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.

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Happy Fifth Anniversary, Hideout Brewing Company!

In honor of one of my favorite brewery’s fifth anniversaries, I’m posting the piece I wrote for the Michigan Beer Guide when the Hideout first emerged. This was originally published in the May 2005 issue of MBG as “Discover Grand Rapids’ Newest Hideout,” by me, Brenda Cooke. Some details may be out of date, but most everything still rings true! Reprinted with permission of MBG.

If you live in or ever visit West Michigan, you may get the sense that you’re still stuck in the days of prohibition, due to the conservative climate and curious laws dealing with the sale of alcohol. Fortunately, West Michigan beer lovers can now tip back a few pints at the new Hideout Brewing Company, a prohibition-themed microbrewery where the delicious beer flows freely.

Approaching Hideout BC, you may get a sense of an exclusive speakeasy due to the off-the-beaten-path setting and the drooping pines that silently guard the entranceway. Once inside, the brewery has an expansive feel, with the lounge and bar area downstairs and the second floor loft located just above the bar. Former patrons of the Hair of the Frog Brewery, which used to operate in this building, may remember the location. However, owner and brewer Ken McPhail has worked hard to change up the look and the feel of the new brewery. The comfy, homemade chairs and poured-concrete bar remain the same, but now there are rich red and orange walls set off by massive photographs of gangsters and bootleggers; the new décor promotes a laid-back and cozy feeling.

But of course, the beer is what I’m here for. I was quite happy to be living in these post-prohibition times as I sampled Ken’s six beers, and found each one to be satisfying and true to style. The 5.5% ABV Smuggler’s Hazelnut Stout is a dark, opaque brew with a strong hazelnut flavor accentuated by coffee and cream that finishes clean. Ken believes in keeping things local: this stout is brewed with Hazelnut Crème coffee beans from the Schuil Coffee Company in Grand Rapids. Ken’s second stout offering is the 5.6% ABV Cement Shoe Stout, dark as the bottom of Lake Michigan, featuring a good balance of hops and malts; full-bodied, yet clean and refreshing. The clear, deep brown 5.6% Nitro Stout is the Cement Shoe on nitrogen: it has a lasting, creamy head and boasts roasty notes with a hint coffee. In the traditional Pilsner style, the golden 5.2% Purple Gang Pilsner is hoppy and slightly sweet with a crisp finish. Hop lovers will want to try the 6.6% ABV amber-hued Bootleg IPA, and are sure to enjoy the classic, faintly oaky flavor complimented by a touch of creaminess and a long finish. Slightly cloudy, the Crusaders’ Weisen weighs in at 5% ABV and is crisp and bright with a hint of lemon. The beers are offered at the bar in pitchers, pints, 12 oz. glasses, or in a sampler of five; get them to go in growlers or kegs.

If by chance you’re looking for something other than beer, Hideout tenders a variety of different homemade libations. Sauvignon Blanc, White Zinfandel and Shiraz are all available on draught. A hearty ~13% ABV mead is not too sweet, and is made from honey gathered in nearby Hudsonville, MI. The lightly carbonated cider owes its crisp flavor to locally grown apples from Robinette’s in Grand Rapids. These selections are a real treat for West Michiganders; as Ken observes, “no one else in town offers homemade wines, ciders, and meads.”

The drinks served at Hideout Brewing Company are so tasty for good reason. Each one is hand crafted by Ken McPhail, who has a long and rich history in the world of brewing. Ken homebrewed for 10 years before getting into the business, and then worked his way from the bottom up, beginning in the packaging and cellaring area of the Kalamazoo Brewing Company. He worked for Bell’s in Kalamazoo in the mid-1990s, and remembers back when it was just “a hole in the wall.” At West Side Brewing, NY, where he got to meet with top representatives from Anheuser-Busch, he gained a perspective of the “other side” of the brewing scene. From 2000 to 2003, he brewed for Big Buck Brewery in Grand Rapids.

Ken explains that he’s “been tracking the industry for a long time” (so it’s not surprising that he has “read the Michigan Beer Guide since it first came out”). Over the years, he’s been able to form a good “sense of how breweries start out and grow.” Now the proud owner of his own brewery, Ken describes his business as a “throw-back, grassroots brewing company [that is] more comparable to a home-brewery than to a commercial brewery, or even a microbrewery.” Ken brews his beers in an old-fashioned system with a homemade, tilt mash tun and a 5-barrel kettle. The open top fermentation offers “a nice way to brew that supplies more flavor.” Ken comments, “it’s a nice thing that Grand Rapids actually has a brewing community. I want to carry on that grassroots brewing tradition.”

This brewery is Ken’s baby: he runs the show, from brewing beers to tending bar to dealing with vendors. “It began as a one-person operation,” remarks Ken, but is quick to add, “My wife’s been helping me a ton.” [Writer’s note: Boss Lady Laura McPhail is certainly an indispensible part of the business!] But Hideout BC isn’t Ken’s only baby…his 2-year-old daughter will be joined by a brand new bundle of joy by the release of this publication. Ken worked furiously to get the brewery up and running, and his hard work certainly paid off when Hideout celebrated its grand opening on June 11, 2005 with food, live music, and beer specials.

Visitors to Hideout Brewing Company can relax in the non-smoking bar area downstairs, or play darts and foosball and perhaps enjoy some live music in the loft upstairs (which is smoker-friendly). Available munchies include soft pretzels and free popcorn. Hideout Brewing Company is located at 3113 Plaza Dr. NE in Grand Rapids, just north of the intersection of Plainfield Ave. and I-96. From Plainfield, turn east onto Lamberton Lake Dr. (look for Hansen Collision on the corner), and then make the first right onto Plaza Dr. After the few bends in the road, the brewery (which shares the building with Blue Spa, formerly Hubba Tubba) will be on your right. For more information, give Ken a call at 616-361-9658, or visit the web site: www.hideoutbrewing.com.

Don’t count carbs, count carbon

If you’ve ever wondered about the carbon footprint of a six-pack, read on for my fifth contribution to the Michigan Beer Guide dealing with brewing, beer and sustainability. This piece is reprinted with the permission of MBG. Be sure to pick up the May 2010 issue of the Michigan Beer Guide, featuring the 2009 State of the Michigan Brewing Industry Report. This is also the “fifth anniversary” of my contributions to MBG. Cheers!

You may consider your potential carbon footprint when planning your next vacation or shopping for a new car. But, have you contemplated the carbon footprint of your beer? Every purchase we make, from shoes to brews, can be scrutinized in view of the total carbon footprint of the product in question.

True, examining every facet of one’s buying habits in terms of the environment may seem exhausting at best, or pointless at worst. But eco-conscious beer lovers may be both interested and surprised to discover the details of the overall environmental effect of their favorite beverage. The idea here isn’t to feel guilty about enjoying beer, but to realize which facets of the “life cycle” of a beer result in the most greenhouse gases (GHGs).

GHG emissions are directly related to a product’s carbon footprint. According to carbonfootprint.com, a carbon footprint is a “measure of the impact our activities have on the environment, and in particular [on] climate change. It relates to the amount of greenhouse gases produced in our day-to-day lives through burning fossil fuels for electricity, heating and transportation, etc.”

“Alternatively empowered” and environmentally conscious New Belgium Brewing Company chose to face their carbon impact head-on by partnering with the Climate Conservancy to establish a lifecycle assessment (LCA) of the climate footprint of a six-pack of Fat Tire Amber Ale. According to New Belgium, an LCA is an “accounting of material and energy flows during each stage of a product’s life and the assessment of associated environmental impacts.” This LCA offers a revealing look at the carbon footprint of any beer.

To discover the LCA of Fat Tire, the Climate Conservancy first determined the “national average carbon cost” for producing a six-pack of beer. They then contacted New Belgium suppliers and delved into past energy bills and purchase orders to discover this particular brewery’s impact.

The assessment established that to create a six-pack of Fat Tire, it takes 3,188.8 grams of CO2 equivalents, or grams of carbon dioxide equivalent, the accepted unit of measure for the GHGs that contribute to climate change. Though the number in and of itself doesn’t mean much, New Belgium uses this number as a baseline to measure the results of future improvements to their production methods. The Fort Collins, Colorado brewery reports that they hope this tool will help improve the sustainability of both their company, and of the brewing industry overall.

To put this number in perspective, the LCA found that New Belgium emits 35 percent less GHGs than the average US beer producer. For this distinction, New Belgium earned the designation of Climate Conscious Silver (out of a rating system of Silver, Gold and Platinum).

The report breaks down the lifecycle of Fat Tire into the stages of upstream, entity and downstream. Taking a closer look at these three stages imparts a better understanding of why the carbon footprint of a six-pack is relatively so large.

First, the “upstream” stage deals with the acquisition and pre-processing of all raw materials. The scope of upstream emissions turns out to be huge, encompassing everything from packaging and non-consumable materials like glass, paper and adhesive, to consumable materials like malt and hops, taking into account agriculture, production and transportation. With so many factors to consider, perhaps it’s not surprising that upstream emissions account for 48 percent of the total emissions.

Of that 48 percent, glass manufacturing and transportation (21.6 percent of total GHG emissions) and the production and transportation of malt and barley (18.6 percent) that are responsible for a full 40 percent of Fat Tire’s total footprint.

Second, “entity” considers factors “directly associated with the manufacture and marketing of Fat Tire.” New Belgium already does a great job of limiting their emissions through such measures as using all wind power and adhering to an innovative, highly efficient brewing process. Therefore, their own operations and waste disposal account for a mere 5.4 percent of total emissions! The LCA reveals how New Belgium truly shines within their own facility and operations, acting as an inspiration to brewers large and small.

Finally, “downstream” emissions, those associated with the distribution, storage, consumption and final disposal of New Belgium’s flagship beer, account for the remaining 46.6 percent of the total footprint.

Especially in America, enjoying a beer is often inevitably linked to icy-cold refreshment. But maintaining a frosty product comes at a high environmental price: the assessment found that refrigeration represents “the most significant contribution to overall GHG emissions. … Nearly one kilogram of GHGs of the roughly three kilograms embodied by [Fat Tire] are emitted during the retail phase of the beer.”

In the end, the LCA concluded that “the business of creating any beer is linked inextricably to GHG emissions and many of these emissions are today unavoidable.” Emissions from the agricultural and packaging subsystems located “far upstream” from breweries make it difficult for the breweries themselves to manage these effects.

Beer is never going to be the most eco-friendly beverage. In fact, a government-sponsored study from the United Kingdom found that “alcoholic drinks contribute significantly to emissions, with the growing and processing of hops and malt into beer and whisky producing 1.5 percent of Britain’s greenhouse gases,” according to a May 2009 article in the UK’s “Telegraph.”

However, New Belgium did identify several areas for improvement. For example, they determined that “the production of synthetic fertilizers and related emissions from the soil are a substantial part of the GHGs allocated from malted barley,” so switching to organic barley or barley fertilized from organic sources would contribute to a reduced carbon footprint.

As for the refrigeration problem, this brewery concedes that they have little power over the design of the refrigerators used at the many retail centers that carry their beer. However, New Belgium considers that “efforts to minimize stock turnover time at retail, or the removal of some portion of product from refrigerated section altogether” might help to drastically reduce the carbon footprint of Fat Tire.

Both professional and hobby brewers can use this LCA to make informed decisions about their own operations; reducing energy consumption across the board will lower greenhouse gas emissions. However, this is only one small piece of the puzzle, and upstream and downstream factors remain largely out of reach.

As discussed in a previous MBG column, offering and consuming draft beer eliminates the problem of the single-use glass bottle. If canning beer is an option, this is also preferable to glass. Another step in the right direction is choosing organic brewing ingredients when possible. Finally, there’s an attractive solution (or fantasy) that brewers and beer enthusiasts alike can embrace: new breweries across Michigan, offering draught beer within a walking, biking or very short driving distance of every neighborhood throughout the state!