The holiday season is one in which everyone young and old is reminded of their roots and in a lot of cases they are afforded the opportunity to once again explore their childhood stomping grounds. Living in Oregon these past two years, immersed in so much incredible local beer and having access to so many beers I never wouldíve dreamed of, Iíd almost forgotten the Midwest roots of my beer enlightenment, but as my return to Michigan drew ever closer images of Bellís danced in my head.
<P> As I rolled into Grand Rapids fresh off the road from Chicago my top priority was to meet up with longtime friend and Ratebeer companion Ptor44 so we could locate the newly released Bellís Batch 6,000. We quickly succeeded after a short drive to B&B Liquors on 28th St. B&Bís brand new Alamoesque faÁade foreshadowed the incredible local and import selection we would find inside. Along with an awesome variety of local Michigan seasonal beers from New Holland, Dark Horse, Dragonmead, Founders, and of course Kalamazoo Brewing, B&B had a medium sized selection of imports including such highlights as Unibroue 11 and De Dolle Oerbier Special Reserva 2002.
<P>The imports however would have to wait because all I wanted was Michigan beer. I came home with a Batch 6,000, this yearís Bellís Expedition Stout, a New Holland Pilgrimís Dole Wheatwine, and Dragonmead Final Absolution Trippel. Back at Ptorís house first up in the tasting order was the New Holland offering; as Iíve said before New Holland has fallen from grace with me a bit but this emergence of a new big beer from them seduced me in and did not disappoint. Expedition this year as always was incredible with notable changes such as more carbonation and less overbearing alcohol presence. Batch 6,000 lived up to the hype and then some and having just come from the west coast I would easily stack Batch 6,000 up against any barley wine they could dish out. Needless to say this sample session ended a little more loosely than the business like manner with which it started and we were all smiles the rest of the evening.
The next few days involved extensive browsing at all the local good beer hotspots that Ptor and I used to frequent, and of course as much sampling as our wallets could afford. One thing I had forgotten about Michigan, in all its beer glory, is the outrageous expense of it. After tax and deposit the average six pack of even something as ubiquitous as Bellís Porter will run you about $11 out the door, even at a superstore like Meijer; Batch 6,000 and Expedition run up into the $17-18 range. Our browsing sessions served two important purposes. 1) We were able to see not only what stores had the best selection but also how much the selections had changed, and 2) more importantly we were able to find the stores with the best deals; Marthaís Vineyardís Batch 6,000 price was a good two dollars cheaper than anywhere else. Marthaís Vineyard was also the only place we found Dark Horse Brewingís four seasonal stouts which filled the void left by the discontinuation of a number of Bellís famed Stouts of November. What can I say but great minds think alike, and borrowing a page out of Larryís playbook is like stealing one out of Lombardiís; the Dark Horse stouts werenít as solid as Bellís but were just as creative. Dark Horseís Smoked Stout comes to mind in the creative department, its mix of sausage-like smokiness and strong coffee flavors was an interesting experiment in stout. The west coast may have a stranglehold on IPAs and all things hoppy, but as a state, Michigan is undoubtedly the sultan of stout.
<P>My immersion in all things Michigan beer naturally led me to the Eccentric Cafť in Kalamazoo, former home of all of Bellís beer production. As fate would have it, my converted good beer lovers had reserved a half barrel of Bellís Double Cream Stout to be picked up in Kalamazoo, one ride I certainly wasnít going to miss. Before going to pick up the keg (which was to be picked up at a local liquor store) I insisted we take a detour through Kzooís brewing quarter: Porter Street, home to both the Bellís and Kraftbrau breweries. Though Bellís had moved its production to a new facility in Comstock, the heart and soul (as well as the name) of the brewery still resides in Kalamazoo. A thin layer of fresh snow dusted the parking lot as we pulled in, me longing for a pint, eyes wider than a small child at Christmas. Once inside the gods smiled on me once again; one of the six rotating taps happened to be Winter White, another Bellís beer brand new to me. The bar was filled with regulars playing chess, debating, and of course drinking, so we retreated upstairs to what felt like our own little VIP room to focus on the rating task at hand. After a few beers we decided we had more important business to attend to and to my dismay we departed the Eccentric Cafť. Luckily Iíd be able to make it down to Kzoo one more time before my return to Oregon.
<P> Our luck began to change when we finally reached Tiffanyís; despite our Double Cream Stout reservation they had simply sold the keg to someone else. After a few quick phone calls we were able to locate a half barrel of Kalamazoo Stout back at the Eccentric Cafť. Our hearts may have been set on Double Cream but we all agreed that Kalamazoo Stout, the 56th best beer in the world, would have to do. The hour long journey back to Grand Rapids seemed like ages with our anticipation and excitement about to burst out the top of the car at any moment. On arrival in Grand Rapids we discovered that we had no tap and scrambled to find one. It took a little while but we found somebody with a crappy plastic macro swill tap; it may not have been pretty but it worked. I tapped the keg and pulled Ptor off a pint that to our astonishment was loaded with sediment, a delightful calling card of a good unfiltered beer. The glass was left with a yeast cookie big enough to satisfy even Santa Clausí insatiable cookie lust. Sadly even in Michigan your average beer drinker struggles to drink more than one stout, good thing me and some other above average beer drinkers were there to pick up the slack. When the Kzoo Stout ran dry it meant one thing, Bud Light was on its way, so naturally I took my leave, belly full, shirt sufficiently covered in stout stains.
<P> In this time of recession and economic turmoil my beer funds are not what they once were, so naturally my drinking pace slowed as the visit home progressed. Two dollar microbrew bottle night at Billyís allowed me to revisit old favorites from Bellís, New Holland, and Founders at minimal cost. My dadís usual Christmas present of books, in recent years has also grown to include beer, something that helped soften the financial burden bottle deposit and tax had inflicted on my beer drinking.
<P>My dad and I also shared a trip down to Kalamazoo to visit once again the Bellís Eccentric Cafť. Playing a few games of chess with my dad over dinner and a few pints at my all time favorite brewery is a moment tough to beat. That special moment got me thinking that in the end going home for the holidays isnít just about beer, more importantly itís about seeing your friends and family, and I think that, at least to me, is what makes those Michigan beers taste so sweet. Beer is such a living product in more than just the active yeast sense; brewers pour their heart and soul into a beer and that connection trickles down to the people who come together to enjoy it. Beer more than anything is about community, be it friends, family, or the incredible community weíre all a part of here at Ratebeer. Itís important to never let that human element escape.
<P>After a good three weeks back on the home front the time came for me to go back west. I accomplished a lot of solid beer drinking during my time home and spent a lot of quality time with loved ones. I canít say however that I wasnít excited to go back to Oregon and share my beer adventures with my beer loving roommates and in turn listen to their adventures and hopefully have the chance to drink some of their favorite beers from home.