Friday, April 29, 2011

Brews news

I've been swamped at work, dealing with appeals, jury trials, and generally seeking justice in a crazy system. So, while some exciting things have been happening in this wonderful beer town called Ann Arbor, I haven't been writing about it.

But today, I can finally catch a little time to mention a few items of interest. First of all, I'm writing this post right at Arbor Brewing, where Old Tjikko spruce beer is on tap today for Arbor Day. $1 of every pint sold gets donated to the Adopt A Park Natural Area Preservation program here in Ann Arbor, which my wife and I have volunteered for and supported for a number of years. It's yet another example of beer people being good people and Arbor's amazing support for community causes. The Arbor Day Old Tjikko is based on a delicious American Pale Ale, full of grapefruity, juicy hops. I can taste the spruce, but it's not too pronounced, making for a balanced beer that'll appeal to any pale ale fan out there.

On May 2, Arbor will have a Summerfest Release Party, where the 2011 Top of the Park schedule will be revealed and a limited edition seasonal beer will be released: Festival Saison. I do love a good saison in the summertime! The party is 5:00-8:00 p.m. in the Tap Room. Festival Saison is brewed with lemon zest, orange peel, and ginger, and will be available at Arbor through the summer, with a portion of sales proceeds going to support Top of the Park. TOP is a local treasure, but it's been struggling each year to make it financially. With the University Musical Society - of which TOP is a part - vulnerable to cuts in government funding for the arts, it's more important than ever to support TOP if it's something that you value in our city.

Over at Wolverine State Brewing Co., May 8 is mug club appreciation day. It's Wolverine's six-month anniversary. Yes, it's Mother's Day, too, so don't forget your mom! Heck, bring her! She can join the mug club, too! If I'm not mistaken, Wolverine will be extending its hours that day. I recall hearing 12:00-8:00, but you might want to check. Mug club members will get half-off on growler fills, $1.50 beers, and a free pizza buffet. Wolverine also has all of its taps full of tasty brews. Anyone, from hop head to malt maven, can find a beer or three to enjoy. I introduced a friend to Wolverine last night, and he looked around, sat back in his chair, sipped his brew, and said that this was the kind of place where he could hang out a lot. He's right: Wolverine is totally that kind of place.

Last but not least - in fact, probably hugest! - Summer Beer Festival tickets go on sale on May 1st. Oh yes, folks, it's getting to be that time of year again, so gear up for two days of brew madness in Ypsilanti! I hope to see you there!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Wolverine State Brewing Co. comes fully into its - and our - own

People driving by 2019 West Stadium on Ann Arbor's west side might not suspect that a whole lot of great beer is being brewed in that former warehouse tucked behind Comerica Bank, Great Lakes Cycling and Fitness, Advantage Sports, and Big Georges. Those people might not know that if they just turn into the driveway and pull to the back, they'll be greeted by a large, inviting tap room decked out in love for our state and its craft beer industry, a tap room where delicious beer is being poured by a friendly, knowledgable staff. People might miss out on the glimpse of a gleaming brewhouse in the back, or on the experience of sitting at the long, hand made bar or at one of the many tables decorated with maps of Michigan or in one of the easy chairs or sofas around a low table. They might not get to play some foosball or darts or just hang out, perhaps using the free wi-fi while sampling some beer and snacks or maybe eating more substantial food that they brought or ordered in. In other words, all of those folks driving by on Stadium will miss out on something wonderful.

Wolverine State Brewing Co. specializes in lager brewing, and lagers take time to produce. Unlike relatively warm-fermenting ales that can be ready to drink rather quickly, lagers are fermented with yeast that like colder temperatures and take their sweet time to ferment the beer. They then go into cold storage for a long maturation. That cold storage is called lagering, and the whole long process yields brews that are crisp and clean and have gorgeous clarity, the qualities for which lagers are known and prized.

One of many gorgeous beers at Wolverine
In contrast to the slow process of lager production, Wolverine has matured as a business at an astonishing rate. Sales have increased 500% since the November, 2010, tap room opening, and the brewery recently added two new ten-barrel fermentation tanks and a conditioning tank. Oh, and how about the new bottling line, which will soon be putting out bottles of Wolverine Premium Lager (starting in June), Wolverine Dark Lager (September), and the seasonal Wolverine Winter Lager (November)? Not only will that mean that more Wolverine beers will be distributed in bottles, but also that bottled Wolverine will no longer be contract-brewed but will be made right here in Ann Arbor, with full production control in the capable hands of brewer Oliver Roberts. The company is a full year ahead of schedule in its business growth, and sales are conservatively projected to be 800 barrels in 2011, up from distribution of 150-200 barrels of the contract brewed Wolverine Premium. If you go out to area restaurants and bars, you may have noticed that Wolverine tap handles are appearing in more and more establishments.

Rex Halfpenny, Matt Roy, and Oliver Roberts address the crowd
Wolverine has also come into its own as a community gathering place, with the taproom becoming what a great pub should be: a friendly place to be, a place that embraces its community and is embraced in turn, a place of camaraderie and good times, big events and small evenings.

I had the pleasure of attending the tap room's first beer dinner on April 3, and I can sum it up by saying: Let it be the first of many! The "Beer Bellies" dinner featured delicious Southern food thoughtfully paired with Wolverine's terrific brews, and it was emceed by Michigan beer guru Rex Halfpenny - the force behind the Michigan Beer Guide - along with Wolverine owners Matt Roy and E.T. Crowe and brewer Oliver Roberts. Happy patrons sat at long tables, connecting with old friends and meeting new ones, and the family-style service was invitingly casual and comfortable. The event epitomized what I love about the beer community and the idea of the "shared table," which I've written about before.

Getting ready to fill our "Beer Bellies"
I've also been at Wolverine on quiet afternoons, drinking some beer and chatting with folks or just working on my computer, and watching as representatives of groups or clubs stopped by to check out the tap room as a possible meeting place. I've seen Oliver talking about the beers - education helps bring people into the craft beer fold - taking the time to explain what they are all about. I've seen Pilar's Tamales set up and trivia night getting under way. I've seen people come in solo and in couples and groups, standing room only crowds and calmer times. I've seen a lot of happy folks drinking beer and hanging out, totally comfortable to just be there. In other words, I've seen Wolverine be a place that has thrown itself open to the community, an example of what the best pubs offer, and the community has adopted the place as its own.

I'm thrilled about Wolverine's business success, and I congratulate the entire Wolverine team for it. Perhaps I'm most thrilled about Wolverine's success because it flows directly from its coming into its own as a community place - our place - and that's priceless.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Arbor Brewing Beer Tasting: Stouts

Ann Arborites, do you need some rich and delicious beer to sustain you in the chilly March weather? At Arbor Brewing Co. on Thursday night (March 10), big, roasty, dark-as-night beers will be on offer at the Stout Beer Tasting. ABC is at 114 E. Washington Street in downtown Ann Arbor, right between Fourth Ave. and Main St.

Beer tastings are at 7:00-9:00 the second Thursday of the month, and they are a heck of a lot of fun. Typically including 25-30 beers, the tastings feature a substantial buffet and a chance to try a nice assortment of beers and hang out with fellow craft beer enthusiasts. Oh, and let's not forget that there are door prizes at the end of the evening, too, such as glassware and brewery t-shirts. Tastings are generally around $25 in advance, $30 on tasting day.

Besides the discount, an additional incentive for picking up your tickets early is that these tastings sometimes sell out. The stout tasting was the first that Arbor Brewing ever put on, way back in 1997, and tends to feature a great combination of Irish stouts, milk stouts, coffee and chocolate stouts, imperial monsters, and other less common types.

If you come by, visit my station: I'll be more than happy to pour you a beer. Cheers!

PS: Next month, IPA's.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Thanks, Ray! Or: Dude, you saved my homebrew!

Ray Daniels, wherever you are right now, thank you! I should've read your terrific book, Designing Great Beers, sooner. It's an amazing book, and while other beloved books got me off to a great start with homebrewing, I think Designing Great Beers is the book that can take my homebrewing to the next level. With detailed information on every aspect of brewing, from water treatment to grain bills and hop additions, it's a treasure. What I found the other day is that it can even help with the little things, the things that in hindsight look simple. In brewing, simple things matter.

With my students on winter break, and their winter break not coinciding with my kids' winter break (not sure how that mismatch developed, since my employer is the dominant force in Ann Arbor), I had some time on my hands. The homebrewing bug bit me... hard... again, and I decided to brew two batches. The first was an absolutely huge imperial stout from an extract and specialty grain recipe developed by my dear friend Sean "Beer for the Daddy" Nordquist. After a little time with Beer Alchemy on my computer and going back and forth with Sean, I was good to go with the recipe, and the brew day went beautifully (nice job, Sean!). Dark as night, rich, and roasty with aromas of chocolate and coffee, the stout is now percolating away in the fermenter.

Looked and smelled like a chocolate milkshake in the kettle

I had also been busily formulating an IPA to brew the very next day. I built the recipe on my way back from Utah and wrote a recent post about that experience, and since it was my first recipe formulated totally from scratch, I was particularly excited about it.

Although the brew day went well in many ways, my efficiency was poor. For whatever reason, my last couple of all-grain batches have suffered from low efficiency, with the grains reluctant to yield their sugars in the mash. Intent on hitting the right original gravity, I focused more on that than on volume. I ended up hitting my target gravity, but I was nearly a gallon short. A gallon less beer is a lot, particularly when you put in a whole day of effort to make the stuff. I was not entirely happy.

They looked so promising!

The solution, post-mashing, is obvious: either go with what you've got, or add some malt extract to bring the beer up to the right gravity and volume. I wanted to do the latter, but how to do so with reasonable precision? That's where Ray's book came in. I am reading it currently, soaking in gobs of information, and I remembered that he covered how to correct gravity in a really accessible, straightforward way. I grabbed the book, and before long I was sitting with a calculator and a scrap of paper figuring out exactly how much dried malt extract to boil up in a gallon of water so that I could hit the full five gallons without sacrificing the original gravity of the beer. Now, I'm not saying that you can't feel your way through this and just measure as you go, but nothing beats having hard numbers laid out in a readily applied manner. It was quick, it was easy, and it worked. I brought the beer up to volume, still hitting the gravity target, and now the IPA, too, is fermenting away. Ray's advice on this is not complicated; in fact, after reading it, I had a "now why didn't I think of that?" moment. But the point is that I didn't think of it, and he did, and he kindly put it into a very well-written book.

The IPA will be ready to rack to the secondary fermenter in about a week, where I'll dry-hop it and let it sit for awhile. As for the imperial stout, I'll bottle that in a little over a week, maybe two, and put those bottles away for a good long time to mature. It was great to brew up a couple of batches after going a long time without - it's the closest thing I've got to meditation nowadays. But the bug hasn't let go yet. Next up is a repeat of the special bitter I brewed nearly a year ago. That's still the fastest-consumed batch I've ever made, a real favorite around here. Time for more.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Winter Beer Festival 2011

On February 26, Arbor Brewing Co. ran a beer bus to the Winter Beer Festival in Grand Rapids for those of us who wouldn't or couldn't stay overnight and were sane about the prospect of driving, and I had the pleasure of being on it. It was a nice bus, with reclining seats, DVD player, bathroom - number ONE only! said our friendly driver, and a cardinal rule: no pukers, again announced by our friendly driver. That's right, puking, even if contained, would be met with a $250 fine. Fair enough. Frankly, I love the beer bus.

Why do I love the beer bus? Simple. It got me safely - and warmly - to and from the beer fest, and the beer fest was amazing. True, I was only a couple of hours into the fest when I realized that my toes were so numb from the cold that you could probably chop them off without my noticing, but that was a small price to pay to attend this incredibly well-run, fun, friendly event. And I even ended up keeping all of my toes and thawing out in a day or two.

Snow? Who cares?

The state of Michigan craft beer is strong. The Michigan Brewers Guild now has over 80 member breweries, and the beer festivals hosted by the Guild are attracting record numbers of people. In addition, Guild Enthusiast memberships - for those of us who love and want to support the Michigan beer industry, and heck yes, I'm one - nearly doubled in 2010, according to the Guild. While the mega-brewers are on the decline, craft brewing is a growth industry around the country. In Michigan, where few growth industries are to be found, craft brewing is a bright spot.

Ceremonial kegs on the ice bar

We Michigan beer lovers are devoted to the success and enjoyment of that bright spot, and our beer festivals highlight what is truly a partnership between the brewers and those who love their product. Embracing the winter weather, we all tromped through the snow from station to station, talking with the brewers, sipping their elixirs, visiting the several camp fires or reaching up to the propane heaters to warm our paws a bit, and waiting for the ceremonial kegs to be tapped on the beautiful ice bar. We met new friends, reconnected with old ones, and put faces to names we knew from e-mail and Facebook.

Yes, that's an ice hop cone

Most of the lines, from the entrance line to the lines at most breweries' tables, were manageable. Every one of the beers I had was poured with a smile, and the brewers were happy to answer questions. The Michigan Hop Alliance - a group that I'm very excited about as they gain a foothold in this agriculturally rich and diverse state - had a nice display and some hops for sale, and I enjoyed a deep sniff of a bag of cascade hops while chatting with the growers.

The ice bar

Of course, I tried a lot of great beers, from barrel-aged monsters to winter warmers and experimental brews. In many cases, the festival would be my only opportunity to have a particular beer, and I didn't want to pass it up. That said, there were so many such opportunities that I had to pass many up, and all I can say is this: I can't wait for more of them this summer in Ypsilanti, when the Michigan Summer Beer Festival comes to town for two great days. In fact, I think I dreamed about it while snoozing on the nice warm beer bus on the ride back to Ann Arbor

While waiting for the summer fest, I'm going to continue to drink local and revel in my luck at living in the Great Beer State... And I think I'll also revel in still having my toes.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Back in the saddle

Oh goodness, has it really been about 3 months since my last post? Those dang timestamps don't lie. Despite the fact that one can't help but feel a certain affection for one's blog, I haven't been keeping up with mine. In an effort to change that, I've decided to stop writing for There are lots of reasons, but a major one is that I want to write for my blog more often, and Examiner was getting in the way. Even though I didn't post for Examiner all that often, I felt like I should, and thinking about it - feeling guilty about it - took up what little writing space and time I had.

I very recently had the pleasure of formulating my first beer recipe from scratch. Previously, I had made recipes from books or the web, often with some customization, and this was the first time I started with a blank page and built the recipe brick by brick. It's going to be an IPA with New Zealand hops, avoiding the ubiquitous uber-citrus west coast IPA style. Now, don't get me wrong: I love a good uber-citrus west coast IPA. I just don't want to make one this time around. We'll see how the NZ hops go with the malt bill, which will offer up some really rich caramel and biscuit flavors.

I started formulating the recipe on the way back from a quick, exhausting business trip to Utah. It was my second trip out there for work, and I was struck by their small but developing craft beer scene. On the first trip, I enjoyed a terrific IPA and a mighty tasty, rich doppelbock, and on this one I had an American pale ale that went wonderfully with my steak dinner. Utah has really arcane and archaic liquor laws, with a division between regular beers (limited to 4% abv, I believe) and what they refer to as "full strength" beers. You can't buy the latter at many places. In response, the craft beer folks have put out a nice selection of the low-alcohol brews to get into that market while going hog-wild on some huge beers. I am impressed.

So, while I wouldn't have thought Utah would be the place to inspire me to start building a beer recipe from scratch, it was. Flying back to the Great Beer State of Michigan, the plane sleepy and quiet, I stretched out across the row I had to myself, started up Beer Alchemy on my Mac, and was off and running. I followed the initial session with a fair amount of research and lots of tweaking the past few days, and I've now put in the order for the ingredients and look forward to brewing this baby up toward the end of this month.

In the meantime, despite the fact that I may have too much beer in my cellar already - it's gotten to the point where we need to drink it strategically in order to avoid some of it going stale (hey, it's a hard job, but someone's gotta do it) - I keep stumbling across terrific beers and buying them. Again, a nice problem to have. Like the other day, when I went into Arbor Farms for butter and flour... yes, that's right, just butter and flour. And I walked out with five or six single bottles after having a terrific conversation about craft beer with one of their beer buyers, another staffer there who is really into craft beer, and a relative newbie who got a fun education in the process.

Of course, there are also the beer events and regular other visits to Ann Arbor's brewpubs, including pouring for the strong ale tasting at Arbor Brewing the other day. Pouring includes sampling, and the beers were amazing. I might rename this particular tasting the "too much of a good thing" tasting, since with every beer over 7% abv and otherwise huge and rich, I felt like someone had hooked me up to a pump and filled me full of air by the end. I couldn't even finish the "thank you" pint they gave me afterwards.

If you're reading this, thanks for doing so. I hope to be posting more often from. This coming week, I plan to brew a couple of batches - the IPA and an absolutely gargantuan imperial stout - and will post about that. And I'll post about my experience at the Michigan Winter Beer Festival in Grand Rapids. Never has being so cold been so worth it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Wolverine State Brewing Co. opens in Ann Arbor

Courtesy of Wolverine State Brewing Co.

As I wrote in my column, Wolverine State Brewing Co. is now open right on Ann Arbor's west side.  Folks, this is a nice walk or a quick bike ride from my house, and I gotta admit, I'm excited.

But I'm not just excited about the proximity of this spacious and inviting taproom and brewery.  I'm excited about the people, the community, and the beer.  Ann Arbor has serious craft beer riches, but there's room for more, and Wolverine brings a specialty in lager beer, dedication to the community and craft beer scene, adventurousness, and fresh energy and enthusiasm.

Gulo gulo itself, looking thirsty.
Courtesy of WSBCo.
The beers are gorgeous to look at and to drink.  From the expected straw-golden yellow of Wolverine Premium Lager, an American lager, to the deep red-amber-copper of The Pride of Biscuitville and the comforting, mellow brown of the sessionable and oh-so-tasty Big House Brown lager, these beers have an eye-pleasing clarity from the lagering process.

Brewer Oliver Roberts is embracing his opportunity to stretch out and be creative, whether it's on his fresh, citrusy, piney, floral IPA - one of two ales currently on the tap list - or his toasty Pride of Biscuitville biscuit malt showcase.  Want a hoppy lager for a change of pace?  The Gulo Gulo Northwest Lager is billed as an IPL and features the clean, crisp qualities of a lager married to a Centennial and Cascade hop extravaganza.  It's flat out delicious.  The Wench's Westside Wheat, which is the other ale on tap and comes in at 3.8% abv, has a nice wheaty bite and a pleasantly hoppy finish as an American wheat should.  With its orange-amber color, it's a sunny pour.  Or have an emOATable Lager, a creamy, roasty-toasty dark lager with chocolaty characteristics.

Three of the brews are invitingly sessionable.  Also inviting is the fact that there's no per-ounce premium on the price for a small (12 oz) or medium (15 oz), so patrons shouldn't feel pressed to buy larger beers based on the pricing.  22 oz pours are available as well, as are flights of 7 oz pours.

Snacks are available in-house, or feel free to order from local restaurants.  Their menus are in binders right in the taproom, and they'll deliver to your table or barstool.  Add the in-house wi-fi, and you can hang out for quite some time.  Pull up a barstool, grab a chair at one of the several tables, or have seat on a sofa or easy chair.  Want to play?  Foosball and darts are available as well.

Oliver himself may be staffing the bar, and he's happy to educate you about the beer and help you choose one to fit your palate.  Or maybe Ann Arbor's own Beer Wench, brewery co-owner and director of sales and marketing E.T. Crowe, will be in the house.  My experience thus far is that staff and patrons alike are enthusiastic and friendly, and it's clear that Wolverine is a truly inviting place.

Wolverine is located at 2019 W. Stadium, behind Great Likes Cycling and Fitness and next to Big George's.  Hours are M-Th, 3:00-11:00; F/Sat noon-midnight; and Sun noon-5:00.  One exception is tomorrow, Saturday 11/13, when the taproom won't open until 7:00 p.m., which is when the grand opening celebration starts.