center. And if all that isn’t enticing enough, Grand Rapids apparently enjoys a vibrant death metal scene.

But the real draw to Grand Rapids for me on this Saturday afternoon was beer: the city is home to Founders Brewing Company, one of the best craft breweries in the world. If you’re a bit of a beer philistine and aren’t familiar with Founders, let me, uh, familiarize you with them. And I quote:
“To bring you truly great beer, we have focused our efforts to one simple concept, ignore mainstream and brew the beer we want to drink. In this pursuit we have found lower efficiencies, higher cost, less yields and smaller market share. This may seem like an unsound business model, but in our pursuit for bigger and better beer we have discovered a subculture of microbrewery aficionados. People like you, who enjoy beers that push the envelope of creativity.”
I cannot express in words how much I admire this brewery.

I rolled into GR (which is how some Grand Rapids residents refer to it) early in the afternoon, too early to hit the Founders pub. So I checked into the hotel right across the street from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, then jumped back into the Gremlin and headed for a liquor store.

And what a liquor store. Siciliano’s sits in a relatively new section of town in a small, kind of shabby-looking strip mall. Shabby on the outside, kick ass on the inside. Not only is it a large homebrew shop, but they have a gigantic selection of both regional, national, and international craft beers. And like any quality beer shop, the staff was friendly and extraordinarily knowledgable. I talked to both the owner and a staffer named Weston Eaton, who writes a beer column for Recoil, a monthly publication covering western Michigan entertainment.

After telling them about my road trip and quest for great regional beer, they navigated me toward the local brews, where I went verily hog wild. I grabbed some stuff from Dark Horse—which is a really, really nice little brewery—including their Double Crooked Tree, the imperial brother to their excellent Crooked Tree IPA. I snagged a foursie of Dragonmead’s monstrously good Final Absolution Tripel, a bomber of New Holland’s Existential Ale, some stuff from Arcadia, Founders Centennial, Rübæus, and (gasp!) Devil Dancer, and even a singleton from the obscure Frog Island. Needless to say, the Gremlin was now officially laden with beer.

By the time I lugged all this back into the hotel—the Gremlin is a quality machine, but its anti-theft system is not what you’d call “state of the art”—I was starting to work up a powerful thirst. Time to hoof it over to the Founders brewpub.

Founders sits a little ways off the banks of the Grand River in a rehabbed warehouse. The neighborhood is typical of a lot of Midwestern downtowns these days: in the midst of a rebirth in a post-industrial age. In fact, just down the street a new condo development was going up next to another converted brass factory. Imagine that: living within stumbling distance of one of the best beer makers in the U.S. If I ever move out of my parents’ basement, that place’ll top the short list.

The pub, just like the neighborhood, is a really unassuming place. It’s just a single large square room with a relatively small bar tucked into the corner. There’s another space that serves as a stage, and the rest of the place is filled unceremoniously with tables and chairs. One great touch, though, is a drinking fountain in the corner. No need to pester your bartender for water in the middle of a long night of sampling quality craft brews. The wall just past the length of the bar is actually floor-to-ceiling windows, allowing a good view into the brewhouse. And laying up next to those windows are wooden barrels—wooden barrels that are aging Founders’ infamous Kentucky Breakfast Stout, hands down one of the best beers in the world. While I was there, every hour or so an employee ducked back into the brewhouse to hose them down, so that the wooden staves would expand and create an air-tight seal.

So I bellied up to a prime seat at the corner of the bar and checked out the beer list. The guys at Siciliano’s warned me that Founders had been having some problems with production, and the tap list proved them true. Amid several empty tap handles, I saw the Pale Ale, Oatmeal Stout, Imperial Stout, Rübæus, and Devil Dancer. They also had the brewpub-only offerings Wheat and Braggot. Not bad by any means, but I was hoping for more. Then I spotted, sitting alone in the center of the bar, a tap for the Kentucky Breakfast Stout. Score.

The first thing I did was order up a snifter of that incredible stout and instantly made the acquaintace of one of the bartenders, a standup guy named Kevin Clancy (he insisted I know and publish his name). I ended up talking to him throughout the night about Founder’s production snafus (not really production problems, but trouble keeping up with demand), the quality of the Kentucky Breakfast Stout on tap (as mind-blowingly awesome as bottled—but served a little too cold), and the “pink fucking bathroom” in his new apartment (his girlfriend’s idea).

While I chatted with Kevin I worked my way through the tap list. The Wheat was a nice, light American wheat with a lemony, citrusy aroma and a yeasty finish. I liked it. The Braggot, which weighed in at 13 percent ABV, was sweeter than Hell, too sweet, in fact, for this Beer Dork to drink. Kevin suggested blending it with the Wheat, which actually worked: the Wheat’s yeastiness cut the Braggot’s overpowering sweetness, while the latter added to the body of the former. Interesting.

The big missing beer on the tap list was the Centennial IPA. How can you have a brewpub without an IPA on tap? It’s just wrong, I tells ya’. Fortunately the barstaff had a workaround: four parts Pale Ale, one part Devil Dancer (that’s just a hint as to how wickedly strong the DD really is). Patrons referred to this as the “artificial”, “fake”, and “faux” IPA. I suggested “Frankenstein IPA,” but nobody was much interested in the opinion of the pasty-skinned weirdo sitting at the end of the bar.

I also tried a blend of the Wheat and the Rübæus (which is pronounced rew-BAY-us; the barstaff was very insistent on correct pronunciation), which proved to be a beautifully refreshing berry wheat ale.

It turned into a nice relaxing night in a nice relaxing place. The Founders pub really gave me a vibe along the lines of a neighborhood bar. There was a steady stream of people coming in to have growlers filled up (mostly the Pale, sometimes the Wheat, and one psycho got an entire growler of Devil Dancer), and a surprisingly large number of customers knew the barstaff by name and vice versa. My road trip, it seemed, ended much the same way as it started: drinking great beer in a place dedicated to those who would appreciate it.

After sampling everything but the Imperial Stout, I ended the night with a last snifter of the Kentucky Breakfast. Even after all those beers before it, the damn thing still tasted incredible. A perfect nightcap to a perfect night.

So that was that. I bid Kevin goodbye, tipped him huge, and made my way back to the hotel in a light, refreshing rain. I woke up the next day feeling as fresh as a daisy, and after a giant breakfast at the Big Boy (first time I’d ever even seen one of those) I climbed back into the Gremlin and drove it all the way back home in third gear, dumping the clutch any time I had the chance. And all that I had to remind myself of this fantastically great trip was a couple of digital pictures, some giant-ass scabs that will probably end up being scars, and three cases and one mini-keg of craft beer. Now go forth, fellow Beer Dorks, visit these great places, and make sure to tell ’em Eddie Glick sent you. Because it doesn’t have to be American Craft Beer Week to celebrate America’s beer renaissance. Any week’ll do.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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