It was a beer that Brewery Vivant intended to brew only once.
However, Big Red Coq not only stuck around after its initial run, but it has also become the No. 2 selling beer for the Grand Rapids-based brewery, according to co-founder Jason Spaulding.
“We gave it a tongue-in-cheek name because we thought it would be a one-off batch, but once it started gaining traction, we thought, ‘We can’t change it now,’” Spaulding said. “Luckily, there’s a good sense of humor in the beer world.”
There’s reason to see why Big Red Coq has staying power: The Belgian-American hoppy red ale took top honors in Revue’s blind tasting of 13 red and amber ales.
The beer got its start in the early days of Brewery Vivant, when the company was still experimenting with what would form its lineup of mainstay beers, according to Spaulding. His initial instruction to head brewer Jacob Derylo was to come up with “a hoppy red beer,” and Big Red Coq “was an instant hit. … It just kept picking up momentum.”
“Back then, having a lot of hops in a Belgian-style beer wasn’t done that often,” Spaulding said. “It was pretty new.”
Brewery Vivant perfected the recipe in-house, trying different variations and serving them at the pub at 925 Cherry Street in Grand Rapids. Today, the beer is brewed with citra hops, which explains the tropical flavors, along with a proprietary blend of some other hop varieties.
Ambers and reds are two related styles of ale that got their start in America in the 1980s. For their part, ambers started as a new interpretation of English bitters, according to author Jeff Alworth in “The Beer Bible.”
Most ambers focus on balance and feature caramel and toffee sweetness from the caramel or crystal malt. Hops are present, but they take a backseat to the pronounced malty flavors.
On the other hand, red ales have more hop character (some a lot more) and a lighter body, while they also retain some of the caramel malty sweetness.
“It being a red, I wanted it to have a malt background to it as well,” Spaulding said. “The malt does well with mango essence of the citra. Combined with our Belgian yeast strain, it makes it unique.”
Big Red Coq
Brewery Vivant, Grand Rapids
Brewer’s description: This red ale is all about hops. It is an American-Belgian fusion of beer styles taking imported Belgian caramel malts and slapping it with a heavy-handed dose of American hops. Expect hints of mango, pineapple and citrus to hit your nose with an assertive hop presence.
Revue: This is a beer that looks the part of a red ale, but the fruity hop aroma sets it apart. Where most reds or ambers are about balance of malty and hoppy, this one definitely swings more to citrusy hops — and we’re OK with that. Big Red Coq may not be true to style, but it was true to our reviewers’ palates.
Sundog Amber Ale
New Holland Brewing Co., Holland and Grand Rapids
Brewer’s description: Sundog is an amber ale that emulates the copper glow of a Lake Michigan sunset. A showcase for caramel malt, Sundog presents a toasty character, with subtle malty sweetness and a nutty finish.
Revue: This amber also featured a nice hoppy characteristic in the nose. Sundog is a true-to-style amber, with an interplay of caramel malty sweetness and hoppy notes. The notable hop aroma earned high points, as did this beer’s well-balanced flavor. Definitely a beer to revisit. [Fun fact: Before starting Brewery Vivant, Jason Spaulding co-founded New Holland with Brett VanderKamp in 1997, and helped create Sundog as well.]
Dark Horse Brewing Co., Marshall
Brewer’s description: While the malt and hops give this beer an amazing copper color, medium body, and a smooth mouthfeel, it’s the yeast that sets this one apart from other amber ales. … We thought it would be cool to give our Amber a little Belgian touch. We accomplish this by using an “almost Belgian” yeast strain producing similar esters and flavors commonly found in more traditional Belgian beers.
Revue: As one reviewer described it, this is a “Belgian banana bread wonder.” Its American amber looks belie its Euro-inspired roots, which add yeasty characteristics that probably put it at the fringe of what many would consider an amber. Still, the banana esters are a welcome addition, providing some depth and complexity to the nicely balanced amber base.
Griffin Claw Brewing Co., Birmingham
Brewer’s description: Our (Great American Beer Fest) bronze medal winning El Rojo Red Ale has a malty, roasted flavor profile. Entered in competition as an English brown, the El Rojo is really more of an American Red — bigger than Scottish Reds with a beautiful ruby red color and a rich, roasty, caramel body.
Revue: During our blind tasting, the reviewers wondered whether a mislabeled brown ale had somehow slipped into the roster. It’s a darker beer than most reds, although it’s still clear and free from haze. Reviewers split on the aroma of this beer, but its balanced malty flavor and lingering finish earned praise. While other beers tasted here had more character from their hops, El Rojo was all about the malt.
Train Wreck Ale, Mountain Town Brewing Co., Mt. Pleasant. Score: 66.5
Red Jacket Amber Ale, Keweenaw Brewing Co., Houghton. Score: 64
Northern Hawk Owl, Right Brain Brewery, Traverse City. Score: 62.25
Amber, Bell’s Brewery Inc., Galesburg. Score: 62.25
Siren, North Peak Brewing Co., Traverse City
Bulldog Red Ale, Cranker’s Brewing Co., Big Rapids
Manitou Amber Ale, Brewery Terra Firma, Traverse City
Burning Sun Red Ale, Gonzo’s BiggDogg Brewing Co., Kalamazoo
Lucky Enough Amber Ale, Cellar Brewing Co., Sparta