Six craft beers specially chosen for vacation in the North Michigan woods

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By: Eric Strader
ericstrader69@gmail.com

Eric Strader/Hop Notes

You know all off those forgotten music CDs at the bottom of your closet, or maybe even worn out cassette tapes? You know the ones I mean. The reason they are worn out is because they are the “Best of ______” (you fill in the blank). We loved listening to them so much, that often times they just stayed in the player, and over time the cases got lost.

It was a grand night in high school when I got the family’s Ford Fairmont station wagon, and popped The Best of the Doors into the cassette player even before leaving the driveway. But, I digress.

Each year when I plan out my beer to bring along for vacation in northern Michigan, I take the “best of” approach.

The local store 15 minutes away from the cabin doesn’t carry a great beer selection. And since I rarely choose to leave the woods and the lake to travel the 30-some-odd-minutes into the nearest town to check out what also might be a slim selection, I take most of my beer with me.

What better way to enjoy vacation than with some of my absolute favorites? Making “best of” lists was way easier for me when I was making mixed cassette tapes (if you know what I’m talking about, you are showing your age) than it is now when making beer lists. Part of the reason is that my “best of” beer lists change so often. Many friends and readers are familiar with my usual response to, “What is you favorite beer?” – The one in front of me.

Even though the days in Northern Michigan this time of year are often sunny and get comfortably warm, the evenings still can dip into the 50s, so big beers, including stouts and especially barrel aged stouts make up a good portion of my list. I did bring along some new beers, but for the most part, these are all beers that I have previously enjoyed, some right in the very same place — the cabin.

Within just a few minutes of arriving, unpacking and organizing, I had a unfortunate event. I dropped one of my longtime friends on the cement porch floor. OK, it was a bottle, not a person — and it wasn’t as bad as it might seem at first.

The bottle did not break, but even though the cap was waxed, the bottle started fizzing out the contents of a 2014 Dark Horse bourbon barrel aged Plead the Fifth (Russian Imperial Stout, 12 percent ABV). I am no stranger to emergency situations, so I quickly grabbed a glass and emptied the remaining contents. All in all, I probably only lost half an ounce or so of the beer, and I didn’t have to make a choice about the first beer at the cabin.

My first Clown Shoes Blaecorn Unidragon (Russian imperial stout, 12.5 percent ABV) was traded from a beer buddy from Cleveland. The brewery was the new up-and-coming kid on the block and highly sought after. Now, a few years later, Clown Shoes beers are available in Michigan (and Illinois and Ohio) and this is one of the two beers that I did purchase locally when picking up some groceries.

Like many of the big stouts, it poured black, thick as a moonless night. The two finger thick tan head thinned, but did not completely disappear. On the nose I picked up lots of roasted dark malt and some smoky burnt notes — in a good way, as in smoked food. Flavors included dark, rich espresso and bittersweet chocolate, bitter on the front with a sweeter, dry finish. The mouth feel was smooth and creamy with a medium to full body.

It was a perfect choice for a chilly evening, curled up by the fire with my new book “The Beer Wench’s Guide to Beer” by Ashley Routson. (Review coming soon.)

The other locally purchased beer is one of my old favorites as well, Alaskan Amber Ale (alt style ale, 5.2 percent ABV, IBUs 18). If you have been reading my column long enough, you will have enjoyed several stories about when I lived in Alaska, and my fondness for Alaskan Brewing located in Juneau.

Even though Alaskan has been available in Michigan for a while now, I don’t don’t buy it often. However, I do usually add it to my cabin list. It’s perfect for a float around the lake on an old inner tube.

I have had several of the Prairie Artisan Ales stout series, but this was my first Pirate Bomb (rum barrel aged Russian imperial sout, 13 percent ABV). Who would have thought that a brewery in Oklahoma would be brewing world class stouts? But that’s what’s so great about craft beer.

On the nose I got molasses, espresso, dark fruit, bitter chocolate and vanilla. The first flavor that exploded on my palate was of dry cocoa, followed by vanilla, coffee and a small amount of heat from the chilies. The flavor had a nice bitterness that I enjoy in stouts, but over time the pepper heat lingered and became a bit harsh for my liking. I am not a huge fan of pepper stouts, however, this one had probably the least amount of heat that I’ve encountered with this style. Still, it is probably not a beer that I would choose again.

One of the absolute favorite beers in my memory is Mikkeller Beer Geek Brunch Weasel (imperial oatmeal coffee stout, 10.9 percent ABV). I was introduced to this beer several years ago through a trade, and with my love for coffee beers, this was an immediate match for me.

When it was first released, it was packaged in larger bottles (the European equivalent of 22-oz. bottles) and I was later able to find some at City Wide Liquors in South Bend.

More recently, I picked up some Mikkeller Beer Geek Breakfast (oatmeal coffee stout, 7.5 percent ABV) at Chalet Party Shoppe. This is a different beer which is good, but not quite as good as Brunch Weasel.

Lucky for me, a friend brought back a 330 ml bottle of Brunch Weasel from a trip to Illinois. Because of irregular distribution, Mikkeller beers are difficult to find, but they do show up occasionally at local bottle shops.

One last beer that I will share was a brand new beer for me, but saved especially for the trip to the cabin. From previous posts, you may know that I was not able to get tickets for the Grateful Dead Fare Thee Well 50th Anniversary Tour.

Freemont Brewing Kentucky Dark Star (bourbon barrel aged imperial oatmeal stout, 11 percent ABV) shares its name with one of the most loved Grateful Dead songs, “Dark Star,” which was performed in the second set of the opening show on the final tour.

My cousin, who was also at the cabin during the same time, purchased the viewing package for the concerts. And even though there is almost no internet or cell signal there, he brought a hot spot hook-up with him and we were able to view the concerts on the deck of the cabin. The beer was fabulous, and what a treat to enjoy it while watching the shows. Many thanks Scott!

Now we have returned from our annual visit to the cabin, and are getting back to regular life again. I did spend some time reading through Amy Routson’s new book as mentioned above, and a review with a book giveaway will be coming soon.

I also see on the weather forecast that there may be some warmer days ahead, so I’ll put the rest of my imperial stouts away and get out some lighter beers — and, of course, check what I’ve missed in the local beer scene since I’ve been gone.

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