Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Brewery Vivant

Located in the historic East Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids, Brewery Vivant brings a new and different vision of the craft beer market to West Michigan. The huge facility moved into the building left behind by an old funeral home, allowing for a full pub, on-site brewery, and (gasp!) a parking lot.

The pub -- parking lot to the left!

Brewery portion with beer garden in front (coming soon!)

A shot *from* the second floor
Inside, Brewery Vivant evokes feelings of ancient European meadhalls, with a cavernous pub buttressed by thick, yawning, old beams that lend to the feeling of a chapel – which, of course, was what it used to be in its prior life. It felt like I had entered a scene from Beowulf, and at any minute someone would tell me about all the sea monsters he fought while in full armor.  By the way -- Brewery Vivant has by far the coolest sinks in their washrooms I've seen in Grand Rapids.  No pictures for obvious reasons, but trust me.  Check them out.

A shot *of* the second floor

Jason and MBB
While I do not particularly believe in pedigree when it comes to making beer, if I did, Jason Spaulding, the owner of Brewery Vivant, would have it in spades. He cut his chops in the craft beer market back when there wasn't really a craft beer market: he's one of the founders of New Holland Brewing Company, and since 1996 has been a part of one of the pillars of the Michigan craft beer community. Spaulding remembers a time in craft beer history that I am thankful I was not around for. In 2011, it is uncommon for a bar not to have at least a few Michigan beers on tap, supplemented by other popular craft beers from other states. In 1996, it was difficult for Spaulding to even explain to Southwest Michiganders the types of beer he was offering, let alone convince an apprehensive beer market to distribute his wares. Luckily, those times are behind everyone, and in part due to his early nurturing, Spaulding has been able to open a brewery that focuses on exactly what he wants to focus on.

He took Laura and me around the actual brewing facility, which re uses space the old funeral home once used to park hearses (and before that, horse and carriages). Brewery Vivant is on track to hit a whopping 1200+ barrels of beer created in their first year of production, and Spaulding has baked in enough room for expansion to bring Vivant's maximum product capability up to 5,000 barrels. Readers with a sharp eye will notice that that's significantly less than some of the “big daddy” breweries in Michigan. New Holland, for example, produced over 10,000 barrels in 2009, and Bell's is sitting pretty at 124,000 barrels. Spaulding's goal, he said, is not to compete on that level, but focus on being as strong a community brewery as he can be.

Mash tun and boiler
Kludde aging in oak barrels.  Woo! 

Sgt Peppercorn Rye
To that end, he's doing well so far. His master brewer, Jacob Derylo, has a decade of brewing experience behind him and an eye for originality. Brewing Belgian beer is not easy; the price for using the yeast strains required is less predictability in your batches, so being consistent is difficult. That said, the selections available represent a very unique and original take on Belgian brewing. I won't go into all of their selections, but I did want to highlight what I considered the strongest in Vivant's stable:

The Sgt Peppercorn Rye has everything I love about spiced beer and nothing I dislike about rye beers. It's a smooth, malty taste with just a bit of kick on the back end, boosted by green peppercorns. The beer manages to mitigate the typical bitterness I associate with rye beers without boosting the alcohol content to staggering levels (it's a refreshing 6%).

Laura's favorite, the Vivant Brune, exhibited all the gentle characteristics of a traditional brown ale with a belgian twist. Expected flavors of coffee and chocolate are made more playful than one would expect with the belgian yeast, giving this beer more personality without being aggressive like some of the more recent hopped browns.
More Sgt Peppercorn.  Yeah, we liked it.
Vivant's Kludde strong ale, named after a huge, shapeshifting black dog that stalks the Belgian countryside, rounded out my favorites at Brewery Vivant. The Kludde is deep and complex, with a strong aroma of raisins bolstered by a slight licorice flavor, coming no doubt from the addition of star anise. It drinks thick and smooth and sweet and fruity, and at almost 10% alcohol, this is not a beer to be taken lightly or drunk vigorously.

Chef Turnipseed hard at work
Given all the advantages Brewery Vivant has to offer, I was surprised that the strongest merit of this brewery was the relationship between the wares of the head brewer and the food created by the head chef, Drew Turnipseed. I should warn you right now: Brewery Vivant does not offer typical bar food, and the prices reflect the fact that it has more in common with a five star restaurant offering French and Belgian cuisine than a burger joint. Don't get me wrong: I love Michigan Brewing Company's pulled pork sandwich, The Livery's Italian sub, and crack fries, but Brewery Vivant's 12 dollar burger and 12-19 dollar entrees are the exception to the standard rule -- and while the price makes some people on facebook pages embarrass themselves, I think the menu is unique, absolutely fantastic, and worth every penny.

Our meal began with grilled toast upon which we slathered duck butter and sea salt. The toasted baguette was crispy yet tender, the duck fat butter was rich and smooth, and the addition of sea salt was perfect. Don't let our government take this taste away. I paired the sweet Kludde beer with the salty and creamy appetizer, balancing the heavy fruit flavor with the light toasted duck flavor.

Laura ordered the hangar steak that came out french rare – cool and very red in the middle. Yes, Laura likes her steaks a few degrees above raw. It came dolloped with bĂ©arnaise sauce and served with marrow butter and frites (think thick cut fries that were fried in duck fat). The perfectly seasoned steak, dipped in marrow butter turned out to be one of the most delicate and lively piece of beef we've tried in a long time. (Lively is not a pun on how it was cooked).

My lobster mac and cheese did not disappoint, either; the house made noodles paired with a thick, peppery cheese sauce with a depth of flavor (the sous chef, CT, let slip that nutmeg and cayenne were part of the secret) I haven't experienced before. The dish was topped with an entire lobster tail and claw. A dish as thick and rich as I've ever had, it paired perfectly with the Triomphe IPA, a light, hoppy version of a pale ale that cut through the thickness and complimented the sweetness from the lobster.

Historically, a bar would not be the first thing someone might want to have as the new business in the neighborhood. They certainly don't generate controversy like strip clubs, casinos, or mosques, but conservative families probably don't get excited about a bar moving into the local community.

But what if that bar is a conscious community member, donating part of its profits to local charities? What if that bar was a responsible environmental ally, working on reducing its water waste, operating at a zero landfill capacity, getting an old building LEED certified and generating some of its own energy on site with sustainable methods? What if the bar brought French and Belgian inspired cuisine to a neighborhood that rivaled some of the fanciest, most well regarded restaurants in town? What if the bar offered a small but growing stable of delicate and complex beer inspired by the great Belgian beers?

I cannot imagine anyone not welcoming Brewery Vivant into their community with excitement.

More photos available on Facebook.


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