WASHINGTON, Sept. 7, 2011 – My body was in the District for the start of D.C. Beer Week 2011 but my mind was 11 hours north.
Selecting my first round of suds-slurping for the annual event, I chose an Aug. 15 beer dinner hosted by Founders Brewery at Logan Circle locale Birch & Barley. Taste-testing the finest drafts Founders offers instantly made me nostalgic for my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. In one fell swoop, they recalled great times and Great Lakes, pleasant company and even more pleasant memories.
It also illustrated how one of the Wolverine State’s best-kept beer secrets has since carved a niche among the world’s elite craft breweries. Focusing on quality over quantity, Founders has morphed from a tiny startup launched in 1997 to a powerhouse in the premiere beer playing field.
“We have a great David and Goliath story where we were almost bankrupt and now we’re one of the most successful breweries in the world,” said Dave Engbers, Founders’ director of marketing and one of its co-founders. “I don’t want to think of one of our beers sitting on a shelf for two months and people wondering whether or not to buy it.”
This attitude of beer as art fits in well at Birch & Barley. Quiet and sophisticated, it’s a soothing, meditative space. Light fixtures hang from the ceiling, draping the dining room with bubbles of light. The seating is equally intimate and cozy, producing a hypnotic atmosphere bordering on surreal. Glancing at the volume of available drafts, one can be forgiven for daydreaming – Birch & Barley stocks the beverage with the gusto of a speakeasy the day after Prohibition’s end. This is a place where beer is analyzed with scientific scrutiny, but worshiped like ambrosia.
Aug. 15 was Founders’ turn under the microscope, however, and the brewery wasted no time serving some of its greatest concoctions for taste-testers. The ensuing beers brought drinkers to lofty heights, at times eclipsing their food pairings in excellence. According to Engbers, that’s the idea.
“We don’t release swill,” he said. “Aromatics are what I love most about beers. I want you to taste our beers before they even hit your lips.”
The night’s opening sample was titled All Day IPA and took Founders three years to perfect. The light beer has an invigorating, almost piney flavor. Clean and crisp, it packed big taste for relatively small alcohol content.
Refreshing though the All Day IPA was, it paled in comparison to the more radical Cerise. Painstakingly created with ripe Michigan cherries, it bit with initial tartness only to reveal a juicy sweetness. The final product conjured images of home, tasting like the delicious cherries grown in Traverse City, a tourist hotspot north of Grand Rapids.
The accompanying crudo of Spanish mackerel with heirloom tomatoes and gooseberries wisely played second fiddle to Cerise’s tang. The mackerel’s hint of brine counterbalanced the drink’s underlying sweetness, while the tomatoes and gooseberries ramped up Cerise’s sour factor by tasting sugary in comparison. The end result was a satisfying balance between bitter and bold flavors.
The next sample – whimsically titled Blushing Monk – took Cerise’s fruit beer excellence and went drastically further. Lush and intoxicating, it packed a raspberry punch with hints of dark chocolate. Unsurprisingly, Engbers said the batch on hand was brewed with 100% raspberry concentrate, needing 33,000 fresh raspberries to achieve the desired taste. It was paired with foie gras so delicate it melted in one’s mouth, the rich, buttery flavor made nutty by spiced almonds. All together, it was a decadent harvest of sensations.
None of this prepared patrons for Cashew Mountain Brown, a beer Engbers rightfully declared “stupid good.” Aged in bourbon barrels with Michigan maple syrup and roasted cashews, its creamy, smoky taste bridged the gap between fine beer and fine liquor. It was made all the better by a succulent and peppery grilled skirt steak, served succulent and juicy with fulfilling toasted farro. Together, they proved a satisfying dichotomy between tastes of flesh and tastes of earth.
10K IPA, for its part, proved to be All Day IPA’s bigger, angrier brother. Sprinting past with biting hops, it eventually petered out into a flowery sweetness. It also raced past the corresponding Quicke’s cheddar cheese with pinenut butter and micro arugula. Nutty but sharp in taste, it settled uncomfortably in my stomach beside the beer.
Equally mismatched was Founders’ Imperial Stout and Ossau-Iraty Vielle cheese with dried currants and candied almonds. The former was black as a tyrant’s heart, billowing with coffee and chocolate flavors before finishing with a Cuban cigar’s smokiness. In contrast, the latter was delicate and earthy, the spicy currants recalling the Middle East’s exoticism. Unfortunately, the Stout’s strong flavor dominated the cheese, obscuring it like a dark, impenetrable thundercloud.
Ironically, the best cheese and beer pairing was Founders’ Nemesis and a Roquefort D’Argental with port wine-glazed figs and micro celery. Fiercely sour, the cheese lingered with an oddly pleasant acrid aftertaste. Nemesis proved its arch enemy, combating it with floral flavors bordering on edenic.
Up next was a pairing straight out of paradise. Rightfully hailed as one of the world’s best beers, a single gulp of Kentucky Breakfast Stout surpassed the strictest benchmarks in any and all beer categories. It was perfectly rich, perfectly flavorful, perfectly strong, and perfectly pleasing. The accompanying peach shortcake was equally stellar, its succulent fruit exploding on warm, crunchy, and sugary crust. A thick stripe of bourbon caramel made sure liquor lovers also got their due.
Closing out the evening was Devil Dancer, a triple IPA so hoppy its flavor cut through every preceding course. Its stanky stench and overpowering, grassy flavor proved that when it comes to craft beers, Founders is downright diabolical.
Founders Brewery makes no deals with the devil but simply superior beer. It’s a creative, hardworking enterprise in a state saddled with enormous auto bailouts, corrupt elected officials, and black market meth. Maybe, just maybe, its beverages will boast of a Michigan filled with tough, ingenious, and passionate citizens instead.
Miles away in Washington D.C., I’ll raise a glass to my much-missed hometown and its resident brewery for making some fine drafts.
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