Detroit has had more than its fair share of hard economic times. Recently, however, Detroit is in the midst of a rejuvenation. Much like what has happened in Northeast Minneapolis, Detroit has areas that are coming back thanks to breweries and restaurants. Go out of the city 20 minutes and you will find a robust craft beer culture, with breweries dotting your Google Map screen like zits on a 7th grader.
During the few days that I was staying in the suburb of Royal Oak, MI, I visited several breweries. A few breweries were great, several were very good, and one, thanks to an awful customer experience, was horrendous. Despite the bad taste that the latter left in my mouth, I would surely visit again to this area because the beer culture is one of consistency and quality.
If there is a poster child for the urban renaissance movement, Batch Brewing Company in Detroit is it. After exiting off of I-94, I see empty parking lots whose only occupants are the weeds slowly destroying the blacktop. Lots of buildings sit empty in the first couple of streets I pass. Before long, I make it into what seems like an area that is on the rebound. A few restaurants and a coffee shop pass by and before I know it, I am parking outside a brewery that is right across from a park. Is this lush green grass a metaphor for what my palate is about to encounter?
A nice patio and a mural outside act as Batch’s version of a welcome mat. Upon entering, I see brewing equipment, I smell malt, and I start drooling after seeing all the fun beer options. They have a wide variety of styles ranging from light and crisp to bigger ABV options. The bartender, Erin, is happy to assist me in making my selections and I go for a mix of crisp, hoppy, and tart. Out of the six beers in my sampler, the Unrequited, a Belgian Golden Strong Ale and the Mango Retreat, a DIPA are my favorites. Honorable mention goes to the That’s the Way She Goes, Eh?, a nicely done gose. The flavors of all the beers are spot-on and well above average. I like this place and I strongly recommend that you put this on your list if you are in the area.
Due to its incredible array of options and quality, Dragonmead Microbrewery will go down as one of my favorites in all of Michigan. The tap handles are green dragons wrapping around castle parapets. So, right away, my inner geek is doing cartwheels. I am also happy to see that they offer flights. Dragonmead offers a wide array of styles that span the globe and flavor range. Their portfolio of British ales is a rarity which I make a point to enjoy to the fullest.
When it comes to a large segment of drinkers in the U.S., the concept of paying money for a beer that is low in ABV is a hard sell. In my humble opinion, British-style ales are some of the most delicious and well-made beers on the face of the planet. However, some Yanks see the word bitter in the style name and they think of the flavor they dislike the most in hops. At Dragonmead, their Breath of the Dragon English Bitter and Sir William’s Extra Special Bitter are some of the best beers I had on my trip. They are not bitter, rather, they are deftly-brewed, nuanced examples of how to showcase malt in an ale. These are beers meant for conversation. Looking around the bar, the locals are hip to this concept and are lucky to have such a gem in their own backyard.
I love it when beer brings people together. Griffin Claw Brewing Company is smack-dab in a residential suburban area just a bit northwest of Royal Oak. They have a great space and even at 2:30 on a Tuesday, there is a lot of energy here. I grab a seat a the bar and order up a sampler flight. They don’t have a ton of options on tap, but the beers they are pouring are good. My favorite of the bunch is probably the El Rojo Red Ale. It has a great malty roast to balance up against the earthy hops in the beer. The Norm’s Raggedy Ass IPA is also good. Again, earthy and balanced flavors make this an incredibly easy IPA to drink.
My experience at Griffin Claw is augmented by the fantastic conversation I am having with two of the regulars. A father and son team set up camp at the end of the bar to my right. Watching Ray and John interact with the staff shows me all I need to know about a beer drinker would feel at home here. Ray is a spry 91-year-old who’s cardiologist insists that he keep having his daily beer because it seems to be keeping him young at heart. John, his son, explains that Ray loves coming to Griffin Claw and always gets his regular spot at the end of the bar. John cautions me to be careful with his dad because he loves to tell stories. I am fine with that and we begin a rich and friendly conversation. Ray is a proud man who regales me with the tale of the time that he got to shake Eisenhower’s hand in the WWII. The highlight of my time at Griffin Claw is seeing Ray’s face light up when he hears that his favorite female bartender’s shift is about to start.
It is always nice to meet kind and talkative people through craft beer. Griffin Claw provides an excellent place to converse and tell stories over beers that are tasty. I cannot thank Ray and John enough for taking the time to make a traveler feel right at home at their favorite haunt.
The adage that good things come in small packages is exponentially applicable to River Rouge Brewing Company. On their 3.5 bbl system, they are putting out beer that gets high marks for quality and creativity. The last stop of my day winds up being a great surprise because of the incredible experience I have at River Rouge. Allen, a brewer at River Rouge, is working and he is happy to chat with me about the beers they have on tap. There are quite a few things to try and I order up a taster flight. Allen chats with me about the journey that brought him to River Rouge. He actually started out in education teaching at an Alternative school! I knew there was a reason I liked him!
Allen started as a server at Witch’s Hat Brewing and would always bring his dog and girlfriend to River Rouge. When the assistant brewer left, he asked if they needed help. The rest is history. He also is involved with Schoolcraft in Livonia with their brewing school. Allen talks me through the beers I am trying and that certainly adds to my enjoyment of the experience. Of course, their 4 Roses Barrel Aged Porter helped makes my soul happy, too. This beer is smooth and has incredible heft. However, it also has a wonderful smoothness to it that makes it a marvelous drinking experience. Their I-75 IPA is a solid beer and one that you can drink a lot of because it is so well-balanced. One of their best malty options is the One Scotsman Down, a wee heavy with a ton of caramel and roast. I wholeheartedly recommend River Rouge Brewing as a stop if you are in that neck of the woods. You will walk away impressed just like I did.
Before I explain why this falls into a negative category, I have to say that the beers here are fantastic. I liked every single one of the five I drank in my flight. My issue with Kuhnhenn Brewing is the way I was treated by the bartender at the Warren Taproom. I arrived shortly after they opened on a Tuesday and there were a handful of people sitting at the bar and maybe 2 different tables occupied. The bartender was friendly and helpful as I was trying to figure out my tasting flight.
I ordered my flight, which consisted of 5 beers. A lager, a scotch ale, and 3 heavier stouts. I expected to pay more for the stouts because they were all a bit higher in alcohol. However, when I got my bill, the total was 27.00. I inquired as to why the flight was so expensive given that 2 of the beers on the flight were listed at a normal flight sample price of around 2.00. The bartender just simply explained that was the price of flights. I can honestly say that I have never had this negative of an experience at a brewery ever in my life. In the past several years since I have been traveling for beer, I have visited over 200 different breweries in the U.S. If ever there was a question about the price of something, it has always been explained to me in great detail. To have this woman flippantly just say, “That is the price of our flights” is absolutely astonishing and frankly, inexcusable.
Again, the beers were fantastic, but I can honestly say that this was the worse taproom experience of my life from a customer service standpoint. If you charge 27.00 for flights, list it somewhere so there is not a sticker-shock moment. Furthermore, if there is a sticker-shock moment with the customer, explain the rationale for the outrageous price. I would have no problem paying 5.00 for a sample if it something super rare and limited. However, 5.00 for a lager is just asinine.
Detroit and its surrounding communities have some good places to find beer. The beer culture as a whole pales in comparison to the craft beer stalwarts of Grand Rapids and Traverse City. However, with places like River Rouge Brewing and Batch Brewing in their relative infancy, there are reasons for optimism that eventually they will rival the rest of the state as a beer must-see place.
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