Saturday, May 30, 2009

MI Brewery Pilgrimage - Heading Home

Monday brought us to the end of our pilgrimage, with just a stop for breakfast between us and the road back to Chicago. Apparently we used up all of our good mojo the day before with the special pizza and the uber special time at HopCat as we had a tremendously difficult time finding any place open for breakfast. Once found, the food was uninspiring, the wait staff just a step above lousy and so our trip out of town was under a bit of a cloud.
But not all was lost, there was light at the end of the tunnel, namely Lunar Brewing. Located just minutes from the airport in Villa Park, this was a visit I think we’d all been anticipating since we were there two years ago. The grey, starting to mist day was perfect for heading into this small, dark brewpub that makes much better beer than you’d expect. Maybe it was because I’d been so pleasantly surprised by the taste of the fresh Raspberry Ale at Dark Horse and so bowled over by Cerise at Founders, but my favorite there that day was their Raspberry Cream. Cream ales can be hit or miss, as can fruit beers but this one was the perfect combination of the two. Running a close second was their Oatmeal Pale, a hard to describe, light in color beer that walked the tightrope between the smoothness of an oatmeal beer and the hop flavor of a pale. A wonderful finish to a great pilgrimage.

Friday, May 29, 2009

MI Brewery Pilgrimage - Keeping it local

Our final full day of drinking was to be done without the hassle of driving outside of Grand Rapids, starting with Grand Rapids Brewing. Since we were running ahead of schedule we decided to swing over to Schmohz Brewing, which we intended to visit later in the day, to verify that they were in fact open. Good thing we did since although their website said they were, they appeared closed from the exterior and a call placed confirmed that they had decided to close for both Sunday and Monday this week. Disappointed and frustrated, we headed over to Grand Rapids, a cavernous brewpub that while opening at 11 am, apparently was unable to sell alcohol until noon.

We decided to wait it out at and once the beer was flowing we found it to be drinkable, albeit highly carbonated across the board. Surprisingly, the best in show here went to an unlikely suspect, Grand Rapids Light. Overall the beers were good, they were not good enough to hold our interest once we’d made it through the line up. Instead of the planned visit to Schmohz, we headed back to Red Ball Café, remembering that they had five or six respectable taps and good food.

There we enjoyed beers from New Holland, Founders and Bell’s on their patio along with pizza. A huge thanks goes out to both Kaitlyn, our server, and Vinny, the chef, for agreeing to make my creation: a half-and-half pizza featuring peanut butter and bacon on one side and peanut butter, BBQ sauce and pulled pork on the other. Neither the burning of the first attempt nor the scooping out of the peanut butter from those little single serving Smucker’s packets deterred him and in fact he treated us to an enormous piece of delightful house made carrot cake afterward.

From there, although at least an hour before our scheduled dinner with Kat’s family, we hit HopCat. This was another late in the game addition but one of the best parts of the trip. We spent most of the night on their patio, met Mark (the owner), enjoyed some special bottles out of their cellar, met Steve (the cellar manager), and got a private tour of the brewing and cellaring set up. For me the most outstanding beer of the night was Arbor Brewing’s Saison with Brettanomyces. Not a fan of true to style Saisons, the addition of Brett did something magical to it. After close to six hours reveling in the beers and atmosphere and exhausting their extensive beer list we called it a night. What a way to say good-bye to Grand Rapids!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

MI Brewery Pilgrimage - Hump Day

So the calendar might have said it was Saturday, but according to the pilgrimage itinerary it was hump day. A day in which we didn’t travel quite as far as the day before, this time heading west-ish to Holland, Douglas and Spring Lake.

We made it to the New Holland brewery a bit before their noon tour started and found a couple of other beer geeks waiting to do the same. Pretty much a standard tour, with one exception. In their grain room they had bags of specialty grains that we were able to sample (yes, eat!). The variation in flavor was as great as the variation in color and the opportunity to taste test the grains a treat.

Once the tour and requisite sampling was done we headed over to their brewpub for lunch and a more extensive beer tasting. My favorite there was the Poet oatmeal stout, which if I’m remembering correctly, tasted almost identical to the most heavily roasted of the grains I’d eaten at the brewery. Go figure, right?

From there it was time to check out Saugatuck/Lucky Stone Pub, a combination brewpub/brew on premises operation. There wasn’t much character to be found in the physical location or their brews, but to be fair, they are a pretty new operation that seems to still be working out the kinks and the bartender did hail from MN.

Finishing there, it was off to check out Old Boys Brewhouse, which we’d heard might be a bit difficult to get to, even though you could see it from the main road. I’ll agree with that if you’re the only one in the car but with four pairs of eyes we faired just fine. Taking advantage of the nice afternoon we sat on their deck that overlooks part of a lake. Overall, the beers were pretty good (and photogenic), with me being the odd duck out favoring their Dogtail IPA while the rest of the crew thought the Brown Ale was the best of the bunch.

After the short drive back into Grand Rapids it was decided that we weren’t quite ready to turn in and having had such a nice time at Founders the previous night, returned. More packed than the night before we were nearly out of luck but managed to score a picnic table just a couple away from where we’d been before. More sampling and also returns to favorites from the night before. Then came a wonderful mix, inspired by the previous weekend’s Surly Suicide, Imperial Bourbon Barrel Aged Stout + Cerise. Liquid chocolate covered alcoholic cherries! You’d be right guessing that after a couple hours there it was indeed time to pack it up.

MI Brewery Pilgrimage - On the road again

Day two was another day with a fair amount of driving, staring off with 1 ½ hours to Marshall, home of Dark Horse. Being pretty big fans of their beers, we were excited to see where they were produced and I’m happy to report we weren’t disappointed.

The whole shooting match – the interior, lined with hundreds of handmade mugs, the patio, complete with hop vines, picnic tables, a stage, sandbox and half of a mannequin that has been retrofitted to serve beer, and the beers and the staff – are amazing. We are blessed that we are able to get most Dark Horse products in MN, but there is something to be said for getting it straight from the brewery. Their Raspberry Ale has been my least favorite of their beers, but having it fresh from the brewery assured me that it is as good of a product as any of their other brews, just one that suffers more during transport.
We could have easily spent the day there, but more places were on the agenda, including a last minute entry – Arcadia in Battle Creek. After the great experience at Dark Horse, the bar was set pretty high and they fell a bit short. Service: meh, beers: nothing bad but nothing outstanding either. Oh well, on to Bell’s.

Bell’s production facility in Galesburg isn’t open to the public so that left us to visit their Eccentric Café in Kalamazoo. They seem to have caught the rye bug, with three varieties on tap: Golden Rye, Rye Barleywine and the favorite beer for all of us, Rye Stout. After checking out their store it was time to hit the road again.

Our final planned stop was Walldorff in Hastings, a pretty standard brewpub set up that looked eerily like Emmett’s in IL from the outside. Both the food and the beer were mediocre, nothing to warrant a return visit if we found ourselves in Hastings but since it was on the way back to Grand Rapids, nothing really lost either.

Upon arriving back in Grand Rapids we found ourselves with a surprising amount of energy and drinking ability still left so we decided to skip ahead on the schedule a bit to pay a visit to Founders. Although we can get some Founders products here, there were many, many brews on the board that were new to us. Cerise Cherry Ale and Peppercorn Pale were two of those and my favorites. They are very different beers suited to very different moods but I’d take either any chance I get. Knowing we’d be back later during the trip we had seven or eight from their large selection and called it a night.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

MI Brewery Pilgrimage - On the first day...

Our five day, Michigan-focused adventure started out Thursday with a short flight to Chicago. By the time we landed and got our rental car we were itching for beer, but there was an hour drive between us and our first stop so off we went towards Munster, IN, home of the revered Three Floyd’s.

Besides making great beer, beer which we no longer have access to in MN, and only limited access to when we run across the border, they have a pretty damn cool place. Nestled in a typical light industrial area, the interior is filled with, well let’s just say “quirky” artwork. Also, when we stopped there, there were a couple of “quirky” “ladies” sitting at the bar. You really had to be there but I think the quote from one of them will sum it up. “They don’t got any of my Colt 45.” I wish I could say they were entertaining but it was really more annoying and we were relieved when they left.

Although they didn’t have a sampler, we managed by ordering pints, mostly of beers we hadn’t had. And since it was mid-afternoon by this point, a little food was in order. The pork belly pizza was tasty, as expected, although I’m of the mind that more pork is always better. The pretzel and sausage sampler, though, was outstanding. Both the pretzels and sausage were made in house and are some of the best I’ve ever had. The olives added a nice salty kick and the Iowa acorn-fed prosciutto was fine, but the pickled red onions were an unexpected treat that rounded out the plate.

With such an outstanding line up of beer it’s not surprising that all four of us chose a different favorite, mine being the Black Heart, Mag’s the Rabbid Rabbit, Kat favoring Dreadnaught and Scott the Alpha King. The beer monster being quieted and a bit of food in our bellies, it was time to hit the road for the remaining 2 ½ hours to Grand Rapids.

Once settled in Grand Rapids, we hit our first Michigan location, The Hideout. Housed in what we later found out was the pool house of the adjacent apartment complex, it’s an unassuming, cozy joint. But the best part is out back. The former pool had been reimagined and now serves as a horseshoe pit, surrounded by an array of chairs and tables. The feeling is that of heading over to hang out in a good friend’s backyard, a good friend that doesn’t mind if you order pizza or subs (The Hideout itself has a very limited menu consisting only of snackies).

Sitting out there, enjoying pitchers of our favorites, Gangster IPA and Black Lager, and the afternoon sun fading into the evening, made for a wonderful end to the first day of our pilgrimage.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

MI Brewery Pilgrimage, an overview

The pilgrimage was awesome. You should all be jealous.

Now that’s out of the way, maybe you’d like some details so you don’t think I’m just trying to taunt you and to prove it was a really great time. Patience. For now we’ll just start with an overview of the trip.

Morning flight to Chicago and then hit the road to Grand Rapids, stopping along the way at Three Floyd’s in Munster, IN, finishing out the day at The Hideout in Grand Rapids.

Breakfast at Red Ball Café, drive to Dark Horse in Marshall, stopping at Arcadia in Battle Creek on the way to Bell’s in Kalamazoo, dinner at Walldorff Brewing in Hastings and with the early pilgrimage stamina supporting us, ending the night at Founders in Grand Rapids.

Drive to New Holland in Holland to tour the brewery, then over to their brewpub for lunch, off to Saugatuck/Lucky Stone Pub in Douglas, then to Old Boys Brewhouse in Spring Lake and because we had fun the night before, back to Founders.

A full day in Grand Rapids, starting with breakfast at Real Food Café followed by Grand Rapids Brewing Company, lunch at Red Ball Café and many, many hours at HopCat.

Pilgrimage coming to a close, but not before stopping at Lunar in Villa Park before returning the car and hopping on the flight back to Minneapolis.

Final count: 5 days, 12 breweries/brewpubs. Details to follow…

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Dirty Feet

Last night we decide we were up to a 5th beer stop for the day so we headed to Founders, just a couple miles from the hotel. Inside they had the hockey game cranked up and between that and people talking it was very, very loud. So we decided to sit outside. A little chilly when the wind came up, but doable and much more conducive to holding a conversation.

On to the photo. A couple sat down at the table next to us. A decent looking couple that I suspect were on a date. The girl looked quite presentable, EXCEPT FOR HER FEET! I don't know that this photo does the dirt and grime justice but if all you saw were her feet, you'd think she was a homeless person that had not bathed for two weeks. Who goes out in public like this?

The beer glasses on the table provided a nice cover for the picture I took as they did happen to look over.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Where will you be this weekend?

I know where we’ll be - enjoying some fine suds in Michigan. If you don’t have any grand plans or if part of you plans include heading outside the metro in the general southwest direction and you find yourself in need of some grub and a beer, check out Patrick’s on Third in St. Peter.

Yep, the same St. Peter that it seems more than their fair share of tornados have torn through. They’ve apparently spared Patrick’s, which quietly sits a block off the main drag. Not much to look at from the outside, but listed on Summit’s website as the only place in St. Peter where you can grab a Horizon Red Ale.

Besides Horizon, they’ve got a couple Bell’s, Schell’s and Leinie’s on tap in addition to a few imports and macros. Find yourself there on a Sunday and you might be tempted by some tasty looking breakfast/brunch items. But you really should try one of their burgers. My suggestion…the D. Stark. It’s pretty simple: burger topped with BBQ sauce and peanut butter, but man is it good! I can also vouch for the Hinden burger: sauerkraut, bacon, southwest sauce and pepper jack cheese. Their fries are pretty darn good, too, as are the tator tots but wouldn’t bother with the ranch fries. Instead, if you want some spice to your potatoes, ask for a side of the southwest sauce.

Whatever your long weekend consists of, ENJOY! And although I won’t be able to bring any beer back, you can be I’m gonna enjoy it and just might get around to writing about it. See you in a few days!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

...And No One Fell Asleep On A Park Bench

The McGs and McDs hit the Stillwater Rotary's Brewers Bazaar yesterday for the 2nd time. And for the 2nd time, we all had a good time. And for the 2nd year in a row, I didn't get a damn brat. Unlike last year, when we didn't know anyone except for some of the brewers and brewery personnel, there were a few familiar faces this year. Plus, as is usually the case at these, Kris and I met a few folks and made a few new friends. Apparently the theme for this year's fest was, "Meeting guys named Chad." I guess that's a good thing given I have a hard enough time with names as it is.

Fitger's wasn't there this year and Mark Stutrud wasn't serving up his own beer, but otherwise there was a good showing of beer. Most of the breweries brought their normal line-ups, but a couple of folks had something different to offer as well. Three stood out, in my mind. First was Lift Bridge's oak-aged Harvestor. Harvestor has been around for a while, but not the oak-aged version (which is mighty tasty and I believe is all gone). Also, Dave Berg brought up from Schell's the "Not Guilty" 1924 Deer Brand or, as he refers to it, Imperial Deer Brand. I tend to avoid lagers, but I really enjoyed this one. I recommend trying it while you can still get it. Finally, Rock Bottom brought four beers, one of which was lager I'd not had before; a steam beer. Rock Bottom's web site says the name is Fiesta Loco Steam Beer, but Scott's notes say it was Northeast Steam (and that's what I recall being written on the board). No matter. This was a second great lager.

Afterwards we had a chance to join the Lift Bridge folks for dinner (thanks again Jim!!!) and have one last, un-needed beer. I have to admit that I was pretty much running out of gas at this point and feeling a bit like I'd been run over. I think it was missing my friggin brat. I'll get you next year!!!

I also had a chance to chat w/ the owner of Still-H20 (C.R.?), a homebrew, hydroponic and organic gardening store, about one of his three tiered home brewing systems. I've been thinking about getting back into brewing and a gift card I got from work is burning a hole in my pocket. As luck would have it, the card is just enough to purchase one of Still's three-headed monsters (here's a photo of something similar). A fool and his money are soon parted! Whee!

Touring Granite City

I’ve been on more brewery tours than I can count. Never before have I been asked if I had any alcohol in my system (unless it was followed up by, “well, why not?!?"). So when I was asked that today at Granite City I had to ask them to repeat the question, answered honestly that yes, I had a beer with a big burger for lunch a couple hours ago and then waited as the guy looked as if he was trying to decide if I should be allowed to walk the 10 feet through their kitchen to get to their brewing space.

Test passed, I followed Mike through the kitchen, into the locked brewing space. There isn’t much to say about the facility as it’s just a two room set up. One room holding the four, 500 gallon fermenters and a second, refrigerated room holding the eight determination tanks.

The most interesting things I gleaned from the tour:
* The Ellsworth, IA site was chosen for its well water and is within 500 miles of all 27 restaurants that operate in a nine state region.
* The transportation of the 33 degree wort between states is legal because the wort is not technically alcohol at this point.
* Of the 27 locations, only the Eagan and St. Louis Park restaurants were retrofits, being Sydney’s and Timberlodge respectively in their prior lives.
* The Eagan location has the smallest number of fermenters but sells more beer than any other location.

One more first for a brewery tour, I wasn't offered a single sample at the conclusion of the tour.

Friday, May 15, 2009

KARE goes Surly

Remember how I said a Kare 11 crew was filming at Surly last Friday when we volunteered? Well, the story aired last night and since neither of our mugs managed to break the camera you can catch a couple glimpses of us.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Gettin' & Givin' Surly

Studies show that volunteering is not only beneficial to an organization and the people it serves, but that the volunteer reaps benefits from the experience. True dat!

Last night Mag and I volunteered at the Surly tour and aside from the traffic I had to battle from Eagan to Brooklyn Center, it was a great time. Our coordinator, Keith, had assigned us to what I considered the easy job, pouring, leaving the more technically challenging job of running the cash register and credit card machine to volunteers already well versed in that area.

As I pulled up there were already some people waiting outside for the tour and I found out once I got inside that Kare 11 was filming inside the brewery for a story. While they were talking to Omar’s dad, I had the pleasure of trying a bomber of Imperial Red from California one of the volunteers had gotten through a beer exchange. It was a very well balanced red, being neither too sweet nor too hoppy and a treat since it is unavailable here. The generosity of the beer folks I’ve met never fails to impress me and I vowed the next time I volunteered to make sure to reciprocate.

Each tour participant was allowed five samples and although I’m not sure how many came for the tour, I can say the beer was flying off the counter! Some people were well versed in Surly, some had tried two or three previously, and some appeared to have not tried it at all before. But everyone was open minded and if anyone didn’t like the beer, I never saw it.

It was great to see the interest in people wanting to know more about the beer, more about the brewery. There was even a guy who was in town on business, from Alaska I believe, that had been to Summit, Flat Earth, Great Waters and thought he might be able to hit Town Hall later in the evening, before leaving town Saturday morning. A guy after my own heart!

The tours are hugely popular, currently being booked solid until the last Friday in May, so I hope to be back pouring again sometime in the next couple months.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

9 Letters and Counting

Finally! After six years of part-time graduate school, an experience I describe as death by a thousand cuts, I can now add three additional letters after my name; M.B.A. They'll look great next to the C.P.A. and S.O.B. And as irony would have it, I read an interesting and germane quote on my Cup-O-Bucks as I was just getting started on my final final exam. "If you’re successful at the wrong thing, the mix of praise and money and opportunity can lock you in forever (Po Pronson)." Shit. Are those words the metaphorical finger-nail picking at my career scab? The C.P.A. and M.B.A. have been/will be useful from a career perspective, but they don't fill the vocational void that can only be addressed by something I've heard referred to as "a calling."

Shit. Now what? Hmm... I'm looking to my wife, mutt and Hitachino Sweet Stout for inspiration. Two of the three are drinking beer and one is a beer. Shit. Now what?

What a beautiful night!

If you aren't outside on this beautiful Thursday night in Minnesota you are missing out! This is the time of year we have to remember both in the dead of January when it seems like the warmth and light of summer will never return as well as the dog days of August when we're wishing for a few flakes of snow to cool us off.

Even though I had to work later than usual today, all I could think about was getting home, grabbing a beer and getting out on the deck. The issue of what beer that would be was solved as I talked to Kat on my way home and she told me the Flat Earth Monkey Business (coconut infused Cygnus X-1 Porter) in my fridge tasted like an Almond Joy.

I'll have to agree with Scott that I'm not picking up quite that much coconut flavor but that doesn't mean it isn't just divine. A dark chocolate brown with Flat Earth's trademark head and just a touch of coconut to remind you this isn't the regular Cyguns, this is something special.

A beautiful evening on the deck with a great beer and Cleo hunting some little furry creature off in the woods. It really doesn't get much better than this...unless of course Mag stops on his way home and picks up something really tasty for dinner.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Where's The Condom Tree?!

Jerry Springer: Let's bring out Kris and Mag for our next segment. They were at Friday's Arborfest fund-raiser for the Family Tree Clinic. Maybe they can shed a bit of light on the events that transpired. If you don't mind, we'll keep you two separated for your safety and mine. So tell me, Kris, what was your opinion on the event overall?

Kris: Arborfest is a great event and generally it is one of the first of the beer festival season. A stellar kick off and promise of more beer goodness to come.

Mag: *With a look of annoyance at Kris* Yeah Jerry, you can tell she wasn't the one dealing with bowel distress all weekend. That was probably from my extreme disappointment with the lack of the Family Tree Clinic condom tree this year. And her saying "it is one of the first of the beer festival season" is a flat out lie. Hell, Jerry, for her the beer festival season is non-stop.

Jerry: Aside from Mr.-Sour-Stomach, what did you like about Arborfest Kris?

Kris: Sure, there was no condom tree this year, but how many people did you see utilizing the fruits the tree in the past? This year the handy, discrete condoms and more packages on the tables went like hotcakes, supposedly "for the students" according to some.

And yes, when I'm drinking good beer, it's always a party. However at THIS party, the stars for me were Town Hall's Barrel Aged Chocolate Coconut Imperial Stout, Rush River's Chocolate Oatmeal Stout and Great Water's Chocolate Pear Porter. Lots of chocolate, but none were heavy. Definitely summery chocolate beers.

Mag: *With a mocking grin* Did you actually try any BEER? Sheesh.

Jerry: Okay, Mr. Negative *sarcasm*. Why don't you share what you liked?

Mag: Well Jerry, I didn't have a chance to try too many beers and I ain't the beer whore my wife is. But I was happy with the overall selection. There were a number of interesting beers that aren't always available, which was great. I pretty much enjoyed most of them that I had. I didn't care much for the Blueberry Ale from Granite City, but I know she did *pointing at Kris with an accusatory finger*. She'll drink anything.

Kris: I'll drink anything ONCE, especially when it's only a few ounces. After that I'll keep hitting my favorites, or the place that has the cute swag I'm coveting, until it's gone. Or until there's some interruption in the pouring such as the so called request from the brewers to add at 10 minute no pouring of beer in the evening. I think they wanted us to listen to the guy on stage yammering away but all that happened is the sound in the room went up by people asking all the brewers why they couldn't get another pour.

Mag: That guy yammering *yelling and throwing a chair at Kris' head* was Nick Coleman. And they were just trying to get folks to buy tickets for the auctioning off of the cool beer swag. Aside from the fact that I couldn't understand what was being said and thus had to stand around with an empty beer, I didn't mind. I mean, it is a fund-raiser after all. And I'm not the least bit bitter that I put all my tickets in one jar and got jack squat. Did I mention there was no condom tree *pouting*?

Jerry: Well, I think we've heard enough from these two. In all seriousness, this event, as usual, was a great event; great beer, ample food, plenty of space to move around, good folks. And the cause is a worthy one.