The ‘brass ring’

This neighborhood pub will leave you eager for a return visit.

Brass Ring Brewing is the most rollicking fun you’ll find anywhere in town. An exhilarating taproom with British-style cask ales, porters and stouts, a dining pub where pretensions are few, a patio anchored by warm beer shanties inspired by ice fishing huts, and big belly laughs everywhere. When you do decide to call it a night, you’ll leave starry-eyed, nearly evangelical and itching to return.

Here, Chris Gibbons, co-owner and head brewer, is decked out in old-school Adidas track gear and spectacularly launches himself into everything.

“That’s my mantra, oh, I go all the way — that’s my brand,” said Gibbons as he recites Charles Bukowski’s poem “Roll the Dice,” ending with:

“if you’re going to try,
go all the way.
there is no other feeling like that.
you will be alone with the gods
and the nights will flame with fire.
do it, do it, do it.
do it.
all the way
all the way.
you will ride life straight to
perfect laughter, its
the only good fight
there is.”

Karen Boer, Gibbons’ partner at Brass Ring Brewing, walks into the tasting room with a question and summation: “Did he read you Bukowski’s ‘Roll the Dice?’ Oh, you’re in the club now.”

Origin story

And to think that it all started with a little end-of-year ruminating between Gibbons and Boer, both attorneys who also practice law together. “We should open a brewery because we could create the greatest space, a vanguard of creativity — and we could finish our work lives doing what we really love,” Gibbons said, about how the brewery got its start. “I said to Karen, ‘It would be like our brass ring. Let’s get our brass ring.’”

Bingo, Boer thought, that’s the name, right there, Brass Ring Brewing.

Next thing you know, Gibbons and Boer enrolled in the Colorado Boy Brewery Immersion program. “We flew into the Montrose, Colorado, airport and went up the mountain,” Gibbons said. “It was like we were going to see Yoda or something.”

Building a cask ale brewery

In a mid-century storefront in the Alger Heights business district, Gibbons and Boer peeled away the remnants of the past — and merrily reassembled the space into a brewhouse sporting floor-to-ceiling windows with state-of-the-art commercial brewing equipment.

Since Brass Ring Brewing opened Jan. 11, 2018, at 2404 Eastern Ave. SE, it has focused on brewing English-style traditional ales, porters and stouts with grains sourced from Great Britain that continue to ferment in the cask and remain active until it quenches your thirst.

“We are a true craft brewery because we are making small batches of beer — with water, barley, hops and yeast. That’s it,” Gibbons said. “No fruits, no syrups, no clarifiers.”

Brass Ring’s beer is only available at the taproom or to-go in 64-ounce growlers and 32-ounce crawlers.

What makes cask ale different?

In Beer City, USA, where trendy craft beer bars and independent microbreweries outnumber the rest, Brass Ring Brewing decided to introduce cask ales to the scene. For Brass Ring Brewing, owned and operated by Chris Gibbons and Karen Boer, that decision was a win, win, win.

In the brewhouse, where head brewer Gibbons makes his 112th batch, the aroma of fermenting fills the air while gleaming stainless steel vessels and piles of barley are front and center. “This is where the magic happens,” said Boer, toasting Gibbons with a pint of No Half Measures Brut IPA, a deceptively light-bodied beer.

“We’re talking seriously small batch,” Gibbons said. “Brewing requires one to be a perfectionist with a touch of OCD. To brew this kind of small-batch traditional ale requires a whole lot of doing.”

At Brass Ring, the ales are transferred into casks and then undergo a final fermentation in the cask. Since it’s unfiltered, there is live yeast in the cask. And Brass Ring uses its own house yeast.

“It’s our own blend and all of our beers are made with that same yeast,” Gibbons said. “We have 12 beers on the menu at all times and they have to taste different, but they’re all made with four basic ingredients — barley, water, hops and yeast, and it’s the same yeast.”

In the cold room, each beer is held in an individual vessel with piping that goes right up to the 12-pour tap in the tasting room and each ale is pumped out of the cask by hand.

Brass Ring Brewing’s part of a mighty fine club, being the first Cask Marque-accredited pub in Michigan — a highly prized accreditation among the UK’s real ale pubs and bars. Formed in 1998 in England, Cask Marque is a nonprofit organization set up to promote cask beer and particularly beer quality.

It’s “a sign of a great pint” to display the Cask Marque plaque on its glass doors because that means the microbrewery must be inspected regularly — with the beers bright and clear, kept cellar cool, and poured in glasses that are beer clean.

Crafting through COVID-19

When the state’s COVID-19 restrictions shuttered indoor dining, Gibbons and his carpenter friend Allen Spencer built four beer shanties — each one brightly painted in a primary color and outfitted with windows, lighting, heaters, a table for four and with Dutch doors to ensure the rollicking good times could continue outdoors.

Brass Ring Brewing’s British-inspired menu doesn’t disappoint with the UK’s favorite cuisine bangers and mash anchoring the menu. The bangers are sourced from Grandville butcher R.W. Bond & Son, and the mash is made with sweet brown gravy and pickled red onion. You’ll also find a proper roast beef sandwich sliced thin, ruby red and topped with horseradish cream, pickled mustard seed and caramelized onions served with French fries among the menu items. Chef Alex Ewigleben’s steak du jour with fries delivers the kind of terrifically solid flavors no chain can compare to.

On a wintery Saturday, Ewigleben confidently tended to a half-dozen pans in his galley kitchen — squeezed between the tasting room and the brewhouse — rinsing red-skinned potatoes, simmering red wine reduction, pan-frying thinly sliced gold potatoes with arugula, rosemary, onion and garlic, and thickening a blue cheese sauce.

“We should open a brewery
because we could create the
greatest space, a vanguard of creativity — and we could finish
our work lives doing what we
really love. I said to Karen,
‘It would be like our brass ring.
Let’s get our brass ring.’”
Chris Gibbons

“I’m always fine-tuning,” said Ewigleben, whose brother Jameson Ewigleben is executive chef at Perrin Brewing Company.

And that attention to improvement is why so many customers eagerly return to Brass Ring Brewing.

To celebrate all their good fortune, Gibbons and Boer definitely come from the school of “giving back.” Twenty percent of sales from its Neighborly IPA made with Paradigm Hops from neighborhood growers goes to Kids’ Food Basket. The pair also established Brass Ring Scholars, to pay full tuition for two kitchen workers to get their culinary school associate degree and a bachelor’s degree in business. “That’s our way of creating a legacy,” Gibbons said.

This story can be found in the March 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here

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