Grand Rapids Beer City, USA / Three Oaks / Allegan County / Bridgman
Heavy hearted, Sarah and I passed by the shuttered Pleasant House Brewing in downtown Three Oaks. Though I enjoyed the Bridgeport bakery and I adore the Pilsen, and Back of the Yards locations, I have a special place in my heart for the Michigan brewpub. I felt like a dejected three-year-old who just dropped his Jolly Rancher in the dirt, but I was quickly handed the brand new Laffy Taffy of entering Staymaker, the full kitchen restaurant at Journeyman Distillery. My sadness evaporated the moment I took in the sight of that shiny, copper still and a thousand wooden barrels used to house whiskey and gin. At a remarkable break-even point, my final tear for the loss of Pleasant House Brewing was shed the very instant I got to dig in to the Journeyman Bison burger and the cacao nib-infused Aztec Manhattan.
After Journeyman, we ventured further north-east. In a low, breathy undertone, a strange voice I sensed from within directed us to stop at Virtue Cider in Fennville, the hand-pressed Michigan apple cidery, started by Greg Hall.
I should have plotted forethought on how I was to approach Mr. Hall upon my potential recognition of the industry icon and barrel-aging pioneer that he is. I mean, the guy invented Bourbon County Stout, (not to mention Big John, King Henry, Juliet, Madam Rose, Dominique… every iteration of The Sisters line). In the 90s, to commemorate Goose Island’s one-thousandth batch, he brewed the base beer imperial stout and stored it in Jim Beam barrels for one-hundred days, basically taking Great American Beer Festival hostage. Hall’s invisible hand forced them to add categories for wood and barrel aged beers. Dude changed the game for not only Chicago, but for the entire beer world at large.
We drank a few of his marvelous, sparkly-dry, fermented apple-creations, like Lapinette Cidre Brut, a cider aged in wine barrels with tart fruit, and The Mitten (cherry), a blended cider aged on charred American oak. The ciders are not exactly the back-sweetened imbroglio like the crap served on your shitty teenage youth retreat hayride while listening to DC Talk.
I heard a raspy whisper from the grave tell me to purchase a champagne bottle of Garage Core, a 5% collaborative effort with Longman & Eagle yielding an unfiltered, uncarbonated funky delicious concoction.
I saw Greg Hall, the man who courageously presented world class wild fermentation beers to the city of foodies, sauntering toward us in his overalls as we exited the tasting room to the farm. I froze up. I was able to muster out a, “hey”, and I probably gave him thumbs up because I’m an idiot. So that was it. My sole interaction with a beer-world deity.
The oak-barrel aging ciderhouse sits on a 48-acre farm plot surround by animals on a rotational grazing program. I got to meet everyone. A big rabbit, Icelandic sheep, free-range chickens, and a behemoth Gloucestershire traditional orchard pig who eats all the felled apples. They have many goats.
Peering beyond the electric fence with a dead stare, one goat: Black Phillip, whispered to us. Though I recognized the raspiness, he didn’t specifically reveal himself as the mortal form of Satan. But I knew. That rambunctious billy goat typically torments Puritan Christian families, invoking violent seizures and causing kids to expel large apples from their mouths, but on this particularly sunny day he was our guide via telepathy. Clearly, he’s a puppet of The VVitch located deep in the woods of Fennville, and he knew of the lavish places we were to visit that weekend before we would even arrive.
Recalling that the animal-familiar within the thrall of warlocks had whispered in a beckoning tone to visit Brewery Vivant, there wasn’t much in our power to do otherwise. Dimly lit, inside of an old mortuary chapel, Vivant holds the ambiance of something out of Willow. With long, plank wood community tables, gothic stained glass and buttressed beam roof joists, the medieval funeral home is not only meant to shelter hooded mourners attending graveside services but also to serve rustic Michigan farmhouse ales and chicken & waffles. Presented in a pineapple glass and bursting with mango, I enjoyed the Tropical Saison so thoroughly that I bought the god damn tee shirt.
They have large wooden foedres for aging some of their beers. They also have giant oak puncheons for aging some of their other beers. Whether or not you can conceptualize what a foedre even looks like, just picture a puncheon being twice as large. I ordered the “Puncheon On and On and On…”, a one-of-a-kind permutation of a sour saison blended with other ales and fruit in to mind-expanding perpetuity.
Sarah ordered a glitter beer. I’ve never ordered a glitter beer myself, but I will say that they look mesmerizing, and the glitter did add some density to the mouthfeel. I’m not threatened by glitter beer. I don’t know why you think I’m threatened by glitter beer. Maybe you’re the one who is threatened by glitter beer. Anyway, in honor of the Witches Sabbath that Black Phillip orchestrated for us from the netherworld, the owner of Brewery Vivant appeared out of thin air, unsheathed his cell phone like a broadsword and helped to backlight the swirling glass for a glittery disco beer Instagram picture to set any burning-heart Brony’s soul ablaze. Serendipity? No. This was design.
The narrative of the goat, the devil incarnate based on a murmur, led us north to Speciation Artisan Ales, in which I have to assume was a cruel prank. Speciation tasting room is only open one day per month, for five hours and it was definitely not open upon our arrival. I was looking forward to going there. But after accepting the dark fate and spending a few minutes with my nose pressed to the window, Black Phillip had a good chuckle I’m sure. He whispered and continued the trajectory. Guiding us by Jacobean era witchcraft, we were blindly led to the west side of Grand Rapids.
In what was the old Walker Township, in an unassuming, refurbished, old real estate classroom building exists Greyline Brewing. The small, one-thousand BBL per year facility is owned and operated by Nate Walser: super hero. In the late 1990s while working as head brewer for Founders, he singlehandedly saved the Grand Rapids brewery from the brink of collapse. The recipes he invented, polished and revamped ended up ingeniously bringing Founders from the threshold of bankruptcy and literal padlocks being placed on the front gates by landowners, to the renowned sensation that it is. Dirty Bastard, Centennial IPA, and Breakfast Stout (the base beer for KBS and CBS) – his brainchildren, all.
There exists a space between right and wrong, good and evil, and black and white. This is the grey area. Black Phillip held the determination of where the line was that day. It was the Greyline. While devouring the Pig & Goat Sandwich and drinking the spiced wheat Saison, and El Zacca Double IPA, I resisted the coquettish urge laid out by Black Phillip to go up to the bar and drunkenly urinate in a pint glass or two.
At Greyline I saw my future. Forecasted through a window of folded space-time within a noncurrent duration, I witnessed a group of sixty-year-old men with sweet matching jackets. Their backs displayed a vow that read “BeerCation 2018”. They were friends on a mission for beer. They are my destiny. Before I could approach and slap them all high-fives, they rode off on shimmering choppers into a cascading sky, dematerializing to the horizon. I pictured what connecting constellation of taprooms they were to visit on their journey. Where had they been? In Grand Rapids Beer City, USA, the possibilities are quite boundless.
(Retraction: I was notified after tagging Virtue Cider on Twitter with this post, that they do not in fact have any goats. The animals pictured are Icelandic Sheep. I felt it would change the narrative thread of my silly post too much to go back and make revision. Plus the very fact that Virtue Cider thought my mistake was funny, well, that is enough to make me leave the above post the way it is.)