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! 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Winter Beer Fest Cheat Sheet: Ten Most Anticipated Beers

This Saturday marks the most breweries and most beers of any Winter Beer Fest ever: 17 more breweries than last year, with an astounding 792 beers to sample in one day. At this point only the most delusional of imbiber would even consider trying all of them, so it behooves us all to nail down a plan. Based on the list released by the always fantastic Mash, these are samples the Michigan Beer Blog is most excited to try:

(a note -- we realize a few of these are beers that can be had at the taproom of their respective establishment; in those cases, distance became a factor in our decision)

Brewery Ferment – Salted Caramel Stout

We wanted to put a list together that carried the best and brightest ideas without saddling anyone with too many high abv beers. Salted Caramel has enjoyed a huge surge in popularity recently, and ranks among my favorite balance of sweet and savory when it comes to dessert. Brewery Ferment has shown they know their way around a flavored stout, so we are very much anticipating this beer.

Brewery Vivant – Liam & Me – Wine Barrel aged Imperial Saison

It's difficult to just pick one of Brewery Vivant's impressive stable of aged beers; we chose the Imperial saison for its originality and as a gesture of encouragement. With so many whiskey aged stouts in attendance, we wanted to recognize alternate beers when we could.

Cranker's – The Merchant Belgian Ale with Black Lime and Orange Peel

While the description leaves a bit to the imagination (what kind of belgian ale, specifically), we've never been disappointed with Cranker's experimental ales. Many belgian styles lend themselves well to citrus infusions, and we hope this stands out as a refreshing winter choice.

Greenbush – Hipster Ketchup Sriracha Stout

I don't think I need to explain why this is on this list. When one of the top rated breweries in the country makes a stout flavored with every millenial's favorite condiment, you try it.

Griffin Claw –Sour Dough Sour Wheat Wine

Griffin Claw's stable this year has several very intriguing items, but my penchant for sours won out here.

Harmony Brewing – Capricorn Absinthe Chocolate Stout

In my off days I moonlight as a cocktail connoisseur, and the first thing you learn about absinthe is that it's practically impossible to incorporate absinthe into a cocktail successfully. Even the Sazerac, likely the world's most famous absinthe cocktail, uses not more than a few drops to impart that strong, herbal quality. So it is with a cautious optimism that this beer makes the list.

Rockford Brewing Company / New Holland Winter Rye

Rye ales have been growing in popularity, slowly supplanting the seemingly untouchable IPA market. I'm interested to see how the typically spicy grain plays in a winter white genre.

Short's Bourbon Carrot Cake

Either the person who writes the descriptions for Short's beer got lazy, or this beer (called “stupid good” on the list) really is worth the name.

The Livery – Grand Reserve Verchuosity Sour Belgian

I usually have one Livery beer on this list every year. I am always amazed at the tastes this brewery gets out of their sours. Questionable spelling aside, this rare selection should be worth the wait in line.   

These beers represent only a shade over 1% of the beers available! With the plethora of choices, we obviously left off your favorite.  Let us know which beer we slighted in the comments.

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