GRAND RAPIDS — It’s sad but true; Cool Brews. Hot Eats. is coming to a close.

Saturday will mark your final chance to experience the expert pairings and beer-infused dishes and restaurants and brewpubs throughout Grand Rapids.

But if you can’t make it out before Saturday night, you’re in luck. Although they are participating in their first Cool Brews. Hot Eats. event, Rezervoir Lounge could equate infusing food with craft brews as business as usual.

Since Executive Chef Chris Montgomery took over the kitchen a year and a half ago, he says, “About 60% of our [regular] menu incorporates beer somehow.” 

Rez Lounge, formerly Sazerac’s on Grand Rapids’ Northeast side, has 24 rotating taps. Chef Montgomery is a self proclaimed “beer nerd,” as well as a home brewer. His intimate knowledge and appreciation of the craft allows him to integrate beer whenever possible. 

Rez Lounge’s offerings for Cool Brews. Hot Eats. include beef short ribs braised in Perrin Brewing’s Kona Brown Ale, served with curried mashed potatoes and roasted brussel sprouts with a (“very labor intensive”) Kona Brown Ale demi glaze. “Anytime I think of coffee browns or stouts, I immediately go to beef,” says Montgomery of his inspiration for the dish.

The madras for the curried mashed potatoes is made in-house and adds to the deep complexity of the dish. 

The suggested pairing is the Kona Brown, but Montgomery says they ran out of that a while back — somewhere between Grand Rapids Beer Week, which ran in tandem with the first week of Cool Brews, and its Perrin tap takeover event on Feb 19.

Instead, he brings out Founder’s Smoked Porter and no one is complaining.

The second offering is house made Seitan chorizo tacos wrapped in raw jicama shells, topped with the chef’s own mango habanero salsa and non-dairy sunflower seed based sour cream. It is paired with North Peak’s Hoodo Midwest Wet Hop IPA. Montgomery states that pairing spicy dishes with hops cuts the heat without sacrificing the flavors.

“This is the only vegan option for Cool Brews. Hot Eats.,” Montgomery says with visible shock.

Montgomery eats vegan at least three days of the week and has created a full vegan menu for Rez Lounge, including an array of house made vegan cheeses. The Seitan chorizo is also a dish that will continue at Rez Lounge and will be included in its new vegan menu, set to debut in a few months.

Other tried and true beer infused specials — not related to Cool Brews.Hot Eats. — will also be included on Rez’s revamped regular menu. A Valentine treat from earlier this month, the Beer-amisu, a Founder’s Breakfast Stout variation of tiramisu, will become a permanent dessert option. “People were literally licking their glasses clean,” Montgomery said.

There will also be a stout cured corned beef Reuben sandwich, made with Dark Horse Brewing’s Too Cream Stout.

After tasting the Cool Brews offerings, dessert is served. As luck would have it, the house made beer ice cream just happens to be Kona Brown. It is served over a warm whiskey stout fudge brownie and topped with Framboise whipped cream. 

Rez Lounge truly is a “Hidden Gem” as Chef Montgomery calls it, for beer geeks and food lovers alike. While there’s only a couple meals left to taste the beer braised beef ribs (and you will regret missing them), Montgomery will no doubt continue to concoct beer-seeped dishes, and Rez Lounge will always have something for everyone on tap.

Let me be frank. I know I can get good craft beer almost anywhere in this town, especially during Cool Brews. Hot Eats. I’m not at Amore Trattoria Italiana for the beer. I’m here, at this curiously out-of-the-way Italian restaurant in Comstock Park, because I keep hearing about its food. Beer is secondary for me tonight.

But beer isn’t secondary for Chef Jenna Arcidiacono, who co-owns the place with her husband and gives it its magic.

Before I can even ask her, she tells me that yes, of course beer goes with Italian food. “It’s not like America is the only country that drinks beer,” she says.

In Italy, Arcidiacono explains, the people eat and drink local, which means local beer from local breweries. She’s just being, well, Italian with her five-course beer pairing dinner, each portion of which is matched with a craft beer brewed within an hour and a half drive and hand picked by Jenna herself.

Some of the pairings are carefully calculated; a few “just came to her.” Most of the beers are fairly hoppy, which reflects Arcidiacono’s personal preferences as a self-described hop head, but equally reflects her impeccable sense of taste. 

The combined bitterness and mild, floral sweetness in various IPAs complement the first several courses, defined by the robust flavors of strong cheeses and strong meats (homemade sausage, lamb bacon). Especially delightful is the first course, where the floral notes of Founder’s Centennial IPA harmonize with the sweetness of the sausage and then clean up the fungal tones from the mushroom. The Michigan Paradigm Pale Ale from Rockford Brewing Co. has a similar effect on the soup course, which has an incredibly rich taste. (This is where the lamb bacon comes in.)

The only pairing that breaks the trend in the first four courses is the Fragole salad, which Jenna boldly pairs with Founder’s Curmudgeon Old Ale. As the name suggests, this beer usually doesn’t play well with others because of its aggressive and slightly sour body. But Arcidiacono makes it behave, and even brings out its sweet side, by setting it with this arugula and goat cheese salad that has its own bitter-sweet combination. 

After the two rounds of entrees — where the spicy-sweet combination of the Diavola’s vodka sauce and Founders Red’s Rye stands out — Arcidiacono finishes the feast by pairing like with like. She matches the sweetness of her chocolate truffles with the sweetness of Perrin’s Malted Milk Porter, and then matches the coffee core of her tiramisu with Founders Breakfast Stout. Both are perfect.

The whole thing was perfect, really. You can purchase the entire dinner in chef’s plates for $25, or you can select full portions of any course a la carte. My recommendation: try it all so you don’t miss anything, and then come back for your favorites the following night.

Learn more about Amore Trattoria Italiana and join the restaurant for its Cool Brews. Hot Eats. menu until March 1.

GRAND RAPIDS — Relive the ninth annual Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival with our gallery below. Photos by Alyson Eibam, Bryan Esler and Philip Zoutendam.

Cool Brews. Hot Eats. is taking over Grand Rapids.

You’ll find Michigan craft beers and on point food pairings at the most unlikely of places — like the top of the Amway Grand, for instance. Chef Werner Absenger and his dedicated kitchen crew have developed a unique beer themed menu that captures the globally influenced American cuisine of Cygnus 27, the flagship restaurant of the Amway on the 27th floor.

Sample three courses complete with 5 oz. beer pairings for only $40.00 and enjoy the view. 

The menu takes inspiration from the European heritage of Chef Absenger, throwing a bit of Michigan into the mix. Starting with descriptions of the beer, the Chef and his team narrowed down options for meal pairings from there.

“We have Scotty Karate [from Dark Horse Brewing], right? So we read the description and then tried it. The shortbread and hint of sweetness was key for a beer batter- for frog legs. Frog legs make sense for a karate chop, right?” Chef Werner laughs. Served with a slaw and remoulade sauce on the side, this was our starter.

The next course, Saguatuck Brewing Company’s Bonfire Brown Cheese Soup was designed to invoke the memories of summer (much needed with all this snow) as well as providing something to warm you up on these cold nights.

The entrée, and my favorite menu item of the evening, was Brewery Vivant’s Farm Hand Choucroute Garnie. Inspired by the brewers at Vivant’s trip to France, this spin on a traditional Alsace regional recipe braises the sauerkraut and locally sourced knockwurst, kielbasa and smoked pork loin in the French style farmhouse ale instead of the traditional Riesling. The funk of the Vivant house yeast paired perfectly with the sourness of the kraut.

Dessert featured product from New Holland Brewery. An oatmeal stout based chocolate cake featuring The Poet as well as some spirits thrown into the mix, New Holland’s Beer Barrel Bourbon. Sandwiched between two cake layers was The Bukowski Ice Cream, also made with the brew.

The ice cream people are perhaps a very healthy and satisfied people, but luckily you don’t have to be off the bottle to enjoy this treat.

Becky Casto, Cygnus general manager shares her opinion on the Beer City vibe. “It’s hugely exciting. There’s so much pride in Grand Rapids [with the BeerCity  USA win]. My background is wine, so it’s been very exciting for me to be educated on the beer culture and to see how beer can pair with food. It’s a win for the city all around.”

The kitchen at Cygnus shares the ‘we are all in this together’ spirit of the beer community. Absenger brought out his team — Tim Moreno, Rick Medcalf and Phil Laviolette — after our meal. These gentlemen, all at different stages in their culinary career, clearly are soaking up knowledge from Absenger as well as exploring their own food passions and creativity.

Kitchen camaraderie makes for the best meals — otherwise you can taste the tension. And that doesn’t sit well with your beer.

Learn more about Cygnus 27 and join the restaurant for its Cool Brews. Hot Eats. menu until March 1.

GRAND RAPIDS — The 2014 Winter Beer Fest, as always, was packed. By now, you all know the numbers. 89 breweries, 768 beers and a miraculous amount of portable toilets but somehow people still had to wait in line.

There were the perennial favorites like Founders and Short’s, with standards and fun one-offs and long, long lines. While we all know and love KBS and Short’s clever flavors like Carrot Cake, I sought out some smaller breweries by suggestion of the crowd at-large and found some gems that I wouldn’t have tasted otherwise.

Aaron Rzeznik, a brewer at Witch’s Hat Brewing Company, spoke with us about the brewery’s samplings and what Witch’s Hat is all about.

“This is our third year at the Winter Beer Fest, and as you can see (acknowledging the long line through the tent), it’s going pretty good. We are very excited to be there, there was a huge vibe before the festival. We’re pumped.”

Night Fury, an imperial stout at 10.2% ABV is one of Witch’s Hat’s seasonal offerings, and much of the hype beforehand was on the variations the brewery was bringing. The Cookies and Cream, which, yes, tastes exactly like what you think it would, was one of my favorites. “We use chocolate malt and a little bit of cocoa nibs that we age in after fermentation and actually coconut and vanilla bean, believe it or not. It’s a big hit, the keg’s gone now.” We got the last of it.

Aside from the Cookies and Cream, Witch’s Hat brought a bourbon barrel aged variety, a vanilla bean bourbon barrel aged Night Fury, and a Chocolate Espresso option, made with coffee beans from a roaster out in Leelanau Peninsula.  

“Quality is our focus, we like to experiment, and we are family oriented. We’re in a small town and that’s what we focus on.”

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Our next stop was Brewery Ferment out of Traverse City where we speak with Dustin Jones, bearded owner/brewer. “This is our first full year of the beer festival circuit. We heard so much about this place, so we had to come here this year. Each festival has different crowds, different feels, and that’s what fun about them. You get to know the idiosyncrasies between them, feeling out what the people want and getting to meet all the different people who come and support the things we do.”

We sample the Lady Belma, an Imperial IPA. “This is made from all belma hops — a brand new variety — so it’s pretty different from all the other IPAs you are gonna have. It’s a unique flavor,” he said. “We try to keep a good range of things, at the same time keeping an eye towards what’s popular. We also play around with a lot of other flavors. We have the Captain Scorch, a stout with ghost peppers. How hot is it? It’s really hot.”

Yep, it’s pretty damn hot, like the hot that makes you want to drink more to make the hot go away. Brewery Ferment also used the same stout base made with salted caramel that had a much anticipated release time of 3 p.m.

MittenBrew also sampled the Big Busty B.A.R.B — a barrel aged rye barleywine, and a few of Ferment’s sours.

Brewery Ferment seems to really love its sour beers, which was great because we also love our sour beers. We tasted their Cornucopi-Ale, a cranberry wheat sour and their Spring in Sri Lanka — a sour stout with green cardamom and bitter orange peel.

When asked to sum up Brewery Ferment in three words, there wasn’t any hesitation. “Local, small and unique,” Jones answered.

We are definitely glad we stopped by Ferment’s booth.

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One booth over from Brewery Ferment we stop and chat with Greg Korson, one of the owners of Tapistry Brewing. “This is our first year at the Winter Beer Fest — we’ve been around for eight months, so it’s perfect timing,” he said. “We’re located in Bridgman, right on Lake Michigan, about 15 minutes south of St. Joe.”

We sip on Happy Colored Marbles — a Belgian Oatmeal Stout, one of the 20 beers Tapistry brought with them. The beer styles run the gamut, and really, that’s what they are all about.

“One of the big premises [of Tapistry] is the combination of artistry and chemistry, that’s how we look at it. There are hundreds and hundreds of different styles of beers, and we try to teach people about each of them. That’s part of what a microbrewery does, right? We provide education,” said Korson. “

“There’s all these different type of flavors and styles, and that’s why today we’ve got these taps that all different types of beer beers. If it’s an English style beer, we use all English grains, English yeasts, English hops, even modify the water to get the same profile of London, say. If we are doing an American pale ale, we’re just playing at that point so we’ll do whatever we want.”

Korson laughs and we sample The Hypnotist — a Dark Saison with smoky undertones.

If you are in the Grand Rapids area, you may be able to find Tapistry on tap, but you’ll have to wait until Friday if you are in Lansing or Ann Arbor.

“The vibe here in incredible, I mean it’s incredibly cold for one, but the people and sun have helped a little bit. The crowds are great, the reception has been great, and everyone is loving the beer.

“It’s been a fun little ride so far, and this is a great kickoff.”

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I run into Jenna Arcidiacono, owner and Chef at Amore Trattoria in Grand Rapids between beer tents.

“I got here at 10:30 so I could have breakfast with the Arcadia Food Truck and went on in with these two hookers,” laughs Arcidiacono, pointing to Grand Rapids photographer Terry Johnston.

This is my first year, and it’s been fun. This is Big Willie from White Flame, she holds up her cup, a double IPA and its really nice. My favorite so far.

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To finish out our round of interviews and taste-testing, we stop by Blackrocks Brewery, based out of Marquette on the shores of Lake Superior. Chatting with Andy Langlois, whose official title is Co-Founder and Brewsician, he shares his thoughts and beer at his second year attending Winter Beer Fest.

“As always, it’s fantastic. Craft beer drinkers are a wonderful breed of people who enjoy a good Michigan made beer. It’s just fantastic to see a lot of familiar faces and meet new people.”

In addition to bringing some interesting one-offs like Whiteout — a black brew with fennel seed, Blackrocks was excited to share the three beers they are canning — the 51K IPA, Grand Rabbits Cream Ale and Coconut Brown.

“[Canning is] a really exciting thing for us, and we are really kind of blown away that we are at this point. We are just now distributing UP-wide, and we’re sending a pallet here and there to the Grand Rapids area,” said Langlois. “What I’m most excited about is the crew we brought down with us. There’s a lot of good guys here, and to bring a crew of seven guys down from a small brewery to an event like this — we’re really enjoying Grand Rapids.”

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If you weren’t lucky enough to score a ticket to the sold-out festival, mark your calendars for the Summer Beer Festival in Ypsilanti, slated for July 25 and 26. Tickets go on sale May 1; details can be found at mibeer.com.

GRAND RAPIDS — The ninth annual Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival took place Saturday, giving craft beer aficionados the chance to try some of their favorite, as well as some rare, Michigan brews.

Everything from sour fruit beers to habanero porters were featured, allowing for a wide variety of different flavors and beer experiences.

Some of the best brews of the day came from Traverse City’s Brewery Ferment, which brought several sour brews for guests to sample. 

The Root Beer Stout (7% ABV) looked just like the soda shop classic that we’re used to, but brought up with a bit of booze. Its endlessly complex scent and taste — the result of an ingredient list that included allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, vanilla bean and more — made for a great adult twist on the classic drink. This was by far our favorite of the day.

Ferment also brought its Cornucopi-Ale (7% ABV), a sour cranberry wheat beer that was a mix of tart and sweet cranberry flavor that really packed a punch. It was very easy drinking, allowing for a nice break from the heavier beers that were sampled throughout the afternoon. Finally, Spring in Sri Lanka (7.25% ABV) was a sour stout that featured green cardamom and bitter orange peel. It had a surprisingly light body and clean finish, despite the sourness present. Both brews were both inviting yet unique.

We wanted to sample other breweries throughout the state that may not have been as well-known. So, our other favorites throughout the day included, in no specific order:

  • Tapistry Brewing Peck’s Habañero Porter: 6.5% ABV. Deep brown, almost black color with a tan head. Get the rick malt porter taste on the front of the tongue, which is then met with the fiery pepper throughout the rest of the sip.
  • 51 North Snow Bank Winter Warmer (Chocolate Honey Black Rye): 8% ABV. Black with a thin amber head, features a complex bitter taste that’s moderated slightly by the sweetness of the honey and rye. Very full mouthfeel.
  • Griffin Claw Sour Dough (Sour Wheat Wine): Virtually no head, with an orange color. A bit smoky in the mouth, but the sour scent carries through to a strong sour taste and somewhat grainy residue.
  • Saugatuck Brewing Barrel Aged Neapolitan Milk Stout: 6.5% ABV. Very dark, virtually no head. You’re immediately hit with the strawberry, vanilla and chocolate flavors, mixed with the booziness you’d expect from being barrel aged.
  • Our Brewing Tobacconist Porter: 6.8% ABV. I was very hesitant about this brew, having a few other tobacco-heavy brews in the past that I didn’t care for. Yet Our Brewing puts the emphasis more on the smokiness, rather than the cigarette/nicotine taste I was hesitantly expecting. It makes for a good, easy-drinking smoked porter.

Bryan Esler and Philip Zoutendam contributed to this report.

GRAND RAPIDS — For lovers of beer, cider, mead, music and comedy, the 6th Annual Great Brew Ha Ha! was a perfect date for Valentine’s Day weekend.

Grand Rapids-area Brewery Vivant, Cellar Brewing Company, Founders Brewing Co., Perrin and The Hideout were among the over 40 drink vendors whose libations were sampled by patrons. Several breweries had staff on hand describing specific offerings, including Right Brain Brewery’s Ryan Engemann, Resident Beer Geek., who explained what goes into the brewery’s popular CEO Stout.

The stout, which was the brewery’s first-ever bottled beer released in 2012, contains chocolate, espresso and oatmeal flavors — hence the CEO name.

The brewery also brought favorites such as Northern Hawk Owl Amber Ale, Will Power Pale Ale and Naughty Girl Stout.

Several vendors also peddled beer-related gifts for that special someone, while the Michigan Beer Film crew was present to sell DVDs and answer questions about the project.

Brave souls, or perhaps those who simply had enough to drink to feel brave, could ride the mechanical bull set up among inflatable safety equipment in the center of the action.

Music from the local comedy duo Bimini Brothers, long-known for their satirical lyrics, could also be heard in the arena as the evening wound down. On Saturday evening attendees were treated to comedy from nationally-known Pat McGann and Al Jackson.

GRAND RAPIDS — Over the weekend, Founders Brewing held the first installment of what will become an annual event — the Founders Firkin Freezeout.

Featuring 50 firkin beers, brisk late morning weather didn’t stop a few dozen hearty people from waiting in line for the opening of the taproom doors.With the sun shining and promises of never-before-tasted beers ready to be revealed, the crowd quickly swelled into the hundreds outdoors in the new beer garden. The gorgeous gas fireplaces and several patio heaters took the chill out of the air.

Ice sculptors from Chops Ice, LLC entertained the all-ages gathering with their carving skills. Using a variety of tools from picks to chain saws, the duo skillfully crafted blocks of ice into works of art. Coincidentally, both men are also employees at Founders — Shawn Winnell a Cellarman, and Kevin DeVries a bartender.

The event began at Noon with six firkins tapped initially and a plan to replace each one as they were emptied. Demand eventually boosted the number of firkins flowing to eight at a time.

John Merizon, Retail Beer Coordinator, had carefully crafted a schedule for the day but he admitted it “went out the window” as the event progressed quicker than anticipated.

He began the lineup with a few brews more suited to the early hour, and planned to progress into the heavier spiced beers, like Dirty Bastard with Arbol and Tien Tsin peppers, as the day went on. Thirsty enthusiasts waited patiently in the bar area in hopes of nabbing a sample or pint of the brews they coveted. Much sharing between friends made it easier to attempt to taste all of the offerings, a feat that may have been accomplished with the right combination of timing, luck, and perseverance. By 9 p.m. all the firkins were dry.

Brewhouse Cellarman/Shift Brewer Matt Blodgett (aka Baron of Firkins) had creative control over the beers served during the festival.

Reaching the goal of 50 different beers required using nearly half of the 102 firkins and both of the pins in his cooperage. Having worked on the project for about a month, he and his team produced some excellent variations of standard Founders favorites.

Only a small fraction of the firkins contained beer that had been enjoyed previously in the taproom. The rest were new creations made especially for this event. All Day IPA was dressed up with several different hop additions such as Chinook, Simcoe and Amarillo. Centennial IPA formulations included one with Jasmine Tea, and another with bourbon soaked oak chips. Orange extract was added to a firkin of Red’s Rye to create an unusually sweet concoction; bourbon oak chips were added to another. Ruby Crystal with lemon extract and Kaffir lime leaves could lead one to feel as if summer isn’t too far off.

Blodgett said playing with additions to the darker beers yields more fun results since lighter beers can only support so much manipulation before they’re overwhelmed. Many variations of Dirty Bastard and Porter wowed the crowd. The pin of Dirty Bastard with maple extract, vanilla beans and cinnamon was empty within 15 minutes of tapping. Porter with coconut extract and chocolate was dessert in beer form.

The most popular firkins will be made again in the future for the taproom’s weekly firkin tapping that takes place on Wednesdays at 5 p.m.