Friday, March 30, 2012

Liquor Stores and Microbrews

My initiation into the world of craft beer has been enhanced greatly by the growing distribution of Michigan-made beers to my local party/liquor stores. But when you haven’t previously partaken of a brew, buying a 6-pack taste-unseen can oftentimes be a crapshoot. That’s why I was immensely excited late last year when I read about the opening of 8 Degrees Plato in Ferndale. This place is amazing, offering a selection of imported and domestic craft brews that really is unparalleled. I mean, there are a ton of cool specialty liquor and party stores in the area where I live (Troy), like Manny’s, Red Wagon, Off the Wagon, and Zetouna’s, but 8 Degrees Plato has them all beat. They offer you the option to “build your own 6-pack”, taking a lot of the error out of the process of trial and error with discovering new beers. There are other places that are beginning to offer this as well, but for me, 8 Degrees was the first, and I try to find reasons to go to Ferndale just so I can stop in and make another 6-pack of my own desires. Owners Tim and Brigid are always there, ready to help and quite knowledgeable about the hundreds of different beers, wines, meads, and charcuterie they stock. If you haven’t checked this place out yet, you absolutely have to!

One of the beers I picked up during my last visit to 8 Degrees Plato was a 2010 vintage Cereal Killer Barley Wine Ale from Arcadia Brewing Company. Barley wines, I’ve learned, are called “wine” because of the high alcohol content like a wine, but are still beers since they’re made with grain. (NOTE: This definition is brought to you by a guy who used to think Busch Light was as good as it gets and had never heard of a barley wine until a few months ago.) Jacquie and I were fixin’ up a kick butt stir fry last night, so I thought it was a good time to indulge. While I sipped mine, Jacquie had herself a Peach Lambic also purchased at 8 Degrees.

I’ve enjoyed the barley wines I’ve sampled recently and was looking forward to cracking this sucker open. So crack I did, pouring it into a Short’s pint glass (I’m sure they’d understand, though some purists reading this will probably excoriate me for not using a tulip glass). Cereal Killer goes 10% ABV and 70 IBUs, and had a red-orange-golden color, with nary a hint of a head and very little carbonation. It had some fruity tones on the nose (cherries? cranberries?), along with the familiar sour notes of a barley wine. Light, sparkly mouthfeel, and a smooth, partially bitter finish. Hints of citrus and chocolate were present as well. An excellent beer, though the high alcohol content relegates it to more of a sipper. 6.5/10 on the Phruity scale.

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!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Beer 201: An Intermediate History of Me and Beer

Just who in the heck am I and what makes me competent enough to start producing a blog on the Michigan brewing scene? Well, I’m Jeff Priskorn; also known as Phruity to some. I grew up in Royal Oak and now live in Troy with my laudable wife Jacquie. She’s an actor and a writer, and I… well, I wear a lot of hats. I’m a software engineer by degree (Wayne State University, ’93), but I’m also an actor and a voiceover artist, and on weekends I sing (scream?) in a rock and roll band called Mad Rabbit, known as Michigan’s Live Jukebox™. Playing in a band for over 10 years has given me plenty of opportunities to sample the best and worst libations metro Detroit-area bars have to offer. Early on, it was whatever was cheapest – no one makes a living being in a band, don’t you know that? This included your standard slop: PBR, Miller High Life, Stroh’s, Miller Lite, Bud Light, Coors Light, etc., ad infinitum. From there I started experimenting with somewhat higher-quality offerings: Sam Adams, Blue Moon, Leinenkugel (Shandy, Fireside Nut Brown), Magic Hat No. 9, and the like. And then? Well, the hops really hit the fan in May 2011.

Our wedding anniversary is in May, and as such Jacquie and I try to take a week of travel and leisure sometime every May. Last year I was really starting to sample and experiment with Michigan-made beers, and though Jacquie is not a beer drinker (wine is more her thing) she was game to plan a Michigan microbrewery adventure with me. We scoured the Michigan BeerGuide and the Michigan Brewer’s Guild’s Great Beer State magazine and came up with a killer itinerary. As part of our visit to the Munising and Whitefish Point areas, we hit four pubs in the U.P.: The Vierling, Blackrocks Brewery, Lake Superior Brewing Company, and Tahquamenon Falls Brewery & Pub. Then we went down through Traverse City: Short’s, Right Brain, North Peak, Mackinaw Brewing Company, and Left Foot Charley’s. From there it was down the west coast of Michigan: New Holland, Saugatuck, and a 12-pack full of breweries in the Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo areas. I’m sure I’ll get to a full recounting as we go along; suffice it to say that we hit close to two dozen breweries on our trip.

The anniversary couple at Short's, sampling (L to R) diet root beer and Anniversary Ale.

We also took a long weekend into Ann Arbor last July, hitting about six more in that area, and being domiciled in Troy means that we’re often in the Royal Oak/Clawson/Birmingham areas as well. My beer journal has over 300 beers in it, the bulk of them Michigan-made. Not all are thoroughly reviewed, but I’d say 60% or so have detailed notes, which I shall, in time, perhaps, offer up in this very space. (NOTE: I’m pretty proud of that last sentence; it’s not often you see five commas in one semi-coherent statement.)

So that’s a short history of how I got my “start” in the world of beer connoisseurring and reviewing. Yes, a tear-jerking story of rags to riches. Or something. Join me next time when I’ll start getting into the whole point of this blog: reviewing pubs and beers!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Beer 101: An Intro to Me

Yes, people, its another beer blog. Written by a guy who didnt even like beer until he was 25 or so. By a guy whose father kept the basement fridge stocked with Goebel and Carling Black Label for family gatherings or after softball game parties. Who once thought Red Dog was the height of beer chic because of those clever commercials: "The dogs red, not the beer." Wow! How outside the box! Oh, you say the Plank Road Brewery is actually just a psuedonym for Miller/Coors? How delightfully subversive!

Its taken me until age 40, but I can finally say that Bud Light is swill. Oh, Ill certainly indulge in an infrequent PBR if the time is right (the price always is, obviously), but I can now say with fervor and authority: "I am Jeff Priskorn, and I am a microbrew snob!"

NOTE: You may have noticed that this blog is called "Phruity on Beer". Who or what the heck is a Phruity? Its one of my many alter-egos, something that I may explain in detail at some point. Until then, go here and check out some of his better work.

An example of what bad beer can do to you.

My brother and I have a friendly ongoing competition on who has been to the most Michigan microbreweries. I think we've both visited over 50, certainly too many to keep a detailed count on anymore. It took him regaling me with stories of the new places and beers he was sampling to really come around, but now I scour the Michigan Beer Guide and other similar publications and willingly travel across the state to taste and review the best microbrews Michigan (and elsewhere) has to offer.

My odyssey started in earnest in May 2011, when my wife and I decided to plan our annual anniversary trip around stopping at as many Michigan microbreweries and brewpubs as we could. From Royal Oak and Detroit, to the U.P., to Traverse City, Saugatuck, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo, we hit about 20 in just over a week of travel. Our basement has become a shrine to our travels, filled with photos of every place we've been and lots of logo pints and growlers as well.

In this blog space, I plan on recounting some of my experiences with the ever-growing brewery scene in Michigan and beyond, as well as posting reviews of many of the beers Ive sampled. You may care, or you may not, but my lovely wife keeps telling me that if I plan on spending 95% of my time journaling while at these establishments, I better start making it public or else. So yes, there is a price to pay when married to a woman who actually seems to enjoy your company. Pay more attention to her than the beer (say 51%), and things will work out just fine!

So, my point (and I might have one, not sure yet) is that in my ensuing posts Ill start covering the places Ive been and the beers Ive drunk, and hope you give enough of a rats posterior to give it a read. There may be podcasts in the future, with Michigan brewers as well other micro connoisseurs. Well see. But until next time, hoist responsibly!