Thursday, March 29, 2012

Remedial Geography: Working Backwards

So, there’s a lot of history to cover in this blog, given that I’ve been journaling about beer for about a year, and I’ve just now been convinced to take it public. But since we’re in the here and now I figured I’d start with some of the places I’ve visited more recently, and try to work backward from there. Actually, who am I kidding? This blog will probably end up just jumping all over the linear timeline and confusing everybody, but screw it. That’s my prerogative as the typer.

As I mentioned in my inaugural posts, my brother and I are involved in a friendly competition on who has visited the most microbreweries and brewpubs in Michigan. In all likelihood he is probably ahead in the count right now, so planning ahead and making smart travel decisions is the key to closing the gap. Last Saturday, my wife Jacquie and I had a 10 am audition out in Lansing. That would take, at most, an hour, so what to do with the rest of our day? Well thankfully there were several pubs in that area of the state, old and new, that we had yet to frequent, so we mapped out a course of action and headed out to greet the day.

The audition went well (in fact we learned on Tuesday that we both got the part!). So, feeling emboldened, and hungry and thirsty, we proceeded to hit Dark Horse in Marshall, and three new microbreweries: Bad Bear Brewery/Sleeping Bear Winery in Albion, the Witch’s Hat in South Lyon, and Malty Dog in Southfield. It was an overcast and somewhat chilly day, perfect for sitting inside a warm taproom and sampling some of the best craft beer in Michigan.

This blog entry will focus on our visit to Witch’s Hat Brewing Company in South Lyon. Open for only a few months now, Witch’s Hat is located in a tiny strip mall storefront (capacity 38), but it’s a cozy and inviting environment, for sure. We arrived around 4:30 pm and the place was roiling with activity. The 10-seat bar was full, as were the handful of tables in the taproom. We waited about 10 minutes for seats at the bar to open up, and quickly seized our opportunity when some folks left. After we sat down the place seemed to fill up even more, if that is possible. Witch’s Hat has no kitchen but is outside food-friendly, and they sport a standard popcorn maker, so you can snack if you didn’t bring your own. They have a collection of typical board games available for all, and a neat three-sided gas fireplace along the south wall. The bar faces a big chalk/marker board, and excellent handmade mugs for club members are displayed on some walls. All in all, this was a comfortable and intimate environment in which to drink amongst friends.

Owners Ryan (brewmaster) and Erin (meadmaster) Cottongim were both friendly and talkative, and Ryan didn’t seem to mind my note-taking – he asked if I was a blogger, asked for my opinion on a few beers I tried, and was gracious in answering my questions, even though the bar was a-rocking and he was a busy, busy man. If this place wasn’t all the way in barking South Lyon it’s a place I would love to frequent.

Now we get to the good part: the beers. On tap on Saturday were the following:

  • 1908 Smoked Wheat
  • Baseline Bitter
  • Bear-Ass Wheat
  • Der Hexer Wheat Wine
  • Edward’s Portly Brown
  • Holy Confusion Barley Wine
  • Lyger Common Ale
  • Rumble Under the Red Light
  • Train Hopper IPA

I ordered the six-beer sampler, which came in nice little stemless goblets. Since you may have noticed nine beers listed above, you may be realizing that I missed out on three. Well-deduced, dear reader! One of the beers I did not sample was the Baseline Bitter, which was priced at $1 a pint (everything else was $4.50 and up). I inquired about this anomaly and Ryan told me that it’s a slow seller, apparently due to people’s aversion to bitters, or just the word “bitter” itself, who knows. The others were Edward’s Portly Brown, and Der Hexer Wheat Wine. (Side note: 5% of sales of Edward’s are donated to a local humane society).

My sampler. (L to R) Lyger, Bear-Ass, Rumble, 1908, Train Hopper. Holy Confusion is in the upper left. 

Enough with what I didn’t drink, let’s get to what did grace my esophageal tract. I’ve instituted my own subjective rating system on a 10 point scale. Granted, out of the 300+ beers in my ever-growing journal, I’ve never scored anything higher than an 8. Either that means I’m too tough or subjective, or I will die when I taste the beer that I rate 10/10. I welcome the challenge!

1908 Smoked Wheat
Bronze-copper color with a fine white head. Faint smoky tones on the nose, very faint. Citrusy mouthfeel. Overwhelming liquid smoke finish. Could barely make out some fruity tones on the finish, but the smoke still overpowered all. 4/10

Bear-Ass Wheat
From the Witch’s Hat web site: “Bear-Ass Wheat is a light and refreshing Hefeweizen. Great for a sunny day on the beach, this beer is cloudy with hints of lemon, banana and clove.”

Bronze-golden color. Creamy, wheaty nose, with hints of orange peel. Banana, clove, and wheat on the finish. Full mouthfeel. Actually a bit more bitter than most wheats I’ve tried, and not as smooth. 5/10

Holy Confusion Barley Wine
From the Witch’s Hat web site: “Holy Confusion is our pride and joy. A huge, complex barley wine with 100 IBU.”

Holy Confusion could be called Witch’s Hat’s signature beer, though I think Train Hopper might share that title. Anyway, this was by far the most interesting and tough to categorize. A dark amber-brown color (Jacquie called it “dried blood red”). A very hop-forward nose, but hints of caramel intruded nicely. Also a bit of a sour beer scent on the nose; expected, I guess, since it’s a barleywine. A definite confusion of flavors, with spices like cinnamon and nutmeg present, as well as honey, at least to my palate. A very bright, crystalline mouthfeel, and a somewhat hoppy finish. Fairly smooth though, not over-bitter. 6.5/10

NOTE: Ryan Cottongim, the brewmaster, said it is just a traditional barleywine, made with water, barley, hops, and yeast. Nothing special is added, but he said that many others have claimed to detect similar tones to what I did. Holy Confusion is certainly an apt name for this beer. Apt, I say!

Lyger Common Ale
From the Witch’s Hat web site: “Is it an Ale? Is it a Lager? Or is it both? No matter what it is, this light and graceful creature should never be feared!”

Creamy nose and mouthfeel. Very smooth finish, bright, with a little bitterness in the throat. It was a citrus-like bitterness, not a hoppy bitterness. A very pleasant session beer. 6.5/10

Rumble Under the Red Light
From the Witch’s Hat web site: “A very malt forward session ale. Crystal, Special Roast and Cara-Pils take to the streets to produce an intense ale to be reckoned with!”

Dark red color, nearly brown, with a small white head. Faint hints of nuts and smoke on the nose… very faint. A smooth, creamy finish with the same roasted nut and smoke presence, plus maybe a little citrus. Pleasant smooth mouthfeel. 5.5/10

Train Hopper IPA
From the Witch’s Hat web site: “An IPA so desirable it has been known to entice the most reserved of hopheads to take extreme action. Most commonly sought out by thrill seekers who have adopted this ale as an expression of a revolutionary hop lifestyle.”

I’ll say this right up front: I’m not an IPA guy. Darks and wheats are more my style, but I’ll rarely pass up sampling an IPA, if only in the hopes that I’ll one day be converted. Anyway… Darker copper color than the 1908, actually one of the darkest non-black IPAs Ive ever seen. Very prevalent hoppy nose, but a rather smooth golden mouthfeel and finish. Still hop-forward but a decent IPA for a hop-o-phobe like me. Some hints of citrus esters were detectable at the end as well, though I don’t by any means claim to have an ultra-refined palate. 5/10 (but take my anti-IPA caveat into account here, will ya?)

So, looking back, my two favorites at Witch’s Hat were the Holy Confusion and the Lyger, though all were interesting and well worth sampling. Hats off to Ryan and Erin in their endeavor to bring more remarkable beer to Michigan. I hope to be back there again soon. Until next time, dear reader: Cheers!

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