Michigan Winter Beer Festival De-Briefing

by David on March 1, 2011

I think the picture above pretty well sums up this past weekend’s Winter Beer Festival in Grand Rapids. Snow? Check. Hat, gloves, warm coat? Check. Beverage in hand? Check? Person who is happy as a pig in poop to be standing outside in a parking lot on a Saturday in February in Michigan for hours at a time just to drink beer? Check.

(It’s also worth noting this is an attractive young woman. Craft beer: It’s not just for pot-bellied, middle-aged dudes with beards anymore!)

See you inside, suckers!

The Winter Beer Festival is hosted by the Michigan Brewers Guild, which represents something like 60 or more of Michigan’s roughly 80 breweries — from heavyweight  Bell ‘s to tiny outfits like Ypsilanti’s Frog Island Brewery. The festival’s in its sixth year and it continues to grow, with 5,400 tickets sold, up nearly 25% from a year ago. And those tickets sold out more than a month in advance.

Thanks to taking the drunk bus from Ann Arbor, graciously chartered by Arbor Brewing, I got into the grounds (aka Fifth Third Ballpark) an hour early with the Enthusiast-level members of the Guild, skipping the long line that was already in place before noon (officially non-cool-people start time was 1pm) as an Important Media Figure. I was greeted by nearly 400 beers from 58 breweries. However was I going to try all the many different brews I was interested in?

With Founders co-owner Dave Engbers (right).

Well, this wasn’t my first rodeo, and I have a secret approach I’ve learned from plenty of prior beer festival experience. It’s the same advice Charles Bukowski gives on his gravestone: Don’t try. Yes, although everything from Peanut Butter Cup Stout from Odd Side Ales to “Another Caucasian, Gary” White Russian Ale from Short’s to Kuhnhenn Brewing’s Bourbon Barrel Aged Fourth Dementia Olde Ale beckoned to me, I knew I would ultimately drink whatever I drank and be content. The huge line for Dark Horse Brewing’s 25 — 25! — beers, already formed 15 minutes after the start of the festival, confirmed that I’d just have to go where I could and get whatever sounded most interesting.

Man, this place got busy in a hurry!

“Dave!” Then there was the matter of knowing approximately half of the 6,000 people in attendance. “Hey, Dave!” I must stress that I am in no way complaining about having lots of friends and acquaintances. The craft beer “family” is a large yet somehow still closely connected gang, and festivals are a great way to catch up with old friends and meet new ones. Nevertheless, excessive socializing with every third person can definitely cut into your drinking time, and so my scorecard tends to reflect that: I calculate 16 beers in six hours, or a beer sample every 22 minutes or so.

Without further ado, here are the beers, bullet style and in no particular order:

  • Bourbon Oak Infused Oatmeal Stout, Blue Tractor Brewery
    Add bourbon oak taste to an already tasty stout and get tastier stout!
  • GingeRed, Dark Horse Brewing Co.
    As advertised: gingery, bitter, and very red.
  • Farmhand French-Style Farmhouse Ale, Brewery Vivant
    Not a style that makes me think winter, but delicious. Looking forward to a summer road trip to visit this brewery, housed in a former funeral home.
  • Big Red Coq Hoppy Belgian Ale, Brewery Vivant
    Phallic. OK, actually a take-off on the brewery’s symbol, a stylized red rooster.
  • Sanders Chocolate Stout, Detroit Brewing Co.
    Sanders is a longtime Detroit confectioner, constantly mispronounced as “Saunders” by true Detroiters.
  • Starkweather Stout, Liberty Street Brewing Co.
    A solid offering from a solid brewery.
  • Burton-Bussels Express Wood-Aged IPA, Grizzly Peak Brewing Co.
    Smelled and tasted like the sweat from a goat’s scrotum, but in a good way. At least if you like Brett.
  • Blueberry Ice Tripel, Big Rock Chop & Brewhouse
    I was expecting to balloon up like Violet Beauregard, this was so blueberry-ish.
  • Justin Bie-beer, Copper Canyon Brewery
    A mix of 2007 barleywine and Oxymoronic Black IPA. Interesting.
  • Holy Confusion Barleywine, Witch’s Hat Brewing Co.
    Good contract brew from a young couple looking to open their own space in South Lyon this summer.
  • Endurance All Day IPA, Founders Brewing Co.
    Big hops but little(r) alcohol? Sign me up. Coming soon to bottles.
  • KBS Imperial Stout, Founders Brewing Co.
    People went nuts for this (see video below). The keg was gone in 12 minutes.
  • Noel de Calabaza Holiday Ale, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales
    A holiday tradition, at least for me. Yum.
  • Barrel Aged Carvana Birthday Ale, The Livery
    OK, I have to be honest: I have no memory of what this tasted like.
  • 440 Pepper Smoker, Original Gravity Brewing Co.
    Tasted more jalapeno-y and not as good as usual; looking forward to the summer batch that will be brewed with Brad’s homegrown jalapenos.
  • Pastoral Winter Wheat Lager, Wolverine State Brewing Co.
    Damn, this was yummy. Lucky I live close to this brewery so I can go get some more.

You will notice a distinct lack of professional beer judge &mdsh; or even particularly useful — comments about the beers.  This is because I’m not a professional beer judge, but there are other factors to consider: 1) There was no chance ever to rinse the sampling glass, so crazy flavors from the last beer or six typically lingered in every sample and 2) It was cold, so trying beers at a temperature warm enough to maximize flavor was not an option. I should probably add 3) I wouldn’t know an ester from a phenol, even if both of them snuck up on me and punched me in the head, but I’m working on it.

Anyway, enough of that. Let’s hand out some awards! Whoo!

» Winner!, Weirdest Name:
Menage a Trois in Your Mouth Firkin
, MillKing It Productions

» Winner!, Most Poetic Sounding Name:
Duh! Barrel Aged The Poet Oatmeal Stout, New Holland Brewing Co.

» Winner!, Best Punny Name:
Fig Brewton Pale Ale, Odd Side Ales

» Winner!,  How the Hell Does That Taste? :
Chocolate, Pineapple, Chipotle Rauch Biere
, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales

» Winner!, Yuck, Eww, Why?:
Badass American Lager
, Michigan Brewing Co.

» Winner!, Most Intriguing Ingredient:
Resinator Hemp Doppelbock
, Sherwood Brewing Co.

But who, besides Mikey, was the big winner in the casino? All these lunatics clamoring for Founders KBS Imperial Stout: Video

Check out the rest of the photos from my festival scrapbook on the Book of Faces. See all you freaks at the Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Festival!

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