Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Mackinaw Brewing Company

If there’s a lesson that public schools fail to teach kids, it’s that not everyone is great. Not everyone is perfect at wood shop, not everyone is a great singer, and not everyone is a great chef. And that’s okay; there is a whole world of mediocrity out there, supplying thousands of jobs to people who just aren’t the best at what they do. Most people are average, despite what their schoolteachers tell them, and there’s nothing wrong with being a C student.

Look at the macro breweries. No one claims that they sell a perfect product. No one even claims that they sell a great product, and yet more people drink Miller Light and Budweiser than any craft beer we cover every single day. Truth be told, I drink more macro beers than I let on; it’s tough to beat a three dollar pitcher of mediocre beer while munching on mediocre bar food and watching a mediocre football team play. Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on the fact that in a world of such variety, not everything can be phenomenal.

Now let’s talk about Mackinaw Brewing Company.

The Mackinaw Brewing Company, the third brewery Laura and I stopped at in Traverse City, gave us high hopes as we pulled up. Located in a quaint, village-esque part of Traverse City, the outside reminded me instantly of New Holland Brewing in Holland, Michigan. It had that conservative, hard working, small town vibe to it that I like in my Michigan coastal towns. Walking inside, I was surprised at the size of the place; the small storefront window was certainly misleading, as the Mackinaw Brewing Company progressed back into a generous bar area followed by a large and roomy dining area. The first thing I noticed, however, on my way back to my table, was how much flair the place had. It was certainly reminiscent of a national chain restaurant/grille.

We were seated by a very polite waitress who, as I learned quickly, had no real experience with craft beer other than what she had been asked to memorize prior to working there. The sampler that Mackinaw Brewing Company offers was pretty typical – a 5 ounce tasting of each of their beers, conveniently placed on a laminated sheet with a brief description of each beer. I was excited to try this place’s selections.

I had just come from two powerhouse breweries (Right Brain and North Peak), and perhaps I had set my expectations a bit too high. Of the beers I tried, only one stood out to me. The rest could have all been made from the same recipe, with some slight differences in coloration added at the end. There was no appreciable attempt to add solid hop flavor to any of the beers, making their American Pale Ale and “IPA” (I have to put it in quotes) especially disappointing. The red had a metallic, coppery taste to it, the same one that lingers in a bottle of Killian’s. Indeed, the only beer I found pleasurable was their Belgian Whitecap, a very light and flavorful beer that hit all the notes I expected from a Belgian Wheat.

As I sat there, trying to hide the disappointment in my eyes as I ordered the stuffed mushroom caps from the waitress, I began reading the menu. Here is what Mackinaw Brewing Company says about their Belgian White, the only beer I thought was good: “This amazing beer is a true example of a Belgian style wheat ale. Brewed with Coriander for a unique aroma and a delicate fruity finish...this almost white golden colored ale will satisfy the occasional craft brew drinker or beer snob. . . you gotta try it!!!” (my emphasis)

This beer clearly not in her wheelhouse.
I thought for a second and surveyed my location again. The Mackinaw Brewing Company was not in the business of making spectacular beer. The flair on the walls, the solid albeit unoriginal food selection, the timid approach to craft beer. . . people do not go to Mackinaw Brewing Company for the originality, they go for comfort and service with a local touch. This place isn’t brewing beer for beer snobs, and they make it clear on their menu. Rather, they are brewing mediocrity for the large segment of the population that craves mediocrity. And they succeed in their task.

So what if they didn’t impress one solitary traveler? The place was busy and I’m sure there’s a whole lot of people, recently coming off years of nothing but macro brewed rice lagers, that consider the baby steps into craft beer that the Mackinaw Brewing Company provides to be sweet ambrosia. Given that both Right Brain Brewery and North Peak Brewery are within walking distance, they don’t need to offer elegant, carefully crafted, single batch items to their clientele; just being a few steps above rice lagers is enough.

And I can’t really fault them for that. Their stuffed mushroom caps were great, after all. I’ll tell you this; if I lived in Traverse City, and wanted to watch my team play while eating a burger and drinking something that I don’t need to think about, I’m heading here.

(Unrelated:  that afternoon there happened to be a zombie walk lurching past the Mackinaw Brewing Company as we left.  The gentleman in the gas mask was particularly enthusiastic.  )

Monday, October 25, 2010

Ichabod Pumpkin Soup

The brewing of pumpkin beer goes back to the time of the our founding fathers in the colonies of North America. Having an ale for breakfast was not an uncommon practice at that time because the drinking water wasn't always safe to drink. During the autumn harvest, brewing a beverage from the produce of the harvest was just thrifty good sense as pumpkin was plentiful as were some of the spices. Brewing these spiced ales reflected the necessity of using the harvest in as many ways as possible to store for the winter without wasting anything. Although pumpkin doesn't actually add that much flavor to a beer, the spices that are added by the brewer are what creates the unique ale flavors. These spices give the flavor and essense of a pumpkin pie rather than the sweet, buttery taste of the gourd, making it a perfect addition to something like pumpkin soup.

To make this pumpkin soup recipe, you will need:

1 4-5 pound cooking pumpkin* to yield 6 cups roasted pumpkin OR about 3 (15 ounce) cans of pumpkin puree
4 tablespoon butter
2 medium yellow onions, chopped (about 2 cups)
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon smoked paprika**
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 pinch cayenne pepper
1 large tart green apple (Granny Smith) peeled, cored, chopped (about 2 cups)
1 (12 oz) bottle of New Holland's Ichabod Pumpkin Ale

1 1/2 - 2 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon fresh thyme (or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme)
1 sprig fresh sage (or 1/4 teaspoon ground sage)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
* Most pumpkins in the store are meant for jack-o-lanterns, not eating. Use a sugar pumpkin or a Japanese Kabocha pumpkin if you are going to cook with it.
**If you don't enjoy smoked flavoring, any other type of paprika (hot, sweet, plain, Hungarian, or Spanish) would work here.  Just use whatever you like best.

To make pumpkin purée, cut your pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds* and stringy stuff (an ice cream scoop works well for this purpose), lie face down on a foil or Silpat lined baking sheet.  Bake at 350°F until soft, about 45 min to an hour.  Cool, scoop out the flesh. Freeze whatever you don't use for future use.
* Don't throw away the seeds! Use them to make toasted pumpkin seeds.

Melt butter in a 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions and garlic and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 4 minutes. 

Add smoked paprika, cayenne, and cumin and stir for a minute more.

Add chopped apple and pumpkin purée. Add beer, broth, and water. Mix well with a wooden spoon.  Add the thyme and sage and then season with a little salt and pepper.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, partially cover, and simmer for 20 minutes or until the apples are cooked through.

Note to self: use a larger pan next time.

Working in batches, transfer soup to a blender or a food processor.  Cover tightly and blend until smooth.  If you want extra smooth soup, pass the purée through a food mill, after it's been through the blender. Return the soup to the saucepan.

With soup on low heat, slowly add the milk and cream, stirring to incorporate.  Add salt to taste.  Adjust other seasonings to taste.  I garnished mine with toasted pumpkin seeds, but you could use toasted pecans, crumbled bacon, or anything else you can think up!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Right Brain Brewery

I have this thing for little breweries mysteriously ensconced in the oddest of places. Old factories, abandoned dairies, ancient mills -- if you've built a brewery in one of these places, you can be sure I'll hunt it down.  So you can imagine my interest in visiting the latest addition to Traverse City's brewing scene: the Right Brain Brewery.  What could be more eccentric, after all, than a brewery located in the back of a salon?  You can get a haircut and sample a brew at the same time -- what a great idea!

And so Seth and I made the trip up north to the warehouse district of Traverse City, and were not disappointed.

The interior is hip and eclectic with local art lining the walls, creating a very west-coast casual ambiance.  The moment you walk in, it's clear that this place is a no-frills-just-beer establishment.  It has a "Whadda Ya Want" type attitude that manages to be anything but unwelcoming.  An impressive custom-mug club wall sits to the left of the bar.  There are no TV's, but instead dart boards and numerous old-school board games to play, if you are so inclined, and some unobtrusive rock/pop music plays over the whole scene.  Although there is no food served, there are snacks such as hummus and tortilla chips, popcorn, and pretzels available.  But you certainly don't come here for the food.  At any one time there are 12 ever-rotating taps, all with a diverse sampling of various house brews, ranging from a chocolate double IPA, to watermelon cream ale and everything in between.

We decided to sit at the bar and order a sampler flight to share, which consisted of six 6-ounce samples for $15.  The servers were all prompt, knowledgeable, and friendly.  The first beer we tried was the Big Pink Watermelon Ale.  I took a sip expecting a painfully sweet, pseudo-fruit flavored syrupy concoction, but instead, to my (very pleasant) surprise, found a light-bodied, mildy sweet, almost a bit salty, sparkling cream ale with just a subtle hint of watermelon flavor.  Very easy drinking.  Even more surprising to me than the fact that this beer wasn't sickly sweet, was this beer didn't have the slightest hint of a pink hue to it.  We found out from our bartender (who helped prepare the watermelons before the brewing process) that approximately 275 pounds of fresh watermelons from a local Amish farm were used to make this beer.  That's right -- the brewers and staff at RBB painstakingly cut up 275 pounds of fresh watermelons by hand, and then reduced them down to make the juice that went into this beer.  Interestingly enough, the juice loses all of it's color during the reduction process, hence the pale straw colored end product.

Next up on our flight of beers was the Drunken Hawk Owl Amber which had a nice bit of caramel malty sweetness balanced with the taste of aging it in a Grand Traverse Distillery whiskey barrel.  The remaining beers in our flight included the Double Black "Eye".P.A (a chocolate IPA brewed with local hops from Empire Orchards and Two Peninsula Hops), the Satisfaction ESB, the Bastard Blend (which gets its name from the blend of hops it's made from -- Spiney, Citral, and Inertia) aged in Grand Traverse Distillery and Woodford Reserve barrels, and lastly, my favorite beer of the lot which was on cask that day, the Simcoe Dream.  It poured a cloudy orangish amber color with a surprising amount of head considering it was cask conditioned.  The taste and smell were amazing.  On the malt side, there was a very light sweet caramely scent, with possibly a little bit of honey, but most of what I noted was a piney, and of course, citrusy hop scent.  I've never had an IPA that was as light bodied as this one, but that just gave it great balance and superb drinkability.

Lake Michigan is right across the street!
This place may be may be obscure and off the beaten path, but no matter: the brewer is still omnific here, able to bend malt and hops to his will to create all sorts of wonderful delights.  If you are in the Traverse City area, the Right Brain Brewery is a must for all craft beer lovers. It offers a unique atmosphere and equally unique brews that must be tasted to be appreciated, making this a solid 150 mile brewery.

To see more photos from this trip, visit our facebook page: 

Monday, October 18, 2010

North Peak Brewing Company

Traverse City is beautiful any time of the year, all 8 months of it. Taking a color tour through the deciduous trees lining some of the streets really cements why people brave those other four months nobody really talks about in order to live here. The trip up to Traverse City showed a landscape where more than once I was convinced that the trees were actually on fire. The shades of crimson and saffron and burnt orange are breathtaking.

Nothing helps a person enjoy the colors more than a delicious Michigan beer, however. Traverse City is perfectly set up for a local brewlover, with all three of their famous breweries within walking distance of each other, and a stone's throw from the beach.

Located in a building a century old that originally housed a very successful candy company, the North Peak Brewing Company (and its related pub, Kilkenny's Irish Public House) take up a lot of space. This is one of the largest capacity breweries / brewpubs I have visited, with ample seating for a Clinton wedding, and a menu that would make the most judicious of anorexics take a break from their disorder. Indeed, one of my regrets was not sampling more of North Peak's food menu; their cheddar ale soup was thick and warm and salty and perfect.

North Peak has built a very well known and very well respected name for itself. Laura and I tried all the beer they had on tap, and were very impressed by the variety and flavor. North Peak is definitely a brewery that loses a bit of itself in the bottle, as all the beer I tried tasted superior to the bottled versions I've had before. One high point of their beer selection was certainly their nitrogen equipped Irish stout – a smooth and sweet stout that causes you to reflect on the autumn day as the malt notes brazenly elbow out the hops for more time with you. I also very much enjoyed their cask Red. I still think cask ales are a risk; after the first few days, their flavor changes too much for it really to be enjoyed in the same matter. Ocassionally, this can be a good thing but those times are few and far apart. The trick, of course, is to drink cask ale at an establishment that has no problem finishing the cask in that limited amount of time. North Peak's cask Red was the cask version of their Steelhead Red, the Irish ale. While Irish reds are not typically my preference, the freshness and warmth of the cask really let this little gem open up with some sweetness and toasted flavors I don't often expect in a Red ale.

The atmosphere of North Peak was family friendly and very inviting; this was a place where people took their kids to a delicious, well priced dinner that simultaneously offered some delicious beer. Unlike places like Odd Side Ales or Schmohz, the emphasis at North Peak was on the experience, melding food with friends and drink. The service was courteous without being obtrusive, and everyone, including the patrons, were polite and friendly. This is a fun and friendly, 60 mile brewery, well worth an hour trip out of your way. To be quite honest, while I really dig the “beer centered” atmosphere from Right Brain brewery, I would have to peg North Peak as my favorite brewery experience in Traverse City.

I feel your disappointment at having to leave, Laura.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dark Horse Reserve Special Stew

It seems my time in the kitchen has been short and sweet these days, so lately I’ve been focusing on making large amounts of one thing, and then eating it for a few days. I guess it’s the price I pay for working full time and having to visit all these wonderful Michigan breweries on my days off. But I don’t mind, especially when it means I get to enjoy this fabulous stew for days at a time as the cold weather here in Michigan is finally starting to stick.

This is not a quick stew. All told, it took me about 3 hours to make. But the house smelled divine all day, and the end result (especially the day after) was a warm and wonderful, hearty stew filled with delicious root veggies, mushrooms, garlic, thyme, and best of all, Dark Horse's Reserve Special. The beer not only helps tenderize the beef, it also gives a rich malty flavor to this chunky stew. The whole meal rounds out nicely with some warm, crusty bread, and, well.. more Reserve Special.

To make this stew, you will need:

2 pounds stew meat or beef chuck steak, boneless and well trimmed, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup chopped onion
4-6 cloves garlic, chopped (depending on how much you love garlic)
2 cups quartered mushrooms
1 1/2 - 3 tablespoons flour
1 tablesoon fresh thyme
Pinch (or two) of crushed cayenne
Pinch of black pepper
12 ounces Reserve Special beer
15 ounces beef stock
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 Bay leaf
2 cups chopped carrots
2 cups chopped potatoes
Chopped parsley for garnish
Salt and Black Pepper to taste


Heat the oil in a dutch oven that has a tight fitting cover. Add the beef and brown well, stirring occasionally to brown all sides (turn the heat down if necessary so meat does not burn). Brown meat in several small batches to avoid over-crowding the pan.

Add the onion and garlic and continue to cook until onion is slightly browned.

Combine the flour, thyme, black pepper and cayenne in a bowl and then add to the beef, stirring to make a roux. Continue to cook over medium-high heat until the roux is slightly browned (be careful not to burn it). If the gravy does not thicken enough, whisk some more flour and water together and then slowly add to the pot until desired thickness is achieved.

Stir in the beer and beef stock and bring to a boil, stirring until the sauce thickens and any lumps are cooked out.

Add the carrots, potatoes, mushrooms, Worcestershire, and bay leaf and then cover the pot and place in a 325 degree F oven for 1 1/2 - 2 hours or until the meat is tender.

Remove bay leaf, correct seasoning, ladle to bowls and serve with bread. Enjoy!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bottled Michigan: Short's Hangin' Frank IPA

Not only is summer over here in the Mitten state, fall has swept down upon us with a vengeance. The leaves have curled and succumbed to the season's brilliant double rainbow of colors, the weather person is triumphantly warning of frost, and the seasonal summer wheat and IPAs have given way to Oktoberfest ales and Pumpkin Spice beer.

Screw that noise. I'm having one last taste of summer before I let it go. And Short's, I give you the honor of the last IPA I have this season.

Short's has no shortage of original ideas for beer. Some of them are failures and some of them are epic successes. They already produce one of the best and most respected Michigan IPAs – the Huma Lupa Licious. With such a beautifully crafted specimen in their stable, what caused them to make another IPA?

I don't know either, but thank goodness they did.

The Hangin' Frank IPA is the Huma Lupa's gentlemanly cousin; while the Huma Lupa was out wrestling with the dog on the front lawn, Hangin' Frank was sitting on the porch sipping a bourbon and sweet tea and remarking to your mother how much she still looks like she did in her wedding photos. The beer pours a crisp golden copper that sits beneath a thick, bright white head which stubbornly clings to the side of the glass, like a shower curtain protects your mother from the glances of Mister Hangin' Frank himself.

(I should take a moment to point out that the beer is not named after a matripheliac southernor, but rather the ghost of a man found hung in his shop. Read more information here).

The aroma is pleasant and understated, with a tight citrus hops smell that doesn't overpower a complex mixture of sweet malt and bread flavor underneath. I typically don't enjoy or recommend that people drink IPAs as a session beer, but this one would work quite well.

Tasting the beer brings nothing surprising or uncomfortable to the palate, and that's absolutely perfect. This is a well behaved beer, with all the building blocks of an IPA placed carefully in order. The hops stings the tongue lightly, reminding you that this is not a thick, heavy beer and that you should be in the mood for kids running through the sprinkler and grilling on the patio in order to get the full effect of this beer. The dryness of the hops gives way effortlessly to the mild citrus and gentle sweetness as the beer finishes during exhalation.

There are those who may question Short's calling this beer an India Pale Ale, and I'm willing to agree with them; that said, IPAs are named as such because of their bitter flavor, and the Hangin' Frank has clearly gone to lengths to mitigate and control that bitterness. Indeed, this is more of an American Pale Ale. Considering that, I am most definitely a huge fan of American Pale Ales. Shorts's decision with the Hangin' Frank to take everything that is perfect about IPAs but dialing some of those flavors back a notch is a perfect decision in creating this drinkable and enjoyable summer beer.

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