Sisterhood of the Suds

This was featured in the November/December 2011 issue of the Michigan Beer Guide, as part of a series I’m writing on Women & Craft Beer. This is the longer version of the article; you may read the published version at the Beer Guide website. It is reprinted with permission.

Stitch-n-bitch circles, scrapbooking sessions, the Red Hat Society, all-female book clubs, mommy-and-me groups, and the list goes on: clearly, women thrive on sharing experiences and maintaining close circles of like-minded companions. For any interest, hobby or passion, there is likely an all-female group devoted to enjoying it together. And with craft beer stealthily making its way onto the collective female radar, it makes sense that groups of women who gather to appreciate and learn about microbrews are popping up everywhere.

Across the board, women’s beer groups emphasize inclusion and shun snobbery. These clubs exist to promote beer enjoyment among experts and the uninitiated alike, and hinge on creating a friendly, encouraging environment.

On the national level, there are several all-woman, beer-centric groups, each with its own unique focus. Perhaps the most well known is the Pink Boots Society, whose mission is to “inspire, encourage and empower women to advance their careers in the Beer Industry through networking and education.” Members of this Society include any female who earns any portion of her income through the beer industry, whether she’s a brewery owner, bartender, or anything in between. There are about a dozen members of the Pink Boots Society residing in Michigan, ranging from Certified Cirerone Annette May to brewers, writers and owners.

For women not employed within the beer industry, but simply interested in enjoying craft beer, there is the affiliated Barley’s Angels. This group is designed to “foster beer appreciation in women, teach women’s role in beer history, encourage women to homebrew, and inspire the next generation of potential women beer professionals.” There are currently chapters in at least six states including Illinois and Minnesota, as well as in Canada, the UK, Australia and Argentina.

Christine Jump, producer and host of the audio interview program Craft Brew Cast, sponsored the very first Barley’s Angels group. “I thought that I didn’t like beer for three quarters of my life,” recalls Christine. “The idea that I could help other women discover the marvelous variety of craft brew was a very easy sell. My hope is that women will discover that craft beers are so widely varied; there is literally something for everyone.” Another “consumer-focused,” national group is Girls’ Pint Out, established to promote “solidarity between beer drinkers of the fairer sex;” they have chapters in at least five states.

Both consumers and professionals may join Women Enjoying Beer (WEB), “an education based company that develops and serves the female beer consumers … [and] works with professional beer community members to accurately and successfully market beer to women.”

Some groups are based more on face-to-face interaction, and feature monthly events like brewery visits and themed beer tastings. Others, such as Ladies of Craft Beer, are geared towards fostering online communities of women.

In addition to national groups, there are myriad local groups across the country. For example, there’s Women’s In Pursuit of Ale (IPA) Club of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, Beer for Babes in New Jersey and Ales 4 Females in Colorado. In Michigan – a state simply awash in superior craft beer – the female beer appreciation group scene is in its fledgling stages. However, we’re off to a respectable start.

Detroit has Detroit Draft Divas, which launched in the spring of 2011 under the direction of Copper Canyon Brewery head brewer Todd Parker, who identifies himself as “consultant, liaison, and mascot” for the club.

Todd set out to “establish a Metro Detroit area group for like-minded women interested in craft beer … women interested in learning more about beer and brewing in a more comfortable setting,” and the group has more than met this goal. “I am very happy with what we have done. We have created a group that has some dedicated members, and set up a communications structure to get the word out. It is not huge yet, but with time, it will only get bigger.”

The Divas meet at a different location each month; events may include a brewery tour, an informational gathering followed by lunch (and a few pints, of course), or a party at an area brewery. According to Cindy Hegenauer, a founding member of the group, there are currently about 25 regular attendees, representing “almost the whole spectrum of female craft beer drinkers.”

On the other side of the state, Grand Rapids is home to the PussyCat Beer Guild. Inspired by the Pink Boots Society and initiated by HopCat owner Michele Sellers and HopCat staff, the Guild dates to the summer 0f 2008. “We hoped to encourage women to be open and bold about their appreciation for good beer, whether they’re a brewer, an aficionado, or simply just interested in learning more,” explains Sheryl Rose Marshall, who is involved in running the club. “We’ve realized that goal in varying degrees over the years, and continue to attract new members and interest in what we do.”

Ladies of the PussyCat Beer Guild

Meeting attendance usually hovers below 10 women, although there were 20 females at the largest meeting and there are more than 50 “members” in the Facebook group. “Feedback has been excellent,” confides Sheryl. Sheryl admits that there is a certain amount of preaching to the choir, as “nearly every woman who has come to a meeting was already on the craft beer bandwagon in some way.”

But, all members ultimately benefit from the enthusiasm and combined knowledge of the group. “We’ve had a few women who had never homebrewed and were excited to attend our off-site group brew days to learn how. Once in awhile, someone will come in and say she only likes a certain type of beer, but we’ve been successful in encouraging her to try new things by evaluating what it is that she likes about the beer she does drink, then finding a beer in a different style with the attributes she expressed as desirable.”

On a side note, “men often comment that they wish the woman in their life would get involved with us,” says Sheryl.

Also in Grand Rapids is the Ladies Ale Society at Schmohz Brewery, where 50 to 80 ladies attend meetings. Begun with a beer tasting event in October 2010 and scheduled for a meeting in early November 2011, this Society centers on encouraging women “to try beers that they normally might be steered away from,” says Schmohz “Beer Engineer” Chas Thompson. “Too many times, I see ladies being overly influenced by male companions and not getting the opportunity to try very many things,” Chas says.

Although not the brewery-home of a structured club, Wolverine State Brewing Company in Ann Arbor hosted their first “Real Women Drink Beer” event in June 2011. The female-centric night was such a success that similar events are now in the works on a twice-yearly basis, with the next get-together scheduled for February 2012.

As director of sales and marketing E.T. Crowe (also known as The Beer Wench) explains, “I know the traditional ‘Ladies’ Night’ is a ploy to get women in by offering them drink specials. I wanted this to be a true Ladies Only Night where we could gather, meet, drink, learn and relax with a little pampering action.” Notice how she just slipped the “learning” right in there? Perhaps lured by free massages, munchies and henna tattoos, it was the first visit to a “beer bar” for many of the ladies who attended.

"The Beer Wench" leads a tour at Wolverine

“I worried a little that I’d get my regular crowd,” continues E.T. “Nothing wrong with regulars mind you! But I really wanted to offer this as something new for women who would never in a million years consider coming to a “tap room” to meet their friends to enjoy a craft beer. I would guess the crowd was split 20/80, with a solid 80 percent either completely new to the place or to craft beer generally.”

Women living far from the bustle of Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids or Detroit should not count themselves out. It only takes a handful of members to create a successful women’s beer appreciation group. Starting a group can be as easy as visiting a local brewery and talking with a brewer, bartender or female mug club member about when an inaugural meeting could occur, and how to get the word out. Social web sites like Facebook, Meetup and Google and Yahoo Groups also make ascertaining interest, building membership and inter-group communication simple and quick, whether or not there’s a brewery nearby. And, already-established national or international groups are yet another option for finding a female beer clan.

Women and craft brews are a perfect match, and women flourish within groups of “sisters;” female clubs devoted to the enjoyment of craft beer are a natural culmination. Michigan, as The Great Beer State, has a bright future ahead of her, full of passionate groups of ladies who appreciate, evaluate and enthusiastically quaff our outstanding brews.

The inaugural MI Fest

Badass Beer was the best brew on offer. Well, maybe that’s not the best place to start, but it’s pretty much where we started. This was the first-ever MI Fest at MIS in Brooklyn, Michigan, and if nothing else, it was a unique experience.

An outstanding September day set the stage: fresh breezes blew away ominous clouds to reveal sparkling blue skies; the temperature was brisk yet comfortable. My husband and I left our 1-year-old with a sitter for a very rare night out and headed for the 1,400-acre Michigan International Speedway complex, most famous for hosting NASCAR races twice a year. The event, billed as “an outdoor music & camping experience,” was set up in a large, rolling field used as camping space during NASCAR. Wristbands on and backpack checked, we entered and soon found ourselves browsing an array of artisan and farmer’s-market-type booths, just after passing the impressively long lines at the Third Man Records van.

The variety of stands really added to the “festival” for us, and we ended up buying a few chocolate chip cookies (dry and bland), eying some jewelry and – after much finance-related discussion and some bartering – purchasing a very cool handmade ashwood-trimmed birdhouse. So that was fun.

the Third Man Records van

But, we were thirsty. And that was a problem. Perhaps this is de rigueur at all the events these days, but it seems deeply wrong to me: water was $4 a bottle, and that was the only water one could get. This, I was not a fan of. Empty (or full) water bottles were not allowed into the festival, and even if they were, there was not a single drinking fountain or even a damn hose to be found. Touted as a family-friendly event, there were kids here, and pregnant ladies, and hell, really drunk people! Maybe I’m being an old fart, but this is beautiful, wonderful America, where you can drink free-flowing water from almost any tap and not get sick, and here 12 ounces of water cost more than a gallon of gas – and it was the only water available at a 12-hour festival. It offends me.

It's wet and it's cold. Yay.

Ah well, we like beer, and so we gravitated to one of the refreshment stands dotting the grounds. Twelve ounces of Badass Beer: $5; 16 ounces of either of two varieties of “light” macrobrews: $7; I won’t quibble with these prices. Although my husband and I briefly debated the price-per-ounce question, it was a moot point, as I had no desire whatsoever to drink a light macrobrew. So Badass it was. And the discussion of that beer is another topic for another blog, but let’s just say, it’s good if you really want a macrobrew. ‘Nuff said, thirst quenched.

But this was a music festival, right? When we showed up, The Romantics and Ty Stone were blasting out music that seemed to compete for our attention – the two stages were only about 100 yards apart. Music from one stage vibrated the air during the lulls in songs being performed on the other. I don’t think the artists loved this, and at least one performer commented on it between songs. However, this motley collection of acts seemed to make the best of it for the most part. I should mention at this point that when I bought our tickets, there were three stages planned and a host of mostly-Detroit-based talent on the ticket, but that all evaporated a few days before the event launched. The tickets didn’t sell as robustly as the organizers had planned, and I also caught wind of the promoter bailing just before the event, and MIS assuming control. So two stages and less bands, but really, I didn’t care. I was here for one reason, and one reason alone: The Raconteurs.

Yet Jack White didn’t take the stage for a few hours, so we tooled around the grounds, eventually brushing past the main, “MI Fest” stage, where Ronnie Dunn (of Brooks & Dunn fame) was doing his thing. Since this sounded like run-of-the-mill-radio-country to me, and that isn’t really my thing, we drifted to the “Grandee” stage, where The Rockets were slaying it.

OK, these guys are old. They played one song that we thought we had heard before. But you know what? They totally rocked! Maybe we were chuckling as they went through their clearly time-honored posturing, but it was undeniably enjoyable. The lead singer posed and writhed and sweated, the guitarist jammed out on a righteous solo and they delivered a tight set of fan favorites. Sweet!

Here’s another odd facet of this festival: the variety of acts, and the people they attracted. The attendees were a mix of families, young and very cool hipsters, and the retired set in their Velcro sneakers and fanny packs. All this diversity made for some stupendous people-watching!

Many people brought lawn chairs, blankets and coolers of food and “camped out” near the main stage. This was fine for most of the day, but things got hairy when the headliners took the stage and fans began pressing closer around, stumbling over chairs and trampling blankets. (However, many of these “campers” packed up and left after Sheryl Crow finished up; they saw what they’d come for and left more room by the stage for me!)

It was tough luck for The Rockets that Sheryl Crow began 15 minutes before they ended, as they finished up to a sparse crowd. We stayed on for the end of the Rockets’ set, then dispersed through the gathering twilight to see the big-ticket draw.

Not Detroit

Sheryl sounded great and presented a high-energy performance. This pocket-sized singer ran through her hits and actually seemed to enjoy doing it. If I could give her personal feedback, I’d advise her on two topics. First, know where you are. Yeah, Brooklyn, Mich. is near Detroit, just like Nyack, NY is near New York City or Benton Harbor, Mich. is near Chicago. Over and over, she shouted out things like “are you feeling me Detroit?” Um, we’re two hours from Detroit. That ain’t right. Second, send out a lackey and see what kind of event you’re at. Shouting out, “how do you like those corn dogs?” doesn’t really work when there are no corn dogs on offer. Trying to redeem yourself by asking about the (non-existent) funnel cake doesn’t help, either. We were eating ribs and burritos. And waiting for The Raconteurs!

pitter-pat

I was grinning from ear to ear and bubbling with excitement as night fully blossomed and the crew set up The Raconteurs’ equipment. Once they finally took the stage, I was not disappointed! Courtesy of Jack White and the rest of this finely-tuned music machine, I was transported to a galaxy of awesome, along with the rest of the remaining crowd who came not to hear country music or bands from the 70s, but for this, this.

As long as I’m dispensing advice, here’s some for Jack: I know you’re in your own world and that’s why we love you, but please consider us, the little people, before you turn your back to the crowd to jam out with the drummer; we want to see you tear it up, man! I know, I’m just being greedy. I’ll admit that, for a few moments, I understood those screaming girls in the old Beatles movies. Overall, their performance was fantastic. I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating by using the word Epic. When it was all over, I wanted it all again, and again!

I walked back to the car in a bubble of music-fueled joy. The festival had a few kinks, sure, but if The Raconteurs return next year, so will I.

Spin did a good write-up and took some solid photos

Maumee Bay Brewing Company at the historic Oliver House

This blog is dedicated to the flavors of Michigan, but once in awhile I venture from our fair state. If craft beer is waiting on the other end, all the better. Recently, I worked up a good thirst during a visit to the Kitty Todd Nature Preserve just west of Toledo, Ohio; thankfully, the Maumee Bay Brewing Company was just a short drive away.

The drive turned out to be intriguing in and of itself, as it took us from rural farmland to busy commercial streets, through run-down neighborhoods and finally into the heart of downtown Toledo. Toledo is a city with a rich past and the potential for a successful future, but that seems to be caught in a backwater of recession. I guess it could go either way for Toledo, but the good news is that it rather reminds me of Grand Rapids, Michigan, about 15 years ago. Downtown Grand Rapids has grown by amazing leaps and bounds since then, so there’s no reason to give up on this other Great Lakes city. Especially not when it features such establishments as the Oliver House.

Over 150 years old, the Oliver House began as a hotel before the Civil War and now houses eight or nine different venues. Located on the second floor in the former ballroom, the Maumee Bay Brewing Company is what drew me to this gracious building. I was disappointed to learn that the brewpub itself was closed when we arrived for lunch, but things quickly turned around when we learned that we could order the Brewing Company’s beer at The Café, a hip spot on the ground floor that boasts a charming patio.

Before we get to the beer, a quick comment on the food at The Café: it was great! Wonderful selection, including many more vegetarian options than I’m used to, plenty of healthy dishes, and decent portions. It would have been a welcome stop even without the beer. But, since we were at a brewery, foregoing the beer just wasn’t an option for me! I quickly ordered up a sampling flight of six different brews.

First on the flight was Buckeye Beer, 5.2% ABV and billed as a “light beer.” My expectations were very low, so I actually enjoyed this brew more than I thought I would. It is a touch better than the token “microbrew for macrobrew drinkers” I’ve come to expect from most breweries. With a pale straw hue and a foamy white head that doesn’t stick around very long, the aroma is sweet and malty. The flavor is crisp and sweet with a faint backing of hops. It wouldn’t be the beer I’d ever order a pint of, but it is highly drinkable.

Next up was the Summit Street Pale Ale, which I learned is the replacement for the Glass City Pale Ale. Glimmering a bright coppery gold in the glass, the nose of this 5.1% ABV brew is herbaceous, with a twist of tangerine. The flavor is grassy and clean, with a drying mouthfeel. Usually I make a beeline for the IPA, but I ended up enjoying this brew more than this brewery’s hoppier offering. One intriguing aspect of this beer is that it’s brewed with a newer hop blend, Falconer’s Flight.

Which brings us to the IPA. At 6% ABV and 80 IBUs, this beer’s got my number. Amber in the glass, this brew has a floral aroma that brought lavender to mind, along with citrus and pine. The flavor showcases a Centennial dry-hopping, but any bitterness is well balanced by malt. In fact, I found myself looking for a bit more bite from this beer, though it is quite decent overall.

Brewed with plenty of Crystal malt and a touch of Cascades, the 5% ABV Fallen Timbers Red Ale pours a deep, clear mahogany red. With a dominance of sweet malt on both the nose and the palate, this beer doesn’t have any bells or whistles. The hops do lend a drying finish to the experience, but the mouthfeel itself is a bit too round and bloated for my taste. Though not a bad beer, the Fallen Timbers Red was my least favorite of the lot.

The most unique beer on offer was King Prunus, brewed with a whole mess of apricot puree. Due to the high volume of fruit in this beer, it is touted as bestowing great antioxidant benefits to those who imbibe. Sure, I’ll take that excuse, it’s for my health! A wheat beer, it was more this ingredient than the fruit that came through in the aroma. With a delicate flavor of both wheat and apricot, this 5.3% ABV beer is by no means a wine cooler beer or a fruit soda. Crowned with a dense, long-lasting head, the flavor of this beer is clean and light, and suggests another sip.

Finally, the lone dark beer on tap was the 4.9% ABV Dry Irish Stout. A gorgeous, creamy nitro head lingered long atop the opaque chocolate-colored brew as I took in the roasty, cocoa aroma. The rich flavor and mouthfeel instantly brought to mind Guinness, which I think should be a compliment more than anything else. Toasty, creamy, a bit of cocoa and coffee, it hits all the right notes for a nitro stout while still managing to taste bright and finish cleanly.

I would jump at the chance to visit the Oliver House again, not just for the beer but also to patronize another restaurant on premise, visit the pub itself and spend some more time checking out the small Brewing Hall of Fame and Museum featured here. If all things were going my way, I’d then cap off the day with a pint or two of Summit Street Pale, enjoyed on the House’s inviting patio.

This one’s for the ladies

I wrote this piece for the May/June 2011 issue of the Michigan Beer Guide; it is reprinted with permission.

Chicks don’t like beer. Step outside of the craft beer community, and this misconception runs rampant. Only, it’s not exactly a falsehood. Although I know lots of  women who absolutely adore microbrews, in general, beer is not the female drink of choice, so what’s going on? To get to the heart of this matter, I interviewed over a dozen female beer drinkers, allowing me to take a highly subjective and unscientific look at women and craft beer.

To begin with, let’s consider women and beer in general. According to last year’s Gallup poll, just 27 percent of women prefer beer over wine or liquor (compared with well over 50 percent of men). In other words, when given a choice of alcoholic beverages, nearly three-fourths of women will not choose a beer. And who could blame them? For those 27 percent of women who prefer beer, and the rest who don’t, “beer” very likely means a mass-produced fizzy yellow beverage. Statistics from the Brewers Association corroborate this notion: the American craft brewing sales share in 2010 was 4.9 percent by volume and 7.6 percent by dollars; either way you slice it, it’s a small share of all beer sales. Clearly, there are whole swathes of people out there who, despite having an affinity for libations, do not have a clue about craft beer.

It’s no surprise, then, that the majority of American women would rather sip a cocktail or a glass of wine than crack open a beer. It all starts with and comes back to the flavor, but that’s not the whole story. There’s also the fact that macrobrew beer is predominantly marketed to men: ponder the legions of commercials featuring “guys being guys” and sharing a few brewskis, commercials in which women are either major buzz-kills or vapid, bikini-clad eye candy. Add to this the stereotypes of beer-bonging frat boys, beer bellies, and guys swilling down yet another cold one while shouting at the TV screen, and the tale becomes more complete. Overall, the beer scene can be less than attractive for women.

But, it doesn’t need to be this way, and in many circles, it isn’t. Gallup also tells us that the percentage of women who prefer beer over wine or liquor rose 6 percent from 2009 to 2010, so the relationship between women and beer is on the mend. And I imagine that craft beer, with its welcoming and vibrant society, wonderful array of offerings, and more sophisticated character, is at least partially to thank for this uptick.

In contrast to “big beer,” female drinkers and craft beer are a natural combination. After all, women were historically the first brewers. And, if women are seeking delicious beverages, the world of craft beer offers an almost unending assortment of widely-varying options.

In an effort to examine on a very small scale the relationship between beer, craft brews and the fairer sex, I interviewed ladies in attendance at the Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival. With a sample size of approximately .2 percent, my findings are far from iron-clad, but a few interesting trends and points did emerge.

I started by asking the all-important question of how each woman first “discovered” craft beer. As it turns out, there was a pretty even split between ladies who came to craft beer on their own or with girlfriends, versus those who were introduced to the scene by a male partner. When boyfriends or husbands turned a woman on to craft beer, it was usually because he started brewing himself, and she got sucked in.

What I found most interesting was when ladies learned of craft beer through get-togethers or events; these ranged from a beer club to a homebrew class staged at a library. So yes, reaching out in friendly ways and “beer evangelizing” does work! In one case, it was the Festival itself that brought an adventuresome lass to craft beer: Annie came from Chicago with her girlfriends to experience the Beer Fest. “This is something totally new for me,” she confided. “My girls brought me out for this; they told me it’d be a great time. This is going to be my first one and I can’t wait!” When I spoke with her, she was in line to sample her first sip of craft beer ever! For me, this is exciting stuff.

Next, enthusiastic answers about favorite beer styles easily shattered the illusion that all women prefer lighter beers or those that are sweet and fruity. Yes, some women did prefer Kolsh- or Pilsner-style beers, and others craved brews with strong fruit flavors. But the female palate is far from uniform. For example, Lauren from Ann Arbor is a self-proclaimed bitter beer addict who declared, “I like my beers to hurt!” One pattern that arose is that many women identified their taste in beer styles as seasonal, ranging from strong stouts and porters in the winter months to refreshingly hoppy IPAs in the heat of summer.

Finally, every lady I spoke with confirmed that it was the flavor of corporate domestic beer that had kept her away from the beverage, but once she tried craft beer, she was hooked. For example, Laura from Grand Rapids said that she used to prefer mixed drinks until her then-boyfriend started brewing; now, she explained, “Craft beer is my beverage of choice, but I don’t drink domestics.”

“I eschewed beer for most of my life,” shared Patti from Ann Arbor. “I drank Labatt’s from time to time. But, then I had craft beer, and was like, ‘Oh my God!'” Said Bobbi from Grand Rapids, “Before [my husband started brewing], I’d drink wine or liquor. I didn’t enjoy those mass-produced beers; I didn’t find them tasty, so I didn’t drink them at all.” Once  she was introduced to craft beer, however, she never looked back. Craft beer, she said, “has become our hobby and our passion. I always buy craft beer now; Michigan craft beer.”

The message that women actually love beer, specifically craft beer, came across loud and clear. Of course, these ladies were at a craft beer festival, so this is no great revelation, and of course my results are skewed. But the point is that not one woman expressed that she was just there because her husband or boyfriend dragged her along; these ladies were present to experience craft beer on their own terms. Connected with this is the actuality that, once they are exposed to it, women are often extremely receptive to and appreciative of craft beer. This makes it clear to me that the craft brewing community must make a concerted effort to reach out to the female population. This is a huge, virtually untapped segment of the population; I would take careful note of this if I owned or worked for a microbrewery.

Craft beer is flavorful; craft beer has nuance and depth and finesse; craft beer has yet to be dominated by male-centric, perhaps sexist marketing campaigns; for these reasons and more, women and craft beer are a perfect match. All that’s needed is some beer-advocacy and friendly educational efforts to distinguish craft beer as a very different entity from commercial brew, to help overcome the general female rejection of beer as a whole, and to allow ladies to truly appreciate all that craft beer has to offer. The rest will take care of itself. I’m a believer. I can imagine a world where one day, a double IPA or an imperial stout are known as “chick drinks.”

Batch 10,000 happiness

Last night, I had the good fortune to share a bottle of Bell’s Batch 10,000. From the first whiff to the last sip, this is an arresting and potentially enthralling beer, so much so that I decided to blog about it.

This beer, which commemorates the 10,000th batch of beer brewed by Bell’s, is marketed as containing “100 different malts, grains, and other fermentables. This is balanced by the addition of 60 different hop varietals between the kettle and dry hopping.” With the riot of smells and tumult of flavors evidenced in this brew, I don’t doubt these claims for a second.

Batch 10,000 poured from the bottle a deep chestnut brown, settling into the snifter with a creamy, khaki-hued head. After several minutes, this rather short head dissipated, leaving gentle lacing.

It was impossible to experience all the aromas vying for attention even after three deep sniffs from the glass. Raisins, toffee, molasses, chocolate, bright hops, campfire, licorice, peat, pine needles, even a bit of tangerine: they all erupted from the glass, hinting at the maelstrom of tastes awaiting there.

The brew is undoubtedly complex and flavorful, but I honestly found the flavors swirling around a bit confusing. There’s so much going on that I felt like I was in an orchestra pit before a show, listening to many different masters run through their crucial parts of the symphony, without ever hearing the piece performed in full. However, I did not mind this sensation one bit. No, I quite enjoyed it; I felt like each sip was a challenge, a riddle to be solved.

The flavor is rich with notes of brown sugar, coffee, honey, tobacco, sage and maybe toasted pecans, all balanced by an earthy hop presence. Every time I took a sip, I felt like I was experiencing a new wrinkle of this beer. There is a a full, slightly sticky mouthfeel, and alcohol warmth hidden at the end of this 9.2% ABV brew. Carbonation is moderate and the aftertaste is quite smooth, finishing dry, clean and a touch bittersweet.

Although categorized as an American Strong Ale, if I was handed this beer and asked to categorize it, I would probably guess at a barleywine. It’s a heady brew that would probably stand up rather well to a bit of aging. Almost redundant with complexity, it’s David Lynch-movie of a brew: you either love it or you don’t, and when if do, it’s really, really great, but it’s probably not going to be your number-one go-to beverage. But, I’m eagerly anticipating my next odyssey with Batch 10,000.

Published in: on April 9, 2011 at 9:57 pm  Comments (1)  
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It’s Pączki Day!

Every year, the first time I see a box of pączki at Meijer, I get excited. It’s not because I can’t wait to sink my teeth into one; I can easily eschew those leaden pucks and wait for fresh treats on Fat Tuesday. No, it’s because when I see pączki, I know that even though the ground may still be covered with snow, spring is really, finally, just around the corner.

Well, the snow is still on the ground, but Fat Tuesday dawned mild and sunny in southeast Michigan. As a self-respecting bastion of Polish culture and tradition, in Jackson, one can purchase pączki on practically every corner today. A treat that never blipped on my radar while living on the East Coast, pączki are filled pastries traditionally enjoyed before Lent, specifically on Fat Tuesday.

I waited in a line that snaked around the inside of the tiny Hinkley Bakery to pick up a dozen of the soft, dense pillows, filled with cream, custard or jelly. Last year, I did the same thing at European Bakery.

Yeast donuts that rise before being fried and filled, pączki may have originated when Polish Catholics were trying to use up all the sugar, lard and fruit in the house in preparation for Lent. At their best, they are spongy and light. The most traditional fillings may be prune or raspberry, but pączki are available with a range of fillings, including cream, blueberry, custard, apple, lemon, and cream cheese. Judging by the 20 or so orders I overheard today, custard is the breakaway favorite among Jacksonians on the southwest side. Traditionally covered with sugar, they may also be glazed.

I’m not sure how many people are observing a day of feasting and merriment today, before beginning tomorrow to abstain from much-loved pleasures or vices, but I am sure that enjoying a pączek is a tradition most anyone can embrace. After all, it’s the perfect time to indulge before cutting out the junk in preparation for bathing-suit season. As for me, I’m not a bit Polish, but I never met a morsel of fresh, fried dough I didn’t like.

Published in: on March 8, 2011 at 10:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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Forget chocolate, the way to my heart is beer!

In honor of the upcoming holiday, Dianna Stampfler of Promote Michigan put together a great list of Valentine’s Day-appropriate beers, every one of them brewed in Michigan.

Tasty personal favorites like Vanilla Java Porter from Detroit’s Atwater BC and Cocoa Loco Triple Chocolate Stout from Battle Creek’s Arcadia Ales are easy picks, but I love the curve-balls she throws in there, like the ambrosial Two Hearted from Bell’s in K-zoo.

One beer that won’t be available at your local store but that I’m sure will be worth trying (and that perfectly fits this theme) is Chocolate Rose Bud Stout from the Corner Brewery in Ypsi. This tempting brew will be on offer at their Valentine Masquerade Ball this Friday. In another life, in which I lived in or close to Ann Arbor and I didn’t have a sweet little baby, I’d so be there, probably with bells on. As it is, I’m happy to live in Michigan, surrounded by so many swoon-worthy craft beers.

February’s other beer festival in Michigan

Can’t make it to West Michigan for the Michigan Brewers Guild 2011 Winter Beer Festival? Event producers at Jackson’s American 1 Event Center are hoping that you’ll console yourself with a visit to the Southern Michigan Winter Beer Festival.

Of course, the MBG festival is in a completely different class, and it’s not really fair to compare the two. Beer festivals in general are a great idea, and anything that might bring an infusion of people, fun and money to the downtown Jackson area is also a very good thing. So, I hope that this event, with its alluring use of the rather forlorn Jackson County Fairgrounds, is a success.

I can only guess that it was no coincidence that the two events will be held on the same day. However, by doing so, it almost guarantees that Michigan beers are poorly represented at the SMWBF. Brewers and staff members at Michigan breweries get ready far in advance for and dedicate an entire weekend or more to the MBG Festival. I doubt they’ll have the person-power to establish a presence at both events, and it’s hard to say no to a crowd of thousands! Therefore, it’s likely that most of the 85 or so beers available at the SMWBF will be from out-of-state. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; I love many, many beers brewed across state and country lines. It’s just that having a beer festival in Michigan that really highlights Michigan-made beer would be that much better for our state and its economy.

Just like the MBG event at the Fifth Third Stadium near Grand Rapids, the Southern Michigan Winter Beer Festival will run from 1 to 6 p.m. on February 26, 2011. It will be held at the American 1 Event Center, 200 W. Ganson St., at Jackson County Fairgrounds. Admission is $20 in advance, $25 at the door, $5 for DDs.

Jackson’s Citizen Patriot newspaper published an article earlier this month about the event.

“The best thing I ever ate,” Jackson edition

As Food Network/Cooking Channel junkie, I usually only watch the true “cooking” shows (and by the way, I’d like to have dinner and drinks with Ina, Paula and Nigella!). However, I stumbled across an episode of “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” the other day. On this particular episode, celebrity chefs were waxing poetic about culinary creations from specific establishments in their hometowns.

This got me thinking about regional fare I’ve enjoyed in various locations I’ve lived: northern New Jersey, Chicago, the Netherlands. It’s easy to think of numerous “best things” from these locals. Then there’s Grand Rapids: also easy. Just off the top of my head … Cangrejo Del Rio from San Chez (washed down with a mango mojito), an Alpine Veggie sandwich on pumpernickle from Schnitz, a wood-fired pizza with portobello mushrooms and goat cheese from Wealthy Street Bakery, a veggie dog from Yesterdog … oh my I could go on and on, but I’m just making my mouth water and yet get the gist.

So then I started thinking, what’s Jackson got?!? Plenty of chain restaurants, to be sure. A great Coney dog? Maybe, but that’s kind of like boasting of an ultimate Philly cheese steak in Wichita, isn’t it? I’ve heard great things about the burgers at West Point Lounge, but when I went there with three other people who all got burgers, no one was raving or declaring new-found love. There are some decent bar-and-grills and restaurants here, but is there anything that really sets us apart? It’s a question that I pondered rather glumly for a while.

Until … I remembered Hinkley!

In the tradition of many a great local “best kept secret,” Hinkley Bakery is tucked away on a residential street in a not-so-great neighborhood. With only a slim yellow sign proclaiming “Bakery,” it would be easy to drive right passed the aging brick building. The parking lot is filled with potholes, there isn’t so much as a seat inside for patrons, and the hours are rather unusual – 5:30 am to 1 pm, Wednesday through Saturday. But, all these things don’t seem to affect this family-owned business any, as I’ve never visited without also having to wait in line.

Behind the glass cases inside the tiny bakery awaits something far better than visions of sugarplums, something ambrosial, something that can certainly be called one of the best things I ever ate: Hinkley donuts!

If you’re early enough, you’ll have your choice of dozens of freshly made little tastes of heaven. The classic glazed, fresh and warm, perfectly light and addictive. The favorite of many is the chocolate croissant, slathered with chocolate frosting. It sounds over-the-top, and maybe it is, but it’s also transporting. But my personal pick is the cream-filled long john (what I’d call an eclair back in a Jersey bakery). The fresh dough is fried to perfection, with the slightest crust on the outside and nothing but airy deliciousness inside. A generous portion of fluffy cream fills the concoction from end to end, and thick chocolate icing crowns the entire masterpiece. Amazing? Absolutely.

I’m thankful to Hinkley donuts for providing Jackson not only with an incredible way to start the day, but also with a reason to brag.

Kalamazoo’s first Beer Week

Detroit tried it first; now, it’s Kalamazoo’s turn. Kalamazoo will start the new year off right with their first-ever Beer Week, running January 10 through 14, 2011. Carrying on a great new tradition that’s a proven two-time winner in Detroit, beer tastings, drink specials at venues around the city, opportunities to meet with brewers and more will all be on tap in Kalamazoo. These events are inspired by and scheduled to coincide with the Winter Conference and Annual Meeting of the Michigan Brewers Guild, which will take place in Kalamazoo on January 12 through 14. What’s important is that these events aren’t simply celebrations of getting shit-faced; they’re planned to support and increase an appreciation of Michigan craft beer.

Of course Bell’s and Olde Peninsula Brewpub will be featured during the week, as will Battle Creek’s Arcadia Ales. Various venues around Kalamazoo, including the Kalamazoo Beer Exchange, Central City Tap House, Harvey’s on the Mall, Martini’s Pizza and The Strutt, will also join in the fun.

You can read more in the Kalamazoo Gazette article.