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.
For being Sweden’s smallest brewery, Pang Pang proved to be a pretty big deal. Fredrik, the lone founder and brewer, and most of the time, lone employee, is an incredible example of Sweden’s ambitions in craft beer. It was clear in the first few moments of our chat that Pang Pang was aiming high, despite it’s humble beginnings.
Currently located in a basement room beneath a residential building in Hökarängen, a quiet neighborhood in the far south of Stockholm, Fredrick, a former homebrewer, brews on equipment he’s either scraped together or built himself, and it’s all strikingly efficient. In many ways, his situation reminded me of the boys at Chicago’s Spiteful Brewing in Ravenswood.
Fredrik already has two labels under his belt: The Puttin’ in Hours Pale Ale and the No, It’s Not from India, It’s from Hökarängen IPA. Bottles and kegs from his first productions were hand-delivered to some of Stockholm’s best bars and restaurants, including Pubologi in Gamla Stan and Nytorget Urban Deli in Södermalm, generating a buzz around the city that still persists.
Distribution in Sweden is a much more direct process than in the States. Breweries are allowed to make direct sales to bars and restaurants, enabling them to develop strong relationships with their customers. In turn, premise accounts have much more say in the beers they serve.
This changes when it comes to retail sales, however. Sweden controls the sale of alcohol through a state-run liquor store monopoly called System Bologet. The System stores carry a variety of beers, both macro and micro, but selection varies greatly from store to store. Legally, a brewer has the right to sell their beer in the nearest three stores by default. But to get wider distribution is challenging. As a brewer with dozens of System stores between his brewery and downtown Stockholm, Fredrik is busy jumping through many regulatory hoops to reach his target audience.
He felt the first major sting of the System in his label review. Pang Pang’s bottle labels are created in the style of noir comics, both elegant and violent. The original label for Puttin’ in Hours Pale Ale was rejected due to it’s suggestive content. In the revision, the artist removed the blood from the character’s collar and erased the chalk outline of the missing axe in the background. Label approved.
Fredrik’s brewing is on hiatus at the moment, but he still had a Pale Ale handy that he was reluctantly willing to share. It was from a batch that he’d determined was slightly “off” and he decided not to distribute it. The hops were a bit too astringent in his opinion. As someone who sees many American brewers running loose with their recipes, even swapping out one hop profile for another due to price fluctuations, I was encouraged by Fredrik.s desire for precision. He was right about the beer’s quality, but only by a few degrees. It was a solid pale.
Fredrik was only brewing in this space for a short time before an opportunity for a larger, more visible space became available nearby. Hence the hiatus. We took a brief walk through Hökarängen to a corner with a small row of storefronts under construction. The city is interested in Hökarängen becoming a draw for artists and craftsmen, and they see Pang Pang as a potential draw.
The new space has a kitchen (taprooms in Sweden are required to serve food), multiple walk-in coolers and a storefront large enough for a killer taproom. Fredrik was noticeably excited by the possibilities. His goal is to save as much of the vintage cottage feel of the space, the painted cupboards and lockers, light fixtures and flooring, all harkening back to 1960s Sweden. He even knows where he wants the taps, styled like vintage weapons — think sawed-offs and Tommy Guns.
Before parting ways, we swapped some beers and recommendations for beer hunting in Stockholm and some postcards and literature from our respective hunting grounds. Fredrik was recently featured in a folio-style mag from Hugo, a high-end menswear store in Stockholm, which provided one hell of a platform to talk about craft beer and Pang Pang. In return, I dropped off a copy of Mash Tun and some postcards of my trips to Goose Island and Solemn Oath, which stoked his desire to make the trip to Chicago.
My visit to Pang Pang set the tone for the rest of my excursion. Where last year’s trip to Portugal was a wasteland for beer hunting, Sweden had already proven to be exciting, fertile grounds for innovative approaches to beer. And there’s so much more to come!
This past memorial day, I had the immense pleasure of spending a slow, wandering kind of weekend at a summer camp in Wisconsin owned by some new friends of ours. They invited us up for a “friends and family” weekend with little more structure than some loosely scoped meals and a band on Saturday. The rest was up to us — which meant plenty of walking around, swimming, yard sale and antique shop scouring — and plenty of lakeside drinking. This is Camp Wandawega, and it’s a vision of perfection.
On Saturday, sitting on the pier, I cracked open a growler of Solemn Oath Klöros, which I nabbed at the recent launch at Standard Market, an impressive farm-sized market in Westmont. With a bar and outdoor patio, the market caters to a growing craft beer audience in the area, and on this occasion, the boys from Solemn Oath were making tons of new friends in just there second week of brewing. I was there as a co-host, sharing prints, postcards and Mash Tun journals with our suburban brethren.
Then I headed north toward Elkhorn, WI where Wandawega waited. Every time I cross into Wisconsin, I mutter to myself “this is New Glarus country.” In 2002, New Glarus pulled back distribution in Illinois, so now it shines from Wisconsin’s greener pastures, inviting an old fashioned run to the border. There, you can pick up Spotted Cow, a cask-conditioned farmhouse that drinks like a blonde (in fact, they sweeten it with a little local corn) and Fat Squirrel, a nut brown ale, at almost every grocery and liquor store.
But if you start poking around, you quickly realize that there’s no shortage to the styles and flavors of New Glarus. On this trip, I packed the car with the Thumbprint Series IIPA, an imperial, and Black Top, a black IPA, both of which served us well in the 97 degree heat on Sunday. Alongside a bloddy mary, I was in heaven. Turns out, Wandawega is the kind of place where you can start drinking at 10am, play fetch with a dog, swing out into the lake, shoot a few arrows, and start a bonfire. And then do it all again after lunch.
On the way home, back down Fox River Road just north of Fox Lake, I scouted out a small liquor store / log cabin advertising wines and micros. Fox River Spirits seemed like a last possible stop for New Glarus before crossing back into Illinois. Inside, we found a hunters’ lodge atmosphere and some locals buzzing around the coolers.
Blair, a retired fire chief and owner of the place was popping bottles and pouring tasters of everything from Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, a thinner-than-expected, vanilla-sweet ale from Lexington, to some regional brews like Oso’s Night Train porter full of crystal and chocolate malts. This was clearly a local gathering place for newly minted beer geeks. As one regular put it: “a few years ago, we used to have to drive 30 minutes just to get basic imports. Now we walk down the street and have our choice of 300 different micro bottles, and a ton of local stuff. Hell, you’ don’t ever have to drink anything from outside Wisconsin now!”
Only a few years old as a craft beer geek himself, Blair’s got some stories about starting a liquor store. He recalls the first time he got some beers in from Belgium and thought they were spoiled. “Tasted real odd, real tart.” he said. He gave them to the neighbor to get rid of them. A couple weeks later, someone came in looking for Belgian sours. “What’s that?” Blair thought, “you mean beer that’s supposed to taste sour? Well, shit.”
Blair has plans for a much larger tasting room. He’s already knocked out the back wall to expand, and has a small bar tucked into the back corner where he currently sets up to share. It’s as much for his own education and for his customers. “I had a hard time selling the more obscure stuff until I started letting people taste it” he said, “but once they had a taste of something, they found out they loved all kinds of beer.”
The week before Chicago Craft Beer Week officially kicked off, a few new friends and I jumped the gun with a beer gathering at one of Chicago’s newest and still undiscovered BYOs — BadHappy Poutine Shop.
As I watched this crew pile in — Paul Schneider from Chitwonontap.com, Joe Barley from recently launched Solemn Oath brewery, Jay from StockyardPalate.com and prolific gustatory Tweeters @TedwardBouillon and @MikeMcKenzieCHI — it was clear that these guys don’t come around unless they come heavy. Bottle lined up quickly and we all took a deep breath. We had some work to do, and we hadn’t even ordered the poutine yet. Which poutines did we order? All of them. All of the poutine.
If you’ve never heard of poutine, it’s essentially a bed of thick-cut fries, cheese curds and gravy and hails from our northern brethren in Quebec. BadHappy riffs on this righteous foundation in a variety of ways. These are those ways.
Da’ Local — featuring house sausage, sharp cheddar curd, hot giardiniera, pepper and onion gravy, was an early favorite. The giardiniera lights up your palate and the sausage smooths it over with plenty of fat. Cut the fat with a bright IPA or a summery bitter brew and you’re off to a great start. We cooled down with Khloros from Solemn Oath, full of lemon and orange rind with a nice sharp finish.
Thelonious — a veg/vegan basket with shredded BBQ mushrooms, cheese curd or soy, southern cabbage carried a moody, earthy flavor that paired really well with some of our heavier beers, like Goose Island Bramble Rye Bourbon County Stout, Stone Imperial Russian Stout, and the Dock Street Saison (a sour).
The Pilsen — piled high with beef picadillo, taco curd, cilantro and onion, roasted chilies, tomatillo salsa, la lengua gravy — and the One Hot Asian with viet-pork patties, headcheese, jalapeno curd, dikon and carrot, and kimchi sauce demanded the fiery finished of Hop Henge an experimental imperial IPA I acquired on my recent Deschutes visit in Portland, Oregon and the official 2012 Symposium IPA from the San Diego craft beer conference held just a few weeks ago, and retrieved via Joe Barley.
HappyFace — braised veal cheek, garlic curd, chicken fried sweetbreads, braised kale, foie gras gravy — and RedNeck, covered in BBQ pork, mac-n-cheese, fried okra, Carolina cole claw, and PBR gravy put us all over the edge. At this point, we each went our separate ways in terms of brews. Boulevard’s Rye on Rye came out as well as a Dogfish Head’s Burton Baton imperial IPA. For the rest of the night, we covered the spread in terms of beer styles and variations on a poutine theme. But nothing, even the impromptu beer floats, could prepare us for our final meal.
The gals of BadHappy, a bit sauced themselves by this point, put together a dessert poutine that shall go nameless for now. A healthy pile of fries was covered in ice cream, chocolate sauce, whipped cream and sprinkles and then set loose into the world. Such is the way of BadHappy, with it’s vices and virtues in skewed proportion. I’m pretty sure that after you witness an evil of this order, your next step is human trafficking.
Just a reminder to my Chicagoland readers, tonight is the big night. Solemn Oath will be pouring at Standard Market in Westmont, Ill (map) as part of their launch series in their first week as a brewery. Myself and Paul Schneider of Chitownontap.com are co-hosting. If you follow either of us on Facebook, Twitter or here on the blog, just mention us and get a discount — $3 pours!
I’ll also be selling large prints of my photos of Solemn Oath, and a few of my faves from Greenbush and Goose Island for the first time (you can see the entire collection in my shop). I’ll also have postcard prints and copies of Chicago’s new craft beer journal, Mash Tun, for sale. Come out and say hello!
Perhaps the most beautiful beer event of the year, every year, Beer Under Glass gives Chicagoans the chance to sample dozens of local brews, a few microbrews from around the country and some of the city’s best food under the translucent glory of Garfield Park Conservatory.
Only a matter of months since a hailstorm devastated this massive greenhouse on the far west side of Chicago, the conservatory has been largely restored. Various climate-controlled rooms, including conditions like an arid dessert and a tropical jungle make it possible to sip a 4oz pour from Chicago’s Metropolitan brewery, take the long way around the world, and wind up at 5 Rabbit brewery only a hundred yards away.
Beer Under Glass is a craft beer geek’s summer solstice in Chicago. It typically marks the end of a chilly spring. But this year, summer was even more evident as the sun beat down on the patio and cascaded through the glass ceilings, a fine tropical mist in the air all around. Beer Under Glass also ushers in another seasonal miracle — Chicago Craft Beer Week. With more craft beer events being held than ever before, it only seems fitting that we make our pilgrimage out to Garfield Park, like the sparrows returning to Capistrano, before we spread out over the city in search of new and rare Chicago brews.
I was especially happy to see Andres Araya and Randy Mosher from 5 Rabbity Brewery pouring 5 Lizard beer after a wintery hiatus. This Latin-inspired witbier with passionfruit and spices is refreshing, dry and slightly tart — a perfect summer beer. But the big news for 5 Rabbit was the announcement that they signed a lease. With the flurry of best-intentions from up-start brewers in Chicago, it’s encouraging to see an honest-to-god lease get signed. They’ve staked claim to a 25,000 sq ft facility in Bedford Park in an old industrial area near Midway Airport. Soon, we’re going to need a brew bus that tours the outer ring of the city.
Solemn Oath (their site just launched) was pouring their first batch of Khlöros, a light Belgian white with some zing from orange and lemon peel, coriander, and some summer stone fruit. Like 5 Lizard, it had that perfect amount of spice and dryness to keep you thirsty for more. Also on tap for the first time was Oubliette, a sharp Belgian pale ale and Ultrahighfrequency, a bold, well-hopped American Red with a solid caramel malt backbone. These guys are coming out strong, having just opened their taproom, hosted a launch at Bavarian Lodge and getting revved up for their event at Standard market in Westmont, IL.
As I made the rounds, other beers of note included Goose Island’s Scarlet, a just-tart-enough saison with some bright, sparkling texture, and Bourbon Country Stout, which is proof these guys are going to produce more and more of this epic beer. Janna (@JannaMestan) from Haymarket was pouring her own bourbon barrel aged concoction, a stout full of vanilla and roasted coffee notes that would stand up against some of the best in the city. And Greg Browne from Mickey Finn’s was pouring his Gudenteit Hefe Weizen, which more than 8 years ago was my first example of that unmistakable banana and clove aroma — it brings back memories.
This was also the first sighting for Chicago’s new craft beer journal, Mash Tun, produced by Ed Marszewski of Lumpen Magazine and Proximity lore. Ed and family also own Maria’s Packaged Goods and Community Bar in Bridgeport, which became an instant destination for rare and special beers. Hundreds of copies of Mash Tun were scattered around the event, and Ed sat behind stacks of them like a proud librarian in the south garden greeting excited passersby who were more than impressed with the publication’s first issue. More on Mash Tun later this week.
Finally, the crowd slowly filled in to the west garden toward sunset, which opens into a piazza-style patio and a lawn that seemingly goes on forever, rolling westward the way Lake Michigan evokes an ocean heading east. As the sky dimmed into orange and red, we took our last few sips, reunited with our friends and soaked up those fading summer rays before busting out the front doors into the happy open arms of the food trucks.
I got to do something very special this month, and it was worth the 45 minute drive from my apartment in Ravenswood Chicago to the sleepy suburb of Naperville, IL at 8am on a Sunday — I swear. I got to document the first weekend of beer making at Solemn Oath Brewery, poised to be one of Chicago’s next great microbrew destinations. And I don’t say that lightly.
Owners John and Joe Barley are quietly plugging away alongside head brewer Tim Marshall, of Rock Bottom, Lombard lore. They’ve been gutting and building out a former auto-body shop in a remote light-industrial park a little ways of interstate 88 west of Chicago. This immense and raw space is inspiring — a bit like a fortress of solitude — for the young crew setting out to do something special in craft beer for Illinois.
My first run-in with Tim’s special talents was at the Festival of Barrel Aged Beer in Chicago a few years back. I remember being surprised to see Rock Bottom so well represented at such a competitive event, and even more surprised when Tim and co. started cleaning up in the award ceremony. Experimental beers like Clusterfunk! and Pritchard #4 were personal favorites.
Tim is bringing his barrel aging experience to Solemn Oath, and plans to fill every space he gets — a couple of whiskeys to start. And while he’ll branch out immediately in terms of style, there’s a big gap in Belgo-Americans they plan to fill from a Midwestern perspective, blending the funk of Belgian yeast strains with an American approach to hops, grains and alternative ingredient exploration.
Despite its relative distance from Chicago and its fortress-like quality, Solemn won’t remain in solitude for long. In the next month or so, we’ll start seeing Solemn Oath beers declaring themselves during Chicago Craft Beer Week. Their official arrival party is at Bavarian Lodge on May 18th and at Standard Market in Westmont on May 25th. The opening of the taproom is scheduled for May 19th, right in the middle of it all.
Juxtaposing the sprawling, busy atmosphere of the brewery, the taproom is intimate — room for a couple dozen people — and it opens onto the brewery on one side and the parking lot on the other to create a sprawling, unconstrained sense of space. With a special liquor license they worked to get from the village of Naperville, visitors will be able to drink up to three beers and get a growler to go.
There are a lot of people that get into craft beer for the aesthetics, and in addition to their brewing chops, it’s clear that branding, interior design and the architecture of Solemn Oath is a passion for these guys. Furnishing the tap room will be Greta deParry’s incredible woodwork and furniture, with a solid piece of hard wood for the bar and her now-famous stools made from concrete and bent metal. Mixed with the steel tanks, raw concrete walls and epoxy painted floor, the entire visual fades into a magical sort of grey-blue gleam.
The logo, by Los Angeles designer Greg Favro, is a heavy gothic typeface paired with a delicate wave of grain that references the medieval days where both solemnity and oaths had a less-than-ironic place in our society. Scrawled across the brewing floor is the phrase “Aut inveniam viam aut faciam” — Latin for “I will either find a way, or make one” — in an equally serious, but more elegant typeface. And the label art balances the desire for intricate visual storytelling with the commercial need to be clear and to-the-point when it comes to beer. The graphic artist, Jourdon Gullett, has already created a half dozen labels that tie together nicely with symbolic themes and a style somewhere between the wood-cut nature of New Glarus, the colorful spirit and dark lines of Rogue and energy and hard-wrought, graphic style of Three Floyds.
Aesthetics and beer are either critical, or uncomfortable bedfellows for many people in the industry. Andrew Wright, an illustrator and designer in Chicago, and a reader of Good Beer Hunting, recently emailed me with this very tension in mind:
It strikes me as odd that the beer world takes so much time and pride in producing top quality products yet consistently neglect the way it looks. I may not be searching in the right places and I know there are exceptions. Brooklyn using Milton Glaser, for instance, tells me that they understand the power of aesthetics. I know good design isn’t supposed to be noticed but I do believe that there is a way to appreciate it while still having it function.
As someone who clearly has a passion for the aesthetics of craft beer, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen plenty of brewers that neglect or reject aesthetics in the name of authenticity, purporting that to provide an aesthetic experience is to distract from the beer. To their point, there have certainly been examples of start-up breweries that overemphasize branding and treating their beer like a widget they can slap cool graphics on or connect with a subculture to get credibility. These will be weeded out, but like weeds, they will keep coming back. None of that should distract from a true brewer’s desire to consider the entire experience of their product, from tank to taproom, tap to bottle.
And for places like Solemn Oath, the instinct to align a great beer experience with a special aesthetic experience seems completely natural and honest. Craft beer resonates with the local small-town beer drinker looking for honesty in his beer. It also connects with urbanites longing for the localvore lifestyle and the still-growing maker movement. Both of these audiences have a picture in their minds of what drinking a beer should look and feel like. And while I respect that not every beer maker is capable of, or interested in, providing their point of view on what they think that beer drinking experience should be like, I’m a huge fan of those who are. Because when you make a beer, you bring a living, breathing element into this world (quite literally) and if you can make that world a more beautiful place for that beer to be, then you’re really on to something.
Special thanks to Paul Schneider of Chitownontap.com (on the right in the first image) who will be working at the brewery this summer. His early interview with the boys of Solemn Oath was published in The Chicagoist.