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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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!*