Excuse me; I know I’m a bad man who in the afterlife will never make it out of the flaming tombs of Dante’s Sixth Circle, where I will lament forever with such heretics as Epicurus and Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti.
But in the meantime, I happen to find Belgium and every one who lives there sort of hilarious.
In the first place, if ever a country was eternally in the wrong place at the wrong time, it’s Belgium. History buffs: What do Oudenarde, Ramillies, Fontenoy, Fleurus, Jemmapes, Ligny, Quatre Bras and Waterloo have in common? Right; all were devastating, destructive battles fought on Belgian soil even though the wars involved had absolutely nothing to do with the Belgianese. In fact, so much violence has come down behind Belgique borders in conflicts wherein the Flemish were not (willing) participants that Belgium’s nickname is ‘The Cockpit of Europe’.
‘Cockpit’ is a funny word in and of itself—one that I would not want attached to my nickname.
But then again, Boom, Orp, Genk, Dilbeek and Geel are all funny words, but Belgish people live there giggle-free and go to work each morning with straight faces.
Lying Down With the Lambic
For me, in terms of unadulterated chuckledom and guffawery, the Cadieux Café was pretty much the icing on the Belgian waffle. It’s where many moons ago I was first introduced to fruit-infused lambic beer. I’d gone to the Café (on Cadieux and Warren) not to drink lembeek, mars or gueuze (three more funny words), but to make fun of the people feather bowling—a weird, Bocci-like game wherein Belgianites (or their descendants) throw cheese-shaped balls at a feather sticking out of a sixty foot trail of sand.
The Cadieux Café prides itself as being the only home for feather bowling in the United States, somehow missing the point that any one of the country’s other 992,000 bars could in fact open feather bowling lanes, but choose not to.
Anyway, I was a mere pup at the time, and as surreal as the feather bowling was, moreso was the draft beer. It was, I think, Lindeman’s Kriek, an extremely strange beverage made by infusing an equally strange beverage—spontaneously-fermented lambic beer—with Schaerbeekse cherries, forcing a second fermentation and resulting in a surprisingly delicate, champagne-like brew unlike anything else on the planet.
Believe me, with a couple of pints of kriek in one’s belly, feather bowling doesn’t get any less amusing.
1 Corinthians 13:11, ‘When I Was a Child, I Spake as a Child’…
But, now that I’ve grown and put away such boyish nonsense as driving all the way to the East Side just to mock feather bowlers (I now content myself closer to home, mocking mixed-league players at Langan’s Lanes on Northwestern every Tuesday and Thursday), I find myself now and again craving the odd snort of kriek. Finding it can prove tough, however, even in cosmopolitan, cultivated, hyper-sophisticated Detroit.
Traverse City to the Rescue
Fortunately, craft brewers throughout the state are breathing new life into the kriek vats; the genre is a natural for us because of the ready supply of Traverse City cherries. A cursory Google grope and help from my buddy Dianna Higgs Stampfler indicated the following breweries making either kriek or a facimile thereof, mostly just called ‘cherry beer’:
Bell’s Brewery; Kalamazoo
Founded in 1985 by Larry Bell, a home brewer who opened a brewing equipment supply depot, what began as a basic in-shop beer-making experiment has snowballed; Bell’s now ranks eighth in the country as a craft brewer. Josh Smith, Bell’s marketing coordinator, describes the company’s Cherry Stout like this: ‘Tinted ruby-black, Cherry Stout gains its signature tartness from 100% montmorency cherries grown in Michigan’s Traverse City region. Rather than doubling up on sweetness, this tart cherry varietal serves as a counterpoint to the warm, dark chocolate notes from the malt bill.’
Josh, Percy Bysshe Shelley could not have said it better had he wanted to—which of course, he didn’t.
Atwater Brewery; Detroit
Housed in a factory warehouse built in 1919, Atwater (on Jos Campeau) claims that their brewing process is even older—a two hundred year old Bavarian method that aims, via imported malt and hops, to replicate a true, ‘heritage-style’ German lager. With their pair of cherry beers, however, it’s all about Old Glory, including the homegrown American hops. Cherry Stout blends six malts and montmorency cherries while Traverse City Cherry Wheat relies on a proportion of unmalted wheat to tart-up the brew.
You’ve got to love their motto: ‘We drink all we can, then sell the rest.’
Michigan Brewing Company; Lansing
It’s the artisan nightmare of every craft brewery, but a financial godsend to the creditors: Chicago-based MillerCoors has purchased all brewing equipment and brands related to the Michigan Brewing Company; I neither have, nor do I care have, the details. Apparently, they’re still brewing brew at the Lansing brew pub, and that’s the important part—hopefully their iconic Cherry Barleywine survived the cut.
A brewery gone sports bar or a sports bar gone brewery; either way, they like their Michigan cherries and feature them in a number of pub grub menu items as well as a seasonal draft version of cherry stout. If you’re on a budget, the Mug Club is the way to go.
Founders Brewing Co.; Ann Arbor
Ratebeer.com ranks Founders, the brainchild of Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers, as the 2nd best brewery in the world, and the awards that these guys have won could fill a primary fermenting tank. Meanwhile, their entry into the category at hand is called Cerise; it’s a blend of fresh tart cherries and what the sales sheet calls ‘a no-hesitation malt bill.’ (I have no idea what a ‘malt bill’ is, but knowing they were on the brink of bankruptcy in the late ‘90’s, whatever it is I hope they’re paying it). An unusually intense process sees them add fresh cherries at five different stages of fermentation, giving the product a wildly wonderful balance. Beer’s available now through August only, so jump all over it.
Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales; Dexter
Jolly Pumpkin is one of the few brewers to call their cherry beer ‘kriek’, probably because they are one of the few that actually do it like the Flanders flunkies do it. That is, they allow the wort to be innoculated not with hotshot, bio-engineered brewer’s yeast, but with natural, airborne wild yeast, which gives the product a characteristic sour quality. Ten pound of fresh cherries are added to each ‘firkin’ (a micro-brewer word meaning a quarter barrel), then allowed to mature into a supple, vinous, almost wine-like ale.
North Peak Brewing Co.; Traverse City
Talk about anal retentive—the owners of North Peak can (and do) let you know precisely how many bricks and how many board feet of lumber are in their brewery, a landmark building that once housed the Big Daylight Candy Factory. They’ll also tell you the species of hops used in Dark Angel Cherry Porter, which won’t be released until October, as well as the ‘degrees lovibond’ of the beer’s color. With way too much info at hand, you’d figure the beer had better be stellar—and it is.
Oh, for the morbidly curious, it’s (in order) 40,000, 250,000, Chinook and Centennial, and 30 – 37 °L.
Right Brain Brewery; Traverse City
As flakey as the folks at North Peak are, when it comes to cherry beer, the brewers at Right Brain are flakier still. Their Cherry Festive Beer is one thing—juicy, fresh, quaffable and sharp. But last year, in order to debut new tap handles (didn’t know such a situation warranted celebration, but whatever) Right Brain launched an ale brewed with fifty whole cherry crumb pies from the Grand Traverse Pie Company. If I didn’t understand the pub’s name before, I do now: ‘Left-brained’ people are said to be more logical, analytical and objective, and Cherry Pie Whole Beer clearly did not originate in that particular hemisphere.
Cryo Me A River…
In a recent column I wrote about Michigan’s April lesson in cryogenics that followed a heat wave in March—doing to our cherry crop roughly the same thing that Lieutentant Calley did to Mai Lai—and I was curious as to how such a wretched harvest would effect craft breweries and their cherry beers. Turns out that most of them use frozen cherries, cherry juice, or cherry concentrate rather than fresh cherries.
With fruit growers in Traverse City up shit’s creek, I guess that’s what you’d call a paddle.