Beer Hunting in Michigan and Quebec

I have a couple of big trips coming up in October. Circumstances place me to the west in London, Ontario relieved of duties before noon on a Friday which means I have an hour to head further west still to the border at Sarnia and the afternoon to shop in Michigan. Having been there before, I have a sense of what I am looking for: something wet hopped, a case of Two Hearted Ale…as well as a little Bud American Ale…just to see. I don’t think I’ll make it as far as Jolly Pumpkin but Ron has given me the name of some of his most north-easterly clients so with any luck I will land some anyway.

The next weekend, however, sends me far east through largely uncharted territory as I head to a small IT/brainiac conference called Zap Your Pram in PEI. I will try to stop in a few government stores out east but on the way back on Sunday, I hope to hit a beer store or two in Quebec City like Le Monde des Bieres or Dépanneur de la Rive. I want to get my hands on some Dieu du Ciel for sure but, as John Rubin mentions in today’s Toronto Star, there are plenty of Quebec-made brews we never hear about in English-speaking Canada. The same is true of any regional brews due to our wacko inter-provincial trade restrictions but Quebecers, arguably, have a taste for a broader range of flavours than the rest of we Canucks and it shows in their brews. So maybe I’ll grab something from Microbrasserie Charlevoix or Hopfenstark, both unknowns to me but well regarded by the BAers.

Any hints before I undertake the 4,000 km two-part tour?

Photos From My Visit To Jolly Pumpkin, Dexter, Michigan

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It was a Ron-a-thon last Friday at Jolly Pumpkin. After leaving London, Ontario, Canada at about 1 pm and we hit Dexter, Michigan at about 5 pm just as Ron Jeffries was finishing up a days work. He gave me an hour of his time and by the end of it I was thinking this had been one of the most intense hours of beer I have had without taking a drink. Being the doe-eyed schoolgirl that I was, perhaps a bit like Ron in Bamburg, in awe of the moment of course I did not take notes until I got to our hotel in Ann Arbor. But I did get a brain full.

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Barrels everywhere. Everything is aged in oak. Barrels from bourbon and brandy distillers. Barrels from Firestone and other brewers seeking vanilla where Ron seeks tang. A 2000 litre barrel newly in from France. Being in a room full of barrels of beer is an interesting experience. The feeling was much more like cheese making than other brewers with their steel conical fermenters and bright tanks. These was life around me and it was asleep, seeking slow funkiness. Lame? Deal with it.

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I got an education. While Michigan has twice the brewers of Ohio, it has only 1% of the state’s market, compared to 6% nationwide. This means brewers have to seek markets out of state. I was happy to do my bit and introduce Ontario importers Roland and Russell to Jolly Pumpkin as was announced on Monday. Ron apologized when he explained the price would be high but I had to assure him that ten bucks for a 750 ml of some of the most thoughtful ale made on the continent was quite reasonable given what else we have to put up with.

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Ron makes beers unlike others. Beers that have the dryness of oak with less of the vanilla than others impart. There is a lambic, the only true one in North America, that has been three years in the wood soon to be released on a six month cycle. When I asked about the source of the wild yeast strains, Ron said the make of Cantillon told him you can make lambic anywhere. I have particularly liked the Bam and Bam Noire which I think are up for the CAMWA beers of the year award for 2007. I did, by the way, share the concept of CAMWA and think it is now Jolly Pumpkin approved. They have done well with 50% expansion in each of the first two years and 30% for both 2006 and 2007.

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The hour flew by and the generosity shared was quite the thing. We took a case of large format beers for just around 75 bucks and others to spare as well. Likely the best value in beverage that I can think of. A couple of hints. Ron recommends, as they age, chilling the beers before opening as they create be quite the fountain. I recommend leaving them to get to that age to get to this state as time enhances their complexity to a degree I have not experienced before with beer.

Beer Shop: Bello Vino, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

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When I realized I was going to be within a reasonable drive of a 24 hour zip into Michigan due to work requirements, I had no understanding of what the place was like. When we crossed the border at Port Huron and got through the town, I thought that I had driven into northern Maine – pretty sparse for a while there. How unexpected, then, to come across Ann Arbor – one of the most vibrant small cities I have ever been in. Sure it helps that 127% of the geographical land mass of the place is filled with the University of Michigan, providing plenty of lab coat jobs generating incomes and appetites for the good stuff.

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Bello Vino is a purveyor of plenty of the good stuff. As the name suggests there is a huge fine wine selection as well as general groceries (fresh, organic, ethnic, imports – the whole thing) but what I was there for was the beer. When I asked for MI shopping hints, I got some great suggestions in the comments but when I asked Ron at Jolly Pumpkin he said only one thing – Bello Vino.

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Why is this shop so great for beer? Well, they certainly treat beer like beer. The space is built into a corner of the whole store, a bit recessed into the wall. The effect of this is the whole space is chilled to ten or more degrees colder than the rest of the place. The steel racks are cool to the hand. Plus the selection is great – especially for someone used to the New England and mid-Atlantic shops. Michigan has something like 70 craft brewers and this place has many of their brews: Founders, Jolly Pumpkin, Bell’s, Arbor, Dark Horse, Dragonmead and a bunch others. Plus, it has a massive selection of Belgians. I picked up a number of new-to-me abbey ales and lambics that I hadn’t seen before. Additionally, there is a good selection of UK brews, US craft bombers and sixes as well as even a short row of fine meads.

bv3But I think the real reason the place works so well is the guy up there in the smock, beer manager Jeremy McClelland who gave me an hour of his time, amongst helping other shoppers, to talk about the shop, Michigan beers as well as how proud they are of having the best selection in the state. I was quite surprised to see the mini-kegs and especially the mini-keg of Schlenkerla Rauchbier. Prices to my eye were fair. $10.99 for a six of Bell’s Double Cream Stout, $3.99 for Harviestoun Engine Oil Reserve and a whack of craft singles for $1.49 to $1.69. Jeremy was happy to break sixes and there was a supply of boxes there to let you mix your own.

From my house this shop is a ten hour drive, about the same as the coast of Maine if I go the other way. Like with the seashore, there is enough in Ann Arbor to justify making a long weekend with the family. Like with the beers of the north half of New England, there is enough happening in Michigan craft brewing to justify planning a family vacation around the beer – and Bello Vino should definitely be part of that plan. And to help you plan, you may want to follow the newly launched blog Michigan Beer Buzz. Also pick up Michigan Breweries by Ruschmann and Nasiatka – it’s worth it just for the maps which got us where we wanted to go in plenty of time.

About Oaked Beer: Bam Noir, Jolly Pumpkin, Dexter, MI

jpbn1Just a few days after saying that I could not find copies of Celebrator magazine – I find one at Jolly Pumpkin’s store in Dexter, Michigan. I also found this Bam Noir labeled as Batch #246 even though the brewery does not list that one as a Bam Noir batch. No never mind. Numbers can have that quality.

This beer is a great introduction to the style of this brewer. The drying planks of oak are there in the glass with the tang picked up from whatever was in the pores of the wood. I find that there are hazelnut, fig and brown sugar notes with twig hops. At 4.3% it’s a great candidate for the CAMWA brew of the year. Soft water. But be warned – a full 15% of BAers reject this one. Conversely, Bam Noir makes me want to roast a chunk of fatty salmon as it would cut through that richness well.

Session 7: Visiting The Brew Zoo

galt1It is the first Friday of the month and that means it is the day of The Session. Rick Lyke named it this time and chose “The Brew Zoo” demanding we all drink beers with animals on the labels. I forgot this earlier in the week when I popped a Struis with an ostrich on the front. That would have been perfect. A real shoe in for most exotic. Now I have to drink that beer with a goat on it. Do you know how many beers have goats on them? Good lord. It’s about as many as Belgian beers with monks or elves…or German lagers showing lassies with costume malfunctions. Goats…jeesh.

So I will have to see where I go with this month’s choice or choices for reviewing after work. I have to think about this and get back to you. The photo above has nothing to do with it. I just felt guilty after promising reviews of the growlers I brought back from Grand River the other week – but plans got hijacked last Friday evening after work when BR and Paul from Kingston showed up. Click on the picture. They were that good.

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The Actual Beastie In Question: Bam Bière by Jolly Pumpkin. I have never had this one before or anything by this brewer but, as far as I am concerned, the lack of hordes of folks making tiny batches of farmhouse ale thoughout the villages and hamlets of North America is one of the faults of the culture.

Plenty of BAer love but is it a saison or bière de garde? Just farmhouse ale we are told…hmmm… The brewer says:

An artisan farmhouse ale that is golden, naturally cloudy, bottle conditioned and dry hopped for a perfectly refreshing balance of spicy malts, hops and yeast.

It’s only 4.5% and, ok, I admit it – dogs are rarely in the zoo. But who cares? I didn’t pick the topic. And what do I think?

[Ed.: give him a moment, would you?]

Well, this one could do with a cage or maybe just a shorter leash. An explosion of froth out of the 10.00 USD 750 ml bottle leaving me scrambling for a number of glasses to collect it all in. It was worth the scramble. In the mouth, this is like a subdued cousin of Fantome – white pepper and cream of wheat but also lemony like a Belgian white. Straw ale under a massively rocky white meringue head. Hoppy with astringent dried out hops leaving a lavendar. Dry with under ripe strawberry. The nose reminds me of poached haddock with only white pepper that I had as a child but that should mean nothing to you. Fabulous. A cross between straight-up Fantome saison and Orval?

Good doggie.

Quicknote: Celis Grand Cru, Michigan, USA

celisThis beer is from the Michigan Brewing Company but formerly was brewed in Austin Texas by Pierre Celis who had immigrated there after played a key role in the restoration of the entire Belgian white beer style. The brewery has a Flash time-line on all that history and here are three beer blog reviews of white beer and here are four more.

This ale is an example of a high-end white at 8% rather than the roughly 5% you would get with, say, your basic Hoegaarden. It pours fairly still, golden with a snow white head that disipates to foam and rim. The initial effect is definitely Duval mixed with Hoegaarden. There is the thickness and lipstickiness of the Belgian candi sugar and the heat of a Belgian golden strong beer like Duval as well as the corrianger-orange of a white. There is also pale ale grain, as opposed to just round maltiness, as well as balance from the cloy-cutting by the bitter if recessed hops. It would be interesting to compare this ale with others of this small style. I would buy again. BAers give it a 98% thumbs-up rating.