I awake with a start, matted in cold sweat, unsure of my surroundings. Around me–a dirty, no doubt fluid-soaked motel room, filled with cobwebs and garish multicolored furniture, relics of the 1970s. “Who am I, and where am I?” I wonder dully, craning my head to take in the room, which appears to have been trashed by a passing vagrant, who in his haste, has done a sub-par job. “Why am I here? Am I on the run from the law?”
“…have I killed again?”
And then it all comes flooding back. I’m sprawled in a dingy Super 8 motel bed because I’m travelling through Michigan. Federal marshals, as far as I’m aware, are not in pursuit. I’m on a craft beer roadtrip. This is Day II.
On Monday, I told you about the first leg of my recent trip through southwestern Michigan, in which I visited destinations like Shoreline Brewing, The Livery and New Holland Brewing. On the morning of Day II, a Tuesday, I awoke early, and departed from Holland. After going out of my way by a maximum of 20 miles or so northward, I corrected my directions and headed east, passing into the outskirts of Grand Rapids. I would spend all of Day II here, in one of Michigan’s great beer cities, taking in the best destinations the city had to offer. I would eat well, and sup upon some fantastic suds.
Founders Brewing, Grand Rapids, MI
I hit Founders first for a number of reasons. As the biggest and most recognizable craft brewery in Grand Rapids, it was almost a token of respect. But more than anything, it was because I knew that there probably wouldn’t be too many brewery exclusives there that would need tasting. Taking a gander at the brew list proved me right.
Massive geek that I am, I could not resist a Star Wars reference, so I ordered up an “Empire Strikes Bitter,” which was the perfect beer to start off a day. Malty, biscuity, and undercut by herbal English hops, I enjoyed it while sitting outside on Founders’ spectacular patio. Even more massive geek that I undoubtedly am, I also made a mental note that I would get around to drinking the Lord of the Rings/Led Zeppelin-inspired “Misty Mountain Hop Brown” later. But before I forget, check out the beautiful Founder’s facilities below. The wall to the left is open to the outdoors, letting in a lot of great natural light. The whole place has a sort of “biergarten” vibe.
It’s a cool, quirky place without a doubt. They even have caricatures of all of the bartenders hung over the bar. And I mean a caricature of every single person who works there. Observe a sample:
I decided, however, not to stay too long at Founders, knowing that I had several other destinations in Grand Rapids to hit this sunny Tuesday afternoon, and confident that I could return later. Besides, I had worked up a considerable hunger, and knew that a restaurant with a great reputation for food and beer was just down the street. So I hoofed a few blocks, over to Beer Advocate’s #3 beer bar on the planet Earth…
The lunch and time I spent at Hopcat has crystalized in my memory into perhaps the best time of the trip. It was a beautiful, gorgeous day, sunny and warm, and I sat outside under cover on the Hopcat patio on a couch, reading from the ever-present novel stuffed in my pocket and drinking Hopcat’s beers. I knocked back a refreshing hefeweizen first while enjoying the best fish tacos I’ve ever eaten.
I then tucked into Hopcat’s house DIPA, “Hopportunist”. As an aside–I keep wondering, have we reached a theoretical threshold on all of the beer names that could ever be possible that use “hop” in a play on words? Has any “hop”-named beer not been used yet? If it hasn’t already happened, it’s got to occur sometime soon. We are reaching critical mass here. A China syndrome event seems inevitable.
Regardless, the Hopportunist was somewhat underwhelming–not as good as the hefe, for my taste. I like my DIPAs to be an all-out hop assault, and this one simply couldn’t keep up with a syrupy malt backbone that tasted a bit more barleywine than DIPA to me. And so I departed, retrieved my car, and headed on to my next destination on Grand Rapids’ north side…
Hideout Brewing Company, Grand Rapids, MI
The Hideout is, as the name implies, hidden pretty damn well. It’s off a main road, only accessible on a windy little street, practically one-lane, that leads to an apartment complex hidden back among some trees. There’s pretty much no way to know that it’s there unless you’re already aware of where you’re going. Thankfully, I had planned ahead and had express instructions on how to get there from Founders. As such, I only got lost for the briefest of periods* before ending up at The Hideout.
*as far as you know.
Because it had been nearly an hour at this point since my last beer, I promptly ordered up a sampler of The Hideout’s brews. This is what I had to choose from:
And so, I lined up a flight of five:
Lucy’s Vienna Lager: A tasty and toasty vienna lager that would be an ideal every-day drinker, went great with a handful of popcorn from The Hideout’s free popcorn machine. Salty, sobriety-granting popcorn.
Karotte Liebe: A Belgian pale ale brewed with…wait for it…carrot and parsnip. This is essentially the beer that the 100 Acre Woods’ Rabbit would brew. It’s rather difficult to say exactly how profoundly the flavors of carrot and/or parsnip came through in the finished brew, and it will have to suffice to say that it really wasn’t too bad. There was a certain veggie-laden sweetness that was not unpleasant.
Bootleg IPA: The house IPA, brewed with amarillo hops, which are a personal favorite of mine for their “grass clippings” aroma.
Smuggler’s Hazelnut Stout: Another interesting beer, this one brewed with hazelnut coffee, which lent a very prominent nuttiness to the brew. Also very sweet, much more like a milk stout than any other style. Almost a little too much for me, but worth trying, as I’d never had a beer like it before. It also made me wonder, why haven’t more breweries made coffee stouts with flavored coffees? I mean, there are flavored varieties beyond counting. Those could add up to some interesting beers.
Semi-Sumatra Imperial Stout: Another coffee stout, although much more burly, weighing in at almost 10%. This one took a decidedly different path than the Smuggler’s, and was drier despite the much higher alcohol. A very assertive, dark-roasted coffee flavor mixed with a spicy rye malt addition to make this one of the more distinctive beers of the trip. I departed Hideout Brewing quite impressed by the operation that was being run, tucked away from prying eyes.
Oh…and this sampler was somehow only FIVE DOLLARS, which is an incredible value for the beer you get! I still have no idea how that was possible, unless they messed up my bill.
By this point, my stomach was rumbling again, so I made my way to one of my most anticipated destinations of the trip, Brewery Vivant, for dinner.
Brewery Vivant, Grand Rapids, MI
I had plenty of good reasons to be excited about trying Brewery Vivant’s beer (and food) for the first time. Among them:
1. You still don’t see that many Belgian-exclusive brewpubs in the U.S.
2. Brewery Vivant is the first of said Belgian-exclusive breweries to can all of their beer in sweet-looking 16-ounce pounders, and
3. The place is molded in the image of a freakin’ cathedral, with stone columns, wooden benches, flyin’ buttresses and stained glass. It immediately vaults to among the coolest-looking breweries I’ve seen in the U.S.
I grabbed a seat at that long, wooden communal table in the forefront of the photo, ordered a steaming bowl of bouillabaisse (which is a stew of whitefish, shrimp, mussels and vegetables), and ordered another beer flight, determined to sample the most interesting and unique of Vivant’s brews. You should note that this did not include the brewery’s three flagship canned beers, Farmhand, Triomphe or Solitude (farmhouse, IPA and dubbel, respectively), as I was able to buy those beers in packages of cans and bring them home. Instead, I focused my attentions on the brewery exclusives, which arrived in what is no doubt the most aesthetically pleasing beer flight I’ve ever seen.
This is a choose-your-own “cambier” flight, which apparently means “brewmaster” in Belgian. The glasses do have tiny stems, which hang below the smooth wooden board that holds the little goblet tasters in place. The four beers, in clockwise order from the top left, were:
French Fusion: A crisp, malty session beer, almost in the bier de garde style, except brewed to a low strength. A continental thirst quencher.
Zaison: An 8.5% “super saison” brewed with black peppercorn and Spanish orange peel. Unlike some other black pepper beers I’ve had, it struck an almost perfect balance between the natural spice of saison yeast with a persistent hint of peppercorn at the end of each sip. Surprisingly drinkable for its strength. This is how you do a spiced beer right.
Belgian Black Ale: Probably my favorite of the Vivant brews, with a nutty, dry cocoa powder flavor mixed with schwarzbier-like noble hops and Belgian yeast. A real stylistic mashup that worked out great, as far as I’m concerned. Would probably be my go-to beer, if I was a Vivant regular.
Big Red Coq: “Please tell me it’s pronounced ‘coke’,” I said to my waitress, hanging my head in embarrassment. “Nope,” she said. The website calls this one all about the hops, but I don’t remember a very overpowering hop presence. Instead I tasted a semi-sweet beer with more crystal malt than any of the previous brews, layered with herbal hops in a good balance.
And then, unfortunately, it was time to go. After pausing briefly to commiserate with an unattended dog that some thoughtless master had left tied up outside to howl and bark absent-mindedly at the building as patrons looked on in sympathy, I decided I was in the market for just one…more…beer. I made my way back to Founders, where the day had begun, ingratiated myself to a group of college students several years my junior, and knocked back the elusive Misty Mountain Hop Brown, which I had sworn earlier that morning to return for.
And I always keep my beer promises.
As the hoppy American brown ale soothed me after a difficult day of taxing my taste buds, I reflected on how lucky I was to have the opportunity to make this kind of trip in the first place.
I also reflected on Kid Carboy’s Geography Lessons of the Day: Grand Rapids Edition. Always ready to learn a new factoid, I picked up two of interest during my day in the city. They are:
1. Grand Rapids has a serious hallucinogenic problem among its art community.
2. Grand Rapids has a steampunk pig airship. This is a real thing that exists.
It’s called, quite simply, The Steampig.
Goodnight, Grand Rapids!
Tune in for Day III of the Michigan Beer Sojourn on Friday. Once again, the link to Day I is here.
Day II Map: