The great beer tour

In which our tasters and wasters hit 8 great beer bars and dozens of beers in 11 hours

Oct 20, 2010 at 12:00 am

11:15 a.m. My neighbor, photographer Marvin Shaouni, is washing dishes in his Hamtramck kitchen on a rainy morning when he sees me and two other bearded men gathering in the backyard behind my house. (Shaouni says later that he regrets not finding out what was up.)

11:55: a.m.
With the caravan assembled, we are ready to go. We begin our trip north of Detroit, the three bearded men — Metro Times drinks writer Todd Abrams and Great Lakes Coffee roast master James Cadariu, serious tasters both, and me — in my Volks Golf, two beardless guys in a truck, and two gals in a Ford Escort. "We got a truckin' convoy!"

12:05 p.m.
Somebody in the beardo-mobile complains: "You don't ever get good cell phone reception in a grocery store."

12:15 p.m.
We arrive at Dragonmead (14600 E. 11 Mile Rd., Warren; 586-776-9428). What a way to start the day! Some of Dragonmead's Belgian-style ales, including the Final Absolution Trippel, can run to 10 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Showing caution, I select a half-pint of wheat beer, Castlebrite Apricot, with a paltry 4.7 percent ABV. MT's Todd Abrams picks a pint mug of the Crusader Dark Mild Ale, an English-style brew that's 3.8 percent ABV — but it comes on the nitro tap, for a creamier consistency. One of the guys from the truck is a process server and connoisseur of local bars, Michael Pelot. For some reason, he starts cashing in several Dragonmead drink tickets we knew nothing about. He orders what he calls a Revolutionary War black-and-tan, a mix of Lancelot's American Cream Ale and Reverend Fred's English-Style Oatmeal Stout, half nitrogen-dispensed, half not. He later comments, "It worked out pretty good. It had a weird little bite to it."

Abrams has promised to keep up a Twitter feed on the beer tour, at least "until my thumbs get drunk." He takes a sip of Bishop Bob's Holy Smoke and tweets that it "tastes like a liquid sausage."

Apparently, Dragonmead doesn't get noon rushes like our beer tour. A few older chaps look in the bar before reluctantly retiring to a table with a little stink-eye. But the barmaid is gracious, helpful and — as more than one person said on a smoke break — a stone cold fox. But the most beautiful thing in the whole place? It's found in the men's toilet. Somebody brings it out to us, grabbed as a cell phone pic: It's an image of a naked lass, her legs spread across a rock, petting a serpent on the chin. We post it online and the cheeky comments come flowing out: "Love it! How are you supposed to pee after looking at that though? Standing on your head?"

After having finished our drinks, I take out the AlcoHAWK personal breathalyzer I purchased at CVS. We start blowing, all aware that .08 is the magic number. I blow a .02. After waiting a while, we depart for Kuhnhenn up at Mound and Chicago roads.

1:35 p.m. Despite my sobriety, I totally miss the freeway, so we drive up through Warren's surface streets. A discussion of architecture ensues, not flattering to Macomb County in general, though we love that there's a bar called Tipsy McStaggers.

1:50 p.m. We make it to Kuhnhenn Brewing Co. (5919 Chicago Rd., Warren; 586-979-8361) and the boxy buildings and six-lane roads of Macomb County melt away. We take the corner of the bar and peruse the menu of beers chalked on the big board. It's open and airy, with a wisecracking bartender and a steady stream of cheerful old dudes bringing empty growlers for a refill.

We sample some sour beer that has the sort of intense, overpowering flavor Kuhnhenn has cultivated a reputation for brewing, including a little glass of Solar Eclipse, a double Russian imperial stout with an ABV of 18 percent! Pelot orders a beer and a bottle of Malbec wine. To our surprise, he appears to have some sort of beer tokens. He's full of surprises. Ever cautious, I order a Peach Panty Dropper, 4.8 percent ABV. I ask the bartender, Dave, about the concoction. "The peach you get right away," he says, pouring a fresh beer and adding, "after four or five of 'em, you get to the panty-dropping." I try to write a status update about it, but mistakenly text out "Peach Panty Dripper."

A guy named Bill, a local brewer, has joined the tour for a single beer here, and he's enjoying an Octoberfest brew, which he describes as "well-made, malty, German-lager style beer." He raves about the purity of Kuhnhenn's brewing. "They've always been labor-intensive about their brewing here. ... They can really get some interesting malt flavors that a lot of American brewers can't get doing two-step ales where they hop the shit out of it later."

One of the gals, New York-based writer Tracie McMillan, gets some of the free popcorn and puts some butter salt on it. OK, waaay too much butter salt. Oddly, I can't stop eating it, even after I feel a canker sore forming. (Abrams tweets: "Easy on the butter salt!")

After a quick trip into Kuhnhenn's brewing store across the parking lot, we decide to get rolling again.

2:50 p.m. His friend is bowing out, so Pelot hops in the beardo-mobile and we set off for Oakland County. He demands to be tested on the breathalyzer, but we tell him he has to stop eating, drinking and smoking for 15 minutes or it'll throw off the reading. He seems bummed by the prospect.

3:10 p.m. The group arrives at Berkley Front (3087 12 Mile Rd., Berkley; 248-547-3331). Before we go in, Pelot blows a legally drunk .17 . He poses with it for a photo, proudly, and speaks into my micro-cassette recorder. I start to wonder if we're building a mountain of data that will later be used as evidence against us in court. We order sandwiches and beer. Pelot, of course, does a few shots. I select a hand-pulled Arcadia stout, which draws cellar-temperature beer into a glass without all the CO2. I take a bite out of it, and it's creamy and delicious; some might call it flat, but it's a sublime flatness. Roast master Cadariu waxes thoughtful: "What you are experiencing is beer as the way it was poured for centuries, up until 100 years ago." You could pound these brews, but tend to linger over them, as they stay good even after getting warm on the bar.

Abrams knows the bar well. "I used to take my daughter to dance class down the street, and I'd come in here and have a hand-pull." It sounds so unseemly the group starts laughing. I say, "Hey, after that hand-pull, I'm going to have to blow myself."

3:30 p.m. We're on our sandwiches. Two groups are talking. Cadariu and the gals are talking about urban planning, but Abrams and Pelot are discussing shotguns.

4:30 p.m. Fortified with food and a pleasant hour of conversation, we're ready to head off to Motor City Brewing Works. We're down to two vehicles, but I notice that Cadariu and Abrams have decided to go with the girls, probably because their car is smoke-free. As I drive down to Detroit, Pelot commandeers both breathalyzer and micro-cassette recorder, smoking a Marlboro while blowing a still-respectable .17 and clutching his (thankfully, resealed) bottle of wine.

5 p.m. We arrive at Motor City Brewing Works (470 W. Canfield St., Detroit; 313-832-2700), taking a table in front, as two more ladies have joined the crawl, including a visitor from Chicago. I pick the Bohemian lager, our Hamtramck friend Colleen Burke chooses the honey porter, and my writer friend McMillan orders a pumpkin-spiced brew. We also get a few judicious samples of cider and Octoberfest, thanks to the bar. Glasses start crowding the table, so I wisely order a cutting board of salami, bread and mustard, and the rest of the crew orders a few pizzas.

Apparently, Motor City is the place to spot new-fooders in Midtown. Detroit Zymology Guild mover Holly White drops in with husband Jason to refill some growlers, and even Molly O'Meara of Beau Bien Fine Foods joins the group for a moment. A gang breaks away to smoke in the new "green alley" behind the brewery, a pedestrian-friendly link to Second Avenue, and finds Motor City honcho John Linardos there, either growing a beard or just not shaving. Pelot urges us to go proceed down the alley to the Bronx Bar for shots, but we refuse.

7 p.m. After eating and taking a break, we start to pass around the AlcoHAWK. McMillan blows a .09. Pelot huffs out a drunk-as-fuck .39, but he just quaffed a sip of cider, corrupting the data. He'd have to be drinking hand sanitizer to be that loaded. (Abrams tweets: "We're all blowing into the breathalyzer but Pelot broke it.") Abrams blows a respectably illegal .09. Amazingly, after several beers, Burke is not at all intoxicated. She's been drinking all day and is only blowing .00, each time astonished that she isn't registering anything. We theorize that Burke is using yogic powers to outgas the alcohol through her pores. With the exception of a few, we're all "over the limit." Luckily we only have to cross the street to the next bar.

7:15 p.m. We troop across the street to Traffic Jam and Snug (511 W. Canfield St., Detroit; 313-831-9470), into the small bar in the front left of the building. The front is mostly full tonight of an older crowd, so we pile into the back of the place and fill it with laughter, with a few ordering Weizenfest and Doppelbock, and a round of Festivus ("for the rest of us" somebody jokes). Among the seven of us, small emergencies begin to crop up. Abrams needs a Motorola car adapter to keep up his Twitter feed, and Pelot has to meet a friend and catch up with us later for some reason. Steady groups start tromping outside to smoke on the street, back and forth through the bar. Maybe we're too rowdy, because the crowd clears out in front. Abrams blows a .17 and Cadariu a .19. I take pictures of them holding up the tester and looking resigned to it.

8:15 p.m. I get a call from Pelot while we're leaving for Slows-Bar-B-Q, with its extensive beer menu. He says he's getting a ride from Timmy's Organism bassist Jeff Fournier. I'm a little nervous hopping on the rain-slicked Lodge Freeway, but all is well. I'm sober, and Abrams is a calming influence in the passenger seat. I keep under speed as I light a smoke, roll down the window, and start to think that everything is under control.

All of a sudden, there's this loud engine noise on my left. A huge, black truck has sped up and is now right next to me, massive, hulking and honking at us. I almost veer off the road in surprise. There are people in it screaming at us. In an instant, I recognize Pelot and Fournier blasting the horn and waving. They tear off ahead, leaving my heart palpitating.

8:30 p.m. Remarkably, we find two parking spots right on the corner by Slows Bar-B-Q (2138 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-962-9828) and roll up, ready for some serious beers from around the world. Their menu is simply loaded to the gills with amazing choices, full of everything from dollar PBRs to Old Engine Oil. Unfortunately, tonight, Slows is just as full as its beer menu. We press through a crowd of people, stare around at the full tables, the three-deep bar crowd, the people standing against walls gutting out a two-hour wait. On the eve of its fifth anniversary, we've probably picked the wrong time to try to belly up to its bar. We trickle out and decide to head straight to Detroit Beer Co. We tried.

8:45 p.m. Cadariu says we have to pick up his friend at Griswold and Grand River. "Is he going to be out on the street ready to go?" I ask. Cadariu nods seriously. We arrive at a coffee shop and I look through the glass to see our new passenger. He doesn't even have a shirt on yet. (Abrams tweets: "Picking up a coffee dude. Get your shirt on ... it's the #beertour, goddammit!") Car by car, the convoy pulls up to my window, where I tell them to continue on. Then McMillan and Burke call and I bum out that we left Slows without telling them. They accept it graciously and head on to DBC. We sit there for five minutes while the guy gets dressed and ready to join us. They hop in the back and start chewing tobacco, spitting it into paper coffee cups. At least it's smoke-free.

9 p.m. Soon the whole group is at Detroit Beer Co. (1529 Broadway St., Detroit; 313-962-1529), which seems like a little bit of upscale Royal Oak dropped in the thick of downtown Detroit. I decide upon a Detroit Dwarf, and a few others go for the seasonal brews, including a spiced beer or two. Pelot slams down a beer, waits 15 minutes without drinking or smoking, then uses the breathalyzer. It reads a drunk-as-hell .29, and a smile spreads across his face.

I keep trying to document the beers, but now we're talking about people farting during Zen meditation, and how it can turn people off of Buddhism. At this point the micro-cassette recorder begins to malfunction. We have only a few blurry cell phone photos of revelry that show faces locked in laughter to tell the tale. Surprisingly, though, I'm still not at all drunk, just a bit giddy.

10:30 p.m. We decide to head for the final destination of the night: Grand Trunk Pub (formerly Foran's, at 612 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-961-3043). It's close enough to walk, but we drive over in the rain, like real Detroiters. And we're in for a surprise: Dave Kwiatkowski is behind the bar tonight. Ever cautious — I haven't had more than one beer every hour or two — I finally decide to pair a Dragonmead brew, Final Absolution (8.5 percent ABV), with a plate of French fries. Abrams is wolfing down a fried fish sandwich. He offers me some and it flakes apart on the bar as I try to stuff it down. I look back across the high-ceilinged room at the nine celebrants, many of whom are loaded. When serious foodies eat fried and breaded dill pickles with relish, you know serious drinking has been afoot. (Abrams tweets: "Belly full of fish and beer. Football on the teevee. All beneath the hallowed Grand Trunk ceiling.")

11:30 p.m. Despite debates on all the great beer bars we've missed, including Ashley's, Jolly Pumpkin, and Ye Olde Tap Room, we decide to pack it in for a night. Pelot stumbles toward me and whispers, "Last call at Woodbridge?" Some things never change.