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

Drinking for two?

I wrote this for the July/August 2011 issue of the Michigan Beer Guide, as part of a small series on Women & Craft Beer. This is the longer version of the article. It is reprinted with permission.

You’re enjoying a favorite brew at a local Michigan brewpub when you glace across the room to see an obviously pregnant woman sidle up to the bar. Instead of asking for a glass of water, she orders a honey-hued ale and proceeds, gleefully, to take a sip. Is this woman crazy? Is she the worst mother-to-be imaginable? Doesn’t she care about the health of her unborn child?

There are extremely rigid social mores surrounding alcohol in our country, and perhaps the most severe of these revolve around motherhood. From formal statements issued by health organizations to glaring looks that speak volumes, pregnant and nursing mothers get the message in no uncertain terms: “even one drop of alcohol will endanger your child!” While the impetus behind admonitions of this nature may spring from a sincere desire to keep babies safe, the effect is to make an expectant or breastfeeding mother’s body public property, and to demean her ability to make informed decisions.

Do a quick online search for recommendations on drinking alcohol while pregnant or breastfeeding, and you won’t find many US-based resources that even allow for a few ounces of beer. This total-abstinence policy arose after researchers identified fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) in the 70s; the Surgeon General issued warning statements about drinking during pregnancy soon after. The government made no distinctions about quantity: from that time on, any and all drinking during pregnancy became taboo in the US.

This (Photoshopped!) pregnant lady is promoting Brazil’s Nova Schin non-alcoholic beer.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warns, “drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause a baby to be born with birth defects and have disabilities,” and that “there is no known amount of alcohol that is safe to drink while pregnant.” True, alcohol-related birth defects and disabilities are real, tragic, heartbreaking, and are 100 percent preventable. But is a pregnant woman really taking a gamble with her baby’s health by consuming half a glass of beer with her dinner?

In November 1996, the British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) published Guideline No. 9, consisting of conclusions and recommendations concerning alcohol consumption during pregnancy: “No adverse effects on pregnancy outcome have been proven with a consumption of less than 120 [grams] of alcohol (around 15 units) per week [1 unit = 1/2 pint].” The RCOG didn’t give pregnant women license to be lushes, however; they recommended limiting consumption to no more than one drink per day.

A study that evaluated over 130,000 pregnancy outcomes, published in 1998 in Neurotoxicology and Teratology, showed that moderate alcohol consumption (2-14 well-spaced drinks per week) during the first trimester of pregnancy is not associated with increased risk of fetal malformations.

On a more personal and less scientific note, when I was an au-pair in the Netherlands, the mother I worked for told me that her doctor actually recommended an occasional glass of red wine during pregnancy. (In Europe, they do in general have a different, more flexible attitude toward pregnant moms and alcohol.)

I am emphatically not implying that moms-to-be should exploit the upper limits of the studies mentioned above. A fetus is affected by what a mother drinks, and it is ignorant to claim otherwise. The point here is that fear-mongering abounds in the US. Under the supposition of minimizing risk to their babies, pregnant women are expected to attain some “perfect behavior” that includes forswearing soft cheese, canned tuna, fresh apple cider, salad bars, sushi, sprouts, herbal teas, lunch meats, diet soda pop, coleslaw, caffeine, tap water, stress, pesticides, house paint, cleaning fluids, hot tubs, electric blankets, most prescription drugs, microwaves, getting overheated, hair dye, X-rays, roller coasters, reptiles, nail polish, sleeping on one’s right side and changing cat litter boxes, to name a few. Sure, some of these warnings are imperative, but just reading this list makes me crave a tranquil moment, savored over a few sips of craft beer.

So how does an expecting mom navigate this sea of prohibitions? In the case of alcohol, studies clearly demonstrate that a mother’s heavy drinking is dangerous for a fetus. However, negative effects of an occasional, small tipple have not been shown.

I believe that, overwhelmingly, moms have their babies’ best interests at heart, and so although these are not decisions to take lightly, they are decisions mothers can be trusted to make. By no means do I think that pregnant women are entitled to a nice beer buzz every once in a while. But for women who delight in the camaraderie or the feeling of small celebration that is often linked to imbibing, an occasional, diminutive drink can help them feel like themselves again; like they’re not being cut off from their old life and friends by their unborn baby. Half a glass of beer with dinner once a week, a champagne toast at a wedding, or a small glass of wine sipped on date night are pleasures of life that I believe pregnant women should feel empowered to decline or embrace.

Did I drink when I was pregnant? The short answer is, not really. I knew that, for me, half a beer would only work to leave me craving more, rather than to satisfy. I did, however, attend two Michigan Brewers Guild festivals while pregnant. At each, I kissed a few well-chosen samples, wetting my lips enough to know I was really, seriously looking forward to a pint of Short’s Hangin’ Frank [update: now renamed ControversiALE] or an evening with Jolly Pumpkin’s Madrugada Obscura.

A French poster from yesteryear reads (by my own loose translation), “Beer is nutritious. This one is drinking, This one does not drink.”

Which brings me to the next phase: breastfeeding. The entire time I was pregnant, I had a misty, rose-colored fantasy of enjoying frosty craft brews with my friends while my new baby slept sweetly in another room. Cut to reality: my baby screams unending with colic, and it dawns on me that I can’t just freely swig high-gravity beers while breastfeeding. In fact, most of my online searches cautioned me not to drink at all.

However, drinking while breastfeeding is not off-limits. Quoting an article from the June 1996 Journal of Human Lactation, “a mother who chooses to drink should feed her infant before drinking. Usually breastfeeding occurs about every two to three hours. In that time frame, the alcohol from one drink (12 oz. of 4.5% beer, 4 oz. of 12% wine, or 1.5 oz. of 86% proof liquor) is out of her system before another feeding occurs. The mother’s milk is then alcohol free.” So, there are options if a mom just craves a beer; if a long night of brews with some friends, or perhaps a beer festival, is in order, it’s best to pump beforehand so baby has plenty of untainted milk to drink, get a sitter, “pump and dump” for comfort’s sake if necessary, and enjoy!

An old ad for Blatz reads, “A case of Blatz Beer in your home means much to the young mother, and obviously baby participates in its benefits. The malt in the beer supplies nourishing qualities that are essential at this time and the hops acts as an appetizing, stimulating tonic.”

Nursing moms clearly have plenty of latitude, while pregnant moms should exercise restraint. In the October 2007 issue of the British Medical Journal, an obstetric consultant asserted, “there is no evidence that alcohol in moderation causes harm to unborn babies.” Moms-to-be have enough on their plates (or taken off their plates, as the case may be) without worrying about whether one small glass of homebrewed chocolate stout is going to cause birth defects. And, according to any levelheaded research that actually addresses this matter, it won’t.

Most mothers want to make the best choices possible for their babies, and to make those decisions, they should be equipped with facts – not blanket statements and scare tactics. A mom shapes a child for a lifetime; let’s supply her with the real facts and trust her to start right from the very beginning. That pregnant woman at the brewpub, who has done her research and weighed the facts, likely won’t even finish half of her glass. So let’s send a smile her way as she revels in a few sips of local, handcrafted beer.

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)  
Tags: , , ,

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  
Tags: , , , , ,

Yes, we can!

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

It used to be that the distinction between a craft beer and a macrobrew was an easy one to make: the craft beer was in a bottle, the macrobrew, a can. But almost 10 years ago, craft brewers began to challenge this perhaps illusory division, and minds have been changing ever since. Currently, several Michigan craft breweries offer their fine products in cans, and more will join their ranks in the months and years ahead.

Though many would like the claim the title of “first,” it’s generally accepted that this trend began in 2002, when restaurant owner Dale Katechis started brewing. “Dale is always one to do something different, and he saw canning beer as one of those opportunities,” recalls Chad Melis, marketing director at Oskar Blues Brewing Company in Colorado. The decision seems to be paying off: at Oskar Blues, production has advanced from 17,000 bbl (barrels) three years ago to 42,000 bbl last year, with 70 percent of their product shipped out-of-state.

“People wondered why we would consider this,” continues Melis. “Well, it’s better for the beer. It protects the beer by eliminating light, and it keeps it fresher; it has less contact with oxygen.” Light and oxygen are indeed the two big obstacles to overcome in order to maintain a fresh brew: Cans clearly keep out light better than bottles, and filled cans contain less oxygen than filled bottles. A can creates a superior seal compared to bottle caps, and by keeping out oxygen, this seal increases shelf life.

A fresher beer was a big part of the decision, but certainly not the only factor. “The other part of it was really just to throw people a curve-ball,” Melis relates with delight in his voice. “You shove a big, hoppy IPA into a can and then step back and see the reactions. People smell it, they taste it, and it’s a jaw-dropping experience.”

The promise of better-protected brew and that vibe of excitement have drawn many small breweries to can their beer in recent years. According to craftcans.com, 100 craft breweries in the U.S. currently can their beer. And, there are additional benefits that will surely draw more breweries into the realm of cans.

There’s a cost advantage: “Cans are cheaper to buy than bottles, and there’s a shipping savings, since you can get more cans per pallet,” shares Melis. Cans may also be a better choice for the environment, as they’re more easily recyclable and are lighter to ship, thereby demanding less fossil fuels. (An article in the January 2010 issue of MBG hashed out the glass vs. aluminum question from an environmental perspective.)

With all the arguments for canning beer, you may wonder why this trend is only really catching on now. Tom Duex, head brewer at the U.P.’s Keweenaw Brewing Company in Houghton, sheds light on that question. “What people probably don’t realize is that this technology is something that just recently became available for a brewery of our size,” he explains. At present, Keweenaw BC brews about 5,500 bbl a year, with about 90 percent of that staying in-state. “It’s relatively new. But as the technology grows, brewers are in agreement that you’re going to see craft beer in cans more and more.”

Canning their beer since they started brewing in 2004, Keweenaw BC has since expanded their canning line. They now offer five of their beers in cans, the fifth variety just rolling out at the end of January of this year. My first introduction to a flavorful microbrew in a can was Lift Bridge Brown Ale from Keweenaw BC, enjoyed on a camping trip near Marquette. This detail reveals yet another benefit of cans: portability.

“I’m not a fan of lugging glass around,” says Duex. “You can easily take cans more places, like the beach, or on outdoor activities like skiing, snowshoeing, golfing or boating.”

Keweenaw BC was the first Michigan brewery to can, but they didn’t remain the only one for long. Bell’s Brewery took advantage of the can’s accommodating nature in 2005, when they released their first 5-liter mini-keg.

After 12 years of offering their beers exclusively at their brewpub, Rochester Mills Beer Co. of Rochester introduced their first canned beer for distribution, Cornerstone IPA, in mid-summer 2010. Since 2008, they’ve had their Lazy Daze Lager available in cans at their pub. Once again, fresher beer, portability and superiority to glass in terms of being recyclable were all behind the decision to can. And, Rochester Mills set itself apart from bottled microbrews in yet another way: their new cans are a full 16 ounces. “We wanted to give you a full pint, just like we do at the brewpub,” explains head brewer Eric Briggeman, who oversees the brewing of Cornerstone IPA at MillKingIt Productions in Royal Oak, where the beer is brewed under contract.

MillKingIt Productions will soon also release Rochester Mills’ Milkshake Stout. In the meantime, their own Axl Pale American-style pale ale was available in a can in 2010, and their Brik Irish-style red ale is now available as well; both are sold in 16-ounce containers.

This year alone will see at least three other Michigan breweries moving into the world of cans. Arcadia Brewing Company of Battle Creek will release their first canned brew in April, followed by a second in September. Arcadia’s beers are currently available in bottles; their new canning line is part of an ongoing brewery-wide expansion. After observing the emerging trend, Arcadia elected to make the investment in this movement in December 2010, “before it really took off in the Midwest,” says founder and president Tim Suprise. “We’ve identified a number of niche market opportunities in the short term, and remain confident that broader market potential will develop as more products gain entry.”

It seems they won’t have long to wait. Grand Rapids’ newest brewery, Brewery Vivant, will release their Belgian-style brews in cans this spring. Sustainability is a core part of Brewery Vivant’s mission, and this factor in particular made cans an attractive choice over bottles. And finally, Atwater Block Brewery of Detroit also has plans to can in the near future.

With all the advantages of canning and the technology becoming increasingly available, only a few drawbacks remain; potential “glass snobbery” isn’t really one of them. “Some distributors were skeptical about how well it would be received by the general public, but we’ve had nothing but positive responses,” says Duex, a sentiment echoed by Oskar Blues and Rochester Mills representatives. “The hesitancy to pay for and try a high-end craft beer in a can is a temporary hurdle,” confirms Melis.

For those worried about a potential “can taste” to their beer, brewers involved in this process stress the fact that modern practices ensure the brew never actually comes in contact with the metal itself. “All cans are lined with micro-resin,” Duex explains. “The beer never touches aluminum.” That said, it’s always a good idea to pour a quality craft beer, whether it’s in a can or a bottle, into a glass to fully enjoy the aroma. “You want to let that baby breathe!” remarks Melis.

One valid potential obstacle to distributing in cans is the start-up cost. “There’s an initial large investment, more than a bottling line would be,” shares Duex. “Canning manufacturers also make a commitment to a large amount of empties, but in all, we have no regrets.”

Craft beer in a can isn’t exactly new, but it is a movement that’s only beginning to take hold in Michigan. Yet all indications point to the fact that the sight of local microbrews in cans sharing shelf-space with the venerated bottle will soon be commonplace. “We’re happy to be distributing beer in an arguably superior vessel,” concludes Duex. There’s no turning back now that the word is out: “You can have great beer in a can.”

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.