Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Mitten Brewing Company



The Michigan Beer Blog has had the privilege of traveling the state visiting breweries, but we have a special place in our heart for our city and our neighborhood.  As proud West Siders, it’s with no small joy that we can write about a brewery that’s in our own neighborhood. Indeed, the Mitten is our neighborhood bar. Built inside a Fire House that dates back to 1891, the Mitten has tried at every turn to be a great fit with the existing community while simultaneously bringing their passion for beer and baseball to a local and dedicated audience. 


The renovations to the interior keep the firehouse look while adding baseball themed elements; uncovered old brick walls and a refinished concrete floor reinforce that notion that half a century ago, this room was home to beefy red fire engines and the people who rode them. The seating has a simple, no frills design that nonetheless lends an elegance from the polished wood tables.  The bar, while small, echoes the craftwork on the table, giving those bellied up to it a comfortable and inviting experience.


Brewer Robert “Wob” Wanhatalo heads up The Mitten’s brewing stable. The very popular Peanuts and Crackerjack Porter is a great mainstay and – like all their beers – riffs on the Mitten’s close connection to baseball.  Our favorite, however, has to be the Country Strong IPA – a simple, no fuss American IPA with light citrus notes that drinks well either at Comerica Park on a hot summer day or with two elbows propped at the bar during the winter-that-won’t-end.  We also enjoyed the Mitten’s session ale; the Triple Crown Brown brought plenty of sweet and roasted flavor for a soft-on-the-liver 4.2% abv.  If you want a low alcohol gateway beer for the “hops are too bitter!” crowd, this is my choice. That said, if you want to go big, the Rye Baby Double IPA amazed us, with a spicy rye note fleshing out the body of this booze-smooth beer.


In case you weren't aware, The Mitten has pioneered an idea so perfect it’s a little dumbfounding we don’t see it more often: pizza flights. What else would go with the time honored tradition of sampling a half dozen beers at once than sampling a half dozen of The Mitten’s excellent pizza choices?  Bring a couple friends, though, as the flight easily feeds four…or one gluttonous Adam Richman impersonator. We tried six specialty pizzas, and frankly we couldn’t pick a winner.  This is truly a stellar pizza menu, blending original ideas with great takes on traditional pies.
The Mitten was built with the vision of being a neighborhood brewery.  The owners and brewers are neighbors. I recently wrote an article detailing how this type of pub wasn’t in danger of being eclipse, but rather this type of pub was rolling full steam ahead through neighborhood watering holes that offering little other than domestic macros and popcorn.  The Mitten exemplifies that, providing a comfortable and popular neighborhood hangout. And for those of you still unconvinced: it only took the Mitten a year to begin an expansion.















Monday, March 24, 2014

The Myth of Craft Beer Saturation

Despite craft beer’s sustained, double digit annual growth, people love to bring up the possibility that the craft beer market teeters on the brink of outgrowing itself. I hear many people use the word “saturation” as they sagely nurse their third beer. “There’s too many breweries in Michigan,” they say.  “No market can sustain double digit growth forever.  At some point, these little start-ups will begin cannibalizing their own market.”  Then these people – who I assume mean well – go back to the beer that didn’t exist six months ago because the brewery wasn’t even built yet.

The myth of the saturated market has been around since at least 2010, when I first entered the craft beer scene. I remember sitting at the Vierling in Marquette, back when Michigan was sustaining about half the breweries we have now, having the same conversation I see people have now; and all of us are  making the same statistical errors that I did in 2010. The craft beer scene is growing, and that growth is unsustainable; those parts are definitely true. However, craft beer has light years to go before it runs out of growth potential; what people are missing is what, exactly, craft beer is replacing.



See that chart?   You see that tiny, 13.9% sliver of American beer consumption marked “others?”  That’s all the craft beer consumed in America.  That’s what this blog covers, that’s what the 120+ breweries in Michigan and the 2400+ craft breweries produce nationally. Everything else (except Heineken) is either owned by two corporations, or produced by two corporations. Yes, even our beloved PBR, Lone Star, Schlitz, Blatz, Natty Boh, and Old Style, while not owned by AB-Inbev or SABMiller/MillerCoors, are produced in their breweries.  Right now, for every pint of Two Hearted you drink, America drinks five macro lagers – and while that ratio is a little smaller than it was five years ago, that’s a whole lot of potential Two Hearted sales growth that wouldn’t eat into a single pint of All Day IPA.  Put plainly, craft beer is definitely cannibalizing the beer market, but it’s nowhere near in danger of saturation; it’s chewing right into the production of the macro lagers. 

“Craft brewery saturation” is not something anyone needs to worry about for a long time.  That said, the reality that craft beer is viciously dismantling Big Beer’s empire does have other consequences. AB-Inbev is a giant, hulking behemoth, but they didn’t build a phenomenally efficient corporation by being dumb.  They’ve moved to emulate craft beer’s success (some people call these attempts faux craft – I admit to enjoying an occasional Blue Moon).  They’ve utilized their pocketbook to purchase great craft breweries outright – Goose Island is now an AB-Inbev company. The consequences of success ripple beyond the reaction of Big Beer as well; to protect their success, successful breweries have become more litigious.  They’ve become more exacting as to what, exactly, craft beer means, which has resulted in the redefinition of the term both on the state and federal level. Even still, some people disagree as to whether the largest traditional craft breweries (Boston Beer Company, Sierra Nevada) even count as craft beer anymore (they do.)

All that is largely invisible to the consumer, however.  That’s why so many people talk about saturation; a local brewery going out of business due to competition by other local breweries would be directly felt by local imbibers. Lawsuits or statistical pie charts are largely theoretical compared to a place shutting its doors…but that’s already happening.  The rise of craft beer isn't killing craft beer, but it is replacing something.  In every neighborhood, in every state that has embraced craft beer, we’re seeing an inexorable shift; small microbreweries and brewpubs are replacing local watering holes.  The 21st century, with its bans on smoking, its preference for serving food with alcohol, and its demand for variety simply isn’t as welcoming to a place with three taps, a popcorn machine, and a trough in the men’s room.  Cheers, that gilded television dive bar from the 80s, cannot compete in today’s landscape. As our preference for locally brewed, quality beer increases, the places that offer Busch Light on draft with a package of peanuts will continue to fade away -- unless they can evolve into something more.


This shouldn't be thought of as a sad time.  Remember that these same dive bars sprung up in the vacuum left after Prohibition; prior to that, the local brewery was where everyone gathered.  In a way, America is coming back to its roots by supplanting places serving faceless, adjunct beer with pubs where your neighbor makes the products.  Talk of a saturated market, therefore, fundamentally misses the point.  The craft beer revolution has decades of growth left, and it’s already begun to threaten the status quo. The short term losers, however, certainly won’t be well managed breweries: they’ll be macro brands and the pubs who rely too heavily on those brands.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Ninth Annual Winter Beer Fest


Here we are, folks.  After months of preparation, anticipation, pre-emptive celebration, and – yes, some controversy -- the Michigan Brewer’s Guild has delivered yet another spectacular living monument to the Michigan Beer movement.

February 22nd began with an abrupt change to this winter’s overall oppressively monochrome look.  Yes, the mountains of dirty snow remained, as did the temperature, which hovered in the low twenties for the entire day.  But the sun, which had been missing for so long that this felt like a Westeros winter, finally made a triumphant appearance.  Michiganders cannot be bothered by 20 degree weather when the rays of the sun warm what little skin we have exposed.

The weather, the crowds, and, if I’m being honest, the beer, contributed to the 89 breweries being in high spirits as they shared their product with enthusiasts all day.  Seven hundred ninety two beers and ciders made for unprecedented variety, and breweries from every corner of the state – some as far away as Marquette – gave everyone a chance to try something they’d never had before. As you may remember, Michigan Beer Blog had previously narrowed down this daunting list to ten specific beers we wanted to try most.  As reality sometimes changes one’s plans, I admit that we did not get to sample all of the beers on our list.  I should have known Salted Caramel Stout and anything sour from Livery would disappear too fast!

We did, however, sample some truly stand out beers:

Griffin Claw’s Sour Wheat Wine – we had high hopes for this wine, yet were still taken aback at its depth, complexity, and fragility.  This sour wheat rode an aggressive edge tempered with sweetness from the wheat, with a distinctly citrus and evaporative quality that I’ve only experienced in high proof whiskeys.  I wish this was less than  13% abv, but given that it’s a wheat wine, I shouldn’t complain.  If this gets bottled, it could compete with any vineyard for complexity and an eagerness to pair with foods.

Witch’s Hat doubled down on offering different versions of their stellar bourbon barrel aged Night Fury.  We sampled the vanilla bean, cherry cordial, and cookies and cream versions, all of which were extremely complex without losing either base stout’s essence nor the oak/bourbon flavor.






Speaking of extraordinarily balanced beers, Cranker’s bourbon barrel aged porter blew us away.  We came for The Merchant – the Belgian ale brewed with rare and unique black limes – and we were suitably impressed by that.  But what sets Cranker’s brewer apart is his attention to detail.  Bourbon aging is too often used in the same way that lazy brewers use extra hops additions – you can cover a lot of weak beers with heavy whiskey notes or aggressive hops flavors.  The Cranker’s bourbon porter walks that fine line between adding a warm depth and smooth roundness to its porter while still retaining those roasted, dry characteristics one expects in the style of beer. 



Brewery Terra Firma, one of the newest additions to Traverse City, brought their Wicked Garden Honey Rye Beet Wheat.  Typically when I see a title that long, I grow suspicious if all those flavors actually help in making a good finished product, but this beer delivered.  The beets gave this beer a solid, earthy foundation, which was livened by the spicy rye and then tempered by the sweet honey and wheat.  I felt a pang of jealousy to those living close to Brewery Terra Firma as I sipped this great beer.


While I missed my chance to try Vivant’s wine barrel aged imperial saison, I did have the opportunity to try their aged bretta ale, Le Flaneur. (If you want a brief explanation on a bretta ale, here’s the wiki page.  Escoffier was also a bretta ale.) La Flaneur was not nearly as aggressive in its sourness as Griffin Claw’s wheat wine, but rather used the tartness sparingly.  The hops contribute as much to the satisfying dryness as the yeast, which allows the palate to easily find the more hidden flavors from the beer, including a dusty funk, a bit of leather, and some melon notes.



Having just described only a tiny percentage of the flavors available at the Winter Beer Fest, it’s inevitable others had a wildly different experience.  If you attended, count yourself lucky, as the great weather and astounding collection of people, beer, food, and entertainment made for one of the greatest events Michigan has.  Thanks to our state’s Guild, our brewers, our event planners, and of course our beer drinkers for making the Ninth Annual Winter Beer Fest the best one yet! 






Monday, February 17, 2014

Winter Beer Fest Cheat Sheet: Ten Most Anticipated Beers

This Saturday marks the most breweries and most beers of any Winter Beer Fest ever: 17 more breweries than last year, with an astounding 792 beers to sample in one day. At this point only the most delusional of imbiber would even consider trying all of them, so it behooves us all to nail down a plan. Based on the list released by the always fantastic Mash, these are samples the Michigan Beer Blog is most excited to try:

(a note -- we realize a few of these are beers that can be had at the taproom of their respective establishment; in those cases, distance became a factor in our decision)

Brewery Ferment – Salted Caramel Stout

We wanted to put a list together that carried the best and brightest ideas without saddling anyone with too many high abv beers. Salted Caramel has enjoyed a huge surge in popularity recently, and ranks among my favorite balance of sweet and savory when it comes to dessert. Brewery Ferment has shown they know their way around a flavored stout, so we are very much anticipating this beer.

Brewery Vivant – Liam & Me – Wine Barrel aged Imperial Saison

It's difficult to just pick one of Brewery Vivant's impressive stable of aged beers; we chose the Imperial saison for its originality and as a gesture of encouragement. With so many whiskey aged stouts in attendance, we wanted to recognize alternate beers when we could.

Cranker's – The Merchant Belgian Ale with Black Lime and Orange Peel

While the description leaves a bit to the imagination (what kind of belgian ale, specifically), we've never been disappointed with Cranker's experimental ales. Many belgian styles lend themselves well to citrus infusions, and we hope this stands out as a refreshing winter choice.

Greenbush – Hipster Ketchup Sriracha Stout

I don't think I need to explain why this is on this list. When one of the top rated breweries in the country makes a stout flavored with every millenial's favorite condiment, you try it.

Griffin Claw –Sour Dough Sour Wheat Wine

Griffin Claw's stable this year has several very intriguing items, but my penchant for sours won out here.

Harmony Brewing – Capricorn Absinthe Chocolate Stout

In my off days I moonlight as a cocktail connoisseur, and the first thing you learn about absinthe is that it's practically impossible to incorporate absinthe into a cocktail successfully. Even the Sazerac, likely the world's most famous absinthe cocktail, uses not more than a few drops to impart that strong, herbal quality. So it is with a cautious optimism that this beer makes the list.

Rockford Brewing Company / New Holland Winter Rye

Rye ales have been growing in popularity, slowly supplanting the seemingly untouchable IPA market. I'm interested to see how the typically spicy grain plays in a winter white genre.

Short's Bourbon Carrot Cake

Either the person who writes the descriptions for Short's beer got lazy, or this beer (called “stupid good” on the list) really is worth the name.

The Livery – Grand Reserve Verchuosity Sour Belgian


I usually have one Livery beer on this list every year. I am always amazed at the tastes this brewery gets out of their sours. Questionable spelling aside, this rare selection should be worth the wait in line.   

These beers represent only a shade over 1% of the beers available! With the plethora of choices, we obviously left off your favorite.  Let us know which beer we slighted in the comments.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Four Witches Beef Jerky




I made beef jerky for the first time this weekend.  It probably won't come as a surprise to anyone that when I was deciding how I wanted to flavor the meat, the first ingredient that came to mind was beer.  

Since this was my first time making jerky, I decided to experiment with two different cuts of beef.  I used flank steak and top round (Seth and I preferred the flank steak version, pictured on the left above), but you could use any other lean cut of beef that you would like, such as sirloin or eye round, or even turkey or venison instead of beef.  

This is one of those recipes that is really more of a method than an actual recipe -- a set of guidelines that you can adjust to suit whatever flavors you like.   In other words, there's really no way to mess this one up, so feel free to get creative and add or take out whatever you like (just don't leave out the beer!).  



For this recipe, I used:

2 pounds lean beef
1/2 cup New Holland Four Witches black saison
1/4 cup soy sauce 
1/4 cup lime juice
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seed
Red pepper flakes to taste
Salt (I used Himalayan pink salt for its coarseness and mineral flavor)

1) Slice your meat into thin strips.  The meat will be easier to slice if you put it in the freezer for about 5 minutes before slicing.  Remove as much fat as possible along the way to help with the dehydration process. 

The flank steak
The top round

2) Combine desired ingredients for your marinade.  Place meat in resealable bag or other airtight container and add the marinade. Place in the refrigerator for 10-24 hours.  I gave my containers a good shake every few hours to ensure the meat was thoroughly coated. 


3) After 10-24 hours, preheat your oven to 165-170 degrees, remove the meat from the marinade, pat it dry with paper towels, and season with any desired additional spices -- I just used some Himalayan pink salt and more crushed red pepper flakes. Don't be afraid to use salt. Salt will also aid in dehydrating.

4) Place strips of meat directly on the rack in your oven. Make sure the strips aren't touching to allow air to circulate around them. Place a baking sheet at the bottom of the oven to catch any drips. Prop oven door open (I just left a wooden spoon at the top) to allow moisture to escape. 


5) Cook for 1 - 4 hours, depending on the thickness and cut of meat. Dehydration could take even longer, so be sure your meat is cooked through before removing it from the oven. Check the jerky after 90 minutes and every 30 minutes thereafter.  My jerky was done after about 3 1/2 hours.

After 60 minutes
After two hours
After 3 hours

6) Place the finished jerky somewhere dry to store. Ideally, use mason jars for the safest seal. Place jerky in the refrigerator or freezer until ready to eat. Enjoy the homemade jerky within 2 weeks of its preparation.

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