Monday, February 27, 2012

7th Annual Winter Beer Fest

I've written before about the fun that can be had drinking beer outside in the middle of a Michigan winter, so it should come as no surprise that I, along with thousands of like minded, beer loving people from both within and outside of Michigan, spent Saturday morning pulling on layers of warm clothing, heavy coats, sunglasses, gloves, hats, and pretzel necklaces in order to spend six hours standing outside in 28 degree weather. The perfect start to the Michigan Winter Beer Fest.

Also, beard hats.

The Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Fest, hosted annually at the Fifth Third Ballpark in Grand Rapids, is the biggest winter beer festival in the state, with over 7,000 brewers, pourers, caterers, and beer lovers in attendance. It boasts the largest amount of beers available of any of the winter festivals, with over 450 different samples from 60+ breweries. Giant turkey legs, delicious looking pasties, and enormous marinara covered meatballs made up just a portion of the food designed to soak up beer and let people continue sampling. Propane lamps and large outdoor fires helped festival attendees warm up if needed. Luckily, while the temps were in the 20s, the tents housing the beer captured body heat efficiently and kept most of the tasting areas surprisingly warm.

So why stand in lines – some of which stretched for 20 minutes or more – for beer? Many breweries use this opportunity to show off their strongest, most unique, or most rare beers, offering up a selection of beer you have never had and may never have again. Some of the highlights:

Round Barn – a brewery I have called heaven on earth before – aged their already delicious cocoa stout in Cognac barrels, giving their chocolate flavored beer a deep, complex flavor reminiscent of the brandy they distill.

Grand Rapids' own Hopcat offered a Black Russian stout, a sweet, dark beer with vanilla, coffee, and chocolate notes that, when served on nitro, tasted just like a smoother version of the cocktail of the same name.

Someone is much more skilled in Chalk Art than me.

I already wrote about Odd Side Ales' Mayan Mocha stout – a blend of chocolate, cinnamon, nutmeg, and habanero peppers that remains one of my favorite beers of 2012.

Short's brewing, never one to shy away from originality, had some very unique flavors, including the Gambler, a tobacco flavored ale that somehow perfectly nailed a cigarette flavored beer. The Gambler may not be for everyone (do you want to drink a cigarette?), but under the aggressive tobacco flavors lurked some earthy elements that actually made this concept beer worth trying.

Greenbush Brewing, the new brewery in the far southwest corner of the state, had some fantastic and original ideas, including the first imperial black IPA I have tried. Rage is an extremely complex, 14% abv beer that matches a powerful hop profile with a sturdy malt base. It gave out strong toasted elements that avoided tasting burnt; this is a beer for every hophead out there.

The Saugatuck brewing company had a serrano pepper beer available; I'm happy that hot pepper beers are getting more popular, and this ale had a lively, garden fresh taste to it which balanced out the spiciness quite well.

The Corner Brewery had on tap four fantastic sour ales. I may be biased as sour ale has become my favorite genre of beer, but their traditional Flanders style sour ale is everything I appreciate about the style, with an aggressive tartness that actually enhances the deep fruit of the beer while simultaneously keeping it from getting sweet.

Planning and executing an alcohol related festival can get tricky, especially when it's outdoors and for thousands of people. I have to hand it to the Michigan Brewers Guild for consistently pulling off a safe, successful, and entertaining environment for craft beer lovers. Everything from the great food and music to the environmentally friendly philosophy (the sample cups are biodegradable!) went off without a hitch.

7 thousand people.

For those of you who were at the festival this year – it was great seeing you. For those of you who waited too long to get your ticket and missed out, I can virtually guarantee you that the festival next year will sell out just as quickly as it did this year, so don't let articles from the lucky attendees be your only experience and plan ahead! And for those of you on the fence about the biggest Michigan beer party in winter – hop on the trolley. This is one of the jewels of Michigan's entertainment.

Devil horns and a cigar?  This place had everything.

More pictures available on our facebook page.


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