Family vacation. Time spent on the beach, enjoying the company of your children and siblings, reliving childhood memories, visiting famous epic craft breweries. What? You don’t do that last one? Well, I did. Today I trekked about an hour or so east on Interstate 94 to visit Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, MI. What a trip it was.
On a damp, drizzly day in southwest Michigan. while the lake offered only treacherous waves and undertows, and whilst my wife and children were off picking pounds and pounds of blueberries , I rounded up my father, brother, and sundry others for a trip to one of my favorite breweries.
Adjacent to the original brewery is the Eccentric Cafe, where we ordered our flights of beer and lunch before the 1:30pm Sunday tour.
Beer flights are my friend. Bell’s gives you a piece of paper and you can write down any six beers you like. None of this rigid beer flight menu nonsense – this is a true a la carte beer selection. Nice.
My choices were many. I selected, from left-to-right: Third Coast, Round House IRA, Quinannan Falls, Smoked Stout, Larry’s Latest Pale Trial #1, Midwest Pale Ale.
You’ll find these six beers to be amazingly awesome. How good were they?
Third Coast Beer
You can find this locally, at least that’s the case in St. Louis area grocery stores. It’s light and crisp with a nice hoppy note. There’s a barely cloudy and yellow body, with a fresh and enjoyable flavor and texture. If you’re out on a hot day, this is a great beer. Unfortunately it’s about 60, cloudy, and drizzly in late July. What kind of weirdo part of the country is this?
Two drunks at the bar said that this was the best Bell’s beer ever, and the bartender agreed. IRA stands for Indian Red Ale. Basically this is a thoroughly hopped red ale, and I have to agree that this is quite the beer to behold. Malty, caramely, with a nice hop and spice finish. Smooth, excellent body with a mellow aftertaste. I could (and did) drink this all day. There’s a rich dark red color and a wondrous (rye?) aroma. I have to agree that this was a splendid beer, unlike anything I’ve had before.
Officially called the Quinannan Falls Special Lager Beer, this beer presented mild hops and a light color. The aroma was neither fruity or flowery. Really this is a light hoppy one note beer, although crisp and fresh. Nothing noteworthy and probably not something I’d get again, though a solid effort.
I like smoked beers and I like stouts, so I thought this would be a good choice for my flight. It was dark and definitely smokey without being meaty or baconish (like the O’Fallon Smoked Porter, for example). Super smooth with mild richness and nonexistent effervescence. I was pleasantly surprised to find a lack of overpowering aftertaste. This is a nice novelty beer, but the one beer flight sample was sufficient. I did sip on my brother’s cream stout, which I actually prefer over the smoked stout.
Larry’s Latest Pale: Trial #1
I guess Larry Bell regularly experiments and this beer is one of his latest trials. Well done, Larry. This pale ale was amber and translucent, with nice pale ale flavors, lighter and smoother than other similar style pale ales (like Schlafly’s). Lighter doesn’t necessarily mean better, because this is a great beer. Despite being a little flat, I got great grain flavors that were stronger than the hops profile, without much of an aroma. Imagine a mild yet traditional English-y style ale. That’s this beer – I really enjoyed it.
Midwest Pale Ale
Another beer you can probably buy locally, this was lighter in color than the Larry trial beer. With a subtle hop flavor, I got a nice light beer taste without being a light beer. This is a great hot day beer… which, again, is a shame since it’s so chill today.
Six great beers. Let’s soak in the ambiance and sip.
I violated a cardinal rule of restaurants. Usually, if there’s a Cuban sandwich on the menu, I order the Cuban sandwich. I also passed on the brisket platter. I was in the mood for something lighter, so I stuck with the turkey avocado sandwich on wheat with a side of salt and pepper chips. Save room for beers.
Lunch won’t overpower any beer, and it was pretty good, even if the turkey was a little dry. They used a creamy potato salad style mayo on the bread, which was a nice touch. The pickle was some kind of super tart dill – a damn good pickle.
I came across some light reading on the way to the restroom. This is important journalism, people:
Apparently I missed some kind of amazing party last night:
Those beers in my belly, it’s time for the beer tour. We can bring beer in a plastic cup… no glass. How about another IRA?
The beer tour was hipster-heavy that day, my friends. Me and the other Simpsons, and a bunch of hipster people. Awful hats and beards and tight jeans and girls who look like a depressed Lisa Loeb.
Of course the first question on the tour, hosted by the knowledgeable and diligent Kenny, came from my father. Bell’s uses Kalamazoo municipal city water, though they filter out the chlorine and iron. Dad’s had a beer flight and more, so why not ask Kenny what the pH of the water is after filtration? Kenny doesn’t know. Raise your hand during the brewery tour? That’s a paddlin’.
Most of the people on the beer tour had a beer in hand, not including my preggers sister. Always bring a DD on your beer tour, even if it means a hyper-pregnant sister.
I took some needlessly detailed photos of hops and hop pellets.
My brother, Officer Stinkypants, wanted his photo in front of a big metal barrel. Done.
Kenny the tour guy explained the whole beer process… I wasn’t really listening. The mash tun (pictured above) is where the malt mash, which is hot water and grain, turns into sugar. That is then mixed with hops and yeast, which ferments somewhere else to provide acid, flavor, and alcohol. Beer is made. Boom.
While I was taking this picture and Kenny was talking, Dad dropped his empty plastic cup onto the echoing concrete floor. Cut that man off.
I even posed for a quick photo.
I admired the many knobs and tubes and doodads that the brewers used.
We noticed the old tymey sign outside that belied the modern operation indoors.
Just look at all the special craft beers they make here!
Kenny told us that many beers were made at the Kalamazoo location that were only available at the attached cafe. Most of the nationally-available beers are actually brewed 10 miles away in Comstock, Michigan. The specialty craft beers are made here in this room. Yum.
All their beers are non-pasteurized and unfiltered.
Speaking of specialty beer…
Kenny told us that these monstrous barrels were Cabernet Sauvignon barrels from California that will ferment beer through 2014, and they aren’t sure what they are going to get out of these! The small barrels only age for six months, but I’m sure the contents will be amazing. It took quite a bit for me to restrain myself from causing a distraction so my brother could heist a barrel.
Of course, while we are ready to go… Dad is chatting up poor old Kenny.
On the way out the door, we snapped some pictures of the sample grain and hops that were passed around on the tour. Gratuitous over-sharing, people. I can’t help it.
So many beers from which to choose. It’s difficult to restrain myself.
On the way out, we hit the gift shop. I bought a skull cap, t-shirt, and trucker hat. And four six packs of beer.
What an amazingly successful vacation trip. I thank my wonderful wife for taking my children for a few hours so we could venture out to the beer capital of southwest Michigan. Well worth the hour drive each way, ideally the first of many brewery tours. Such is my burden – try and sample so many beers.