Sunday, 30 July 2017

Detroit Rock City


From bankrupt to beautiful in a matter of a few years. In
2013, the City of Detroit filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.
Four years later, it's a vibrant jewel on the banks on Lake
St Clair between St Clair River to the north and Detroit
River to the south, the connection between Lake Erie and
Lake Huron. Great place for some boating, we learned.
On our way into Gross Pointe Farms, Michigan three weekends ago, my son, David and I stopped at a McDonald's to grab a quick bite since neither of us had eaten lunch after crossing the border from Sarnia in the US.

Little did I know that we were actually three minutes away from our final destination, the warm home of my high school buddy Greg, aka "Cheesey" and his lovely wife April.

That said, the Redmond men will always obey their stomachs first and had to fuel the machines for the day-long shenanigans to come. David found us a table while I waited for the food and before long, we were chowing down. About 10 minutes into the meal, I noticed something. From the servers right through to the customers, my boy and I were the only white people in the entire place. Now David would never notice something like that in a million years and frankly, I was impressed with myself for taking that long to notice. I have always said to myself that I don't care about things like skin colour. Turns out I truly don't. Nice to have that confirmed as this situation was truly a first for me, like, ever!

In fact, the surroundings ended up being a lot of fun as we were in the middle of a bunch of cute 11 and 12-year old girls from some kind of Summer Camp.
The difference in this street near the Detroit waterfront in just
four short years is uncanny. The bottom picture is from 2013,
the top one is present day. When the city bottomed out, big
money investors came in, snatched up properties for a song
and started rejuvenating the area. As you can see, some of the
facades were saved and transformed into much much more.
They had to sing a special Grace song before their food arrived and while I can't remember the main body of the song, the chorus was catchy enough that I could join right in. So I did. Loudly and to the giggles of the happy girls next to us. When the Grace song was over, a camp counsellor came over and thanked me with a big smile. "That song always needed a deeper tone to it!" And as we were leaving, little voices yelled out, "Bye, Donny and David. Have fun!"

And thus was my introduction to the present day state of race relations in Detroit. Is it totally happy faces of all colours and cheerful Grace songs throughout the city? All hugs and kisses? No, of course not. No city is, even in Canada. But the tensions of the past, well, perhaps they've eased somewhat. That's just the view of an outsider (myself) looking in but from what I viewed in the downtown core that night when Cheesey and I were wheeling from bars to breweries, it's a lot better than it was in the not-too-distant past. And no one is prouder of the transformation from ghost-town to vibrant city than Cheesey himself, who was a part of the city's humongous and speedy turn-around.
Just a happy boy singing a song as we jetted
around Lake St Clair in Cheesey's boat. My
son, David, had the time of his life visiting
Cheesey and April. "When can we go back?"
he asked as soon as we started driving home.

But Cheesey was very honest about it as we were driving through the city. He showed me the rejuvenated areas, explaining who brought the big bucks to buy shuttered buildings on the cheap and then turn them into gleaming urban jewels. But at the same time, we'd cross a street into a different area, still very run down, and he would admit, "Yeah, this is still a pretty unsafe place to be. In this neighbourhood, it doesn't matter what colour you are. If you look like you have money, you will get robbed." When it comes to his city, Cheesey is an open and honest civic ambassador. But in the shiny new areas, Cheesey's eyes lit up as he explained the remarkable renewal.

But again, from an outsider looking in, the large pockets of urban rejuvenation were mind-boggling. This was not what I was expecting at all. Yes, there are still areas you would avoid for personal safety reasons but that's as true in Toronto as it is in Detroit. Any urban centre, really.

But hey, is this a column about urban-decay-turned-around or is it a column about beer? Hmmm, okay, so far the former so time to switch gears. Again, gotta keep with the Motor City theme here so I'm hitting the gas and switching gears to beers, baby!

Now yesterday, I explained how Cheesey and I landed at HopCat, the bar with a 130 taps of craft beer goodness. (Okay, okay 129 because one was Pabst Blue Ribbon but still...) But still, how do we top that?
At Batch Brewing, you can see the size of the vats
behind me to the right. I would literally be taller
than them if I stood up. From from tiny vats come
some insanely great beers. What great ambiance in
this place, too, as Millennials played classic board
games into the night. The spirit in there was great.
Well, turns out that Cheesey is not only a great civic ambassador but he knows where all the great little craft breweries are scattered throughout the city. That makes him one helluva tour guide where I'm concerned, I gotta tell ya.

Next stop was Batch Brewing, a small outfit on Porter Street, literally a stone's throw from the Detroit River. Well, if you can throw a stone seven city blocks, anyway. "I'm not sure what this building was before," said Cheesey as we pulled up. He figured a good guess would be car-parts related but couldn't quite remember. Remember, a lot of buildings both big and small have turned over in the city during past few years so it's impossible to remember them all.

Once inside, two things became instantly apparent. By Batch Brewing, they mean small batch brewing as the vats were not even my height. Probably less than 1,000 litres (264 gallons) each. And lining the picnic tables inside were dozens of Millennials playing classic board games, such as Battleship, Clue, Connect Four, even Cribbage. That made for a lot of happy chatter and laughter. Hell, in one case, a young Mom was breast-feeding her child as she dealt the cards between herself and her hubby. Talk about a nurturing environment, not to mention the innate ability women have to multi-task. (We guys do not share that skill, ladies.)
I have cropped off a portion of the building on the right but this is the
best shot of the brewery's exterior I could find on the interwebs. As you
can see, they've incorporated an old train car into the building and
turned it into a little more real estate. Batch means small batch here!

But again, let's get away from urban renewal and, uhhh, breast milk and concentrate on beer here. (I can honestly say that is the first mention of breast milk in this little column ever.) Okay, I mentioned yesterday that I had tried a Batch beer at HopCat so let's start there. As my first beer of the night at HopCat, I went with Batch's Keeping Up With The Juices New England IPA. Greg had explained they were a local nanobrewery in the Corktown District of Detroit and hey, it turns out that was a damn fine choice.

For an area nowhere near the country's east coast, some of these Detroit brewers are cranking out some of the most phenomenal New England IPAs ever.
I was NOT leaving Batch Brewing without this two
litre (68 ounce) jug of Keeping Up With The Juices
New England IPA. At 6.6% but just 33 IBUs, I was
stunned at the hoppiness of this one. Truly delicious.
While I had enjoyed it at HopCat, it wasn't until we arrived at Batch that I realized that Keeping Up With The Juices was only 33 IBUs (international bitterness units). That is exceptionally low for an IPA, any IPA! And yet, they squeezed a strong hop quality into this one. At 6.6%, this was all mango and fruit on the nose with some strong orange rind on the tongue and a wheatiness on the back end. Definitely wheat malts in the mix here. But just a stunning beer! So much so, I brought a bloody big jug of it home with me in the trunk, among many others - none of them claimed at the border.

The beauty of having David in the car is that he can actually charm both Canadian and American border guards, just by being himself - chatty and happy. He actually made them smile in both directions. "So this is a father-son team?" the stern Canadian border guard asked me, looking at our passports. "Yupper do!" David piped up loudly. "Best father and son ever!" The guy just started laughing and waved us through. "Yupper do," I heard him chuckling as we started to drive.

But *heavy sigh* this isn't about urban renewal or breast milk or cheerful sons, this is about beer, dammit! See how easily I get sidetracked?
I lucked out here. I enjoyed a tasty Short's Brewing
(Bellaire, Michigan) Huma Lupa Licious IPA just
three weeks before Lagunitas (so actually Heineken)
bought a 19.9% stake in the brewery. They were
completely independent when I enjoyed this beer!
Cheesey's boat, Camella 2, provided the backdrop.
While at Batch, Cheesey and I both dove into a Perle's Pale Ale, a SMASH (single malt and single hop) ale that uses English Pearl Malts and German Pearl Hops. That's what I'm holding up in the picture. At 5.6% and 30 IBUs, this was a great little pearl, uhh, pale ale with some light grapefruit on the nose and a fruit and malt combo on the tongue. Light and refreshing, a really great little Summer ale.

That was the last stop on Cheesey and Donny's Friday Night's Adventure but hey, we had Saturday night to come. Or so we thought. Lemme explain. Our day began at the Gross Pointe Farms Marina. Each of the five different Gross Pointe communities has their own marina "because we pay taxes in our cities," Cheesey explained. So basically, free country club if you pay your taxes! Nice set-up! But a stop at the local market, owned by a buddy of Cheesey, saw me struggling to decide which beer to bring along on the day which would involve extensive travels through Lake St Clair on their speedboat, Camella 2. (Each of the initials in Camella is the first initial of their seven grandchildren. Pretty good wordplay there.)

In the end, I chose the Short's Brewing Huma Lupa Licious IPA because, well, mostly just the name, I guess, and the fact I've never had any of their beers.
At the moment, this is Cheesey's go-to beer, Stroh's
Bohemian-Style Pilsner. The brewery's history in
Detroit is something Cheesey appreciates and hey,
for a macro, this was pretty tasty. A good example
of a German style pilsner, this had some flavour!!
Ironically, just a few days ago, the Bellaire, Michigan brewery sold a 19.9% stake to Lagunitas. And of course, Lagunitas itself was bought out 100% by Heineken a couple of months back. So this is actually selling a fifth of the place to an international giant. While Short's can still claim independence (it takes 25% outside ownership before that claim cannot be made), I am wary that this is, well, the thin edge of the wedge, so to speak. I can't help but worry that Short's will be 100% Heineken's property within a couple of years.

But hey, at least I can make the claim that when I drank Huma Lupa Licious IPA, they were 100% indie, man! And it showed. At 7.7% and 96 IBUs, this was definitely an indie west-coast IPA. Jackhammered your tongue with five different hops, I know that malts must have been used (due to necessity) but you'd never know it as this is just a hop explosion here! Grapefruit and citrus on the nose, orange and pine on the tongue, this was just a few ABV points away from being a Double IPA. Man, this is a beast. Heineken, stay the hell away from this beer! And any further involvement in the brewery for that matter. You got your 20% so now please go away! Don't wreck a great thing! Also 19.9%? Zup with that? Is that a thing where $19.99 sounds like less than $20? Big brewing corporations continue to baffle me with their crazy (but no doubt carefully calculated) number games.
Our host, Greg, strikes a "cheesey" pose with this
billboard at Mike's On The Water, a restaurant on
Lake St Clair where boaters simply dock outside
the fun place and head on in for some great food.

After David had ample time to play on the marina's beach and April came down to join the Three Amigos, we hopped into Cheesey's speedboat, jetted around Lake St Clair before finally landing at Mike's On The Water, a hugely popular food stop for boaters on the lake. We won't get into the beer too much as the only craft option was Samuel Adams Boston Lager. That's a perfectly good choice for me except the keg was dry. So rather than Bud and some other macro, I opted for a Margaritaville Brewing (singer Jimmy Buffet's place in Jacksonville, Florida) Landshark Lager. Much the same as it is up here (brewed by Brick in Canada), it's a cleaner version of Corona. But hey, I learned it'll wash down a lobster roll nicely so that's good.

But no, this lunch would be remembered for something else. You see, a couple of months back, David's Mom noticed he was getting sick after meals so she took him into an allergist, Turns out he has a few food allergies that have simply come to him later in life as he's 26 now. The allergist created a red-yellow-flashing-green list for us, meaning foods that were never, rarely or occasionally to be eaten. On the red list were some surprises, including white sugar, apples, potatoes, coconuts and anything using food dye.
A small cross-section of the craft beers available in the
food market near Greg and April's place. Feel free to
ignore the Blue Moon as we all know it's made here by
Molson's but is cloaked as an independent down there.

Being as his Mom is all Irish and I'm half-Irish, potatoes was the one that stunned us. But okay, I tossed out my potatoes and subbed in sweet potatoes and rice for him here at Donny's Bar and Grill. But when we arrived at Mike's On The Water, David really wanted fish and chips. Well, since he's been eating potatoes for nearly 26 years, I thought, "Meh, it's one meal. What's the harm?" In what is sure to tarnish any chance of me winning 2017 Father Of The Year, we found out that night. Two bites into April's delicious spaghetti dinner, David got this look - a look I recognize all too well. He was about to puke. And he did for two-and-half solid hours. Well, actually, the vomiting was only about the first 20 minutes, followed by two hours and 10 minutes of dry heaving and retching. I sat out back with him, rubbing his back with a wastebasket in his lap and was thoroughly exhausted by the time he stopped, looked at me wearily and said, " I want to go to bed." Greg felt horrible for him, April felt horrible for him and I felt all that times ten. The poor kid. I looked at Greg and April and said flatly, "No more fries! Ever!" On my part, what a stupid slip in judgement. My boy better get used to a future filled with rice.
I am rocking this with a picture of Greg and my high
school buddy, Dennis Ford, for a specific reason. Given
the situation with our respective parents, I suspect
Dennis would trade places with me in a heartbeat.

David was as right as rain and his usual cheerful self on Sunday morning so we were all pretty relieved there. With a firmer eye to his allergies, Greg actually found some unsweetened no-sugar, no artificial sweetener (also a red light) maple syrup for our French Toast breakfast. Because Cheesey and I missed our Saturday Night Breweries Tour, we established that I - or both of us - would be back soon. He had three breweries planned for Saturday night and dammit, I want to visit them! As well, since Greg and April are involved, I suspect David will be insistent on joining me. I do owe him a vomit-free night in Michigan, after all. (Stupid, stupid, stupid!!)

Finally, a family matter to deal with here. A month back, my Mom, who's 87 but still living alone in the huge Oakville house we moved into in 1963, had a huge fender-bender with a concrete pole on the sidewalk of a nearby library. It was broad daylight with no one around (thankfully). Then just as I was leaving for Michigan, she took a header down some concrete stairs onto a concrete patio. This was more serious. There was some head trauma and she lost peripheral vision on one eye, causing her driver's licence to get yanked.
Since I was in Michigan and we had to pass on the Cheesy
and Donny Saturday Night Brewery Party, I made sure to
pop a few of Michigan's best in my trunk on the way out.
Founders Brewing (Grand Rapids) All Day IPA seemed
like a slam-dunk choice. This has always been a great one.
Now she still has all of her mental faculties and refuses to leave the house. I was the last of the kids in there with her and I was gone in 1980. So that home is her anchor.

My sister, Carly, had my brother, Gary, flown in from his home in Spain to watch over her for a while, take her shopping, to the hairdresser, things like that. But a decision had to be made. Who was going to move in with her? So let's review the choices, shall we? Gary lives in Barcelona, Spain. Carly, a fertility specialist, has a medical practice in Toronto. And then there's me, the Beer Store employee, who works three minutes up the street from her.

Oddly, the other two felt this was a clear and easy choice. I'm not sure why. I had a chance to talk to Cheesey about it as it was all playing out while I was down there. He is in very much the same boat as his Mom won't leave the Oakville house where he grew up in the same neighbourhood as me.
When in Rome... well, you might have to
settle for something you'd normally pass
on. Hey, Jimmy Buffet, I drank one of
your beers because it was the best of a
bad bunch. Meh, it washed down lunch.
His older sister has moved in with her so she can run out the clock in a familiar, safe environment. Of course, he understands the situation so we had a good and honest talk about it.

While still there, I talked to David about the situation as well on the Sunday morning and asked him what he thought. To be honest, I was expecting some resistance. He loves our two-storey apartment in Burlington as it has been our home for over 11 years. However, he caught me off-guard with his thoughts on it. "Grandma Jay (my Mom) has taken care of us for all these years," he said as sincerely as anything I have ever heard in my life. "Now it's our time to take care of Grandma Jay." Wow. That kid will never stop amazing me.

So through the month of August, Donny's Bar and Grill is getting slowly packed up and shifted to a new Oakville locale. But there's a reason that a picture of my old roomie and high school buddy, Dennis, is in here. You see, I was kinda not thrilled with this turn of events. But also feeling ashamed that I felt that way. Though many friends have assured me that's natural and that they themselves would be reluctant, there's a huge sense of guilt when you really wish you didn't have to step up.

But Dennis wrote something this morning that really opened my eyes. His very-much-loved father is suffering from cancer and likely only has a few days left. His mother has full-blown Alzheimer's. As I read it, I realized Dennis would trade places with me in a heart-beat. Okay, I'll be back tomorrow with news about the Burlington On Taps Beer Mini-Festival on August 11-12. But here's Dennis' words. If you can make it to the end without crying, you're a stronger person than me. Here it is: Damn Onions! But guys and dolls, that's it, that's all and I am outta here. Until next time, I remain...