Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

September 24, 2008

Beer Diary:

Back In The GR

Most folks wouldn’t go on a multi-state beer run. But most folks get out of the basement more than twice a year.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
Contact Eddie»
Some people would think I’m crazy for jumping in the Gremlin and trekking across several states for the sole purpose of searching for new beers to try. But, hey, I only get out of the basement a couple of times a year, so I gotta make them count. I’d been pining to get back to Grand Rapids and check out Founders’ new digs, and I’d been hearing a ton of good stuff about Short’s Brewing, but couldn’t get so much as a drop in my neck of the woods. So when the parental units took off this past weekend for one of their freak-o geriatric swingers conventions, I swiped the keys to the car and hit the fucking road.

Like I said, my trip took me through multiple states, one of which was Indiana. I stopped in the small city of Munster to grab some gas (premium, of course—the Gremlin is a high performance machine) and check out some of the flooding they got last week. And, oh yeah, there’s this brewery there called Three Floyds. Heard of it? I stopped there for lunch and had me a beer named Ham On Rye, an ode to Henry Chinaski, Charles Bukowski’s literary alter ego. As you could probably guess, it was a rye beer (the “rye”) brewed with smoked malt (the “ham”). There was enough rye to give the beer a spicy finish over top of a subdued hop background, but the smoked malt was the main star, especially in the nose. Call it the power of suggestion, but it smelled exactly like a ham sandwich. Funky and enjoyable, it went great with my turkey bacon club sammie.

Then it was pedal to the metal, all the way to the GR. My first stop was an awesome beer store and home brewing shop (score: they also sell cheese-making supplies) called Siciliano’s Market. Their gargantuan beer selection has an entire rack dedicated to Michigan brews. I grabbed some Dragonmead, Arbor Brewing, New Holland, Bell’s … but no Short’s. A very knowledgable staffer informed me that because the construction of Short’s new brewing facility was behind schedule, they hadn’t started bottling yet. Siciliano’s only carried half barrels at the moment. After briefly considering ponying up for a keg, I decided there were other ways to get a taste of the elusive Short’s beers … without driving all the way up to Bellaire, Michigan. So I paid for my beer, lugged it out to the Gremlin (only took two trips!), then made my way to the HopCat.

This Cat Has Beer
The HopCat opened in downtown Grand Rapids this past year and quickly established itself as one of the best beer bars in the Midwest, if not the country. I’m not exaggerating. The bar features 49 tap handles, with an emphasis on in-state brews, plus a bonus cask-conditioned beer. The bottle list is ridiculously huge, too. And they have an in-house brewing system that will allow them to eventually offer their own specialty beers, as well as concoctions from guest brewers—the people who run this place are damn serious about their beer. The drafts looked like a who’s who of kick ass Midwest brews: Founders Red’s Rye and Breakfast Stout, Great Lakes Nosferatu, New Holland Existential Ale, Lakefront Bridge Burner, Bell’s Two Hearted—on the beer engine. But I gave them all a pass (to begin with) and ordered up what I had driven all those many miles for: Short’s Brewing Huma Lupa Licious. What was it like? You’ll have to read the review.

But, yeah, this is an incredible bar, and it is definitively one of the best beer bars in the Midwest. A huge, gorgeous space sporting polished wood and steel, great food, an upstairs smoking lounge, an outdoor deck, and a fun, knowledgeable staff. Plus, their logo is really, really cool. I sampled a couple of brews other than the Huma, the real standout being a Double Stick Alt from Kuhnhenn Brewing in Warren, Michigan. A stick is an old, esoteric style, but a fantastic beer if done right. Kuhnhenn hit it right on the head: smooth maltiness up front with a sharp finish of classic European hops. A damn fine beer from another Michigan brewery with a great rep and a tiny distribution area.

I could easily have spent the entire night at the HopCat, but I had one last stop to make my journey complete: Founders’ new brewery and brew pub.

A Shrine To Beer
Since the last time I made a beer sojourn to Grand Rapids, Founders had moved to their new abode, a 3,000 square foot taproom with an expanded brewery that would allow them to up their capacity by more than 500 percent. What they have created isn’t just a bigger space to brew and serve their beer, however. They have created, in effect, a shrine to great craft beer.

There were a few words that first came to mind when I stepped into the taproom, the first being “cavernous.” With raftered ceilings soaring a good 30 feet into the air, the place looked more akin to a hangar than a bar—it's more than 120 feet long. A huge concrete deck (sporting picked-clean hop vines on the pillars) sat in front of the place with garage-style doors allowing easy access in and out for throngs of beer drinkers. A generous, cool autumn breeze ushered me toward the end of an impossibly long, sinuous bar. I slid a metal bar stool out to sit, and noticed the seat back was wood, etched with the Founders logo. Nice. I propped my elbows on the bar and checked out the beer list.

Breakfast Stout. Centennial IPA. Red’s Rye. Nitro Red’s Rye. Rubaeus. Dirty Bastard. Pale Ale. Porter. Raspberry Porter. Honey Wheat. Oatmeal Stout. Solid Gold. And an interesting brew called Crystal Rye Persuasion.

The back of the bar was lined with hundreds of mugs, personal drinking vessels for mug club regulars. No liquor bottles. Curious, I asked the bartender when she stopped to grab my order. They only served beer. Founders beer. That’s it.

A shrine, I tells ya’.

My first order was the Crystal Rye Persuasion, a wild mix of malty sweetness, rye spiciness, and hop exuberance. Next up was the nitro Red’s Rye, which took two full minutes to settle out. Good lord. Taste-wise it wasn’t all that it could’ve been: the nitro really smoothed everything out, including that awesome hop kick that makes Red’s Rye one of the best beers in the world. I also tried a sip of the Raspberry Porter, but it didn’t tickle me enough to get a full pour. It was time for the Breakfast Stout.

I’d missed that morning’s Breakfast Stout Breakfast (how the fuck cool does that sound?), but I’ve had the Breakfast Stout many times, both on draft and in the bottle. But I’ve either not had it this fresh, or Founders perhaps tweaked the recipe. Because the first whiff about made me stand up and shout. It smelled like fresh ground coffee—the good stuff, not that Starbucks shit. In fact, it smelled more like coffee than coffee does. Wow. The sipping was smooth, chocolate sweetness and coffee roastiness, silky oats rounding out a long, long, long finish. Guh. It’s almost too much. And just as I reached the halfway point of my pint, the band was kicking it with a cover of The Doors’ Roadhouse Blues, and the lead singer wailed out, “I woke up this morning and I grabbed myself a BEER!” It was one of those moments when everything is clicking just right and you think to yourself that if you died right now, that’d be OK.

Of course it couldn’t get better than that, not even close. So I called it a night and headed back to the warm embrace of my ratty-ass motel, where I slept soundly and dreamed of magnificent craft beer, in a Midwest beer near-paradise called Grand Rapids.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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