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.

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“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.

A brewery for Jackson (again)

Since moving south of Jackson, Michigan about two years ago, I’ve direly missed easy access to the craft beer scene. OK, so I was completely spoiled in Grand Rapids. Although I despaired when I first moved to West Michigan in 1995, I’m amazed to reflect on how cool, hip and desirable this region now is, due in large part (for me) to the booming brewing scene there. There’s my “brewery home,” the Hideout, where I also worked; Founders, with great beer, food, music, parties and atmosphere; and Grand Rapids Brewing Company, where I’m a “lifetime” mug member. HopCat (where I also worked) draws beer aficionados from all over, and the BOB also has a brewery. New Holland recently opened Brewery Vivant near Eastown, where I used to live, and Schmohz holds down the eastern fringe. More breweries are less than a 45 minute drive away from the city center, and Grand Rapids itself holds other establishments that don’t brew but that are outstanding places to enjoy craft beers from Michigan and across the world.

And then, there’s Jackson. Jackson’s got … bars. Sure, Ann Arbor (and her beer scene) is just down I-94, but it’s a full hour from my house. Not very feasible for a pint after work or a nightcap after dinner. Some joints here serve a seasonal Bell’s, if I’m lucky (and more often than not, servers will tell me they’ve got “Bell’s” on tap; when asked what kind, they give me a quizzical look, as if I’d asked them which kind of Bud Lite they carry). I’m just stating the facts here, and I understand why all this is. The social atmosphere in Jackson just doesn’t nurture or attract lovers of craft beer. This is the land of NASCAR and Budweiser — not that I’m knocking these things, and not to say these are mutually exclusive with microbrews, but there are definite, demonstrable demographic trends behind these generalizations.

However, microbrew lovers do exist here, just not in critical mass. Proving this point is the fact that a brewery’s been tried before: There is a brewery building that’s languished just east of downtown Jackson, the gleaming brewing equipment it contains earning an almost fabled spot within the brewing culture of Michigan. This is the site of at least two former breweries, but the darkened edifice has taunted local lovers of local beer for seven years now.

Wilcox's homebrew club: they brew to escape

Enter Phil Wilcox, a founding member of Jackson’s homebrew club, Prison City Brewers. Thanks to him, we have some good news: this building will soon open its doors once again. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Jackson’s Citizen Patriot ran an article on this budding business; the comments posted by local readers reveal the overall current in Jackson, which is not overwhelmingly positive. This proves my former point, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Breweries are big business these days, and many Michiganders are willing to travel a bit for good craft beer. So, although the new brewery may be called “The Local Pub & Brewery,” if this venture succeeds, my guess is that it won’t be thanks to local patrons. It will be the craft beer lovers from Dexter, Chelsea, Ann Arbor, Lansing and Kalamazoo, or from even farther away, who will keep this dream alive. Or maybe I’m wrong; prove me wrong, Jacksonians! Hey, I’m local, and I’ll be there.

*UPDATE: Brewery is currently set to open in June!*

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.

Wake Up Weekend in Grand Rapids

Since moving from Eastown in Grand Rapids just over a year ago, there a some things I don’t miss a bit, like vandalism of my home or car, keeping the cops programmed into my cell phone and driving 30 minutes in order to hike with my dogs. But, this thriving city also holds many attractions, events and festivals that offer a good excuse for a road trip.

On January 22 and 23, Grand Rapids will host Wake Up Weekend 2010, an “annual two-day celebration of animal-friendly food, art, education and advocacy.” The two days of mostly free events will feature lectures, a film and vegan culinary treats.

Calvin College, my alma mater, will be the site of a workshop, “The Many Faces of Food Activism,” a vegan potluck dinner and a lecture on Friday the 22nd.

The full day of activities scheduled for Saturday the 23rd begins with a session with Bryant Terry and a $10 vegan buffet at 11 a.m., and ends with a screening of “Fowl Play – The Untold Story Behind Your Breakfast” at 9:30 p.m. A lecture, meeting, reception, an art exhibit and a vegan chili cook-off fill the hours in between.

This sounds like an incredible weekend that I wouldn’t want to miss.