10 Beer Lessons I Learned in 2016

I think it would be an understatement to say I drank some beer in 2016. I checked in on 1,852 beers and visited 122 new breweries (37 in Michigan, 85 in 14 other states). I’ve had a chance to reflect on some of the things I learned in the last year.

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Sampling a legendary beer at the source
  1. I still don’t get the Bourbon Barrel Aged craze.

One of the beautiful things about having so many different styles and varieties available is that not everything is going to appeal to every palate. My home state of Michigan makes some amazing BBA beers- it’s just not something that appeals to my tastes. I don’t dislike bourbon per say, I just don’t want it as THE most dominant flavor in my beer. I can taste these beers and know if they’re going to appeal to the people who like the barrel-aged beers. I don’t dislike all barrel-aged beers. I’m a big fan of wine barrel aging (if done correctly) and a little liquor taste is fine when it’s balanced, like Barry does at my hometown brewery, Canton Brew Works, where they aren’t aged as long. Judging from the lines at stores for Bourbon County and Founders’ KBS, they’re not going away anytime soon.

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Batch Octoberfest 2015

2.  Batch Brewing in Detroit is my favorite Michigan Brewery.

I was lucky enough to meet the crew at Batch shortly after they opened their doors in Detroit’s revitalizing Corktown neighborhood when I wrote the post on them for I’m a Beer Hound. It was easy to see then that these guys were serious about their craft and really know what they are doing. Since then I’ve visited here more than my any brewery (other than my hometown brewery Canton Brew Works, which I removed from consideration as my favorite- they’re in a special category- see number 10). Whenever I have guests in town, and I want to show off the good things going on in the city, we always make a visit to Batch. Their brewing philosophy of making small, artisan batches of beer really appeals to me. Even styles I’m not usually a fan of seem to be better at Batch.  Throw in unique (and award winning) food, and they’ve really got it all going on here. Owner Stephen Roginson’s commitment to Detroit and it’s causes has manifested itself in the highly successful Feelgood Tap- a special beer each month where a dollar from every pint poured is donated to charity. The Feelgood Tap has now expanded to over 40 venues in the Detroit area. If you haven’t been to Batch, go. Go now. (Seriously, stop reading and go now.)

3. You don’t have to go to Belgium to find traditionally done wild ales, you can go to…. Pittsburgh.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, I took a short road trip to Columbus, Ohio & Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to sight see and visit some breweries. The most pleasant surprise of that trip was Draai Laag, a newer brewery in Pittsburgh specializing in wild ales done the traditional Belgian way, by using a coolship. These open air vessels allow the wort to be infected by naturally occurring yeast, which gives each batch a unique ‘funky’ taste. While these beers are certainly not for everyone, I’ve always been a huge fan. Belgium-based Cantillon is the most famous and longest brewing of these breweries, and they produce some of my favorite beers, one which are highly sought after worldwide. Draai Laag’s brewers have certainly mastered this difficult style of brewing, and their beers go beyond the traditional styles, as they also are experimenting with all kinds of ingredients. I’m so glad their distributing here in Michigan, but the brewery in Pittsburgh (plus the up and coming scene there) makes a visit well worth the time.

4. It can be too hot for beer.

One of my very favorite events of the whole year is always the Michigan Brewers’ Guild Summer Beer Festival, held in Ypsilanti each July. Since my first one in 2013, we’ve had some hot days, along with some storms, but I’ve been pretty lucky weather-wise. This year was an exception, as temps on both days were in the upper 90s. As an experienced festival goer, I know the important of staying hydrated during these event. Friday, however, I wasn’t able to regulate my body temperature, and even after 19 (yes, 19) bottles of water, I left the festival extremely dehydrated and with a splitting headache. If I hadn’t committed to taking pictures for Mittenbrew, I might not have even gone back on Saturday. Fortunately, I woke up Saturday morning feeling much better, and was able to enjoy the second day by pacing myself and taking multiple breaks to hydrate and relax in the shade of our tent.

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Cultivate Brewing Company, Berrian Springs

5. The brewery scene in Southwest Michigan is seriously underrated.

Greenbush is the most famous brewery in this part of the state, and the one that undoubtedly gets the most pub, but, after Chris and I spent a July weekend visiting the other breweries in the area, I came away very impressed. I was also left wondering why there isn’t more conversation in beer circles about all the fantastic breweries located here. Arclight Brewing Company, located in Watervliet (halfway between St. Joseph & Kalamazoo) is truly one of the state’s finest breweries, and a favorite of mine since our first visit in September of 2015. On this trip, we were lucky enough to catch the soft opening of Watermark Brewing Company is Stevensville, and came away expecting great things from these guys going forward. Located between Greenbush in Sawyer and Watermark is the tiny hamlet of Bridgeman, which is home to two awesome breweries, Tapistry and newcomer Transient Artisan Ales. When it comes to gorgeous brewery settings, it’s hard to top Cultivate BC in Berrian Springs. I’m going to do a whole blog post on this often overlooked part of the state’s beer scene.

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A good, very hoppy Double IPA

6. I’m definitely developing a bit of IPA Fatigue. 

When I started on my craft beer journey, I didn’t drink dark beers or IPAs. Thanks to my friend Gabe introducing me to Hopslam early, I developed into a bit of a hophead. When visiting breweries and drinking flights, I always would drink the IPA last, not only because of the effect it has on the palate, but also because they were my favorite style. While I still love IPAs of all styles, both well-balanced and palate-scalding, they aren’t automatically my go-to. I’d even go as far as to say I prefer a good stout instead. I think a lot of this happened on this year’s trip to the Eastern US, where they are producing some super dank IPAs, but seemingly not a whole lot else… which leads me into the next one…

7. The ‘East Coast IPA’ isn’t a recognized style, but it’s a real thing. 

On the previously mentioned trip, I made it a point to visit many of the best breweries in this part of the country. Most of these have become famous for their hazy, unfiltered IPAs. Examples of this style are The Alchemist‘s Heady Topper and Maine Brewing Company’s Lunch. While visiting New York City, I ventured out to Brooklyn’s best reputed brewery, Other Half, and I found some of the most delicious IPAs I’ve ever tasted. The hop combinations they were using were unbelievable, but IPAs or DIPAs made up 11 of the 14 beers they had on. One of the trip’s most pleasant surprises, Bissell Brothers in Portland, Maine was also doing hoppy, unfiltered beers, but they also had some other style on at the time of our visit (no dark beers however). Since I’ve been back in Michigan, I’ve had ‘East Coast IPAs’ from a number of breweries, including Witch’s Hat and Griffin Claw. While ‘East Coast IPA’ still is not a recognized category, I think that’s going to have to change soon.

8. Florida has some good beer, but they are well behind other states of similar size.

I had a great time visiting a number of Florida’s breweries in January of this year. There are a number of good breweries, even some with national reputations. The most famous one is Tampa’s Cigar City, and Funky Buddha & J. Wakefield, both Miami area breweries, are also popular among beer geeks. I also visited a number of other breweries were doing excellent beer (Cycle in St. Petersburg, Crooked Can in Orlando, Point Ybel in Fort Myers Beach, & 7venth Sun in Dunedin), but considering Florida’s sizable populations, as well as the number of transplants from around the country, the beer scene isn’t close to what you’d see in a northern or western state of similar population. Judging on how quickly new breweries are popping up, I wouldn’t expect to see this trend continue in the future. All they’ll need to do is make sure that all of these new places are producing quality liquid.

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A pilsner at Hill Farmstead in gorgeous Northern Vermont

9. After years of disrespecting them, I’ve developed an appreciation for well-done pilsners.

While I still haven’t come around on most lagers (the yeast profile is just not appealing to me), I have come to appreciate well-done pilsners. It’s not the easiest style to brew, and is often most associated with certain macrobrews, but it’s a traditional style that requires a talented brewer, and quality ingredients, to be done well. I used to steer clear of them when I saw them on the draft list of breweries and beer bars I was visiting- now I’ll order them as one of my samples, especially if I can tell that the brewery has a talented brewer or team. One example of that was when I ordered Mary at Hill Farmstead in Vermont. Hill Farmstead is known for it’s IPAs and sours, but knowing how gifted these guys were, I figured I would give their pils a try. While it was very well-done, and I was glad I’d tried it, I still didn’t really want a full pour of it, and ended up splitting it with Chris. I’m not going to go out and buy tons of pilsners, but at least I feel like I can appreciate a well-done version of the style.

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Home is where the heart is

10. There’s no place like HOME.

I’m so lucky to have a great brewery in my hometown. Most importantly, Barry Boggs of Canton Brew Works does really good beer, but they’ve also fostered a community of great people and like minded souls. I’m proud to be one of the first members of their mug club (It was the first mug club I’d joined). Barry and his wife, Cara, have hired an excellent staff- people who are dedicated to the craft, but also take the time to develop relationships with their customers, both regulars and stop-ins. They have trivia every Monday night, karaoke every other Saturday, and plenty of cool events sprinkled in on the other nights. CBW isn’t alone in doing this- Michigan is up to close to 300 breweries, and, while there are many famous ones that distribute nationally and state-wide, so many of these breweries are local, community minded places whose bread and butter are the people who think of them as their brewery. It’s how I feel, and I know I’m lucky to call such a place home.

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Mary, Chris & I at Redline Brewing Company in Burton

Looking forward to sharing more beer with everyone in 2017. Happy New Year!

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