Saturday, September 5, 2009

A taste of The Livery in Benton Harbor

The Livery Benton HarborI grew up in the Twin Cities area of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, Michigan. It's been over 27 years since I've lived back there and whenever I get back to my old home town I like to visit some of the local restaurants and breweries. I had the opportunity to visit The Livery, a microbrewery that has been in operation since 2005 in downtown Benton Harbor. The Livery is located in an old brick building in a newly refurbished part of the downtown. The building was formerly used decades ago as a place where horses were worked on. The theme stuck and now The Livery offers up to 12 beers on tap along with 3 Real Ale taps (pull draws) as well as hand crafted ciders.

The entire area around the brewery is being revitalized. The downtown is redoing all of their streets, there's a new Jack Nicholas designed golf course just a couple blocks away and the economy, while still soft in Michigan, is starting to show signs of recovery. In other words, it's a good time now for The Livery to be in business.

The Livery's business is split between multiple floors of the old brick building. In the basement is their tasting room with a small kitchen. There you can hang out, talk with friends and grab a light meal or snack and sample the brews. The brewery told me they use their spent grains to make their own brand of crackers and pretzels. Up on the main level is a larger hall with a bar, many tables and a stage where they frequently bring in live entertainment. Way up on the top floor, you see the horse elevator and a scattering of tables.

Outside the main building is their outdoor beer garden. A cozy area with chairs and tables and a variety of flowers growing. The beer garden leads you to a windowless side building which is their brewing operations. While I was wanting to take a tour of the brewery, I was told that brewing operations were underway and for liability reasons I could not go in to tour. Ah well, at least they had around 14 beers on tap to try.

With so many choices on tap, it was hard to decide what to try first. I asked Nicole, our hostess, about their regular line of beers and she told me that they really don't have a regular group of beers that they serve year round. Nicole told me that if you come back in a couple weeks or so that I'd probably see a completely different line-up of beers there. Variety is apparently the spice of life here at The Livery. They put some of their beers in 750ml bottles but offer up mostly beer in kegs and growlers and 3 different sizes of beer glasses for tasting.

Seeing how The Livery just celebrated their 4th anniversary, I went with a taste of their Anniversary Ale. This ale was a dark amber ale that weighed in at 9.5% ABV. It was slightly sour in the aroma and had a nice blend of bittering hops and sweet malts. Slightly funky but good.

Next I sampled their Herb Superb Black IPA, a modified version of their regular IPA but infused with additional dark malts. It was served from a pull cask. The taste is of roasty hops which is the best way I can describe it. Dark amber, tiny white head and ruby red along the edge of the glass. The brew was a tad on the warm side but that's expected from a cask. Hop flavor really comes through on this one. 6.5% ABV. Good.

I wanted to keep with a hoppier theme and ordered a small glass of their Synapse ESB, an English-style Extra Special Bitter that weighs in at 6.5% ABV. It had a nice red color with a small white head. The taste was malty at first then the hops hit you at the back end of the taste. This brew was a tad on the light bodied side and needed a bit more body. Average brew but enjoyable.

I wanted something a bit more potent so I saved the big beers for last. I asked for a hand-pulled cask version of Old Cedar, a strong ale that weighed in at 7.25%. It was golden in color with a low white head, creamy, less hoppy but with a slightly citrus aroma. It was medium bodied and smooth tasting with a bit of a tang. I couldn't tell that it was a higher ABV brew. One of their best.

My last taste was one of their biggest beers, a Barrel Aged Agent 99. This whiskey barrel aged Belgian Quad was golden in color with a decent white head. The taste was a classic Belgian with a bit of whiskey funk. Very good. They told me it had spent 3 months in the barrel.

I spoke briefly with their assistant brewer, Wally, who had been working there for the last 2 years. He is in the process of preparing to go to the Siebel Institute of Technology & World Brewing Academy in Chicago next year to study professional brewing. He told me that Siebel had recommended to him that he work under the wing of a craft brewer for a couple years before attending their school. He was excited to be heading there soon. (I would be too).

Wally told me that most of the equipment they use to brew at The Livery is highly customized. In some cases they've used old dairy equipment and modified it for brewing purposes. Currently, they have six 11 barrel fermenters and three 5.5 barrel fermenters that are brewing something almost all the time. They are doing all they can just to keep up with demand for their hand crafted beers.

I look forward to returning to The Livery someday and sampling more of their tasty brews.

Related articles:
- When in Michigan drink like the locals do.
- New Holland Dragon's Milk Ale review.
- Bell's Two Hearted Ale review.
- Travels with Barley in Michigan.

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