EAST LANSING — In a college town where beer prices rule what gets drunk, Scott Isham tries to help introduce the youthful beer drinkers into a more eclectic range of beverages.

Isham brews at Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub in East Lansing, dealing with competitors offering $3 pitchers across the way.

But he hasn’t let the prices affect his way of brewing.

“It’s hard to sell a pint for $3.50,” Isham said. “Having said that, the college kids are really open, they come in with almost no preconceived notions. They don’t fall for the marketing hype, just because a beer is soaked in a bourbon barrel, it doesn’t mean it’s good to them. They have really good feedback, if they like the beer, they’ll drink it again, if they don’t, they won’t.”

Isham has found a nice balance of how to make beers for quality and price and finds it hard to deviate from that path sometimes.

“(I try to) just make a nice drinkable beer, free of defects, I don’t try to do anything special anymore,” he said. “It’s almost automatic and I have to slow down and think, ‘What did I just do?’ because sometimes I don’t even think what I’m going to do anymore. Ultimately drinkability is the number one thing I’m shooting for.”

With six beers on tap at the restaurant, Isham has four staple beers — Spartan Wheat, Raspberry Wheat, Grove St. Pale Ale and Harper’s Ale — plus two rotating ales, currently Belgian Whit and Blackstrap Porter.

When making his brews, he tries to stay close to British influence and not copy other brewers.

“We try to have one every month, assuming they sell,” Isham said. “We try to mix it up and keep the favorites. Every now and then we throw in a new recipe.”

Although Isham has brewed in East Lansing since September 2000, his job never gets old, thanks in part to the students.

“There’s not a whole lot (left to do).” he said. “You get a whole new bunch of 21-year-olds, so even though we tend to make the same styles, it’s new to the new customers. It’s always nice to introduce a kid to a foreign extra stout.”

TROY – The most interesting thing about Granite City Food & Brewery may not be the beer itself so much as the way in which this chain brewery makes it.  Other chain breweries, such as Rock Bottom or Gordon Biersch, brew from corporate recipes at each of their locations, but they do actually brew their beers on site.

At Granite City, that’s not exactly the case. The company has developed a system they call “Fermentus Interruptus,” whereby all the wort and yeast used to make their beers are trucked in to every location from one central brewery and only fermented at each site.

“It’s all about maintaining consistency from location to location,” said R.J. Nab, Granite City’s field brewer. “We want our guests to be able to taste the same great beers at every one of our restaurants, whether in Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, or here in Michigan. This way, we’re using the same water, the same ingredients, the same yeast, the same process.”

Nab is responsible for riding the circuit of all 27 sites in the 12 states Granite City operates in, performing various quality audits, conducting training, and helping to maintain the fermentation tanks, serving vessels, and other equipment. But it’s Brewmaster Cory O’Neel who runs the 25-barrel corporate brewhouse in Ellsworth, Iowa (about an hour north of Des Moines), where he brews five days a week to keep all the sites supplied with wort and the yeast to ferment it.

“Obviously what we do as far as trucking the wort around opens us up to a lot more possibilities for infections, so we are really, really diligent about quality control,” he said.

O’Neel’s resume is as atypical as Granite City’s brewing process. Born and raised in Iowa, he moved to Colorado in the early 1990s to pursue a degree in microbiology – “I was doing the right thing in the right place at the right time,” he notes – when he became involved in the burgeoning beer scene there. Following stints as a brewer and brewing consultant, he moved to Hong Kong to run a brewpub during the handover of the British colony to China.

“It went really well,” he said. “The place was full of British expatriates, but it was started by Americans, we used American equipment, and we brewed popular American styles.”

As for Granite City’s styles, they offer five mainstays: Northern Light Lager, Wag’s Wheat, Brother Benedict’s Bock, Duke of Wellington IPA and Broad Axe Stout. A sixth regular tap is called Two Pull, which consists of a blend of the lager and the bock. A customer came up with the idea and it stuck because the mix seemed to pair well with a lot of different menu items.

Seasonal beers include a blueberry lager (coming this spring), a summer white ale, a nut brown ale, an Irish red, a Scottish ale, an Oktoberfest, and soon a “Batch 1000” double IPA. A barrel-aged version of the Scottish ale will be available at some point as well.

The Mug Club is ridiculously cheap at $10 for a lifetime membership (which even includes your first pint!), though oddly most of its benefits revolve around discounts on food, which is not bad considering the more-upscale-than-pub-grub menu.

“When, for example, the Irish Red comes out, we’ll tell all our members we’re going to tap it and throw a party for them,” he said. “We can’t give away alcohol in Michigan, but we’ll serve free appetizers, flatbreads, pizzas, basically take care of all the food and just have fun for a few hours.”

Granite City’s regular lineup of brews (I can’t speak to any of the seasonals) may impress noobs but are not likely to have much appeal to experienced drinkers of craft beer, a point I raised with O’Neel when I asked if he thought coming to Michigan, a state with so many amazing breweries, presented more of a challenge.

“No, I think it’ll be even easier,” he said. “The more breweries there are, the better educated the market is. The harder locations are the ones where there aren’t any breweries and we have to teach people what beer’s supposed to taste like and why we do what we do.”

Granite City Food & Brewery is located at 699 W. Big Beaver Rd. in Troy. Visit gcfb.net for more information.

SPARTA — The thought of a cellar typically conjures thoughts of a dingy, chilly and dark basement.
And, if you’re a Michigander, likely a dirt floor. In other words, it’s the ideal location for storing beer, not for enjoying one. Unless you walk into Michigan Beer Cellar.
Located in downtown Sparta, the brewpub and microbrewery — yes, it’s also a winery and distillery — opened under the vision of owner Dan Humphrey, a longtime and noted home brewer.
“I won a lot of awards home brewing,” says Humphrey, who began brewing in 1989. “One day I just decided it was time to open my own brewery.”
Walking inside this particular cellar is not like many others. For starters, it’s a lot warmer. There’s also lots of life, staged well by its pool table, jukebox, arcades and long wooden bar against the front wall (the bar seats about a dozen patrons).
But then other parts fit the cellar moniker, such as the dark bluish green painted walls, low lighting and overall stark decor. Three lantern-style lights add glow along the mirror that lines the entire back wall behind the bar, accompanied by three TVs. Another large flat screen is situated in the main seating area, which is two steps higher on a stage-like area away from the bar.
“We like to have a laid back atmosphere,” says Humphrey, whose pub hosts live music, trivia night and karaoke, amongst other forms of entertainment. “It’s a place you can come relax, bring some friends and drink some beer.”
ONE DOOR OPENS
Timing was everything for Humphrey when he concocted the idea for his brewery — he was laid off from his engineering job after a downsizing in 2009. That summer, the Rockford resident “kicked around” the idea of opening a brewery and began filing paperwork in September. On May 28, 2010, Michigan Beer Cellar opened its doors in a former banquet hall at 500 E. Division St. in Sparta, just five miles from Humphrey’s home.
Less than two years later, the long-time member of West Michigan’s Prime Time Brewers is distributing his brews to five counties while pumping out pints on location.
“My distribution here can’t keep up with my production,” says Humphrey, who plans to expand placement to Kalamazoo and south by early spring, followed eventually by Lansing and Traverse City. Currently, MBC beer is available in more than 25 retail stores with 15-20 handles on tap at restaurants/bars, such as The Green Well and HopCat in Grand Rapids.
Besides the beer, Humphrey ferments wine and spends some time distilling. The pub also serves deli-style food with emphasis on “food quality” with “good,local ingredients.” Items include appetizers, gourmet hotdogs, sandwiches, paninis and wraps.
ALL ABOUT THE BREWS
The brewery has 14 taps, mostly mainstays with two rotating seasonals and a hard cider.
“I like to brew hoppy and big ales,” Humphrey says. “I’ve always brewed a big IPA and English IPA — you kind of brew what you like to drink.”
One of the most-celebrated brews is MBC’s Black Magic RyPA. Others on tap include:

  • American IPA
  • Blonde Ale
  • Dunkelweizen
  • English IPA
  • Porter
  • Summer Sunrise
  • Irish Stout
  • Oatmeal Stout
  • Irish Red
  • Cellar Lite
  • Vanilla Porter
  • Mocha Java Stout
  • Double IPA
  • Head Knocker (seasonal)
  • Peach Passion (seasonal)

For Humphrey, he approaches his business with humility.
“We’re just a small brewery — or a large home brewery,” he says.
Michigan Beer Cellar is open 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Saturday and noon to 2 a.m. Sunday. The brewery’s website is michiganbeercellar.com and patrons can keep tabs on its Facebook page.

SPARTA — The thought of a cellar typically conjures thoughts of a dingy, chilly and dark basement.

And, if you’re a Michigander, likely a dirt floor. In other words, it’s the ideal location for storing beer, not for enjoying one. Unless you walk into Michigan Beer Cellar.

Located in downtown Sparta, the brewpub and microbrewery — yes, it’s also a winery and distillery — opened under the vision of owner Dan Humphrey, a longtime and noted home brewer.

“I won a lot of awards home brewing,” says Humphrey, who began brewing in 1989. “One day I just decided it was time to open my own brewery.”

Walking inside this particular cellar is not like many others. For starters, it’s a lot warmer. There’s also lots of life, staged well by its pool table, jukebox, arcades and long wooden bar against the front wall (the bar seats about a dozen patrons).

But then other parts fit the cellar moniker, such as the dark bluish green painted walls, low lighting and overall stark decor. Three lantern-style lights add glow along the mirror that lines the entire back wall behind the bar, accompanied by three TVs. Another large flat screen is situated in the main seating area, which is two steps higher on a stage-like area away from the bar.

“We like to have a laid back atmosphere,” says Humphrey, whose pub hosts live music, trivia night and karaoke, amongst other forms of entertainment. “It’s a place you can come relax, bring some friends and drink some beer.”

ONE DOOR OPENS

Timing was everything for Humphrey when he concocted the idea for his brewery — he was laid off from his engineering job after a downsizing in 2009. That summer, the Rockford resident “kicked around” the idea of opening a brewery and began filing paperwork in September. On May 28, 2010, Michigan Beer Cellar opened its doors in a former banquet hall at 500 E. Division St. in Sparta, just five miles from Humphrey’s home.

Less than two years later, the long-time member of West Michigan’s Prime Time Brewers is distributing his brews to five counties while pumping out pints on location.

“My distribution here can’t keep up with my production,” says Humphrey, who plans to expand placement to Kalamazoo and south by early spring, followed eventually by Lansing and Traverse City. Currently, MBC beer is available in more than 25 retail stores with 15-20 handles on tap at restaurants/bars, such as The Green Well and HopCat in Grand Rapids.

Besides the beer, Humphrey ferments wine and spends some time distilling. The pub also serves deli-style food with emphasis on “food quality” with “good,local ingredients.” Items include appetizers, gourmet hotdogs, sandwiches, paninis and wraps.

ALL ABOUT THE BREWS

The brewery has 14 taps, mostly mainstays with two rotating seasonals and a hard cider.

“I like to brew hoppy and big ales,” Humphrey says. “I’ve always brewed a big IPA and English IPA — you kind of brew what you like to drink.”

One of the most-celebrated brews is MBC’s Black Magic RyPA. Others on tap include:

  • American IPA
  • Blonde Ale
  • Dunkelweizen
  • English IPA
  • Porter
  • Summer Sunrise
  • Irish Stout
  • Oatmeal Stout
  • Irish Red
  • Cellar Lite
  • Vanilla Porter
  • Mocha Java Stout
  • Double IPA
  • Head Knocker (seasonal)
  • Peach Passion (seasonal)

For Humphrey, he approaches his business with humility.

“We’re just a small brewery — or a large home brewery,” he says.

Michigan Beer Cellar is open 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Saturday and noon to 2 a.m. Sunday. The brewery’s website is michiganbeercellar.com and patrons can keep tabs on its Facebook page.

SOUTH LYON — It was love at first sight for Ryan and Erin Cottongim. When they found the used “Mr. Beer” homebrewing kit at a garage sale in 2004, the couple began a passionate, years-long affair that has now resulted in the birth of a bouncing baby brewery: Witch’s Hat Brewing Co., located at 22235 Pontiac Trail (about 15 miles north of Ann Arbor), opens December 26 at noon.

The project was born not only out of a mutual enthusiasm for craft beer but also from a love of community, a love that made the decision about where to locate a no-brainer.

“We both grew up in South Lyon, went to school here, got married here — this is definitely home,” says Ryan. “It’s great to be able to create something new in this little town that’s treated us so well over the years.”

The name of the brewery itself comes from a South Lyon landmark: A one-hundred-year-old train depot called the Witch’s Hat after its conical design. It stands in nearby McHattie Park, where Ryan and Erin exchanged wedding vows in 2007.

“That area is kind of the downtown of South Lyon, and it obviously has a spot in our hearts,” says Ryan. “We figured what better way to showcase the town than with this name?”

The dual themes of town and trains also permeate the tap room, a snug space previously occupied by a coffee shop, and local lore informs the names of the beers themselves, including Bear-Ass Wheat and Rumble Under the Red Light. Antique and reproduction railroad lanterns adorn the bar, which sports 12 taps, and the café-style tables, many of which were built using Ryan and Erin’s extensive bottlecap collection. The relatively small but comfortable-looking space is made cozier with a gas fireplace and wall art provided by local artists and photographers (much of which is for sale).

As a small microbrewery, Witch’s Hat lacks a kitchen and does not have a food menu; however, apart from a popcorn machine behind the bar, there are many nearby options for bringing in food, including Jet’s Pizza (which will deliver for free to the brewery), Chinese and Italian restaurants, Jimmy John’s sandwiches, and fast food joints like Taco Bell and McDonald’s. Erin also anticipates carrying products from Blue Apron Baking Co., another family-run local business.

The brewhouse features a locally designed and built four-barrel system, which Ryan and two assistants (also drawn from the ranks of area homebrewers) use to create beers from recipes he’s been developing since he began homebrewing as well as newer experiments as he gains more experience on the system.

“In the beginning I made some horrible, horrendous beers with that Mr. Beer kit, but it was enough to get me hooked,” says Ryan. “Then I started doing it right with extracts and then moved on to all-grain. I love brewing and have a real passion for it.”

The beers available for opening day are as follows:

  • Lyger Common Ale – 4.5% ABV, 21 IBU. Described by Ryan as his “lawnmower beer,” Lyger is an ale-lager hybrid in the California common tradition, at least yeast-wise. Light yellow in color and light in body, it delivers crisp citrusy notes with just a kiss of Saaz hoppiness.
  • Train Hopper IPA – 6.2% ABV, 75 IBU. Served uncarbonated out of the tank (it will be ready to go on draft by opening), Train Hopper is a relatively easy-drinking IPA bursting with Centennial, Citra, and Cascade hop aromas and bitterness.
  • Edward’s Portly Brown Ale – 5.5% ABV, 35 IBU. 
Not quite a porter but bigger than a brown, Edward’s is named after Ryan and Erin’s springer spaniel, which explains why five percent of the sales from this anticipated mainstay brew will go to the Huron Valley Humane Society. The burnt caramel head, creamy mouthfeel and chocolatey flavor profile combined to make this beer a standout. The light-medium body and lower alcohol guarantee you’ll want more than just one.
  • Bear-Ass Wheat Hefeweizen – 4.6% ABV, 25 IBU. A hazy golden brew with a faceful of the classic banana/clove aroma, Bear-Ass is a play on the unofficial name for a local beach area and it delivers all the tartness and refreshing citrus notes you expect from a hefeweizen.
  • Holy Confusion Barleywine Style Ale – 10.2% ABV, 103 IBU. Originally contract brewed by Frog Island Brewing, this beer attracted some attention at the 2011 Michigan Winter Beer Festival with its massive but well balanced malt and hop flavors. It wasn’t on during my visit but should be ready for the opening.
  • 1908 Smoked Wheat Ale – 6.5% ABV, 36 IBU. Confession: I am not a big fan of smoked beers; consequently, I recuse myself from any attempt to describe this beer except to say, yep, it’s smoky! (It was also served not quite finished out of the tank.) The reason for all the smoke? 1908 is named after the original Witch’s Hat train depot, which burned to the ground that same year.
  • Rumble Under the Red Light Irish Red Ale – 4.5% ABV, 29 IBU. This beer’s name comes from stories Ryan’s father and other South Lyon old-timers tell about the epic throwdowns between them and neighboring Brighton kids underneath the town’s then-lone stoplight. A work in progress, Rumble delivers a medium-bodied, grainy taste with a surprisingly hoppy finish.
  • Klucking Kat Belgian Style Ale – 4.8% ABV, 30 IBU. Another evolving brew, Klucking Kat’s varied malty and fruity flavors combine with a mild tartness for a complex finish.

Ryan and Erin expect to distribute kegs soon; bottling, if it happens, will likely have to wait for a larger facility with sufficient space, if it’s deemed viable. Erin also is already working on a variety of meads, which will eventually be served alongside the beers in the tap room. (It should be noted Witch’s Hat has root beer and cream soda for designated drivers or anyone who prefers a soft drink for whatever reason.)

Witch’s Hat is open Monday through Thursday from 2 p.m. to midnight, noon to midnight Friday and Saturday, and closed Sunday. Lifetime Mug Club memberships are available for $75-$175 (depending on if you want a personalized, hand-blown mug), growler fills range from $12-$14, and sampler flights of five 5 oz. tasters are $6.50. Give the brewery a call at (248) 486-2595 or check out witchshatbrewery.com.

There’s something almost sacred about walking into Brewery Vivant. And it’s not just because the Grand Rapids brewery is a former church.

Since opening in December 2010, the Belgian-style, European-influenced brewery is already attracting beer-goers in cult-like fashion — the 10 unique beers on tap are reason enough.

“People were ready for us,” co-owner Jason Spaulding said. “We got nicely welcomed by the neighborhood.”

Situated on Cherry Street in Grand Rapids’ East Hills neighborhood, Brewery Vivant is the brainchild of Jason Spaulding and his wife Kris. The couple fell in love with the “personal, artistic interpretation” of French and Belgian brews during a soccer trip to Europe.

The Spauldings subsequently returned to brewing school in Munich for a short course at Doemens Academy. Afterward, they took a tour of Belgium.

“We liked the attitude — local ingredients dominated by yeast strains,” Spaulding said, adding they enjoyed the “controlled, wild character” of French- and Belgian-style beers.

During his time in Europe, Spaulding recalled visiting many barnyard and Trappist breweries, which inspired a number of Vivant’s brews. It was the same influence that made the building housing the pub the right choice. A former funeral chapel, it reminded Spaulding of a French monastery.

“It felt very European,” Spaulding said. “That’s one of the reasons I really like this building.”

Brewery Vivant is not Spaulding’s first trek into craft brewing sales. He previously started New Holland Brewing Company with Hope College classmate Brett VanderKamp in 1997. The Holland-based brewery has a favorable reputation in the microbrewery scene with much-loved concoctions like Mad Hatter IPA, Dragon’s Milk Ale, The Poet and Ichabod Ale.

“Anyone who home brews talks about opening their own brewery — it’s part of the equation,” Spaulding said. “We were young enough and excited enough to do it.”

Spaulding’s interest in the beer culture began during a ski trip to Colorado as a college student. Soon after, he and friends were homebrewing. The 39-year-old brewer fondly remembers some of New Holland’s early brews, such as Palooza and Courage. Such brews were discontinued because, as Spaulding says, the brewers were ahead of their time.

“At the time, dark beers just didn’t sell very well,” he said. “We had to explain to people what pale ale is. We were ahead of the curve. It took the market 10 years to catch up. The microbrewery business is still picking up steam.”

Spaulding remained with New Holland as co-owner until 2005 before selling his half.

Once again, Spaulding is taking a stab at brewing something unique in offering primarily Belgian- and French-influenced brews.

“There are a lot of breweries that make a Belgian-style beer — not a lot are doing it as their main beer,” he says. “It’s a smaller niche, but it makes it interesting.”

Ultimately, Spaulding credits Larry Bell of Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo for the craft beer boom in Michigan.

“Michigan beer is very highly respected outside of Michigan. I think Larry Bell set the bar for that. He influenced the Midwest about what Michigan beer is like.”

As with each brewery MittenBrew visits, we sampled each beer on tap. Later this week, we will give you the full story about Vivant’s brews. We also have a video tour of the brewery, which you can visit here.

Brewery Vivant is located at 925 Cherry St. SE in Grand Rapids.

 

 

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