Top 100 Beer Bars: Ashley’s and Hopcat

DRAFT Magazine has released its annual list of the nation’s Top 100 Beer Bars, and a pair of establishments in the Great Lakes State have made the cut (HT: Michigan Brewer’s Guild). Maybe my YBD compatriots can break down Chicago- and Denver-area bars at a later date, but I’d like to focus on Ashley’s and Hopcat. As a Grand Rapids native, but current resident of Ann Arbor, I’m familiar with both of these places, and I can attest to DRAFT Mag’s endorsement of the pair.

Ashley’s

DRAFT Mag’s synopsis of Ashley’s Ann Arbor goes thusly:

Planted near the Michigan campus, Ashley’s is higher education in beer. Its 72 taps and three casks pour some stunners; in fact, Bell’s Brewery crafted a cask especially for the bar that was the first carnation of Two Hearted Ale. Other Michigan great sit alongside wet-hopped brews, Belgians and classic pub fare.338 S. State St., ashleys.com (serves food, new to our list)

The beer selection at Ashley’s is nothing short of amazing, as their 75 draft beers are complemented by a bottle roster rivaled by no other establishment I’ve ever seen. There’s not the focus on Michigan beers that this synopsis seems to imply, but they are definitely present.

Of course, beer selection isn’t where it stops, as they also have a robust selection of whiskeys. The magazine doesn’t mention a certain… deliberate pace… of the service staff, but when I’m looking to try something new, slow waiters aren’t going to prevent me from heading to State St.

Hopcat

DRAFT Mag has this to say about Hopcat:

This craft beer juggernaut burst onto Grand Rapids’ beer scene in 2007 and hasn’t slowed down since. It’s still doing what it does best: pouring Michigan beers from 48 taps, 150 bottles and one cask; hosting regular beer classes; and cranking out solid pub food (the Crack Fries? A must.). But the bar’s upped its game with an annual barrel-aged beer fest and impressive house beers like Kymerica Beer 2010, an imperial brown ale blended with Vander Mill Cider. 25 Ionia S.W., hopcat.com (serves food, pours house beer, sells beer to go)

Ashley’s was my golden standard for beer bars prior to my first foray to Hopcat, and while it may have a slight edge on the basis of sheer breadth of selection, this is a close, close second. Whereas Ashley’s is a bar that has a bunch of beers, Hopcat is a true beer bar. A knowledgable staff – understatement of the year – and a more local focus nearly close the gap that great selection gives Ashley’s.

Hopcat’s food makes a strong push to be more upscale than standard pub fare, but it either falls short of that or misses the mark completely a bit of the time. With a microbrewery onsite, however, you’re coming to drink, and the food is just a bonus.

Hopcat Turkey Tears

Hopcat Turkey Tears

Seriously. Turkey.

Just in time for the holiday, Hopcat made it possible to drink your Thanksgiving dinner – turkey, cranberry sauce, and all. Turkey Tears is based upon the Sage Against the Machine Pale Ale, but as the flyer says, is brewed with real turkey, cranberries, and honey. Though including meat as an ingredient in beer seems… odd, to say the least, I couldn’t resist trying something new.

The beer was a light amber color (slightly lighter than it seems from the included picture), with very little head. The aroma was mostly sage with a bit of malt and, yes, a hint of turkey. The flavor itself was mostly sage. There was a slight hint of turkey flavor, but the main thing I got out of the turkey was a really salty taste. The cranberries didn’t seem to add much, and I could barely even detect them in the background. The honey flavor was what you’d expect.

So, despite my initial hesitance to try a beer with turkey in the brewing process (alas, my server didn’t know when in the process it was introduced, though I would guess the boil), it turned out to be not bad. I wasn’t a huge fan of the saltiness, but as a gimmick beer, it certainly wasn’t repulsive.

Guest Post: Hopcat Tasting Event

Special thanks to Geoff of The Hoover Street Rag for this guest post. Geoff took in a tasting event at Hopcat in Grand Rapids, and was kind enough to pass along notes.

Shorts Huma Lupa Licious
IPA - Pint glass.

Love the Huma. Always a favorite of mine.  And $6 for a pint plus the house burger and crack fries is a fantastic bargain.  The first taste is of crashing hops bitterness with citrus.  It mellows briefly  before a second wave hits, then the long finish.

Hopcat Kodial Killer
American Barleywine - Tulip glass

Dark, near-black appearance with an aroma of whisky and dark fruits.  Drink slowly to keep from being overwhelmed by the alcohol and pronounced fruit notes and ruining the flavor, which is refined by aging for four months in spend Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout barrels.

Shorts Bourbon Barrel Huma Lupa Licious
IPA - Globe-shaped sampler glass

I wanted to be able to directly compare the bourbon barrel version to the standard, and it’s almost unnecessary.  The whisky smell is huge off of it, obscuring the grapefruit notes of the original, and the bourbon taste is even bigger, almost obliterating the regular Huma, though it’s there underneath everything.  I’ll defer to the Hopcat description: “Think creamy vanilla-laced hop cones, soaked in bourbon.”

Shorts Bourbon Barrel Sustenance
Schwartzbier - Tulip

Oh, this is delicious.  Full of the toasty schwartzbier maltiness with the bourbon coming in around the edges.  I could drink this all night

Goose Island Bourbon County Stout
Globe-shaped sampler glass

I had the Bourbon County Stout before, in a 4-pack of 12-ounce bottles, and it was something of a disappointment.  I’d had the Founders KBS before (on tap at the brewery) and hoped that Goose Island would be able to compete with that.  What I tasted was very good, but not in the same class as the KBS.  I’m extremely happy to report that I was totally off base on that.  On tap, Bourbon County Stout is a revelation.  It’s huge, thick; viscous as motor oil and full of chocolate, bourbon, and coffee.  The clear winner on the night.  I still prefer the KBS overall (I think the flavors are a little more complex), but this is ever so close.

Dark Horse Plead the 5th
Russian Imperial Stout - Globe-shaped sampler glass

The lightest RIS I’ve ever encountered.  It pours brown and translucent with no real head by the time it was served.  A whiff of alcohol on the nose, not much more in terms of scent, it has a smooth mouthfeel with tastes of dark chocolate and a strong whisky finish.

Goose Island Imperial Brown Goose
Old Ale - Globe-shaped sampler glass

Pours dark brown with a persistent, thin off-white head.  Goose Island blended their 2004 and 2005 Christmas ales and aged them in 4-year-old Jim Beam and 12-year-old Heaven Hill bourbon barrels, and I can detect cinnamon and nutmeg among other spices alongside a mellow bourbon flavor.

Great Divide Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout
Russian Imperial Stout - Globe-shaped sampler glass

It smells like a beer, but tastes STRONGLY of charcoal smoke.  Must be the oak chips it’s been aged with, giving it a burnt flavor that lingers for a long time after the vanilla flavors fade away.

Avery Samael’s Ale
English Barleywine - Globe-shaped sampler glass

It tastes sweet and light, but packs a 14.5% ABV wallop and finishes with cinnamon and nutmeg.

Founders Backwoods Bastard
We Heavy Scotch Ale - Globe-shaped sampler glass

You can taste the Dirty Bastard under it all, but to me it tastes more like Devil Dancer than anything else.  It has that same way about it where it hits like a sledgehammer and lingers.

Founders Black Biscuit
Old Ale - Tulip glass

The pour overflowed the glass on the way over and now my hands smell like beer and chocolate.  Black Biscuit has a thin but persistently full head and pours thick and black.  This is a black old ale aged in bourbon barrels, and the chocolate, bourbon, and roasted malt flavors dominate.  It’s not quite as huge or complex as a bourbon stout, but the tradeoff is that it’s more drinkable.  Definitely give this one a try if you have the chance.

Atwater Barrel Aged Cherry Stout Firkin
Stout - Globe-shaped sampler glass

Tastes like black cherries soaked in bourbon and dropped into a stout, but not overpowering the stout base.  I’m not a big fan of fruit beers, but I can see myself ordering this as a a full pour.