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Monday, October 29, 2012

A Good Night on Grand Rapids’ West Side

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This piece was written the morning after Game Two of the 2012 Word Series. Despite the Tigers' difficult loss in that game (and in the Series in general), former Siciliano's staffer Wes Eaton managed to find the beauty in a West Side Thursday night.

By Weston Eaton

While there are many that can speak with more authority on the matter, I’m certainly not a slouch when it comes to Grand Rapids’ West Side. Between small bowling allies, butcher shops, Latino grocers, Monarch’s Club, and Siciliano’s Market, I cross the river on at least a weekly basis. Max Trierweiler and Chris Andrus now bring us all one more reason to do so: the Mitten Brewing Company. As I’m sure many of you have heard, the idea is to bring together craft beer and baseball in an explicit way – hence the name “mitten”.

With the Tigers in World Series crises mode, my wife and I headed to the new “sports” bar, snuck in the back door to avoid the half block long IPO (initial public opening) line out front, and made our way to the bar in much the same way one struggles to front stage at the Orbit Room. While the room was packed and lines long, this is to be expected on an opening night. Or is it? With restaurants and craft breweries popping up like Morels in Spring across West Michigan, you might think that new craft beer venues like Perrin, White Flame, Harmony, or the Mitten (to name just a few) would need to slowly, steadily cultivate a dedicated following, and that this would take time. Indeed in the long run this may be the case, but from my recent experiences in the taproom at Perrin and last night at the Mitten, I got the feeling the beer was going to stay fresh.

Speaking of beer, my wife wrestled us a Porter and Hefeweizen from the throngs. Both were excellent, the Hefe closer to a Dunkel Weizen, the color of hazelnuts, and the Porter black with a tiny tan head and a heavy roast, which is how I like it. Not exactly sure who brewed these beers, but its likely the Mitten’s new co-brewer Robert Wanhatalo (aka Wob), formerly of the Hideout, played an important part. In the future, look for experimentation in line with the trails blazed by Joe Short.

While drinking our inaugural beers, we looked over the beer and baseball fans, finding more than one Beer City USA t-shirts on display. Like other badges, this symbol has come to embody a new collective identity within the area’s beer community, a signifier of not only past and present successes, but also a suggestion for future agendas. I felt this momentum, this change, strongly when walking past the the old firehouse that is the new brewery. I knew where I was – the city’s West Side, across from the seasonal Latino ice cream stand, the old Juke’s bar, and Quarry Ave, where I lived for years and my wife grew up – but now these familiar places seemed much more a part of the past, and the street lined with beer (and Tigers) fans was something new. I am not lamenting change now, and this is not what I experienced last night. Instead, I felt a little ‘Brooklyn’ in the air, meaning to say a buzz of activity and possibility that excites and inspires.

But this is of course only one way to understand the city’s West Side, on the cusp or not. In fact, telling the story in this way downplays culinary and beer culture happenings that have been going on in the areas for some time now. Moreover, I’ve clearly defined “the cusp” by my own biased set of standards – through the lens of craft beer. There are of course other ways to value the West Side, in terms of beer culture. Take for instance the Holiday Bar, a special treat a stone’s throw away from Salvatore’s Italian Restaurant (which serves the best lasagna in town).

Stepping out from the Mitten’s IPO energy, we were still thirsty and the game was still on – and the Holiday was waiting. Were were greeted with numerous seats at the expansive, curved, lounge style bar, and the enthusiastic Jim, Grand Rapids’ most ubiquitous bartender. Yes there are craft beers on tap – some of the city’s finest – but the circumstances, meaning a need for some perspective, called for tasty cheap red wine and a cold High Life. Developing an appreciation for this range, from the new to the old, is what the coming West Side experience is all about.

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