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.