Monday, February 24, 2014

Ninth Annual Winter Beer Fest

Here we are, folks.  After months of preparation, anticipation, pre-emptive celebration, and – yes, some controversy -- the Michigan Brewer’s Guild has delivered yet another spectacular living monument to the Michigan Beer movement.

February 22nd began with an abrupt change to this winter’s overall oppressively monochrome look.  Yes, the mountains of dirty snow remained, as did the temperature, which hovered in the low twenties for the entire day.  But the sun, which had been missing for so long that this felt like a Westeros winter, finally made a triumphant appearance.  Michiganders cannot be bothered by 20 degree weather when the rays of the sun warm what little skin we have exposed.

The weather, the crowds, and, if I’m being honest, the beer, contributed to the 89 breweries being in high spirits as they shared their product with enthusiasts all day.  Seven hundred ninety two beers and ciders made for unprecedented variety, and breweries from every corner of the state – some as far away as Marquette – gave everyone a chance to try something they’d never had before. As you may remember, Michigan Beer Blog had previously narrowed down this daunting list to ten specific beers we wanted to try most.  As reality sometimes changes one’s plans, I admit that we did not get to sample all of the beers on our list.  I should have known Salted Caramel Stout and anything sour from Livery would disappear too fast!

We did, however, sample some truly stand out beers:

Griffin Claw’s Sour Wheat Wine – we had high hopes for this wine, yet were still taken aback at its depth, complexity, and fragility.  This sour wheat rode an aggressive edge tempered with sweetness from the wheat, with a distinctly citrus and evaporative quality that I’ve only experienced in high proof whiskeys.  I wish this was less than  13% abv, but given that it’s a wheat wine, I shouldn’t complain.  If this gets bottled, it could compete with any vineyard for complexity and an eagerness to pair with foods.

Witch’s Hat doubled down on offering different versions of their stellar bourbon barrel aged Night Fury.  We sampled the vanilla bean, cherry cordial, and cookies and cream versions, all of which were extremely complex without losing either base stout’s essence nor the oak/bourbon flavor.

Speaking of extraordinarily balanced beers, Cranker’s bourbon barrel aged porter blew us away.  We came for The Merchant – the Belgian ale brewed with rare and unique black limes – and we were suitably impressed by that.  But what sets Cranker’s brewer apart is his attention to detail.  Bourbon aging is too often used in the same way that lazy brewers use extra hops additions – you can cover a lot of weak beers with heavy whiskey notes or aggressive hops flavors.  The Cranker’s bourbon porter walks that fine line between adding a warm depth and smooth roundness to its porter while still retaining those roasted, dry characteristics one expects in the style of beer. 

Brewery Terra Firma, one of the newest additions to Traverse City, brought their Wicked Garden Honey Rye Beet Wheat.  Typically when I see a title that long, I grow suspicious if all those flavors actually help in making a good finished product, but this beer delivered.  The beets gave this beer a solid, earthy foundation, which was livened by the spicy rye and then tempered by the sweet honey and wheat.  I felt a pang of jealousy to those living close to Brewery Terra Firma as I sipped this great beer.

While I missed my chance to try Vivant’s wine barrel aged imperial saison, I did have the opportunity to try their aged bretta ale, Le Flaneur. (If you want a brief explanation on a bretta ale, here’s the wiki page.  Escoffier was also a bretta ale.) La Flaneur was not nearly as aggressive in its sourness as Griffin Claw’s wheat wine, but rather used the tartness sparingly.  The hops contribute as much to the satisfying dryness as the yeast, which allows the palate to easily find the more hidden flavors from the beer, including a dusty funk, a bit of leather, and some melon notes.

Having just described only a tiny percentage of the flavors available at the Winter Beer Fest, it’s inevitable others had a wildly different experience.  If you attended, count yourself lucky, as the great weather and astounding collection of people, beer, food, and entertainment made for one of the greatest events Michigan has.  Thanks to our state’s Guild, our brewers, our event planners, and of course our beer drinkers for making the Ninth Annual Winter Beer Fest the best one yet! 


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