In the cloud covered malaise that is Michigan's winter, Sparta is not a pretty town. It's a good 25 minutes north of Grand Rapids, and it's not much to look at when the weather isn't cooperating. In fact, while this shot is in black and white, it's just about as dreary as it was in color.
|image courtesy Eric Krause|
Actually, I can prove it:
My complaints about the weather aside, this little town is where Dan Humphrey, owner of the Michigan Beer Cellar, decided to set up shop. Truth be told, I find myself most at home in bars that have just a hint of “VFW Building” lineage in them. Others may find the Michigan Beer Cellar slightly cavernous, with its wide open sitting area, single enormous flatscreen tv on the side of the bar opposite the taps, and high ceilings with low light. . .but this is the type of place where I feel comfortable. This is the place where there are no strangers, and it takes all of ten seconds to find something in common with the other people sitting around you. This is where the bartender treats you like an old friend even though it was our first time there. Somehow, the Michigan Beer Cellar takes dark cavernous spaces and echoing television noise and turns it into something intimate.
Despite being one of the newer contributions to the craft beer scene (it opened March of 2010), the Beer Cellar comes bearing a double barreled shot of ambition to make its mark on the landscape. Not content to just offer a few carefully crafted tastes, Humphrey comes armed with twelve original beers on tap. With so many choices, there's really something for every palate.
The Black Magic, a black IPA made with rye, was surprisingly smooth without the sweet aftertaste that can haunt some black IPAs. The oatmeal stout was similarly delicious, with thick notes of coffee rustling over a sweet, dry bed of malt. One of their speciality beers, the Mocha Java Stout, was similar, although I wanted more “mocha” to balance the java flavor. A few of the beers did not sit perfectly well with me – the cream ale needed to have more flavor and and the Winter Sunshine ale ran too sweet. . .but for a place with less than a year under its belt, the selection was excellent and had something for everyone.
If that wasn't enough, Michigan Beer Cellars is also a winery and a distillery. This is new and interesting from the perspective of a brewpub, in that it allows the place to offer an entire liquor menu developed solely from its own stock. Using neutral grain spirits, the Cellar is able to craft several versions of popular drinks, including gin, scotch, and rum. The scotch was drinkable, although I was able to tell that it was not actually aged in white oak barrels for years before making the trip over the ocean and into my glass. The spirits seemed more designed for those who are not interested in drinking beer, and I applaud the owner for offering this choice to people. I'm excited to see how the spirits mature.
The food was pretty good, given that the kitchen wasn't much more than a panini maker. The bartender quickly and efficiently created a delicious California reuben served with tasty potato salad that matched well with the American IPA. Clearly this place wasn't offering culinary masterpieces, but it doesn't need to; it gets the job done.
It's interesting to see the different visions that brewers across the state of Michigan have. Hopcat brings a hip and urban feel to the business of brewing, while Mackinaw Brewing downplays the beer and lets it play second fiddle to the food. Odd Side ales doesn't even bother with food, letting the atmosphere compliment the artistic work of the head brewer. And the Michigan Beer Cellar brings a small town, patient feel to the brewing industry, and spikes it with some home grown spirits and wine. It's a good place to visit now, and I look forward to the evolution of the Michigan Beer Cellar.
(Note: due to a slight mishap with batteries, unless otherwise noted, the photography for this trip was taken on a Samsung Epic 4G.)