Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Beer Series, #1: Sherwood Brewing Company

After doing research at several lesser-known metro Detroit breweries for a forthcoming article, I realized that each individual place has its own wholly unique and interesting story to tell. And I really wanted to be the one to tell it. For all four of them. In 1,000 words or less.

Thanks be to blogs, I can still write a somewhat-coherent article (maaaaaybe a little more than 1,000 words) and indulge my desire to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me beer with as many words and as much flowery prose as I so desire.

I've decided to do a little in-depth series for each of the breweries I visited, expanding on what I began in the aforementioned forthcoming article and taking you inside a little deeper to get to know the brewers, the people, the process, the beer. Oh good Lord, the beer. If the soon-to-be-published article is for beginners, consider this your intermediate lesson.

Particularly given the timeliness (currently being in the midst of Detroit Beer Week with the first annual Harvest Beer Festival coming up this Saturday), I think a more in-depth perspective of these award-winning breweries is in order, yes? Good, we're agreed then. Here goes.

First up: Sherwood Brewing Company.

We live in the tri-county area of metro Detroit. What many people seem to forget is that "tri" means "three." There's Wayne County ("oh Detroit, we love you so much, you're so misunderstood, gentrify! wait, no, not gentrify, that's bad") and Oakland County ("Detroit's cool but we prefer our rich, trendy, safe, clean suburbs"...unless you're north of 14 Mile then it's just "mmyessssss"). Then there's Macomb County.

Ah, Macomb County. The red-headed stepchild of metro Detroit. The MC gets no love, no attention. All the rags and mags focus on what's up-and-coming everywhere else but in Macomb County. Many use "The Clem" as a punchline to a certain kind of culture joke (much like they do with "Downriver"), and nowhere in greater Detroit is Macomb County taken seriously by anyone outside of it.

When I sat down with Lisa Sherwood at Sherwood Brewing Company, we talked about how often Macomb gets overlooked. Moreso than probably any other sector of metro Detroit, Macomb's citizens are almost entirely dependent on the auto industry. Even the "wealthy" corners of Macomb (think Moravian or Heidenreich) are still full of people who made their money in cars or construction. It's a blue-collar area with blue-collar sensibilities, and thus has been easily overlooked by its flashier sister counties. What they also then overlook is the great number of people who work had every day to give Macomb County its own unique culture and thoroughly independent vibe.

"There are a lot of small businesses along the M-59 corridor," Lisa states. "The number of retail and restaurant businesses keep growing. It's a high-traffic area that's finally getting some attention." (Though not enough, we agreed.) There are a lot of independently-owned establishments out on the East side, and a WHOLE lot of people to support them. When I ask Lisa why those chose this particular corner on Hayes north of Hall Rd. she says, "because north Macomb County needed a place like this. And because it's close to home." "Home" for some 780,000+ metro Detroiters, too.

What Lisa and her husband (and head brewer) Ray have created is a space that is wholly welcoming, a place for local workers and beer aficionados alike to hang out and feel like they're part of the family. "We're like one big dysfunctional family around here!" Lisa laughs. "Everyone knows everything about everyone else here, including the customers!"

And that's no joke: Sherwood has been named by WDIV three years in a row as the "Best Brewpub in Metro Detroit" for a number of reasons. Yes, they've got great beer, wine, and soda, all made in-house. Their food is some of the best pub grub you'll find anywhere. But they also have an atmosphere so inviting that it makes customers want to come back again and again. Lisa tells me that customers have described the place as being like their living room, only without the kids and they don't have to get their own beer. "We're family-friendly, too. The whole building is non-smoking; we've had people come here to celebrate their anniversaries and their kids' first birthdays. Our demographic is people ages 30+, people with families and careers. This is a safe, casual place for them."

Observing the way Lisa and Ray interact with their guests on a Sunday afternoon, I see immediately what makes this place so popular. Every customer who comes through the door is greeted warmly by Lisa, whose enthusiasm is contagious. Some she knows by name and asks after their wives and kids; others are new, so she immediately takes time to get to know them. An older gentleman came in alone and sat up at the bar. Lisa brought him a few newspapers and started asking who he was, what brought him in, what kind of beer he likes. Over on the other side of the bar, three employees who had the day off work were chatting with each other and the other regulars, spending their free day from work. (And in the service industry, that means A LOT.)

"We have the best staff and the best customers in the world!" Lisa glows, and there's no doubt in my mind she means it. Even if they didn't have great been and incredible food, this would still be the kind of place locals would choose to hang out. Lucky for everyone, the food and beer are just as good as the attitude.

They usually have 8-10 different beer styles on tap with a little something for everyone. They try to appeal to the Bud Light drinkers as much as to the beer connoisseurs. The staff is well-trained to educate customers about the different styles and help transition them from their good ol' American pilsners to more robust craft brews. Here it's about quality over quantity; there are no dollar beer specials or buckets of beer, and as a designated brewpub they do not have a liquor license and can only sell what they make. They also make 4-6 different varieties of wine to appeal to the non-beer-drinkers, including styles of reds, whites, and fruit wines.

They don't bottle their beers (save for around the holidays when small batches are bottled and sold to customers), though their beer is on tap in many area bars. Their best-selling beer is the Buxom BlonDDe Ale, which is a great everyman beer (like Bud but far better). The 1492 IPA is also very popular, with a combination of hops that appeals to a wide audience, and the Production Line Red Ale is a very affable light amber with a slightly roasted (almost tea-like, I thought) character. I'm a sucker for the banana-clove notes of a good Hefeweizen, so Hell Road was a favorite of mine. I'm equally a sucker for Porters and Stouts, so the Honey Porter was a treat though I was devastated to learn that I missed their Smoked Pumpkin Porter (made with real smoked pumpkins!) by only a few weeks. The Green River Wheat IPA was also a real stand-out; fiercely aromatic and unapologetically bitter, this is a beer for hops-lovers--it may be light in color but this is a BIG beer.

As you plow through all these great beers--including seasonal treats like their Oktoberfest Lager and the festival favorite Mistress Jack's Hemp Ale--why not try a bite off their impressive pub menu? "We don't call it bar food, we call it beer food!" Lisa jokes, and it is clear that they take a tremendous amount of pride in their kitchen. "Everything is made fresh from scratch; we keep almost nothing in the freezer. We try to incorporate our beer and wine into as much of the menu as possible. We're very proud of our menu!"

Sherwood is committed to using local products and highlighting Michigan's seasonal foodstuffs. They've even hosted a couple of sold-out Slow Food Detroit dinners over the past few months. Chapter Leader Stacy Curneal Ordakowski even mentioned to me, "Sherwood is fantastic. I love how passionate Lisa Sherwood has gotten about local food." The dinner just held this week featured a Michigan fall harvest theme with buffalo steaks, pumpkin orzo, baby spinach with venison, and homemade pumpkin pie.

Other menu items include honest-to-goodness greasy beer favorites. "Burgatory" is a burger with jalapenos, mild peppers, provolone, and chipotle mayo. The aptly-named "Heartbreaker" has fried chicken strips, beer battered onions, mozzarella, bleu cheese, and 1,000 Island dressing on a soft pretzel roll. But the real winner here is the pizza: choose from three different homemade sauces: classic marinara, bold & spicy beer sauce, and garlic & wine sauce. You have your choice of white or whole wheat crust (for the carb-conscious). Then pile on your favorite toppings for a piping hot pie with wonderfully flavorful crust. I ordered garlic & wine with mozzarella and tomatoes (a makeshift Margherita, as I called it). The sauce was superb: aromatic, light with just the right amount of tanginess and chock FULL o'chopped garlic, JUST how I like it. The crust was soft and chewey (you can tell the dough is fresh), with a beautiful buttery flavor. This instantly made my top 10.

If you've got a sweet tooth, check out one of the homemade ice creams: they are made with Sherwood's house-made beers, wines, and sodas. (And if you've never had a red wine or Porter ice cream, you've been missing out.)

I left Sherwood with a warm and fuzzy feeling, and not just from all the beer. This place is comfortable and comforting, from the food to the company. At one point during my visit, Lisa pointed to a father with his young son and said, "Look how cute this is! You can't have a better job!" Between her passion for people, Ray's passion for beer, and the staff's passion for food, you also can't have a better brewpub.

For more abouut Sherwood's brewing history, check Metromode for the forthcoming article.