Monday, February 27, 2012

A Jolly and Eccentric Journey

They say the grass is always greener on the other side. Perhaps this is what led us on a tour of Michigan breweries. Or perhaps it was just wanting to visit the origins of some of our favorite beers. I took off with my friend Ryan early on a Friday morning, driving around the southern tip of Lake Michigan into the Michigan with plans to have lunch at the Eccentric Cafe.

This wasn't the first trip to the Bell's beer tap room for either of us. Once we arrived we we're reminded of how great the Eccentric Cafe really is; with an excellent food menu and an even more tempting beer menu, not to mention a curious atmosphere with various flags, signs and maps adorning the walls. We each had a sandwich and shared sampler (set up on a Michigan-shaped board) of Bell's beers. My curried chicken salad sandwich was delicious. We picked six beers for our sampler. These included a cherry wheat, a strong honey wheat, a light and tangy wheat, Kalamazoo's famous Two Hearted Ale, a winter specialty called Best Brown and a Smoked Stout.

After noshing, sipping and listening to some Springsteen and Clash we decided to head west to the destination that we were really looking forward to, Jolly Pumpkin Artisanal Ales in Dexter, Michigan. I've wanted to visit Jolly Pumpkin ever since I tried their beer and heard about their means of production. Brewer "Captain Spooky Ron J" makes some of the most interesting and flavorful beers I've ever tasted. My first Jolly Pumpkin beer was the La Roja. I was struck by the multitude of flavors, the tartness and the carbonation. I haven't had this beer in awhile but my Beer Advocate review seems to jibe with my memory. A great deal of what makes Jeffries' beers so beguiling is the brewing process that he has adopted which comprises open fermentation and aging in various wood barrels. On the particular autumn day that we visited the brewery, we were greeted by the brewery's General Director Laurie Jeffries. Jolly Pumpkin is a friendly place and Jeffries eagerly gave us a tour around the small brewery. Once she was situated back behind the brewery's small bar she was ready with a flight of Jolly Pumpkin ales including Bam Biere, Bam Noire, Oro de Calabaza, La Parcela and the autumnal ale Fuego del Otono. We tasted the La Parcela, a pumpkin ale, first. Laurie says that at first the brewery had no intention of producing a pumpkin beer, but after several years they decided to try it out. The result is delicious. Lots of traditional pumpkin beer spices are present La Parcela, but a bit of chocolate emerges and the beer finishes tart. La Parcela basically refers to a garden patch, a place I suppose where pumpkins grow. This is an extremely rare beer and was not for sale. The next beer we tasted was the Fuego del Otono, which is made with chestnuts. I took some of this one home with me. The Fuego was an amber-orange hue with a delicous combination of bruised apples, spices and, well, chestnuts. The chestnut flavor could really bother some people but I kind of liked it. Again, a tartness shows up towards the finish, but not in an over-powering way. I believe the next beer we had was the Oro de Calabaza, a golden ale which nearly shot out of the bottle. This is the case with many of Jolly Pumpkin's beers, as the some of the wild yeasts keep working slowly in the bottle, building up a large amount of carbonation. The Calabaza was a very delicious, very effervescent golden ale with a mix of citrus aroma and flavors, an earthy-woody yeastiness and some tart funkiness in the dry finish. Such a dry finish makes the Calabaza quaffable, but at a danger to one's sobriety. This is not the case with the Bam Noire, a dark version of Bam Biere, and a low alcohol (4.5 percent by volume) bottle conditioned (but not barrel aged) ale. I appreciated this beer because it presented a decent a nice mix of delicate roastiness and chocolate flavors with the yeasty funk of some of the other Jolly beers without the high alcohol. That said, I've had the "regular" Bam Biere before and I think I prefer it's complexity and tart character over the Bam Noire. I wish had picked up a few more bottles at Jolly Pumpkin. The pricing was favorable compared to the $10-$11 that I pay in my own neck of the woods, but be forewarned if you visit: the brewery only takes cash or check.

After visiting Jolly Pumpkin we made our way back west towards Chicago; but we still had a handful of places to visit. As impressed as I am with Ron Jeffries' beers I didn't travel almost all the way across the state of Michigan for his beer. No, me and Ryan had plans to visit the Battle Creek home of some the best English-style beers on this side of the Atlantic. We drove about an hour west on I-94 to Battle Creek, but not before dropping some of our staff in Marshall at a Hampton Inn just off the expressway. We other plans in store for Marshall other spending a night in one of its hotels, but that was later. For now, we were hungry. We heard that Arcadia Brewing Company in downtown Battle Creek had some decent South Carolina-style BBQ and pizzas from a wood-fired oven. This sounded good. We already knew that Arcadia made some good interpretations of English-style ales such as pale ales, porter and IPA. Once we arrived at Arcadia we had to wait a half hour or so for a table, but the food was worth it. Ryan had a BBQ platter that included chicken, pork and beef along with a massive side order of baked squash. I couldn't make up mind as to whether I wanted BBQ or pizza, so I got A BBQ chicken pizza. I had an IPA at the bar as an apertif and that last me through dinner. Ryan opted for the Angler's Ale, while I stayed with the IPA. We both had a lot of food. Arcadia is a big place with sort of the feel of a warehouse. This aspect is possibly fueled by the idea that the brewery and bottling operatrions are in the same building as the pub. It was interesting to watch through the windows of the pub into the brewery. Although there was no brewing going on, it was cool to see the Peter Austin brewing system. I learned about this system in a great article written by Matt Dunn. In fact, his article was part of inspiration for making our trip to Michigan. It would've been nice to visit with some of the staff of the brewery as Matt did, but we were happy to just see the place that crafts the beer we enjoy back in Chicago. I think I would've preferred to taste a little more of Arcadia beer, but we were hungry...and, well, ya gotta eat!

Taking a Dark (Horse) Turn

Dark Horse BreweryAfter unwisely stuffing ourselves at Arcadia, we snaked through downtown Battle Creek back to I-94 to visit the Dark Horse Brewery Tap Room. I was pretty geared up about this place. Reading up about it online it seemed like a pretty rough and tumble place. A bit of a biker-inspired joint. Sure enough, this brewery "complex" included a Wacky Shack liquor store in front, a tattoo parlor and general store off to the side, and then of course, the brewery tap room. This was no fancy affair. The Tap Room, attached to the Wacky Shack, was itself a shack. A rockin' shack. Yeah, you might be thinking of that B-52s song by now, but this was no "Love Shack" but a raucous hard drinkin' kinda place (without the hard liquor.) Everybody was drinking beer and just Dark Horse beer. I didn't see anyone drinking anything else other than beer -- not even water. I was happy that so many people in Marshall we're so enthusiastically supporting their local brewery. We seemed to arrive at Dark Horse at the height of the festivities. There was much conviviality in the small room, with hundreds of rather artistic mugs dangling from the ceiling and the walls. It's a bit hard to describe. I saw a picture of the place on the Internet and it seemed completely different than the picture when I was there. Perhaps it was because the place was full of drunks. Nah, that's not fair, there were only a few drunks and they seemed to have friends to take them home who were highly tolerant of their lack of sobriety.

The last thing I needed at Dark Horse was food (after stuffing ourselves at Arcadia), but there in black and white on a chalkboard hanging over the bar were the words: House Smoked Cashews. At four bucks, I couldn't resist. What better accompaniment for the Oatmeal Stout that the friendly bartender was pouring for me. The stout went down pretty smooth and was followed by a Crooked Tree IPA which took forever to drink. I feel like I'm still drinking it now, and I am, but it's a bottle I've picked up since my visit. My bottle of this beer that I sip as I write this is going down much smoother than it was at the Dark Horse Tap Room. It even seems a bit lackluster. Hopheads shouldn't judge Crooked Tree until they've had it at the source. A buzz saw of fresh hops sliced across my palate with each sip of this beer. On the other end of the spectrum, was the Perkulator Dopplebock which Ryan, my partner in wandering through Wolverine-state beer culture, was very content sipping. I've never thought of adding coffee to a a bock beer, but it's a great mix of flavors.

The atmosphere at Dark Horse was lively, but also insular. We didn't make any friends as the patrons seemed consumed in their own drinking and in their own cliques. The staff was friendly though, so we didn't feel totally lost. Also, contact with others in the Dark Horse Tap Room can't be avoided: a couple times I ended up volunteering to grab someone's mug hanging from the ceiling instead of them trying to reach over me. This small act of helping someone find their mug made me feel at least a little bit like a regular. The mug club and its members is a pervading theme of Dark Horse that makes it unique. I'm told that people sometimes leave each other message in the mugs like little ceramic mailboxes. I also liked the cozy settlement-like nature of the brewery complex complete with general store (selling Dark Horse merchandise and homebrewing supplies), which was unfortunately closed when we were there. We did stop in the Wacky Shack, but the prices seemed a little steep. The beer garden looked fantastic, too, but it was a bit cold (snow flakes flying) for that when we were there. Also, there is a more expanded food menu than just House Smoked Cashews. I just love nuts.

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