Drinking buddies road trip across Mich., induldge in brewpub history
The purpose of our trip was to investigate as many small Michigan brewpubs as we could find, but with a limited amount of time and money, our investigation was far from complete or thorough. In fact, we pretty much just went to breweries near our free place to crash: Manistee.
Our first stop was North Peak Brewing Company in Traverse City. With temperatures below freezing in March, we can't believe MTV Spring Break missed this place.
The highlights of their on-tap offerings are the Steelhead Red Ale and the Mission Point Porter. The Steelhead was not what we expected from a red beer. It's creamy texture was different than a red lager, and the taste was a pleasant mix of hops and malts, the goal of most ales. The Porter was smooth and sweet but maintained its roasty porter qualities, making it very drinkable. Overall, the selection was enjoyable, but we just couldn't adjust our tongues to drink much of the Vanilla Porter. The cask conditioning was an interesting hook, but it was too thick and sweet, almost like beer syrup.
The brewer talked to us about the operation in a phone interview. As it turned out, Michigan hasn't been his only stop in his brewing adventures. Tim Perry worked in breweries in Maui and Colorado before coming to Michigan to run North Peak.
"I thought I'd step in for a few years. I'm not sure what's next, maybe New Zealand," he said. Ah, the romantic life of a brewer. It makes "Girls Gone Wild" look like public access.
In the six months that Perry has been in Traverse City, he has been hard at work adjusting recipes and tweaking an open-fermenting system, one of the lesser-used forms of brewing. In open fermentation, the unfermented beer is left open to encourage yeast productivity and a more complete fermentation. If not carefully monitored, it is easy to contaminate an open batch, so it is usually not implemented, especially in American commercial breweries.
Perry commits to this difficult brewing process in order to stay with the Bavarian style of brewing beer that he was taught. In fact, since his arrival he has adjusted the existing brews to accommodate the flavorful style and created new seasonal beers to bring them more "true to style." He also doesn't fine filter his beer for the same reason.
Of course, he also cares about the concerns of customers, sultry beer-drinking coeds like ... well, us. "You have to ask: What do they want; what do they like? You can tell that by how (the beers) sell," Perry said.
But it's not all red, white and blue at North Peak, especially since there are so many flavors you just can't get in the States.
"Hops is different," Perry said. "If I'm buying East Kent (English hops), I'm going to get them from England or the United Kingdom. It has the original characteristics of the region." Many of the hops Perry uses are available in your local homebrew store.
After we had parted ways with the staff at North Peak, we headed down the road to another Traverse City brewery, Mackinaw Brewing Company. This brewery has the reputation of being the "second banana" to North Peak, and we figured out why. Its beers scored a strong mediocre with our palettes. A few examples: The Dunkel German lager had a dark color, but the taste was unremarkable except for a sweet finish. The Peninsula Pale Ale smelled of spices, but tasted lightly sweet, very inbetweeny. The Beadles Best Bitter was not so bitter. It was as though they had good ideas, but didn't really follow through.
Our final stop was one of the smallest breweries in Michigan, Jamesport Brewing Company Inc. in Ludington. Around since 2000, Jamesport features a large restaurant area with a quaint little brewery churning away underneath. We ventured down into the cellar to find the Master Brewer, Tom Buchanan, at work cooking up another batch.
Buchanan's story is an inspiration to all homebrewers. He had actually homebrewed for nine years before acquiring his current job.
"I found out this place was being built in 1999," he said. "I basically hung around until they hired me." They kept him on staff as an unsalaried employee until Buchanan earned his stripes at the helm of the basement lab. Not a bad break into the business for a former truck driver.
As for the beers, we were impressed. The Steam Beer was the best, with an excellent balance of hops and secondary flavors. The Dortmunder Lager was light but flavorful, with a lovely fruit scent. Rounding out our top three was the English Mild. It had a nut scent and flavor with a malty finish, great for drinking with a lunch burger.
Lest we get too snooty with our palettes and bouquets, Buchanan offers some good advice for adventurous tasters: "Listen to what your mouth is trying to tell you," he said. It was with these words that we realized the zen of beer drinking.
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