Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Beer Ain't Drinkin' 3: The Search for Bock

by Jeff Allison

Heidely hey everyone!

So, just got back from a beer vacation in Michigan. Spent a day in Kalamazoo visiting the currently being remodeled Bell's Brewery and then another revisiting New Holland Brewery.

The Bell's tour was one of the best brewery tours I've been on (in spite of the fact they didn't give you samples, but whatever—I still scored free matches and balloons!).  During the renovation they're not offering tours at the main brewery (though they still have them at their original one by the brewpub), but I used my "industry" connections to open doors, roll carpets (more or less).  I guess once the remodeling is competed they'll have public tours, and by that point the brewery will be roughly the size of the Leiny brewery in Chippewa Falls—that is say, it's so massive that when driving up to it I didn't think it was a brewery!

My tour guide knew so much about the specifics of brewing beer that I felt like a friggin' idiot (he's ex-Goose Island, like the head of sales at Founders Brewery, Michael Bell). As for the brewery, well... first off, I've never seen a robot moving kegs before. The brewery, including the bottling line, runs 24/7 and is pretty much totally automated. This is obviously a big bone of contention in Michigan, but our guide stressed Bell's never lays people off and the bigger their volume the more people they hire.

For me, Bell's over the years is one of those breweries I've always taken for granted. They make solid and usually great beer (I mean, really, when was the last time you had a bad beer from them), it's easy to find in a pinch, and they don't really do the super-limited batches that drive beer geeks crazy (Hop Slam and Black Note being the exceptions).  Also, to the best of my knowledge they are the first microbrewery east of the Mississippi, yet they've all the while stuck to their guns, their standards. Who else would pull out of the Chicago just so they wouldn't be stuck with a shady distributor (cough, cough... Miller) and then two years later come back into the market stronger than ever?

After the tour, I stopped off at the Eccentric Cafe in downtown Kalamazoo, and it's a pretty solid brewpub. Of the handful of great exclusives available there, the Wild One impressed me most. Brewed with wild yeast and stored in oak barrels, it alone was worth the trek north.  Also tried the Oracle, their version of a California double IPA (think Green Flash, which is pretty good if you really like hops) and Quinannan Falls Lager, a great hoppy lager (you read that right).  I was also pleased to find they had the Rye Stout available at the bar (now if they'd only start re-doing their weisse line...).  The food was also quite good, and the flights of beer came on wood plates shaped like Michigan, so I got the lower part and my friend got the U.P.

Next we hit up the New Holland Brewery, and the folks there were nice enough to comp the tour with only a day's notice and gave us beers during it, to boot (including Dragon's Milk!).  Like pretty much all micro's right now, they too are expanding.  Also, there was a homebrewer's expo going on outside, so it was pretty loud.  The two tour guides weren't as knowledgeable as the guy from Bell's, but were certainly friendly.  And standing in a massive room filled with stacks of bourbon barrels aging Dragon's Milk is pretty friggin' cool!  And though Bell's and Three Floyds also make bourbon barrel-aged beers, neither does it on the scale of New Holland with the DM. As for the brewpub in downtown Holland, the food's great and has some great exclusives, such as their own brewer for brewpub beers.  The Swimming Lizard, a Belgian-style brewed with cherries, and the Wonky Eye, Belgian-style quad ale, really stood out. As did the Charkoota Rye Double Bock (the bock I was searching for years now, it seems), which is also available in bottles!

And as if all this wasn't cool enough, I found a great place in Holland to buy beer—Butch's, a strange half hoity-toity restaurant, half specialty liquor store. The food smelled decent enough, but one look at their beer cooler—Dark Horse Sapient Trip, Founders Breakfast Stout, Bell's Batch 10,000, the complete Short's Line (their rye is really good, but avoid the pie beers at all costs), the full line of Brewery Vivant, as well as a bunch of non-Michigan beers that can't be found for love or money in Illinois, such as Great Divide Espresso Stout and Stone Double Bastard—and I knew I was in a good place.  Needless to say, I dumped a bunch of money and left happy (despite paying Michigan prices <grumble>).

Well, that's it for this installment, as I've come to the end of my bottle of Sapient Trip and now it's time to order a pizza, say good night, and return to the question I've wrestled with most of the day (without submitting to the all-knowing wisdom of Mr. Internet): What the heck was the name of the Russian thug in Rocky 4?

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