MICHIGAN BEER SOJOURN, DAY III

The Dark Horse Brewing mug club is not fucking around. They're serious about their mugs.

I’m sitting here at home right now with a tulip glass full of robust porter in my hand. It’s the very first bottle of a new batch of homebrew, and I’m very pleased with the results. I’ve been brewing for several years now, and it really pleases me to note the technical improvements I’ve made along the way, yielding beers that have gotten almost continually better.

I’m not kidding myself, though. I know that, good as my beers may be, they’ll probably never be quite as good as the very best of what professional brewers are able to produce. And that’s okay. After all–it gives me an excuse for a beer roadtrip, right?

Not that I needed an excuse, but roadtrip I did. I travelled through southwestern Michigan for three nights and four days, and have chronicled both Day I and Day II of the trip on this site (complete with photos and maps) earlier this week. What follows is the story of my journey on Day III, and maybe even a bonus telling of the Day IV voyage home and the subsequent day’s beer trip to Chicago.

But that’s later. To recap: I awoke in a daze, legs dangling off a Super 8 motel bed, hungry for some hilariously named “continental breakfast,” which at a Super 8 apparently means “a handful of dry cereal and an empty coffee machine”. All I can say is that I feel sorry for the residents of whatever “continent” on which such a breakfast is considered traditional. I began my drive, heading south from Grand Rapids.

I made good time heading south, and was approaching Kalamazoo almost immediately. Instead of stopping though, I drove past, deciding that I would visit the breweries further east first, in the morning and afternoon, and then spend the evening in Kalamazoo. This proved to be an excellent decision. I hung an eastwardly turn on the interstate and took it all the way to the small city of Marshall, Michigan, finally stretching my legs at…

Dark Horse Brewing, Marshall, MI

Dark Horse is kind of a weird place. It was probably the most unexpected-looking stop on the tour for a few reasons. First, it’s located in an unusual spot, on the outskirts of a fairly rural, sleepy city, and located behind THIS business. This is not what I was expecting to see:

Guy at the gas station told me "hang a left when you see Wacky Willy's and the brewery's right behind it." Okay, I thought, walking back out to my car. Wait. "Wacky Willy's"? And not only that. "Wacky Willy's Party Time."

I think it was a liquor and party supply store, although to look at the sign now and its promise of smoked chicken I admit I may have no idea whatsoever what Wacky Willy’s truly is. I puzzled at it for a moment, and then walked over to the Dark Horse entrance. Time? 11 a.m., when all these breweries tend to open.

Now, looks are somewhat deceiving when it comes to Dark Horse. The outside is…not that impressive.

Sort of like a brewpub crammed in a double-wide. This is basically the whole thing in frame.

On the inside though, it’s really quite cozy. Of course, it takes a while to actually notice how cozy it is, because for the first few minutes visitors just stand there flabbergasted at the utterly ridiculous number of mugs hanging from the ceiling, wall and every available inch of space. These are the members of the Dark Horse mug club, which must be one of the hottest tickets I’ve ever seen.

The waitress said the club has over 3,000 members. Every one of those mugs is on the ceiling of this tiny building.

The benefits, in case you’re wondering (and I know you are), are $1 of all beers, and every 6th beer is .50 cents. At $30 for lifetime membership, that pays off in around 15 beers for people who live in the area. I’d call that a pretty good investment.

Anyway, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t feeling too great this morning. I was relieved, then, to see that I’d had almost all the beers on the tap list before, including good beers like the Double Crooked Tree imperial IPA. My eye was caught, however, by a beer called “Dark Corner” on tap that I had never had. At the brewery, it was described as an imperial brown–for whatever reason, beer advocate has it as an American strong ale. I’d go with the brown ale descriptor, because it tasted much like a nutty, melanoidin malt-rich, souped-up version of Dark Horse’s staple brown ale, Boffo. I nursed a pint of it, which at which at 8% was still some pretty decent alcohol. I then departed, feeling my “at least one beer at each location” oath had been sufficiently fulfilled. I headed back west, toward…

Arcadia Ales, Battle Creek, MI

Getting to Arcadia was a bit of a challenge. A sudden, strong thunderstorm had swept out of the west, nearly making me pull the car off to the side of the highway. I was able to limp into Battle Creek though (it is very close to Marshall), and then cruised around, finding myself stymied from reaching the brewery directly by a huge amount of road construction. Circling it on small roads and alleys, I finally ended up in the back parking lot, where the best photo I was able to snap of an entryway was this tattered banner:

They make English ales, and their banners look like they may or may not have made a trip over the Atlantic in the hull of a ship, providing nesting material for rats in a dank corner.

I never even saw the front of the brewery, as the road and sidewalk were utterly and completely torn up, leaving what amounted to a giant sinkhole of mud the second you stepped out of the front door. Thankfully, none of that has anything to do with the beer.

Unfortunately, I was still feeling somewhat queasy. I knew I needed something to finally put my stomach at ease, so I ordered up the most nourishing beer in the world–dry stout. Arcadia’s Starboard Dry Stout, to be precise. It began to work almost immediately:

If this doesn’t cure what ails ya, nothing will.

Feeling empowered, I then set about munching some hummus from the Arcadia kitchen and followed the dry stout up with an imperial pint of Angler’s Ale, Arcadia’s flagship English pale ale. Now, this differs from my typical beer roadtripping strategy of trying only beers that are special releases or brewery exclusives, but Angler’s is a beer that I’ve seen a million times but never given a real chance to. It’s a problem that tends to plague all Aleheads–who wants to try a session English pale ale when there are IPAs on tap too.

 
You know what? I was immediately glad for my decision. The Anglers was one of the tastiest and best-made beers of the entire trip. It has a great, crisp biscuit malt character, very light bodied, with a serving of mildly herbal and fruity English hops. I honestly wish I was drinking one right now! It’s hard to imagine a better version of the style.
 
Before I left, I actually managed to sit down with one of the Arcadia Brewers and conduct a short interview, which I will get up on the site at some point in the near future. Of interest: I learned that Arcadia is firing up a new canning line, making them one of the first English-style brewers to do so. However, it was time to head out and begin several trip assignments in Kalamazoo, starting with…
 
Bell’s Brewery, Kalamazoo, MI
 
Yeah, yeah, I went to Bell’s. Yes, I was extremely antagonistic of them during the Northern Brewer cease and desist fiasco. What can I say? My own personal “not buying Bell’s” embargo is still in affect*, but I figured it would be stupid to not visit their brewery and brewpub when I’m there in Kalamazoo. Besides, I wanted to see the well-known “Eccentric Cafe“.
 
*Except Hopslam, naturally.
 

Disclaimer: Your eccentricism may vary.

 
Alright, it’s pretty cool inside. I give it 6/10 eccentric stars. I mean, it was eccentric, but it could have been…eccentricer? More eccentricy? Something. I scaled a wall like Spiderman to get this shot.*
 
*Or I may have walked upstairs to the second level, I forget.
 

Eccentricity in action.

The beer list was pretty good, and well-organized, with the likes of Hopslam on tap along with a few interesting brewery exclusives. I started off with a simple mild ale, having never had a mild from Bell’s before. The name proved pretty accurate–not one of the better milds I’ve had, and I’ve had some that I actually like quite a bit. It had the mouthfeel of a beer that should have more flavor, medium-bodied but very little actually going on.
 

I'm always up for an "experimental pale ale".

As you might expect, I tackled the “Hole in the Bucket” next, an “experimental pale ale” brewed with “3-6-9” hops. I inquired as to what that meant, and the bartender told me they were in fact an as-yet-unnamed experimental hop varietal, and that the Hole in the Bucket was a single-hop pale ale brewed exclusively with these “369” hops. Okay, sign me up.

This one was pretty darn interesting, and rather hard to describe. The best I can say was that the hop profile of “369” seemed like a mix of other American hops, with some grassy elements, some citric elements and some piney ones. The result was a dry, quite hoppy APA that didn’t taste very much like anything else I’d ever had. I definitely enjoyed this one, and it was cool to have a Bell’s beer that I’d never had before.

Note: you may look at that beer list and wonder that I didn’t tackle the Oracle Double IPA–I’ve actually had it before, at a beer fest in Indiana. It’s not distributed very widely, and the reason is fairly simple–it’s good, but it won’t make you forget about Hopslam anytime soon.

Before I left Bell’s, I also made a point of stopping in at the Bell’s General Store, known to be one of the better homebrew shops around. It was an interesting experience–I was fascinated by some of the hops on display in particular, as they stocked a number of varieties I’d never really heard of. Bravo hops? Bramling Cross? Sovereign? All new to me. They also had chilled vials of every White Labs yeast in existence, plenty of different fruit purees, and 12lb jugs of honey handy. But I couldn’t linger too long, as it was time to move on a few blocks to…

The Olde Peninsula Brewpub, Kalamazoo, MI

I didn’t really know much about The Olde Peninsula, nor did I know exactly where to find it, but I managed after wandering around downtown Kalamazoo on foot for a little while.

I’m not terribly sure where this name really comes from, as there is a distinct lack of penninsulae in the greater Kalamazoo area.

I have to say, beer names like “Rockin’ Raspberry” and “Black-n-Tan” don’t truly inspire the most confidence in the beer quality of a brewpub, but I was definitely going to give the Olde Peninsula a chance and go in objectively, like a good journalist.* I sidled up to the bar and ordered a beer flight of four brews. They are, from left to right:

*For once in my life.

 

You didn't think I was going to get through a whole day on this trip without a beer flight, did you?

 
Stout Chocula: A totally awesome beer name for a chocolate stout, but way too sweet for me. Extremely chocolately–like Rogue’s chocolate stout, except with more sugar. Tasted kind of like chocolate extract or something instead of actual chocolate, in the sense that I have never had any beer brewed with real chocolate that was this chocolately. Nearly as sweet as say, Southern Tier Creme Brulee. Couldn’t finish the full taster.
 
Midnight Stout: Couldn’t quite tell if this was more of an oatmeal stout or dry stout, but much better than the Stout Chocula. It may actually be the same beer without the chocification, but undoubtedly much better, and it should go without saying much drier. Easily my favorite of the Olde Peninsula brews.
 
Sunset Red: An amber ale that was forgotten pretty much immediately. I honestly can’t even remember it now, except that it’s written in my little tasting book.
 
Opie IPA: A serviceable, if light, American IPA. Had plenty of more vivacious hoppy brews on the trip, though.
 
I sat and drank my beers, and chatted with a fellow barstool-rider. He was the classic sort of “travelling insurance salesman” archetype, with a tie haggardly loosened a few notches around his neck, but he had some valuable insights into where I needed to head next. This is why talking to strangers on a trip like this is absolutely essential, because without this fellow, I somehow would have gotten through the trip without being made aware of…
 
Kalamazoo Beer Exchange, Kalamazoo, MI

Welcome to one of the most interesting and creative beer bars you’ll ever set foot in. I actually find it hard to believe that I’d never heard of this place before the trip. See if you can guess what the gimmick is from the outdoor logo.

Hint: It's not a barnyard theme.

The Kalamazoo Beer Exchange is actually modeled after the New York Stock Exchange or others like it, right down to the “trading room floor”. This means a draft menu of beers with prices that are constantly in flux–prices that actually rise and fall according to demand in the bar throughout the night. It’s all monitored on the “big board”.

Bud Light, more expensive than Ommegang, if you can believe it.

The beer list updates itself every 15 minutes, after the countdown in the upper right-hand corner has been completed. Each update is based on the purchases of the last 15-minute period–if people are buying New Holland Night Tripper, then the price rises. If nobody has been buying any Arcadia Whitsun, the price begins to fall. This works out to create a truly fascinating dynamic, one where drinkers are rewarded for being savvy buyers instead of simply going to the bar with a thought of which beer they’re in the mood for. I know that if I were a regular here, I would constantly be on the hunt for the “bargain” beer prices.

Case in point: When I arrived, Bud Light was actually going for $5, if you can believe that. Ommegang’s Hennepin saison, on the other hand, was a mere $2.50. If this was an everyday drinking trip, I know what I would be ordering. Also amusing: Bell’s Oberon is going for $5, when the actual Bell’s Brewery, selling a pint of Oberon for $3.50, is located roughly 100 yards away. Who is paying the inflated prices, I do not know.

However, this being the only time I’ll likely ever be stopping in at this location, I wasn’t here to get the best value. One beer in particular jumped out at me from that list with its weirdness: Old Hat Peanut Butter Stout. Seeing that, I pretty much thought–“Well hell, I guess I know what I’m getting then.”

How to describe the Old Hat Peanut Butter Stout…besides to say “This beer tastes like a Reese’s cup.” That is exactly what it tastes like–sweetened peanut butter with a little chocolate coating. The peanut and peanut butter flavor is unreal–it even smells like peanut butter. In fact, it smells like screwing the top off your peanut butter jar and inhaling. An incredible achievement in terms of capturing an actual aroma/flavor. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it tastes great. There’s just too much peanut butteriness for this to be even remotely drinkable. A very interesting beer to be sure, but one that I did not finish my pint of. Only two other dudes have reviewed this on beer advocate, and they pretty much agreed.

—–

That brew concluded Day III. When I started writing this epic diatribe, I intended to also include the trip home (Day IV) and the next day’s trip into Chicago for the closing party of Chicago Craft Beer week, but this thing has gone on brutally long already, so I think I’ll save the true end of the Michigan Beer Sojourn for Monday of next week. Tune in then, and go back to re-read Day I and Day II in preparation. I leave you with one final Bell’s eccentricity and the Day III travel map.

This is actually how everyone in Kalamazoo gets around. It's true. Don't look it up.

And here’s the map of my Day III travels:

 

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17 comments

  1. Next trip you will have to hit up Shorts 🙂 We thought the Beer Exchange was cool as well. I had the PB Stout – thought it was good but too sweet and too much at a pint. They will also mix it 50/50 with Leinie’s Berryweiss for a PB & J. It is freakin’ amazing taste/smell but like drinking pure sugar water.

  2. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    Haha, bleh. No way I could handle a full PB & J, but I’d at least give it a try. Might as well mix the PB Stout with some concord grape juice.

    I would love to “hit up Shorts,” but that would be like what, 4 or 5 hours of northward driving? It’s not exactly centrally located.

  3. Yes, the 50/50 PB Stout and Leinie’s Berryweiss at the Beer Exchange was awsome. It tasted like a PB and J sandwich. Now you can ony have one. It was one of the most unique beer experiences that I had.

    Dark House and Shorts is my list next time I visit.

  4. hhmmm, is it really that far? well then, I am with you on not going if it’s that far. What other places did you miss? I saw your note on reddit links but honestly don’t know what reddit links are. :/

    Bill – you, Jason and I are definitely doing this – this fall maybe?

  5. and Kid – agreed that Olde Peninsula is nothing special. Beers are average at best, which is unfortunate, because they have a nice place and cool name. Makes you think there shoudl be more to the beer

  6. 3.5 hours minimum. Even at my typical driving speed, I think Short’s is out of the question…

  7. Paw Paw might be one if they have a serving pub…

  8. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    If I actually lived in the area, I would make the drive up to Shorts at some point, but on a roadtrip from Chicago, it’s a little out of the way.

    Olde Penninsula serves a purpose, I think. I was told by my drinking buddy that after 8 p.m. on Wednesdays, all their beers are $2.

    These are the reddit links, where people mentioned some of the breweries I missed:
    Day I: http://www.reddit.com/r/beer/comments/hyhfw/part_one_of_my_recent_fourday_michigan_brewery/
    Day II: http://www.reddit.com/r/beer/comments/i0a2i/part_ii_of_my_recent_michigan_brewery_roadtrip_in/
    Day III: http://www.reddit.com/r/beer/comments/i23oi/day_iii_of_my_recent_michigan_beer_roadtrip_in/

  9. We’re from Mpls, so hey. lol Shakespeare’s in Kzoo has tons of taps and an all-day Sat HH with $2.50 pints. Worth a stop next time. I’m guessing Odd Side might have been mentioned as a miss. Thanks for the links – I’ll check them out.

  10. What’s the best buy on that Kalamazoo Beer Exchange board? It’s gotta be Founder’s Dirty Bastard for $3, cheaper than Bud Light! Great concept.

  11. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    I gotta go with the Hennepin for $2.75.

    Also: Chad, you’re from “Mpls”?

  12. Minneapolis guys here but one of us is from Portage, MI. So we go back there occasionally for the beer and to see friends. I must admit that back in March, for our first visit to the KBE, I did not let the price affect my decisions. When in Michigan, you better drink MI beer that you can’t get in Minnesota.

  13. This sojourn was awesome, speaking as someone bombing across the country myself. If you had to narrow it down to the best of the best in Michigan (Bell’s, Founders, and the Kzoo Beer Exchange excepted as they’re Must-sees for us West Coasters) where would you make your other brewery stop?

    Cheers!

  14. Dave: If I had to pick one? Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids. A truly unique experience. Hopcat there is also a must. If you’re driving up from the Chicago area, then The Livery is also a place that you should stop.

  15. […] with three parts, but they kept getting longer and longer. Day I was good, Day II was better, and Day III was the single most thrilling collection of sentences and visual evidence that have ever been […]

  16. Bud Lt was going for $5 at the KBE? Actually I really can’t believe that, since all the beers have set highs and lows, and But Lt caps at $3.75. Sorry.

  17. *shrug* It was at $5 when I first came in, before changing to the $3.75 that the photo displays. I certainly didn’t understand it. Perhaps it was some sort of error.

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