Category Archives: travel

New York City – Night 1: The Collins Bar

NYC – Night 1 – Sunday, September 24th:

So, I’m down in NYC this week on business, taking an advanced course on Informatica, a suite of software that only database geeks know or care about. I could thrill you all with everything I’m learning about data loaders and transformations and such, but since the last word in the name of this blog is “Bites” and not “Bytes”, I’ll stick with the stuff you really care about.

I flew into town last night, and after an afternoon and evening of airport line-ups, a flight delay, and other travel annoyances, I definately needed a beer. Late last week, I found out that Matthias Trum, the owner and brewmaster of Bamberg, Germany’s Aecht Schlenkerla brewery would tapping a wooden cask of their renowned Marzen rauchbier at a place called The Collins Bar (735 8th Ave. at 46th) on the night of my arrival. Unfortunately, the tapping was to take place at 6 PM, and due to the flight delay it was around 9 PM by the time I checked into my hotel. So while I didn’t have high hopes of there being any of the cask left by the time I got there, it as a nice enough night that I decided to walk the mile or so over to The Collins in order to get some air and see some sights.

Located just a couple of blocks from Times Square, The Collins feels like a throwback to a time before the surrounding area had become cleaned-up and Disneyfied. The location has been operating as a bar since the late 19th century – including a stint as a speakeasy during Prohibition – and it exudes that unique combination of comfort, warmth and slight grottiness that you expect from a favourite neighbourhood watering hole. It also has friendly staff (if bartender Steve is any indication), a great jukebox, and free popcorn – not to mention a fantastic selection of beer, whisky, bourbon, tequila and other spirits.

I arrived around 9:45 to find a nearly empty bar and no sign of the Schlenkerla cask. I asked to confirm that it wasn’t hidden away somewhere, and found out that I wasn’t the only one to miss out that night – apparently when the cask was tapped, it was discovered the beer had gone sour, so it had to be dumped. I consoled myself with a glass of Brooklyn Blast, a fantastic limited release beer that the bar called a Strong IPA while RateBeer calls it an American Strong Ale. Whatever style it is, it was mighty good.

I considered either sticking around at The Collins for another pint, or walking the block or so to House Of Brews, but the day started catching up with me. So I thought better of it and headed back to the hotel, where I enjoyed my 32nd floor view which includes the Empire State Building just a couple of blocks away. That’s where I plan to be tonight to visit Heartland Brewing

(PS: I left my camera at home, so all photos this week will be borrowed/stolen from other sources. Which is probably a good thing, as I’m a crap photographer.)

Michigan Festival & Road-Trip Report: Part Three

Yes, here it is, the long-awaited third part in my bloated Michigan Road-Trip Trilogy. If you haven’t done so already, you might want to read Parts One and Two first.

Saturday was the main event – the Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Festival. The festival actually started the night before with an evening session that we decided to skip in favour of checking out the scene in Ann Arbor, although as the previous instalment in this series showed, we’d probably been better off going to the fest. But no matter, we had a good day ahead of us.

Now, I can hardly call myself a beer festival expert. I go to Toronto’s Festival of Beer every year, and have been to other smaller fests and events here in town, but my only out-town-festival experiences have been Montreal’s Mondial de la Biere a few years ago, and the Michigan fest in 2003 and this year. But I think I can safely say that the folks in MI put on one of the best beer events in North America. First of all, it’s held in the absolutely gorgeous Riverside Park – which is, fittingly enough, a big park beside a river – located in the picturesque town of Ypsilanti. And more importantly, it features astoundingly good beer from a range of breweries and brewpubs that is just mind-boggling, especially for those of us who live in a province where antiquated liquor laws and government red tape have led to a somewhat stunted – but thankfully improving – craft beer culture.

Soon after arriving with my crew (Jeff, Paul, Jeremy & Harry), we met up with fellow Canucks Mike & Derek, and a few American pals who we knew from RateBeer – they have real names, but we know them best as 11026, Styles and BBB63. We were soon joined by Quebec RateBeerian beerbuzzmontreal and his pal, and then the drinking began.

As much as I would have loved to try every beer available at the fest, the fact that there were something like 200 of them made it a little difficult. But by sharing some samples, I was able to get at least a taste of about 3 dozen or so, and some of my favourites included:

Livery Cask Aged Belgian Cherry Wheat
This Flemish Sour from The Livery brewpub of Benton Harbor was my first beer of the day, and it was so good I was worried that the day might go downhill from there. It featured a strong, inviting aroma of sour cherry and oaked whiskey, and a very nice flavour with tart cherry and wood notes. It was also dangerously smooth for such a strong beer (8.5%) – a theme that continued for much of the day.

Founders Blushing Monk Belgian Razz
Another wickedly strong fruit beer (10.3%), this one from the always reliable Founders Brewing of Grand Rapids. It poured a dark ruby-pink with a tiny white head, and had lots of fresh, tart raspberry in the aroma with some mild funkiness in the background. Sharp raspberry flavour, with enough tartness to keep it in line – some of the others at the table found it cloying, but I really dug it.

Bonfire Kristallweizen
This lovely beer from Northville’s Bonfire Bistro and Brewery was my first ever Kristallweizen, and I’m glad to have tried a fresh, locally brewed sample rather than a potentially stale bottle from Germany. It had a golden yellow colour with a very faint haze. Nice weisse aroma, a bit yeasty and tart with mellow banana notes. Very clean flavour with a bit of spiciness and wheat, and mild banana to finish. Excellent!

Fort Street Farmers Tan
I was going to call Lincoln Park’s Fort Street Brewery the dark horse of the festival, but since Dark Horse Brewing was there, that might get confusing. So I’ll just say that they surprised all of us with the quality of their beers, especially since we’d never heard of them before the festival, as this Brown Ale was the highlight of their beers that we tried. It was dark brown with a nice creamy tan head, and looked really nice for a festival sample. The aroma was roasty and a bit smoky, almost like a porter. It had a soft mouthfeel, and a mellow flavour of roasted malt with notes of yeast and cocoa.

Bo’s Solar Eclipse Imperial Stout
The folks from Bo’s Brewery and Bistro claim that this beer is 22.5%. All who tried it at our table were skeptical of this claim, but if it’s true, then they’ve discovered the secret to hiding the alcohol burn ’cause godDAMN this beer was smooth! It poured pitch black, of course, sitting in the glass like motor oil, and smelling sweet and smoky with notes of coffee with cream, molasses, vanilla – yum! The flavour was absolutely fantastic – roasted coffee & nuts, bourbon, wood, sweet malt – just completely luscious stuff.

Grand Rapids Bourbon Barrel Scotch Ale
Schmohz Kiss My Scottish Arse Scotch Ale
Livery Cask-Aged Kilt Tilter
If it’s nae Scottish, it’s CRAP!

Towards the end of the day, a few guys from Beer Advocate stopped by our table, and while we briefly considered starting a beer-rating-site rumble, we instead decided to enjoy our last beers together and have a few laughs. I was especially glad to meet up with Jonathan Surratt, the guy behind the absolutely indespensible RSBS, an aggregator of RSS feeds from around 100 (and growing) beer blogs and news sites. I gave him mad props, and promised a pint or two if he ever makes it up north for a visit.

Sadly, the festival came to an end at 6 PM, and tentative plans to do something or other with our American pals were scuttled when they found their car had been towed. We briefly considered another attempt to hit some of the Ann Arbor hot spots, but remembering the near disaster of the night before, decided it might be best to stay at the hotel for the evening. After all, with the goodies we’d purchased the day before at Bello Vino, it wasn’t like we were wanting for beer.

I don’t think I mentioned previously that we were staying at the Best Western Executive Plaza, a bizarre hotel/motel hybrid that seemed to be stuck in some sort of time warp, particularly when it came to Bedrock’s Eats & Beats, the hotel bar/restaurant where we had our dinner on Saturday. As the name suggests, the place had a weird Flintstones theme going on, and based on the size of the place and the large dancefloor and DJ booth, it looked as if it might’ve been a very happening place at one point. But on this particular Saturday, we pretty much had the place to ourselves aside from two other patrons who sat and smoked and drank Bud at the bar. At least the food was decent in a bar food sort of way – although Harry’s Bronto-Burger frightened the rest of us a little bit.

Hunger satisfied, we spent the rest of the evening hopping from room to room and sampling stuff from each of our stashes. Dead soldiers that night included HeBrew Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A, Avery Twelve, Arcadia Scotch Ale, Sprecher Generation Porter, Baltika 6 Porter and Arcadia Hopmouth Double IPA. You can click the links to see my notes and ratings at RateBeer.

The next morning, we hit the road bright and (fairly) early for our trip back to Toronto. He had a quick stop outside of Detroit to trade a few things with our American RateBeer buds (who thankfully got their car out of the pound the night before), had the easiest border crossing ever, and hit Windsor just in time to have lunch at our last stop for the weekend, Charly’s Brew Pub.

Walking into Charly’s is like walking into any roadhouse sports bar in any small North American town – lots of TVs; a group of regulars holding up the bar; a faint hint of cigarette smoke still lingering even though smoking has been banned for months; and a slightly surly but efficient waitress; and greasy but tasty food. But in addition to all of this, Charly’s has a beer list of 100+ bottles from around the world (mostly LCBO general list, but still impressive for this sort of place), as well as a small brewery where they brew their house beer, Time Out. In fitting with the atmosphere, Time Out is a pale lager designed to appeal to Blue and Bud drinkers, but unlike those industrial lagers, it has a fresh character and some recognizable malt and hop notes. It certainly wasn’t in the same league as any of the beers we’d enjoyed in the previous two days, but we still enjoyed our pitcher, and found it amusing to note that they also sell a bottled version called Buck Off Beer in honour of the fact that it’s priced at a dollar less than bottles of Blue and other domestic swill.

A few hours later, and we were back home again. All in all, it was a great weekend of good beer and even better company. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do it again sometime.

Michigan Festival & Road-Trip Report: Part Two

In the first part of this report, I wrote about our stops on the way down to Ann Arbor on the day before the Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Festival, and left off with our visit to the Bello Vino Marketplace where we did some serious bottle shopping. From there, we returned to our hotel for a quick rest and some freshening up before hitting downtown Ann Arbor for some bar and brewpub hopping.

Or that was the plan, at least. Our intentions were to get a quick cab ride into town, have dinner and beer at Arbor Brewing, make a quick stop at Grizzly Peak Brewing for a taste or two, and then head over to Ashley’s to finish off the evening. However, we didn’t account for two factors:

1) The concept of a “quick cab ride” does not seem to exist in Ann Arbor. Instead, when you call a cab, it will take roughly 45 minutes to arrive, and will end up being a dilapilated wreck driven by a guy who looks like he should be living in the mountains with a stockpile of guns & ammo plotting to take over the government.

2) The weekend of the MBG fest corresponded with the Ann Arbor Art Fairs, a group of four concurrent outdoor art exhibitions which close down most of the downtown core to traffic and draw a reported 500,000 people into a city that has a population of only 114,000.

As a result, once we finally got downtown, we found that both Arbor Brewing and Grizzly Peak were packed to the gills. So we slogged our way through the crowds and headed to Ashley’s, which was – of course – packed to the gills. However, the door girl assured us that there would soon be some space available as they were going to be opening up the downstairs, so we hit the sub shop on the corner for a quick bite, and got back in time to score some seats in the downstairs bar (The Underground), a dark, cave-like space that reminded me a lot of the sort of places I used to hang out in when I was younger and wore black all the time – except with a better beer list. While the selection in the basement was limited, it still boasted several taps from Bell’s as well as a couple of other local breweries and some well chosen imports.

However, being a bunch of old fogeys – well, except for Jeremy, but we’re working on him! – the loud music and cigarette smoke started to get to us, so we made our escape to the less claustrophobic main floor where we things had started to clear out a bit. While the beer selection downstairs had been nice, the upstairs bar had a tap and bottle list that I believe more than one of us described rather enthusiatically as “fucking awesome!”. The tap selection features 70 brews with a good balance of locals and imports, including some that we could only dream of ever seeing on tap in Ontario (Young’s Oatmeal Stout, Spaten Optimator, Duchesse de Bourgogne, Gulden Draak…). Not to mention the three handpumps (including Dogfish Head 90 Minute!) and the rotating, often exclusive selections from Jolly Pumpkin, Kuhnhenn, New Holland, Rogue, Victory and Short’s. And let’s not forget the 70+ bottles…

Needless to say, we were all feeling pretty good by the time we left Ashley’s. But we felt a little less good when we remembered the problems we had getting a cab down there, and even worse when a local informed us that even if we saw a cab driving by, trying to hail it would be futile since people just don’t hail cabs in Ann Arbor. Our waitress had given us the number of one of the cab companies, but their estimate to get a cab sent to pick us up was “around 20 minutes”. Considering that our earlier pick-up had been promised to be “around 10 minutes” but had taken over 45, we eventually decided that it might be better to walk the 2.5 miles back to the hotel rather than wait around for a taxi that might never show up.

Somehow, at least one of us managed to retain some semblance of direction in our beer addled brain, and we actually made it back to the hotel unharmed. And thanks to the brisk walk and copious sweating, relatively sober as well. And as indicated by the photo to the right, our trek seemed to take us through the liberal part of town, which allowed my buddy Jeff to make a fine political statement…

To Be Continued

Michigan Festival & Road-Trip Report: Part One

Anyone who has spoken to me about beer for more than five minutes or so is quite familiar with my rant about the pitiful selection of American craft beer here in Ontario. The only American microbrew available to us on a year-round basis is Anchor Liberty Ale, and the only other even halfway decent US beer on our shelves is Sam Adams Boston Lager. This despite the fact that some of the best beers in North America – if not the world – are being brewed just across the border.

I learned just how much we’re missing back in 2003 when I joined a couple of friends on a road trip to the Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Festival. At the time, I only knew about one or two Michigan breweries, so it was quite an adventure to be exposed to several dozen new breweries and their 200+ beers. I ploughed through as many of them as I could in the few short hours of the festival, but there were so many more that I didn’t try, so a return trip had been on my mind ever since.

Back in the spring, my four regular beer tasting buddies and I decided to take the trip to this summer’s edition of the Festival, and hit a few other beer destinations on the way. Thanks to and the Places & Metros sections on RateBeer, we were able to put together a nice itinerary for ourselves, and on July 21st we were on our way.

We all crawled out of our respective beds bright and early, and after some zig-zagging around town to do the pick-ups and the obligatory stop at Timmy’s, we hit the highway. The morning passed quickly, and the border crossing at Sarnia/Port Huron was uneventful. We made it to Royal Oak by noon, just in time for lunch at our first destination.

Bastone (419 South Main St., Royal Oak, MI) is a slightly upscale but unpretentious Belgian-themed brewpub. The room is large and high-ceilinged, but made to feel cozy with strategically placed booths and dividers, and the service is attentive and friendly. Their food menu features Belgian favourites alongside such pub-friendly selections as burgers, sandwiches, pizzas and pastas – if you happen to visit, I highly recommend the oven-baked macaroni & cheese with truffled breadcrumb topping.

Most importantly, they make some mighty fine beer, drawing influence not only from Belgian brewing traditions, but from other European classic styles as well. Their regular line-up features Blonde, Pilsener, Belgian Wit, Pale Ale and Dubbel, and they also dedicate two taps to seasonal offerings, with Dortmunder and Hefeweizen being the selections when we visited. The only real disappointment in their line-up is the Blonde – it’s a 4% pale lager, obviously brewed to appease any Coors Light drinkers who may dine there – but the rest ranged from enjoyable to very good. I especially liked their Pale Ale, which struck a perfect balance between sweet caramel malts and sharp, citric hops; and their Pilsener, a refreshing and well-hopped take on the style. Good beer, good food, good atmosphere – it was a promising first stop for the weekend.

It was only a few miles from Bastone to our next stop: Kuhnhenn Brewing (5919 Chicago Road, Warren, MI). Kuhnhenn is one of the most creative and adventurous breweries around, as illustrated by their brewery page at RateBeer that lists over 100 different beers, ciders and meads they’ve brewed since 1998. Our primary purpose for this visit was to pick up some bottles of their revered Raspberry Eisbock, and between the five of us we cleared them out of all but a few bottles from their last couple of cases. And since we were there, we couldn’t resist getting a few sampler trays to try the beers they were serving in their rustic looking taproom.

As at Bastone, the most disappointing offering was their pale lager which they dub Classic American Lager and fittingly describe on the menu as “light in color, some sweetness, no hop aroma, very low bitterness” – i.e. one for the mainstream lager drinkers. Thankfully, the rest of their line-up is much more creative, with some highlights from our visit being their perfectly on-style Hefeweizen, their fruity and hoppy IPA, their astoundingly decadent Crème Brûlée Java Stout, and their unique Tangerine Wit that we all agreed would make a perfect breakfast beer. We also sampled their Nine Belgian Ale, Loonie Kuhnie Pale Ale, Scotch Ale, Maibock and ESB.

From there, it was an hour or so to our hotel near Ann Arbor where we checked in, dumped our gear, and then headed out on our main shopping expedition of the weekend to Bello Vino Marketplace (2789 Plymouth Road, Ann Arbor, MI). These sort of upscale grocery stores that also house a great selection of beer & wine are quite commonplace in a lot of American cities, but to Ontarians who are at the mercy of the LCBO and The Beer Store, they’re like a little bit of heaven on earth. Bello Vino reminded us a lot of Premier Gourmet, a fine food & drink emporium in Buffalo that is a favourite spot for Toronto beer geeks making border runs. But being in a different state, we found a much different selection of beer, including lots of stuff from Michigan mainstays like Bells, Jolly Pumpkin & Founders (although alas, they were out of the latter’s mindblowing Breakfast Stout); goodies from other Midwestern faves such as Great Lakes and Goose Island; and a f
antastic array of imports that we could normally only dream about. Thanks to a very helpful staffer who was willing to split up a bunch of six-packs for us, we were all able to put together a new assortment of local and not-so-local beers, and we headed back to the hotel with a much heavier back-end than we’d arrived with.

To Be Continued…

Back From Michigan

I got back last night from a whirlwind weekend in Michigan, which included Friday visits to Bastone, Kuhnhenn & Ashley’s, Saturday at the MBG Summer Festival, and a special bonus stop on Sunday. A full report will come once I’ve stopped admiring the box of goodies I brought back, including several insanely expensive bottles of Kuhnhenn Raspberry Eisbock and an ominously large bottle of Dogfish Head Golden Shower.