Let me tell you this – the Backwoods Bastard is definitely one of the finest brews I have ever had. Complex, lingering, hauntingly good.
It just may be the best brew in Grand Rapids, MI, and given that Grand Rapids has been named Beer City USA in a poll run by the guru of home brew Charlie Papazian, that is saying something.
As I’m sitting in Founder’s Brewing Company Taproom, enjoying this masterpiece of brewing craft, I’m thinking this Curmudgeon sandwich might have been the best sandwich in Grand Rapids, but I’d already had the best sandwich in Grand Rapids the night before at Brewery Vivant and it came with what might have been the best French fries in Grand Rapids, but I’d already had the best fries at Hop Cat earlier in the day. It was a flurry of really good food and really great beer.
None of this should be surprising considering Grand Rapids is home to one of the world’s best breweries according to Ratebeer.com and one of the best beer bars in the world according to Beer Advocate. Allow me to walk you through my amazing two days, a true Great Lakes Cuisine experience.
Upon checking into a downtown hotel, the front desk recommended Hop Cat for a quick lunch. Beer Advocate and Ratebeer.com both recognize Hop Cat as one of the best brew pubs in the nation. The menu is two pages with a dizzying array of local craft beers, national micro-brews, and international specialties. They also brew a number of house specialties and are affiliated with the Grand Rapids Brewing Company just down the block (home of the Beer and Sausage Fest each weekday from 4-6 PM) .
The Oaked-aged Hatter from New Holland Brewing was an excellent IPA mellowed out in bourbon barrels. My preference was Hop Cat’s own Bourbon Barrel Fornicator.
The name alone makes it one of my all time favorites, and the flavors of a maple dopple-bock style beer were heightened by the beautiful oaky/alcohol notes of bourbon. Sweet, deep, and full. And all this beer wonder was complimented beautifully by the Crack Fries with Hot Cheese Sauce. Yes, Crack Fries…perfectly crispy, thin cut fries with a healthy seasoning of herbs and cracked black pepper.
That evening, a friend and I journeyed out to Brewery Vivant, a micro-brew operation in a converted funeral home – not nearly as creepy as it sounds. In fact, the location feels like a chapel dedicated to the craft of brewing in the Trappist tradition. Packed wall to wall with dedicated patrons, we eased up to the bar on the far side of the hall, in the glow of the stain-glassed window, and ordered a sampler of the four darkest beers.
Here is the brewery’s description of each:
Solitude – Abbey Style Ale – 6.5% ABV
“A deep mahogany colored beer that is made in the tradition of the famous brewing monks of the Abbeys of Belgium. It is malt forward with hints of caramel, pear & raisin.”
Over The Line – Smokey Ale – 7.15% ABV
“This dark ale is brewed with Heidelberg smoked malt, South American chocolate, and a kiss of ancho chiles.”
Plowhorse – Imperial Stout – 9.5% ABV
“The famous Belgian heavy plow horse descends from the medieval war horses that carried armored nights into battle. This seems like a fitting name for one of the biggest beers we make, as the recipe pushes the limits of our mash tun. Each batch is so packed with dark roasted grains that they literally spill out of the top of the tank on brew day.”
Love Shadow – Imperial Stout – 10% ABV (as described by Mitten Brew)
“Vivant’s delicious version of an Imperial Stout aged in charred oak bourbon barrels. This brew’s aroma is dense with coffee and chocolate. The sip starts tart for a stout and moves into bitter coffee, then a third sweeter phase similar to chocolate and ginger.”
The wood-aged Love Shadow was delicious, complex, and mysterious. And a perfect accompaniment to the finest sandwich I have enjoyed in sometime – a house smoked pastrami sliced thin and topped with bacon kraut, Love Shadow mustard, on a dark rye bread. Absolute smokey, beefy heaven. The side of fries was drizzled with truffle oil and would have been the best I had, but for the Crack Fries I’d had earlier.
Executive Chef Christopher Weimer is creating some of the best dishes in the Midwest to compliment their wonderful assortment of brews. The cheese selection often features area cheeses like Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Blue Paradise from WI or offerings from EverGreen Lane in MI. Maybe you just want a bar snack, try the Crock O’ Pickles, an assortment of house pickled vegetables. The seasonal appetizers have included house prepared charcuterie, smoked whitefish cakes, and Solitude cheddar sauerkraut. Past specialties have included Duroc pork with spaetzel gruyere gratin, beer braised kale, with a maple rhubarb reduction; a Knackwurst platter with white bean and bacon hash, with beer braised red cabbage; and a duck confit with roasted barley cakes, a drizzle of Michigan cherry gastrique, topped with a duck skin cracklin’. This is creative, well-prepared food dovetailing beautifully with the house brews.
The next day I walked from the hotel over to Founder’s Brewery Taproom, which was also filled wall to window with patrons, overflowing outside onto a chilly, snow-laden patio with heaters blazing. It also featured their own stained glass homage to brewing.
I squeezed into the sole unoccupied chair on the far end of the bar next to a gentleman who is clearly a regular. I ask what he would suggest and without hesitation he offered the Dirty Bastard as his favorite. Bar keep – one Dirty Bastard, please!
Here is the brewery’s description:
Dirty Bastard – Scotch Style Ale – 8.5% ABV
“So good it’s almost wrong. Dark ruby in color and brewed with seven varieties of imported malts. Complex in finish, with hints of smoke and peat, paired with a malty richness and a right hook of hop power to give it the bad attitude that a beer named Dirty Bastard has to live up to. Ain’t for the wee lads.”
It is a lovely version of a scotch ale, incredibly drinkable with a fairly high alcohol content. As I sipped this beautiful brew, I enjoyed a Curmudgeon sandwich. Roasted turkey, red onion, Colby Jack cheese, baby spinach, Dirty Bastard sauerkraut, house-made horseradish sauce, all served on grilled Polish rye bread. And that is just one of 26 different sandwiches they offer. This one was exceptional, but the house-smoked pastrami from the night before retained the sandwich crown.
As I enjoyed my sandwich, I asked about the limited release – Backwoods Bastard. The regular next to me slipped into almost reverential tones as he explained the limited availability and the dangerously drinkable 10.2% alcohol content. I had by this time tried three different brews wood-aged to enhance the flavor. In the Hatter it subdued the IPA bitterness, the Fornicator fronted with bourbon brashness on the nose and in the first sip. Love Shadow was lovely and the wood-aging more integral to the brew. But here, now in this brew, oh my…
Here is the brewery description:
Backwoods Bastard – Scotch Style Ale – 10.2%
“Expect lovely, warm smells of single malt scotch, oaky bourbon barrels, smoke, sweet caramel and roasted malts, a bit of earthy spice, and a scintilla of dark fruit. It’s a kick-back sipper made to excite the palate.”
Ah, yes. That is it – a scintilla of dark fruit. Like Michigan cherries macerated in a vanilla-bourbon syrup. So good, so smooth. Enticing you to have another, to explore further into this wonderful bounty of flavors and aromas. This, my friends, is good beer.
And this, my friends, is Great Lakes Cuisine. Grand Rapids has taken the tradition of beer and a sandwich and elevated it to another level of creativity and delicious exploration. We are adding each of these locations to our list of Restaurants and highly recommend each of them. I left Grand Rapids impressed, inspired, and already planning a return trip.