continued…. With a need to get back east for The Long Bike Back screenings in the Finger Lakes and the Buffalo International Film Festival, we decide to take the long way through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, along the shores of Lake Superior to Lake Huron, going around Lake Erie through Canada before re-entering the US in Niagara Falls.
Leaving Appleton was easy, packed out and pointed our car north, the music of Lord Huron taking up soundtrack duty for the early autumn day. Trees ablaze with color and the shoreline of Lake Michigan is enchanting, but as we roll into Marquette, Lake Superior overwhelms us with its magnificence. Walking the quaint port city of Marquette, we cruise the harbor and jetty and watch sailboats heading out for what might be their last outing of the season. Catching the sunset from the beach we are smitten by Marquette’s charm and are thirsty from being slack jawed by the U.P.’s luster, so we make our way to the Ore Dock Brewery for some liquid regrouping.
Unable to decide on pints we order a flight, a couple of Belgian’s, their Belgian Dark Ale and Belgian IPA. Both tasted fine, good yeast strain, decent hop and light bitterness in the IPA, the dark didn’t do much for me, because it was like an imitation quad, with only a mere hint of the booze a quad normally entertains. I wasn’t bummed though, the place was interesting and given I’m drinking fresh beer with the doors and windows open in a place I know will be blanketed with snow for the next seven months, the beer can be a little less than mind blowing, plus the very relaxed vibe here certainly helps. The Harvest Saison was nice, and went down easy, as did the delicious and spot-on American Porter. Last on the tray was the lovely malted and competently hopped creamy American IPA.
PAUSE – a little history & then some opinion……
Over the years I’ve been rather fortunate to visit a significant number of breweries on both the east and west coasts. However, there is a distinct need within some of the east coast breweries to challenge the hop dominance of the west, which I wish wasn’t the case.
Going back a dozen and more years to a sleepy Sunday evening, I was home alone in our new apartment, Julie visiting her family in Buffalo, left to my own devices and armed with a budding craft beer store a mere block away. The 23 year old me purchased a clever looking set of long necks branded, EIPA, made by the Brooklyn Brewery. Having loved their lager I felt confident enough to try something new. That autumn Sunday evening, alone in my beautiful prohibition era apartment was where and when I first tasted the glory that is the almighty hop. The complex bitterness, the effervescent carbonation, the earthy citrus tone that hung on the back of my palate, not to mention the exhilarating buzz I was feeling, wow, EIPA…..EIPA…..East India Pale Ale, this is an enchanting beer, but what is East India Pale Ale? So I plugged in the modem and began trolling the internet for India Pale Ale, it’s lineage, it’s flavor, I learned about the different varieties of hops and felt completely in over my head, but loving it! On return trips to the neighborhood beer store, which was actually just an isle in the supermarket down the block, I searched for the names I had read about online and tried for the first time Anderson Valley, Stone, Sierra Nevada falling madly in love with the huge bold flavors these beers contained in their bottles. Buying a new six pack or bomber 22ounce bottle was like getting a gift, I won’t say Christmas but more often than not the brews were mind blowing, what a brave new world I drunkenly staggered into. As time went on it was hop here, hop there, Southern Tier, more Stone, hop, hop, hop, on and on, more hop, hit me with it, knock me over, hooked like a junkie and thirsty for more I couldn’t get enough. Every beer had to be bigger, bolder and stronger, built with intoxicating arrogance and fury, it was a hop supremacy and I was winning until one day I tried Wagner Valley’s IPA. Beer from Wagner Valley is excellent and this is an awesome IPA on it’s own, but that six pack left me feeling for the first time, that this beer is too hoppy. Too hoppy? What the hell?
I had recklessly savored Stone’s ruthlessly hopped Ruinations, every hop excursions from Southern Tier, Flying Dog, Magic Hat, Lake Placid, Sierra Nevada, Anderson Valley, Dog Fish Head, RedHook, Weyerbacher, countless EIPA’s, bitter upon bitter, reaching astronomic IBU levels and going back for more, only to at long last discover from a small batch combination winery brewery that I had burned myself out on the hop. The cone of all that is holy had turned on me, stabbed me in the jaw and left me alone on the side of the road (something I know about). I was dejected, I felt betrayed, burned, vexed. I considered giving up on beer, saying to my friends “I’ll just drink High Life and Wood Chuck Cider, I’m done with the hop.” After some soul searching, some wine therapy, a few gin binges followed immediately by bad hangovers I heard what the hop was saying, like the voice from Field of Dreams “There’s more to beer.” “There’s more to beer,” so I dove into Porter’s, returned to my first beer crush of Stouts, anything in a green bottle rekindling my affair with lagers and Pilsners, discovered black IPA’s and those sexy blondes, spent a little too much time with the mischievous alts, trying, tasting and drinking any and all the beers I could find from Germany, Poland, Japan and parts in between. Until the hop led me on an expedition to the realm where the Belgian’s dwell and eventually the sours with a brief misguided sidetrack to the not so successful and often pointless hybrids, my horizon didn’t just expand it categorically exploded. All because of the hop, I know hop is one of the building blocks in beer, but it was my gateway, my beacon, my savior and ultimately my tour guide to where I sit today, an enthusiast of beer with an open palate, thirsting for more.
There is a relevant albeit long winded point to this tangent, so bear with me a little longer; while visiting the tasting rooms of the East Coast breweries I too often hear the phrase from the brewers, pourers and servers, “this is our West Coast style IPA.“ Now I’m not a connoisseur or aficionado like other more knowledgeable beer lovers around, but as previously stated, I have some hop experience and brewers need to stop saying that, that statement devalues their contribution to the Pale Ale idiom. I realize saying that serves as a basis for description, but the east should feel confident to stand on its own, because it can. The eastern seaboard has huge beers that rival the west coast now, namely Flying Dog’s Snake Dog, Weyerbacher’s Last Chance (or anything they make frankly) the 60, 90, 120 and 61 minute IPA’s from Dog Fish Head, Southern Tier’s 2XIPA are all truly incredible as well as Ellicottville’s Pale, which “is better than most IPAs” according to Mr. Peter D. ‘big orange’ Chapman and the Sebago Dry Citrus cask Hopped IPA according to Mr. Pete Constantino, among countless more, excellent brews from Florida to Maine.
The West Coast brewing area in my mind includes everyone up to the front range of the Rockies, the east is everyone from the eastern Michigan line down to Louisiana out to the Atlantic. Leaving this central swath of the country where breweries like Bells, Founders, Boulevard, Sprecher, New Glarus, Abita in the “flyover” zone, which in my opinion is its own category of delicious and fantastic beer.
All of this is to say that the IPA at Ore Dock, was the perfect “flyover country” balance of West and East IPA’s, the three hop blend, of Cascade (naturally) Chinook and Columbus hops, certainly sends the flavor character into a citrus and grassy meadow with a pleasant sensation of booze, not too potent on the palate or overly remarkable, just a nice easy buzz. Maybe it’s the month I’ve now spent in the mid-west or that I’m just talking out of my arse, but this beer epitomizes how this area feels to me, down the middle.
Despite Ore Dock’s flowy beer, it was early and we haven’t even neared the limit of our Irish stamina, so it was on to the Blackrocks Brewing Company we went. Before I get into the brews, the place was clever. We sat on stools made from reclaimed bicycle wheels, rims and chain stays, a stylish weave of spent tubes and tires made the cushions. Though we drank from glasses, the ceiling and walls were covered with hundreds of ceramic mugs, uniquely individualized with initials carved in the bottoms indicating to whom they belonged. I love when breweries offer this to their regulars, one day I hope to have a brewery house my own personal libation vessel. An open mic on the porch held the attention of the folks meandering throughout the house turned brewery and the cats singing weren’t the typical talentless hacks that give coffee shop folk singers a bad name, they were actually nice to listen too. Please don’t misunderstand me and if you don’t already know, I am a professional musician, so I don’t hate an open mic, I’ve participated in my share of them and Julie has attended many of the singer-songwriter shows where I was a sideman. In fact she over heard one of the ‘artists’ I was backing up say out loud as his opener forgot the words to one of his very dreary and painfully boring songs, “Oh god, we didn’t come here to f*cking bleed.” Which is a phrase she has often whispered in my ears as an indication it’s time to go. Fortunately the folks belting their hearts out weren’t bloodletting the listeners, yet.
The beer was good and the tasting went: 4 Grain Belgian, Grand Rabbits Cream, Coconut brown, and their Hindu Kush IPA. For an IPA in a place where I see rugged outdoor clothing clad bearded boys seeking big bragable adventures, this beer is right for them. Not a ferocious hop like the afore mentioned east/west coasts, but features a pleasant controllably accessible flavor, hinting at bolder (Boulder?) hop without straying too far from a conservative balance of yeast, cream, and citrus. Like Ore Dock this again is nice “fly-over” country IPA, I commend Blackrocks for knowing its audience well.
The yeast strain in the Belgians was thin like the IPA before, this beer is paying homage to other great beers. This lack of individuality makes these brews very easy to consume and say to oneself, “this is a good beer.” I don’t often like browns or coconut anything for that matter, but the flavor of both have grown on me over the years, thanks due in direct part to my friend and brew-genius Michael Chapman, so I would say this was a decent beer. However, it did get old as the tasting went on and I stopped liking it.
Even if I didn’t like everything I had at the Blackrocks Brewing Company it’s actually a great brewery, like musicians they’re constantly seeking new ground to explore, they take a lot of chances rotating their menu as often as they do so I have to commend them for their love and attention to beercraft and of course thank them for making some easy drinking beer.
Just out of town was our rest stop for the night, chockfull of amenities, free wifi, and a lake view with beach access that would rival most hotels. We were treated to an enchanting moonrise, and then we turned on Netflix as we lay in the back of our element, complete luxury. Up early to watch the sunrise over Lake Superior, which was like nothing I had seen before. The fading black, giving way to blue to fire red to orange, all incredible and well worth the loss of z’s to witness.
Making our way to Painted Rocks National Seashore, we were among only a handful of people still meandering through the park’s beautifully lonely beaches and trail ways. Visiting shipwreck remains, empty light houses and abandoned rail trails only added to the mystique of this really one of a kind place. Despite our best efforts to take advantage of every minute, the time invariably came to move on and get to the other side of the Upper Peninsula (not before we split a Lienekugel Oktober, lets be serious).
By early evening we were in Sault Ste. Marie, pronounced Soo Saint Marie or referred to as The Soo. This beautiful port city lies across the channel that connects Lake Superior to Lake Huron through a massive lock, from Canada. We ate a rather rancid pizza proceeded by an appetizer of Poutine, something I have never had before. French Fries, thin gravy and cheese, delicious!
After a short stroll from the restaurant we’re walking into the Soo Brewing Company and drinking their young beer. I don’t recall the flavor profile, not because it wasn’t remarkable or that it resembled kit beer, it was good and refreshing, but it just felt new. The place was fun, we sat together on an old couch, feet up on coffee table where boxes of board games and puzzles also sat. The place was full, and people were chatting with each other like it was a family reunion. I was relaxed and felt as though we were sitting on a couch in our home and these folks were our friends. So whether or not I remember the hop, yeast balance of the golden straw beer I was sipping is neither here nor there, it was a very comfortable atmosphere and the perfect note to finish an amazing few days of travel.….to be continued