So, first up was Founders where co-founder Dave Engbers gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the shiny new stainless there. Then, for the next two hours Mr. Engbers chatted with us about everything Founders and beer.
Breweries can be expensive operations. To run even a small brewery requires a capital investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment. Of course, you can make the money back, but when you first get going, it can be hard to know where that next sale is going to come from. Founders was no different. Shortly after it had begun, the bank came calling on some past due bills and basically gave the brewery one week to pay or it was going to foreclose on its collateral (fancy bank speak for: shut you down and sell your equipment). It was at this point, after a scramble to investors to help out, that a beer started to get some awards. This beer would save the brewery, allow for growth, and see the brewery to its newest flagship beer set to takeover later this year.
Which beer was this saving grace? The Dirty Bastard scotch ale, a rich, malty, slightly hoppy scotch ale that weighs in at a respectable 8.3% ABV. The Dirty Bastard was the flagship for Founders, bringing it the money to make it to its reputation-makers: Breakfast Stout, Kentucky Breakfast Stout, and Canadian Breakfast Stout. Surprisingly, these are not based on the same underlying Breakfast Stout recipe as the barrel aging imparts flavors that require adjusting the flavor profile of the base beer. This was something that we saw at Jolly Pumpkin and bears repeating here: beer is a living product - it changes shape over time and the beer that goes into the barrel or bottle very often is different from the beer that comes out of the barrel or bottle; thus, the brewer needs to predict what the beer will taste like after this aging and but a product in that will become what the brewer intends that you, the customer, will drink. This requires more than mere science, it requires art and craftsmanship to apply expertise and experience in predicting these flavor changes given the materials, the temperatures, the times, and a variety of other factors that impact the final product.
Which beer is poised to become the new flagship for Founders? The Centennial IPA, a classic American IPA in the hoppy, West Coast style that has become the calling-card of Founders' non-stout beers.
More importantly, the success of the Dirty Bastard allowed Founders to build its taproom. The taproom now serves not just as a place for locals and pilgrims to quaff a tasty beverage, but it provides cheap marketing research about what works and what doesn't. While not surprisingly few beers fail at the taproom, some have never made it out. For example, we were told the story of a blueberry lager that was positively reviewed by sycophant revelers, brewery staff nixed anyway as entirely unrepresentative of anything Founders wanted to portray about itself. On the other hand, was the undisputed champion of the entire weekend: a Maple Porter. This Maple Porter has not been brewed with maple syrup. It is a big-bodied, hoppy-ish porter that is aged in whiskey (or was it bourbon?) barrels that were used to age maple syrup at a local syrup producer. The barrels are now used to age this porter and create a wonderfully rich, complex beer that is sweet without overdoing it, a bright whiskey undertone, and roasted malts at a monster 10% ABV. It is a great, great beer and will hopefully make it into bottles for all the world to enjoy.
Also on tap was a Bourbon Barrel Red's Rye that impressed. The Red's Rye series of beers present an interesting challenge for Founders. As a grain rye can be harsh and husky and can turn off quite a few people; yet, many people like this flavor a lot. So, there's a balance that has to be struck between making beer that people can respect and appreciate, but also making beer that people will buy. It is for this reason that the Black Rye has been discontinued. Personally, I find this disappointing, as it was a great, great beer. I mentioned my love for this beer to Mr. Engbers and, while he commisserated and agreed that it was a good beer, it simply wasn't being bought on retail shelves. The bartender, Kim, had a better solution: mix about 1/3 Porter to 2/3 Red's Rye and voila(!) Black Rye.
I ordered the faux-Black Rye much to the disgust of Mr. Engbers. A cohort ordered the concoction you see there to your left: a mix of the Oatmeal Stout (on top) and Cerise (on the bottom); a nice, full-bodied, roasty, sweet, cherry-fruit bomb that has an absolutely beautiful presentation. It was at this point that we got into a rather heated argument that seems to be spilling into the beer geek universe: to mix, or not to mix. I am, as a general rule, anti-mixing. I think it corrupts both beers to result in a generally inferior product. But, having said that, the faux-Black Rye was surprisingly close to the actual Black Rye and, honestly, anything that results in a drink as pretty as the Oatmeal Stout/Cerise mix cannot possibly be all bad. As a brewer, of course, Mr. Engbers' point is well taken: the mix is not the intended product and to the extent it results in an inferior product, or really to the extent it results in a different product, it is not the product of the brewery. It's that simple. Kim, our wonderful bartender, made the point that her job is to serve what the customer wants - and if the customer wants a Black Rye, but one isn't on tap, she can get really close by mixing them and it makes the customer happy. A fair point. I'm not sure I can reasonably explicate a difference between this faux-Black Rye and, say, Granite City's horrible practice of putting together two of its beers to come up with something that isn't as good as its components (which is saying a lot!), so I'll chalk it up to hypocrisy and move on, I guess.
One last tidbit about Founders: their annual production is around 22,000 bbls, making it about the size of Capital Brewery here in Wisconsin. I was amazed to hear that brewery that seems so ubiquitous is, in fact, quite small.
Next on to New Holland, where the Existential hopwine is king and some derivative of The Mad Hatter represents close to 50% of the available taps. New Holland's Holland, Michigan brewpub is not where the beer is produced (the actual brewery is a few miles down the road) but is where we stopped to have a bite to eat and check out the wares. Personally, I don't really get excited by much of what New Holland makes; the Mad Hatter is OK, but there are many other IPAs that I would rather drink and that seems to hold true for much of their product line - it's all fine, but none of it makes me want to grab it over something else of a similar style. Most of us on the trip feel the same way, so we tried experimenting a little with New Holland's other line: spirits.
New Holland, in addition to being a brewery, is a distillery. They make whiskey, gin, and a few types of flavored vodkas. I had a faux-Tom Collins (one of my favorite drinks, by the way - I say "faux" because it was made with lemonade not lemon and simple syrup) with the gin that was pretty decent. Another of our group ordered a drink that turned out to be absolutely brilliant: a gin and tonic with the New Holland gin that had been soaking with cucumbers. The cucumber taste came through and the gin really shined; hands down this drink was the highlight of New Holland. The whiskey was expensive, $15 for what looked like a generous, not quite double, pour, but pretty good. Unlike many "craft" whiskey's this didn't overdo it with a heavy body and flavor; instead, it showcased some nice vanilla overtones with background flavors of cherry and oak on a light to medium body. Very nice, and not too much of a burn - easily drinkable without water to cut it.
Finally, on to Bell's. Bell's, as a pioneer and leader in the Midwest Craft Beer Industry hardly needs to justify itself and its decisions to anyone. It provides good, if not awe-inspiring, beer to just about every bar, restaurant, hotel, liquor store, grocery store and tavern in the entire Midwest. But, to say we were disappointed with the Eccentric Cafe, the downtown Kalamazoo bar/restuarant/taphouse/tied house would approximate, if understate, our feelings. The $6 cover did not start things right and we knew we should have just gone elsewhere when we saw that the cover charge could be modified by wearing a toga. Allowing some, apparently regulars, to slip by without charge only resulted in more frustration. Closing the kitchen at 9pm sealed the deal and we left without hearing a note of the "funky" cover band playing to a grass lawn covered with pot-smoking frat-boys and girls in togas and fake-fro wigs.
We did manage to grab some beers before we decided to high-tail it out of there, and the golden rye ale was rye overload - which even for an avowed rye-lover proved too much. The sour rye and sour fruit beers were a little better if not overly impressive; though, to be fair, compared with Jolly Pumpkin, it would be hard to impress. So, with that, hope you've enjoyed this trip to Michigan. All said and done, including bottles that came home with me, gas and my share of hotel rooms, the trip cost about $300. It took us 3 days and I put about 1000 miles on my car, albeit most of it just getting to and from Michigan itself from Wisconsin.
So, thanks to all of the breweries that hosted us. Thanks to all of the guys that were with us. Congratulations to my step-brother. And, I hope this review has inspired you to take a beer trip.