Friday, September 25, 2009

Walking Washington Street

Downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan

It is rare that you can actually pub crawl from brew pub to brew pub. They are still relatively rare as far as bars go, and often, it makes sense to disperse rather than co-locate breweries as it insures a local following and a "hometown brewery" designation. Even in Denver, while you can pub crawl to 4 or 5 breweries and brewpubs as well as a couple of specialty beer bars, the walk between them can be as short as 2 blocks and as great as 10 depending on your route and destination.

A college town is a perfect place for a brewery, it introduces newly minted beer drinkers to a premium product and establishes brand identification. There are special places where more than 1 brewpub can exist. Ann Arbor, Michigan has 3 brewpubs located within 1 block of Main Street on Washington Street, and another brewery just opened up a shop around the corner on Main.

My brother and I hit Ann Arbor early in the day on a Friday. We wandered around the Quad, and soaked up some nostalgia on our lives in Ann Arbor. Neither of us attended school there, but both spent a lot of time there (I more than my brother). If these breweries existed at the time, we no doubt would have lingered downtown even more. We had an early lunch (without beer) at Cottage Inn Pizza (a local favorite of both of us). I could start a blog on pizza, too, so this is good stuff.

I have to come clean. I have always loved Ann Arbor. It is a vibrant college town, with an active arts and entertainment community, with turn of the century architecture, tree-lined streets, and an educated populace. If I ever find myself moving back to Michigan for a job (now that sounds more funny now that I wrote it with the unemployment rate in Michigan at 15%, but in my house it is 100%, so who knows, right?) I would choose to live in Ann Arbor (or at least the Ann Arbor area including my old hometown of Plymouth). The fact that there are now at least 4 breweries there is icing on the cake. Because the 4 breweries are so close together and all downtown, I believe that there is room for more neighborhood breweries in this town.

In my time allowed, I was able to hit 3 of the 4 breweries. I wanted to hit the Jolly Pumpkin on Main (the newest of the 4), but my palate was ruined after the three, and Jolly Pumpkin is known for their flavorful and artesianal beers. I couldn't fairly taste their beers.

We started on West Washington and worked our way eastward.

Located at the corner of West Washington and Ashley Street, the Grizzly Peak Brewing Company was one Ann Arbor's first breweries, opening its doors in 1995. As I recall, the location was a bar that my friends and I used to frequent prior to its brewpub incarnation. The building itself is a 100-year old building, and the interior is warm and inviting. The bartender was a little rude and short as we inquired about the beers and any possible Brewer's discounts (American Homebrewer's or Brewers Association, none at this location). She warmed up a little later when talking about beer. It was nice that she had (and was willing to share) some knowledge. We tried a number of their beers, the stand outs being their Pale Ale on cask at the time, and their Red Ale (always our safe bet). I didn't keep any notes, but was a little disappointed in more than 1 of the samples I tried.

Their brewery is located up front in their window and looks to be a 5-10 barrel system. Interestingly, their brew kettle was surrounded by brick. I had not seen a system like that (seems like an old school set up), and wonder about utilizing the bricks thermal efficiency. I could imagine that a mash tun would best benefit from the brick, helping to maintain a constant temperature during a long conversion period. In the brew kettle, you want wort to heat up fast and cool down quickly. Perhaps, they move the hot wort out of the kettle and benefit from the thermal efficiency upon moving the next batch in quickly.

The Arbor Brewing Company opened its doors also in 1995 (I am not sure who was first) has a different personality than Grizzly Peak up the street. The Grizzly Peak is polished, feels somehow, more corporate, more intense. It is not to say its bad, but the feel of the Arbor Brewing Company is different, laid back. Maybe the Grizzly Peak caters to the professional crowd, and ABC is more the Birkenstock crowd. I fit in more with the Birkenstockers, especially these days. The Arbor Brewing Company could fit well into downtown Boulder, and reminds me vaguely of the Mountain Sun in Boulder. Grizzly Peak feels more like the Boulder Brewing Company (to be comparative).

Everyone at the Arbor was super nice. The bartender was my favorite of the trip in both knowledge and friendliness. The brewers were setting up outside on the street for their Oktoberfest Celebration, but were nice about me poking my head in for a few pictures (and getting in their way). My favorite beer was their Oktoberfest ('tis the season, after all), but I was a little disappointed
while tasting some of their other offerings. The beer felt thinner then I though the styles they were representing should be. I didn't try everything I would have liked to, and but time and good sense
would not allow it on this trip. I think I would have enjoyed other beers in other contexts, but I think I would enjoy the food the best at Arbor. They have an initiative to produce foods that are natural, organic, and local. This also means that their menu changes to reflect the local harvests. I was hungry again, but my mission on this day was beer.

The brewery is located behind the bar and is a modern looking 7 barrel system. They also have a location in the neighboring college town of Ypsilanti with a 21 barrel system and distribute their beers within the State of Michigan.

We moved up the hill and another block eastward to the Blue Tractor. This is a modern student hang out. The interior was painted black, the serving tanks above the bar gave the outfit a decidedly industrial feel, and everything had that bolted to the floor and easy to hose off feeling of a freshman bar. The bartender was a fun loving gentleman. We also were running out of time, so we didn't stay as long as we would have. We had Wings tickets and had to meet friends and head downtown to the Joe in the evening. I was really getting hungry and the BBQ was smelling delicious (we ate BBQ twice on our way back to Denver....I think Blue Tractor was the reason). Here, I had my favorite beer of the street. It was their Red Ale. It was so close to the Red Ale I brew, so it felt like they brewed just for me. They only had 4 or so offerings, but we didn't get to sample them all. Again, we need to come back for the food and the beer in this fun bar.

The brewery facility is located downstairs (behind a locked door) along with a subterranean lounge that connects with the Mojito Bar next door. The basement is pure Ann Arbor bar and is reminiscent of a prohibition era speakeasy....very cool.

Overall, I had positive impressions of all of the three breweries, but all for different reasons. My brother loved most of the beers he had, and mentioned that he sort of wished we didn't have Red Wings tickets for the evening, as he would have liked to hang out for the Oktoberfest celebration. This is a huge statement. I LOVE (live, breathe, etc.) beer, and like the Detroit Red Wings (and hockey in general). My brother LOVES (lives, breathes) the Detroit Red Wings (and hockey in general), and likes beer. But the vibe of Ann Arbor; the good beer; it felt like we belonged...and we do. No matter who you are, everyone will feel welcome in at least one of the Washington Street Breweries. Perhaps more are on the way in Ann Arbor. I hope so.

Next time, we will hit Jolly Pumpkin, I promise, but I think we will need a day or more to process it and take it all in, and I didn't want to hurry that experience, so we skipped it. I had set up a tour at their facility that I had to cancel as well, and I have been remorseful ever since.

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