Record numbers of both attending breweries and festival-goers alike were the talk of this year's annual Winter Beer Festival hosted by the Michigan Brewer's Guild. The lines were long, the breweries and beer offerings were expansive, but have beer fans come to expect more from their home-state brewers?
The February 23rd gathering was the 8th straight year in which the Fifth Third Ballpark parking lot in Comstock Park, Michigan was overrun with beer lovers, and this year's attendance of more than 7,500 staff, fans, and media personnel consumed more than 7,400 gallons of beer taking the term “overrun” to a new level. The Guild did a superb job this year with expanding the brewery presence to accommodate the enormous crowd. Representatives from 74 of Michigan’s finest breweries were in attendance offering over 625 beers for sampling from the entire spectrum of American and European beer styles and beyond.
The Brewer’s Guild touts their major festivals (Winter, Summer, Upper Peninsula, and Fall) as a venue for brewers across the state – from Calumet to Sawyer, Ludington to Port Huron – to showcase their offerings and display their creativity for beer lovers to enjoy on even ground. A Bell’s Two-Hearted IPA or New Holland Cabin Fever Brown Ale can be sipped alternately with a Kuhnhenn Double Rice IPA (DRIPA) or Witch’s Hat Barrel-Aged Train Hopper IPA. For 5 hours each winter, all attending breweries are on an even playing field with an equal opportunity to impress. Surprisingly, some brewers had apparent difficulty bringing their best to the plate.
Much is expected of the larger breweries at the Michigan beer festivals, but the festivals also offer an opportunity for the smaller breweries to put their small batch talents on display. A few of these brewers knocked it out of the park. Old Boys’ Brewhouse out of Spring Lake brought the house with their Nutsack Chocolate Peanut Stout. The beer maid suggested a half Nutsack/half Imperial Stout tasting which was otherworldly. Old Boys’ also had creative presentation and a line of t-shirts for purchase. For a small brewer, the quality of their presence made them a popular choice among festivalgoers.
Newly-formed, The Mitten Brewing out of Grand Rapids brought some of the best to the fest. Their Country Strong IPA was a perfect blend of citrus and spice, and the Death to Flying Things Bourbon Imperial Stout rivaled any other Bourbon stout across the festival acreage. They served a steady stream of patrons and finished the festival strongly with a seemingly endless supply of libations.
The local Perrin Brewing out of Comstock Park brought a bus to the party. A unique serving station, Perrin offered drinkers refuge from the elements as the tasting line entered a wonderfully decorated bus with a tasting station in the rear. Though their titles were ironically mundane, a few outstanding tastes were handed out including their Vanilla Imperial Stout and Double IPA.
Though some of the smaller brewers hit home runs, a few struck out looking. There were a few marketing mistakes that festival rookies make, and with 74 brewers in attendance – more than any other year – there were plenty of new faces. Fortunately, all brewers at least made their brewery name visible, but a few tables neglected to post the available beers at the tasting stations. It is helpful for all available beers to be defined. Of course, tasters can sift through the festival guide booklet, but that creates a holdup in the line, and not all beers listed in the guide are actually available on tap. Creative display of availability is essential.
The words all festival-goers dread hearing – “We’re out.” The cardinal mistake at any promotional festival is running out of product. It’s like McDonald’s running out of hamburgers. An hour and a half before the festival doors closed, some smaller brewers were already packing their bags. If it is unrealistic to stay in supply of beer for sampling, other attractions should be brought to the table, so to speak. Perhaps media could be distributed or merchandise sold. Later in the festival is a perfect opportunity to distribute marketing material, which is even more important if the other option is taking down the brewer’s sign. An impromptu brewing demonstration by the head brewer could be an attraction once the well runs dry as seen during the Summer Beer Festival. Craft beer enthusiasts love to know that their favorite drinks have accessible roots.
Of course, a review of the Michigan Brewer’s Guild Winter Beer Festival would not be complete without touching on some of Michigan’s larger brewers, some of which could also have put forth more of an effort given the magnitude of attendance of this year’s festival. Short’s Brewing brought their typical demi-column of odd beer taps with their ironically shorted legs dancing above the lines of drinkers waiting or a sample. The Bourbon Wizard Barrel-Aged Barleywine may very well have been the best beer this year. Its caramelly smoothness and high octane Bourbon notes embody everything a northerner would want in a beer on a winter day. Some new titles graced the Short’s taps, but the production was still the same. A growing name like Short’s is looked toward to set the bar for festival creativity, but this year’s display seemed to have a tired feel.
Always a favorite and with beers available across the state, New Holland’s Elvis statue beer tap that used to make the brewery seem to brim with creativity just blended into the background. Even more mundane were the samplings offered. Has New Holland become a mere production facility rather than a pillar of Michigan craft beer innovation? The Rum Barrel-Aged Dragon’s Milk was an attempt to woo those seeking more, but fell short.
Dark Horse Brewing was a more interesting case. A brewer that once hosted the “stout cave” settled for serving tables at opposite ends of the tasting field, one with their standard taps such as Crooked Tree IPA and Plead the 5th Imperial Stout, and the second with taps that put their inventiveness on display including their “Dekoorc Eert” line – some backward Crooked Tree twists. The production may have been lacking, but the substance of the Dark Horse line was enough to keep fans guessing.
A few of Michigan’s heaviest hitters – Founders and Bell’s – brought some heavy hitters of their own to the table. Founders brought some top-notch beers such as the Frangelic Mountain Brown, KBS Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout, and CBS Maple Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout. However, their Spite Pepper Ale – a tasteless light ale brewed with hot peppers – took the crown for worst beer at the festival. Bell’s offered some quality with their Bourbon Barrel beers Black Note and Batch 9000. With 7,500 in attendance, the error with these offerings was not bringing enough to last leaving experimental tasters in the dark when they seek out these titles. This was a curable epidemic throughout the festival.
Overall, the 2013 Winter Beer Festival brought a huge variety of beers to sample. Except for a few surprise efforts, breweries failed to blow away patrons with creativity and unique experience. But the competition is fiercer than ever, and next year’s iteration should see a rise in creativity as each brewer brings its best to the game and leaves it all on the field.