Winter Beer Festival - from my perspective the zenith of the month of February to my girlfriend's chagrin given her affinity for the 14th. The Michigan Brewers' Guild hosted the 5th annual Winter Beer Festival on February 27th. Being a Michigan native, it’s only fitting that I swap my Columbus Craft Beer Examiner hat for that of the diverse craft brew scene of the Greater Detroit area. I am kicking off my stint as the Detroit Craft Beer Examiner with a personal recount of this year's tribute to Michigan breweries. Keep in mind, I may not remember everything.
8:00am - I leave the Detroit area and head toward Grand Rapids to meet up with Erik, a friend since elementary school and fellow beer enthusiast. I have had beer on the brain for weeks, and an event like Winter Beer Fest is pretty much the only thing that can get me out of bed before 2pm on a Saturday let alone hop out of bed into a two-hour drive.
10:00am - I arrive at Erik's house where he is frantically trying to layer himself with clothes. The 2009 Winter Beer Festival was a bit on the cold side, but the forecast for this afternoon suggested sunny with temperatures in the low 40's so I was sporting a simple military-style jacket, jeans and tennis shoes. I wasn't worried about frigid temperatures, and I may have even wrinkled a brow at Erik's donning filthy Carhart overalls, a hooded sweatshirt, a winter jacket, and moon boots. That's right. I said moon boots! But I accepted his offer to borrow his girlfriend’s hat and gloves nonetheless. After all, who are we trying to impress?
10:30am - My cohort's girlfriend drops us off at Comstock Park in Grand Rapids. The Winter Beer Festival is held here each and every year. The gates open to the public at 12 noon, but as Michigan Beer Nuts (Michigan Brewers' Guild members), Erik and I are granted the privilege of entering the festival gates an hour before the rest of the public. A couple points of knowledge:
Either get dropped off by a reliable friend or get hooked up with a tour bus. Driving after imbibing is incredibly dangerous and not an option for respecters of brew, and
Becoming a Michigan Beer Nut was a great investment as the early entry allowed us to sample many of our Michigan favorites while still sober enough to tell the difference and without having to wait in line.
11:00am - The gates should be open! An event manager announces that it's 10:56am and there are four minutes left till beer time. Every one of the 150 or so beer drinkers in the VIP line (Erik and I included) check their clocks and look around at each other dumbfounded that we are not half in the bag already. It's kind of chilly, and Erik is looking like the bright one as far as attire goes.
11:04am - The gates open and a flood of early festival goers scatter rather evenly throughout the event area to the 51 Michigan brewery tasting exhibits (you can check out the 2010 Winter Beer Festival Guide). Our first stop is the token tent where we pick up our cups and 10 drink tokens that come with the purchase of each ticket. Each token represents a 3oz tasting, though many pourers are very generous (thank you New Holland!). Additional tokens cost $.50 each. I laid down $20 for another 40 tokens. I like beer.
11:10am - Erik and I have an affinity for New Holland's Dragon's Milk oak barrel aged stout. It's better on draft than the typical 22oz bomber serving style, and New Holland happened to be sporting 2008 AND 2010 versions! We make a beeline to the New Holland tasting station. We are greeted by the king of kegerators...literally. New Holland has a statue of Elvis rocking its tap handles! We throw back a generous pour of 2008 Dragon's Milk and note it's mellowed out flavors, which have melded over time. It's super sweet and smooth. We followed that up with a sample of the 2010 version. The flavors of the newer concoction are much more distinct and crisp and more to my liking as I am a fan of bold flavors. Try both if you can find them, and don’t take my word for which is best.
11:15am - I snap my first picture of a Detroit area brewery exhibit: Dragonmead.
11:45am - We have tasted several more beers from the Detroit area as I made my rounds to take pictures of tasting stations. I notice the camera on my Blackberry is getting a lot harder to operate as the buttons are becoming kind of blurry. I look over to catch a glimpse of Erik trying to text message several friends who should be waiting in line for public entry by now with his leather snowmobile mittens. He looks like a rather confused primate, but I let him struggle with it just for fun.
12:04pm - The gates open to the public. We sprint to the Founders station to get a sample of the newly tapped Kentucky Breakfast Stout 2010, their famous Breakfast Stout aged in bourbon barrels. We position ourselves at the end of a notably long line.
12:10pm - No Kentucky Breakfast! Apparently to keep interest up, several breweries have established release times at which they will tap into their more popular beers. I am not a fan of this new method because it's very easy to miss out on some great offerings. Short's Caramel Apple, Dark Horse's Double Crooked Tree IPA, and Bell's Bourbon Barrel Aged Hell Hath No Fury are all specialties I missed out on because they had limited offerings. I wish I could have seen straight enough to set my phone's alarm clock to alert me to the Founders 2:00pm KBS tapping.
12:30pm - Erik and I meet up with our friends who entered with the public. Each had a full tasting glass reflecting each of their individual tastes. This is the beauty of any beer festival...there's something for everyone. Unfortunately I noticed my own glass to be empty, which was extremely disappointing.
1:00pm - I'm flying solo now hitting every short line I can find. I know I drank a lot of beer, but I honestly can't say I could actually tell the difference at this point. I am very sure any of Michigan's beer offerings would have been very memorable had I had anything greater than a 10 second memory loss buffer.
1:20pm - If nothing else, I do notice it's starting to get a bit warmer, so the gloves and hat find a place in my pockets. I'm sure Erik will be regretting his attire. Speaking of Erik...I'm HUNGRY, and he owes me money. The Beer Fest has a pretty decent selection of tailgate-style food like cheeseburgers, turkey legs, brats, and pasties (a Michigan favorite). New mission: find Erik and convince him to buy me food!
1:30pm - Apparently drunk minds think alike. I find Erik chowing down on a cheeseburger with way too much ketchup on it. How do I know it was way too much ketchup? Because half of it accented the front of his Carhart overalls in a red dripping pattern, not that he knew any different. I bum $10 all too easily and head to grab a turkey leg, but the guy in front of me takes the last one. Bummed, I toss in an order for a pasty, which in hindsight I realize is really the perfect complement to beer. I chow down on this delectable package of meat, potatoes, rutabagas, and lard. As I stuff the last bit of flaky crust in my mouth, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a fully-untouched turkey leg lying helplessly on the ground. Who could let such a thing happen? Should I? No! Or yes...I mean no! Ugh...yes. I glance around. No one is looking except a few others who are thinking the same thing I am. No! I can't. Well, maybe after about 3 more pints worth of tastings I'll come back and see if it's still here. Deal? Deal. I'm banking on forgetting about it 10 seconds after I walk away.
2:00pm to 5:00pm - It's pretty safe to say that the final three hours of the 2010 Winter Beer Festival contained a lot of jovial frivolity. More beer was drank, my vision got blurrier, I'm sure I bumped into everyone at the festival at least once, my words became more and more incomprehensible, frequent trips to the porta-potties were made, and I think I got tackled in there somewhere. Hint: the same tokens are used at each Michigan Brewers' Guild event, and these tokens go a long way considering the generosity of the pourers and the strength of Michigan craft beers. So if you’re like me and get a little overzealous by laying down a $20 for 40 extra tokens and only make it through 12 of them, resist the urge to use them all and feel free to hold on to them until the Summer Beer Festival in Ypsilanti when you can taste again.
5:10pm – Erik’s girlfriend picks us up. I have to put Erik in the backseat where he passes out before I shut the door. I get in the front seat and sigh a sigh of exhaustion and relief.
This year’s Michigan Brewers’ Guild Winter Beer Festival has come and gone, and so has my inaugural article as the Detroit Craft Beer Examiner. There are many more events to cover, the least of which is the MBG Summer Beer Festival in Ypsilanti. That event is a bit larger that the Winter Beer Festival, and beer lovers from every corner of the Mitten State should try to make it down to sample Michigan's beer wares. More details are to come.
Thank you to everyone from all corners of the great state of Michigan who have stuck with me as well as those who are new to my column. Please continue to look for my articles as they emerge as I continue to explore the vast microbrewery culture of the greater Detroit area.