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Aug 20, 2014

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Grand Rapids

April, 1999

By Bobby Bush

This beer journey through western Michigan began last week and continues now...

Finding Robert Thomas Brewing Company, opened only since March 1998, is the kind of discovery that makes brewpub sleuthing so rewarding. Nestled amongst street after street of offices and warehouses, in a one story brick and glass structure that once served as, what else, a storage facility of some sort, this fledgling micro-cum-brewpub is as unassuming as their beer is good.

A small wooden bar rested against the back wall of the corner office, er, barroom. Two darts boards were crowded closely along another wall. A few tables were scattered randomly. A few more happy faces conversed at the bar, comparing tasting notes on simple, but flavorful brews. From his 20 barrel brewery, accessed through double doors just to the right of the bar, master brewer John Tully offered only three beers at this point in the brewery’s history. His Bavarian-style Hefe-Weizen was cloudy, intriguingly yeasty. Hops took the lead, as they should, on the pungent Par 5 Pale Ale, while King’s Cross Porter was smooth, almost Stout-like in its coffeeness and harsh tannin aftertaste. An Amber will soon join the line-up. Just over half of Robert Thomas’ output is kegged for the local restaurant/bar market. The remainder finds its way to consumers in 12 ounce bottles.

It wasn’t that Robert Thomas’ beer was outstanding. They weren’t. It wasn’t that the place was a delightful architectural dream of a brewpub. It wasn’t. But the beer was good. The atmosphere was unpretentious. The bartender was outgoing and friendly. The other patrons were knowledgeable and helpful. It all made for a memorable, laid-back and enjoyable stop in Grand Rapids.

We didn’t know exactly what to make of a place named Bob’s House of Brews, another Grand Rapids brewpub. Turns out that BOB stands for Big Old Building, an apt description for this multi-story facility which houses eight different dining/drinking establishments, all open to a central area on the main floor. Gill’s Fish House, Stogie’s, Sharkey’s, Flickers, Judson Steakhouse, etc., etc., The Bob’s beers, brewed in the basement since February 1997, were served in each.

From the bar, which could be described as nothing less than a yuppie bar during the after-work rush, we ordered tall thin 22 oz traditional pints of IPA (cloudy copper colored and very hoppy) and Bob’s Saaz Pils (fermented with Dutch yeast). Festive Amber was not a spice beer, but did make a pretty sight with its deep red hue and proper balance. Venderbob’s Dutch Treat Wheat was unfiltered American style, while Heritage Hill Golden Ale was a proper English Pale. We passed on the dry Dortmunder Lager and found Broomaster Stout full of coffee and imported English Maris Otter malt flavor. The advertised bitter bite was missing in action. At 8.5% alcohol, the seasonal Smoky Scotch Ale was flat and strong, biting the back of my throat like a single malt scotch.

As the sun beat through the window shades, a two piece outfit played on a crowded outdoor patio. Yuppies or not, these Midwestern people could sure put the suds away. With all the choices available in this huge multiplex of restaurants, I recommend Bob’s House of Brews best of all.

We had one more stop to make in Grand Rapids before heading back to Lansing for the night. Open since April 1997, Arena Brewing Company is one of four Michigan brewpubs owned by the Grand Rapids Brewing folks (see last week’s issue). Located under the skywalk next to Van Andel Arena (hence the name), this streetside brewpub offered a tempting food menu, which included Apple Porter BBQ, jambalaya and several funky salads, and some damn interesting beers.

Arena Pale was hoppy, gold and cold. Steelhead Red was run-of -the-mill. But the Porter Deluxe, once allowed to warm slightly, was deeply sultry and seductive. Seasonal Stout, in dry Irish style, was mild in body and flavor, while the cask conditioned Grand Cru, at 7%, was a strong Belgium delight. “Down a pint and party like a rock star” was all the warning offered or needed.

That’s it for this city. Grand Rapids is one fun brewing town.

Follow along: Western Michigan.

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

© Bobby Bush

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