Good Beer Hunting

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Reveille in Ann Arbor — A Saturday Morning with Jolly Pumpkin, Grizzly Peak and Arbor Brewing

I spent the better part of a Friday last week at the University of Michigan, running a workshop on design strategy for about 80 incoming MBAs during their first hell-week. These bright-eyed, ambitious future business leaders worked for hours on end, collaborating to solve some of the city of Detroit’s looming civic sector problems, and find ways to exploit its enormous potential. And I was essentially there to teach them how to have an idea.

Once school was out, we went students’-choice and grabbed a beer at Good Time Charlie’s. Any beer geek would steer you clear of this place, but it’s not impossible to enjoy yourself and find something worth drinking. I found a a big, malty IPA from Rochester Mills that got me through it. Besides, Saturday was the real day for scouting out great beer, and we used the time to plan our hunt amongst the din of student life.

Ann Arbor is home to a number of well known microbreweries. But I was outclassed on this trip in terms of local knowledge. My wife Hillary was an undergraduate mechanical engineering major at U of M, and this was her turf. Also joining us was John Barley of Solemn Oath Brewery in Naperville, IL. Some years back he was living and working in Ann Arbor long before he had his run-in with craft beer. So when it came time for us to meet up, he made a bold call — “10am, Jolly Pumpkin, as soon as the doors open.”

I’m no stranger to day drinking, or even starting off a weekend morning with a roasty, chocolate stout. These things happen. But Jolly Pumpkin, with its signature aged tartness and intense flavors was more than a suggestion — it would set the tone for the rest of the day. Before we were done, we’d hit Jolly Pumpkin, Grizzly Peak and Arbor Brewing, all in time for a late lunch.

Jolly Pumpkin’s cafe is a beautiful space — dark, cozy, the morning light cutting across the bar. Posted up three wide, we started working our way down the menu. Nothing could have kept me from downing a couple Weizen Bams right off the bat. I’d been thinking about this beer since my first taste at Watershed in Chicago a couple weeks prior. White-golden color, sharp tartness, but a soft and light finish like a kolsch with a touch of fruit on the palate — this is as good as anything Jolly Pumpkin’s ever made.

After sharing a few swigs of the other offerings, I came back to La Roja, one of Jolly Pumpkin’s most famous brews. A big, Flemish amber with tons of tart fruit and barrel flavor, La Roja is unfiltered, unpasteurized and blended to perfection. It’s somehow both heady and refreshing.

Jolly Pumpkin has three locations — the cafe in Ann Arbor, the brewery in Dexter, and the Traverse City location largely dedicated to contracting North Peak’s beers for the time-being. The coolers at the cafe offered an impressive set of both breweries’ bottled lines. But with chilly temperatures finally arriving in the Midwest, I’m heading into in cellaring mode, so alongside John, I bagged up a bunch of Jolly Pumpkins for the trip back.

Just down the street, through a couple of demilitarized alleyways we clamored into Grizzly Peak’s brewpub. Grizzly runs off a 7 barrel copper-topped, brick-sided kettle in the front window. More of a gateway craft spot back in the day, a few brews at the back bar seemed somewhat more adventurous, including a pale ale hopped with the owner’s own cultivated cones. The last taste the bartender was able to siphon off the keg was promising, if fleeting. Freshly tapped was the Swift Run Ale, a well-hopped English bitter with an almost red kick that sobered us up and gave us time to plan our next move.

John coaxed us into another short walk to Arbor Brewing. He recalled his first impressions of Arbor years ago, which were memorable, if not a little surprising back then. They were more adventurous than most, and in those days anything unusual really caught people off guard. In that spirit, John ordered the 2005 Special Reserve bottle for the table.

First, we noticed the pour. The first two glasses were a translucent ruby color, whereas the second two were completely opaque and muddy red like an unfiltered cider. From top to bottom, the bottle was incredibly varied. And the taste was unspeakably tart. Almost unbearable in the thicker pours, while the thinner pours carried a similar flavor but finished much cleaner and bright. Really delightful. I tried to counteract it all with a glass of the Ryeclops Rye, but by that point my palate was obliterated.

How Arbor describes this concoction:

We inoculated an oak cask with Hansens Geueze, filled it with Old Ale, covered it withy stale hops (to serve as a preservative) and aged it for a year. Then we transferred it to the bottle and bottle conditioned it for another year. The lactobacillus and perhaps some of the yeast from the Hansens consumed some more of the residual sugars left in the Old Ale that were inaccessible to our standard ale yeast. This combined with some oxidation from the oak cask soured the beer and gave it some earthy character. It is a sour and spicy ale reminiscent of a Flemish Brown - with a complex palate of dark fruits and earthy, oaky notes. 

And just like that, it was time to head east to Grand Rapids, rest up, and ready ourselves for our Sunday farm dinner with Brewery Vivant. It was a short, but memorable stint in my wife’s alma mater, and John’s old stomping grounds. I appreciated the local insight. Those Jolly Pumpkin bottles should keep me warm this winter.

Before I let you go, here’s what John has to say about the experience, Ann Arbor as a beer town, and the incredible Michigan beer scene in general:

This is a place that epitomizes what small town breweries can and should be. Jolly Pumpkin stands as one of the most sought after breweries in Chicago — La Roja in particular is absolutely ridiculous. Arbor Brewing Company is known across the country as a brewery that consistently pushes the limits of innovation both in style and approach. I used to eat black bean burgers at ABC before it was cool. This year alone they became Michigan’s first solar brewery and (while the rest of the beer world teases spots in Europe) opened a new location in Bangalore, India. All in, I can still taste that 2005 we drank, right now.

From Greenbush to Brewery Vivant to Jolly Pumpkin, Michigan is doing some incredible things in craft beer — people need to take a weekend and learn about it. Particularly Vivant, because two months from now they’re going to be at market in Chicago and blowing up.

You can follow John at: @solemnjohn and (starting later today)

Michael Kiser