Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sullivan's Black Forest Brew Haus

It was a hot May afternoon as Laura and I parked the car in the lot of Sullivan’s Black Forest Brew Haus & Grill. We had just come off an exciting tour of the northern parts of the lower peninsula, and were stopping in Frankenmuth to attend the 2011 World Expo of Beer with some friends, and decided we could roll some blogging into the trip.

Describing the Michigan city of Frankenmuth is a bit of a paradox. How does one describe a place that is simultaneously sickeningly kitschy yet adorable in spite of that? Frankenmuth is our equivalent of Disneyworld’s “It’s a Small World” ride – if all the kids were German. And Sullivan’s Black Forest fits right in.

The outer façade looks like an artist’s interpretation of a picture of an old German brewhouse he saw once, in a magazine, a few years ago. Like an “old west” village in any of a dozen amusement parks, I could not help but expect a giant cartoon character to show up and start waving enthusiastically to the kids while pulling out pretend guns and fake shooting them into the air. It looked like a German Olive Garden. 

Inside, the restaurant was bustling, with a pleasant din of activity extending throughout what turned out to be a very large complex. Waitstaff hurried through the restaurant, politely smiling with heavy food orders in hand. Tables were spread far apart, leaving plenty of room for heavier individuals to have their space. The bar, prominently featured in the center of the four primary eating areas, served as a landmark and as a place of comfort.


Perhaps it was the hot weather, or my exhaustion from days of touring wineries, but the beer at Sullivan’s did not break any records for me. Of the ten they had on draft, only three really stood out. The Grateful Red – a (surprise!) red amber beer, lacked the unpleasant metallic finish I typically associate with red beers, making it a sweet and malty way to start the afternoon. The Woody’s Light served exactly as predicted. I admit that while craft brewing is growing exponentially, it’s smart for every brewer to have a macro-clone beer in the wings as a way to encourage the “Bud Lite 4 Lyfe” crowd to try a sample, and Woody’s Light fits the bill perfectly by being light and refreshing without offering too much flavor or body. Their IPA also went down well; it had a strong malt flavor to support the hops, meaning it may be quite a bit too tame for the hopheads out there.

Although it’s tough to judge a place based on one item ordered, the deep dish pizza Laura and I shared was quite good, with a spicy sauce (and spicier sausage), great meatballs, and gigantic pieces of pepperoni. 

As Laura and I travel the state of Michigan, I can’t help but begin categorizing the breweries, brewpubs, and microbreweries we visit. There seems to be a definite difference between restaurants that make their own beer, and breweries that serve food. Short’s, New Holland, Jolly Pumpkin, and Founder’s all fit into the latter category. Without making judgment on these establishments’ food, it’s clear that the focus is on the creation and serving of craft beer. Conversely, the Vierling, Jamesport, Mackinaw Brewing Company, and Sullivan’s Black Forest Brew Haus all typify the first category: without judgment, it seems that these places focus on the restaurant first and the beer making second. Given that, Sullivan’s Black Forest Brew Haus is a fun, kitschy environment, and a staple to the family oriented experience Frankenmuth offers. But if you're looking for premium beer, I might suggest the Frankenmuth Brewery down the street.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Angler's Ale Fish Sandwiches with Avocado Sauce

Let's see...how do I put this sandwich into words?  How do I tell you how wonderful the crispy beer batter is?  How do I tell you that the combination of the crispy batter, flaky fish, and homemade avocado sauce is a match made in heaven?  Maybe I should just come out and say it.  It's crispy.  It's fried.  It's slathered with a sauce that's so delicious I could eat it plain.  It is scrumptious.

For this recipe you will need:

Oil for frying
1 cup Arcadia Angler's Ale
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
Salt and pepper
1 small red onion, thinly sliced and rings separated
Juice of 1 lime
1 large jalapeño pepper or 2 small Serrano peppers, seeded and chopped
1 clove garlic
1 avocado
Juice of 1 lemon
1 cup sour cream
A small handful of cilantro
4 6-ounce pieces thick, sustainable white fish, such as orange roughy, cod, haddock, or pollack
4 brioche buns, split
Chopped pickles
4 slices of ripe tomato
Sliced lettuce

In a Dutch oven or large, deep skillet, heat 2 inches of oil over medium to medium-high heat.  You'll know the oil is hot enough when you put the handle of a wooden spoon in the oil and bubbles vigorously roll off of it.

In a bowl, whisk together beer, flour, dried spices and some salt.

Douse rings of red onion with lime juice and season with salt and pepper.

To a food processor or blender, add chile pepper and grate garlic directly into the bowl or blender. Add avocado flesh and squeeze in lemon juice - squeeze it cut-side up to keep seeds from falling into processor. Add sour cream, a good pinch of salt and cilantro, and process into a smooth green sauce. Scrape into small serving dish and reserve.

Coat fish pieces in the beer batter and fry in the hot oil to deep golden, 6-7 minutes. Drain on rack and season with a pinch of salt.  I fried two pieces at a time, and kept the first two on a baking rack on a baking sheet in a warm oven to keep them hot and crispy until the last two were ready to serve.

Serve the fish on bun bottoms and top with pickles, tomatoes, lettuce and lime-pickled red onions. Slather bun tops with avocado sauce and set in place.

Serve with salt and vinegar chips or corn tortilla chips and salsa alongside.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bottled Michigan: Bell's Oberon

I have come to embrace the concept of the seasonal beer. Certain beers just taste better when accompanied by specific weather conditions; a warm fire during a blizzard calls for a stout, freshly mowed grass and a muggy afternoon calls for an IPA, and crisp autumn days punctuated by flashes of bright crimson and saffron leaves demand a balanced brown ale. Additionally, one cannot deny the fact that the old cliché, “absence makes the heart grow fonder” holds a lot of weight when speaking of seasonal beers.

Without sounding like too much of a hipster, Bell’s Oberon has been a household name since before it was cool to drink craft beer. Before someone accuses me of pushing up my nerd rock glasses and claiming that I was in on the ground floor, I should mention that Oberon – originally brewed as Solsun – came out in 1992, right before my 11th birthday. The name wasn’t changed until later, when a giant Mexican brewing company decided Solson was a little too close to their beer, Sol. Rather than fight, Bells renamed the beer after a Fairie King present in one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Oberon is too mainstream for Hipster Cat.

After 19 years of innovation, what does Oberon bring to the table? The beer pours a pale gold, with just a hint of sediment floating lazily through the glass. Sunlight dances through the beer and comes out the other side looking more like summer than it did going in. Aromas of orange/lemon citrus waft from the glass; the beer tempers the classic smells of summer with a residual malty sweetness, burying any harshness one might expect from an IPA. There is no booze smell rolling from the glass, simply a lightness accompanied by memories of summers past.

The taste is sunshine. I realize I’m just paraphrasing the bottle itself (“An American wheat ale with the color and scent of a summer afternoon”), but damned if the marketers didn’t hit the nail on the head. Light citrus dances on the palate, encouraged by just enough bitter hops flavor to keep the sweetness in check. Oberon pours at 5.8%, and keeps its alcohol flavor in check. There’s no booze flavor to blurry up a sunny day, just fresh hops and wheat with a kick of citrus and a comforting fresh bread taste from the malt.

There were two drinks that got me hooked on craft beer: New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk and Bell’s Oberon. I drank them before I knew just how far the horizon on craft beer stretched. Perhaps that is why I always go back to the bottle with a smiling sun on it for a warm spring or summer day. I will tell you honestly: Oberon is not my favorite beer in the world. It’s not even my favorite Michigan wheat beer. Yet despite that, I’ve had more Oberon this spring than any other Michigan beer. I reach for it instinctively because Oberon represents something more than a single beer. It’s my gateway beer – not only the gateway to Spring, but the gateway to craft beer in general. For that, it deserves to be held in very high regard indeed.

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