West Michigan brewers evolve offerings to appeal to drinkers’ changing palates
To explore local breweries and discover the trends that move the industry, it’s nice to stop to take stock of the new flavors and styles that approach our palates.
Being in the middle of the country, West Michigan has a tendency to get the news a little late when it comes to the latest and greatest beer trends. But breweries in the Mitten seem to have quite a knack for taking these popular beer styles and recreating them with a healthy dose of Michigan innovation.
To that end, Revue gathered some observations on recurring themes in the local craft beer scene and how the brewers are responding to them.
If one trend sums up the last year in craft beer, it’s that many brewers have embraced crisp, clean and highly quaffable beers. It’s no doubt that these brews are delicious, pair well with food, and make for a moan-worthy moment in the heat of summer.
They can also be difficult to brew and execute based on their longer production timeframes. Perhaps most importantly, the use of clean yeast in these beers and their more subtle nature means they’re THE environment for drinkers to detect off flavors.
In-the-know craft beer fans often use these styles as a useful tool when scoping out a new brewery or brewpub. If the brewer can make a beer that is of the subtle and clean yeast variety with no added flavors — and pull off an exceptional product — it’s typically a great indication as to how the rest of the beers are going to fare.
Look for a few key styles and menu phrases when craving these crisp and clean beers. They range from terms such as helles, lager, cream ale and blonde ale to descriptors like cold-conditioned, crushable and gateway beer. Others simply use the phrase “crisp and clean.” Most servers or bartenders can lead patrons in the right direction with those aforementioned phrases.
Here’s a look at how these trends (and others) are playing out at West Michigan craft breweries.
REBIRTH OF TRADITION
The pilsner, American light lager and similar styles have been prevalent in U.S. drinking culture for quite a few decades, and it’s a comforting notion that craft beer is redefining those categories in its own way.
Take, for example, Quinannan Falls Special Lager Beer from Bell’s Brewery. It still holds the refreshing bitterness of a German pils, but now with an American pine-like coolness to change its direction. Pair this beer with a spicy mixed green salad with shaved beets, radish and a dill vinaigrette.
In Hudsonville, Pike 51 Brewery crafts the Tall Boy, which is its version of the American light lager, as well as the Pants Cream Ale. Both beers would be absolutely dynamite with a fish fry, since their higher carbonation levels would flush out the grease and fat from the food and refresh your palate for the next bite, while the beer’s light, corn-like sweetness and flavor would resonate with the fried breading.
Dutton-based Railtown Brewing Co. also offers up its Bike Ride Blonde, which can make an excellent pair with lunch staples such as a chicken caesar wrap or a turkey club. It’ll use the same cutting power with its carbonation levels, and the grainy malt will resonate with the bread or wrap, yet create another bready base for the salty and savory flavors from either sandwich. Meant to soothe and refresh, these varieties are a true staple for many beer imbibers.
BACK TO EUROPEAN ROOTS
Along the lines of crushable beers, it’s appropriate to mention that traditional German styles seem to be popping back into view. Altbiers, märzens, helles and even some rauchbier (which is the true way to my heart) are appearing more and more on brewery menus. I can’t say I’m surprised, given drinkers’ aforementioned desire for refreshing, clean beer.
While Cedar Springs Brewing Co., Frankenmuth Brewery, and Territorial Brewing Co. have focused on the traditional German styles in their brewhouses, other non-German based breweries also are getting in on the action. They include Harmony Brewing Co. with its Debacle Bock Doppelbock, Perrin Brewing’s imperial schwarzbier called the Black Goat, and Muskegon-based Unruly Brewing Co. with its Kick Ass Kölsch.
On a more minor note, there has been a noticeable resurgence of the Polish style known as grodziskie. It’s a historical sour smoked wheat ale made with oak-smoked wheat malt. Although the style has been slow to make inroads into the Michigan craft beer scene, it appears that Sleepwalker Spirits and Ale has already jumped on the bandwagon.
If you encounter it, remember that this is supposed to be a smoky smelling and tasting beer. It can be absolutely lovely with a classic BLT, grilled fish, or when used in a smoked beer and cheddar soup.
SOUR — ON PURPOSE
Other so-called gateway beers have opened new drinkers to the enormous, complicated and often intimidating category of sour and wild ales.
With all the petri dishes full of crazy goodies and a newfound love for their bacterial friends, brewers are having fun concocting an artistic beverage for the palate. For many consumers, sours seem to sit just right.
It’s fascinating how craft beer seemingly exploded with bitterness and is now morphing into a scene centered around sour (and salty) palate trends. Because of its massive growth, it seems fitting to point out a few breweries that have fantastic sour beer programs and would allow for a great introduction to this ever-expanding category.
Speciation Artisan Ales will be joining this wild party soon, introducing an all wild and sour beer lineup of Red, Golden and Dark Sours, along with Farmhouse and Berliner Weisse variations. The Comstock Park-based brewery also plans to offer multiple takes on its beers using various fruits and barrel-aging processes. Red Belly Brewing of Kentwood will join the fray as well, with a niche in sour beers.
In the meantime, check out the classic sours that have been brewed at Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, or explore the breweries that don’t focus solely on souring programs, but have delved into the style in recent years. For instance, the souring programs at New Holland Brewing, Brewery Vivant and Pike 51 Brewery are certainly worth noting and have been evolving over the years. Even Founders Brewing Co. is tapping some great sessionable sours, having recently introduced the gose style beer in the taproom with watermelon, apricot and honey variations.
In fact, these sour, tart or salty beers become a phenomenal tool when it comes time to pair them with food. They work exceptionally with saltiness, which begs the suggestion of simply frying up some bacon to eat with it, or drinking it with a charcuterie board.
You can even use a sour beer to mend a meal that accidentally became oversalted by pairing it with the kitchen mistake. (Take it from me, it can help those sad meals become far more edible.)
Sours have a wine-like element to them, meaning that you can use wild beers to create some of the same flavor relationships as you would with wine.
All in all, sours have cutting power, refresh the palate and can be used as an aperitif, while they also work alongside herbal, sweet, fatty, salty and fruit flavors.
Many craft brewers have taken an energizing turn by connecting coffee — our favorite caffeinated beverage — with beer.
To date, brewers’ blending of the two mediums has typically focused on adding coffee to porters or imperials stouts. Suddenly, however, they’ve flooded the market with coffee-tinged pale ales, blondes and beyond. It’s keeping in trend with what’s brewing in the world of coffee, namely the growing popularity of draft nitrogenated cold-brew.
At this point, drinkers’ love of beer and coffee begin to meld, and soon enough they come together in either a carbon dioxide- or nitrogen-rich form to bring brilliant flavors to the palate.
With the addition of Creston Brewery in Grand Rapids, drinkers searching for coffee beers have even more options. Among the beers in Creston’s opening lineup, Koala Bear is a crushable and smooth beer made with Rowster’s Italian Coffee, while The Great Log Jam of 1883 is brewed with the Rowster Nicaraguan coffee.
For coffee beer fans craving more styles, Walter Gets Buzzed from Muskegon-based Pigeon Hill Brewing is a blonde ale brewed with snickerdoodle coffee, making for a deliciously fine beer. Even Founders Brewing jumped into the fray with its Pale Joe, a pale ale brewed with Ethiopian coffee, which it launched as its signature beer for the 2016 ArtPrize.
Pairing blonde or pale ale-style coffee beers with food can be tricky at first, but it can also soon become a secret weapon. The styles pair exceptionally with cream-based dishes, such as soups like creamy chicken, cream of mushroom or even clam chowder. Coffee and cream is a natural pairing and creates a great connection from the start.
Even savory meat flavors fare well with the coffee roastiness and get smoothed out by the pale ale or blonde ale characteristics. So try one of these coffee beers with a reuben sandwich or some Swedish meatballs. For dessert, use that coffee characteristic to pair with a cannoli to cap off a meal.
THE EVOLUTION CONTINUES
Since most craft beer fanatics suffer from FOMO, or the fear of missing out on the next greatest beer style, they like to pay attention to what others drink. In many ways, to be a part of the trend seems validating. To that same end, they enjoy reading up on what breweries are concocting because they’re intrigued by where the creativity will take beer next.
While the West Coast or East Coast may lead the pack, craft brewers in West Michigan continue to tinker with their interpretation of styles, which will never stop evolving. No matter where the next big beer trend comes from, just remember that as long as you enjoy drinking the brew, you’re doing everything right.
Angela Steil, a certified Cicerone, is the president of the Grand Rapids chapter of Leaders Beverage Consulting. A Grand Rapids resident, Steil indulges in cigars, continues to study for the Advanced and Master Cicerone exams, and writes and consults for the beer industry.