Downtown Royal Oak is a young, vibrant city that boasts a multitude of bars and restaurants catering to beer enthusiasts, most of them overflowing with patrons on any given weekend.
On this particular Saturday evening, however, a seemingly unsuspecting venue is filled to capacity with craft beer enthusiasts from all over the Metro Detroit area for an event that comes but once a year: The 4th Annual Winter Beer Festival at the Royal Oak Music Theatre.
The event isn’t just for beer geeks, it has a great cause behind it: Camp Casey, a Michigan-based non-profit organization that provides horseback riding camps for children with cancer. Kathy Vargo, event publicist, has seen the event grow exponentially since its inception.
“This is the fourth year at the Royal Oak Music Theatre. We’re expecting it to sell out this year; probably over 1,000 people,” she said with a smile on her face. “Camp Casey is a horseback riding camp for kids with cancer. They ride horses and have a lot of fun. If the child is very sick, the volunteers will actually ride the horse up the driveway and to the front door! It’s pretty cool.
“Most of the people working are volunteers, that’s why you see so many people in plaid and cowboy hats.”
This year’s event featured over 80 beers from around the world and across the state. Food was provided by Westborn Market and included locally made salsa with tortilla chips, nuts/snack mixes, pulled pork sandwiches made with locally made hot sauce and more.
Some of the breweries representing the Mitten State included Bell’s, MillkingIt Productions (MIP), Atwater Brewing, Short’s, Greenbush, Frankenmuth, Jolly Pumpkin and North Peak. Here are a few that I tried:
Jolly Pumpkin Noel de Calabaza – This Belgian Strong Dark Holiday Ale is aged in oak barrels, giving it a woody scent with a slight wine touch. It’s tart and fruity up front, with a nice spice at the end. It’s surprisingly thin and light for such a dark beer. 4 out of 5.
Schmohz Miracle Off 28th Street – This was Schmohz’s only brew at the festival. At first taste, it’s sweet and roasty with a slight taste of dried fruit. It has a slight hop bitterness and spice at the end, and again is quite light for such a dark beer. 4 out of 5.
MIP Sno – MillkingIt Productions was well represented with their four staples, the newest of which is a light Belgian winter witbier. It smells spicy and citrusy and tastes exactly as it smells, only lighter. Cloves and orange peel hit you hard but its very light body leaves a little to be desired. 3.5 out of 5.
Rochester Mills Milkshake Stout – Right next to MIP was Rochester Mills Brewing, serving their newest canned offering: Milkshake Stout. It smells just like its name would hint: Sweet, milky and chocolate. This thick milk stout tastes very sweet up front with cocoa and milky sweetness taking the forefront with a coffee aftertaste. Overall a good milk stout. 4 out of 5.
Frankenmuth Dunkel – This American representation of the German classic Dunkel Lager smells malty and sweet. The malt comes to the front with a slight bitterness at the end. Thinner body than expected, but the balance is good. Feels more like a Lager than a Dunkel. Overall, a solid beer for the style. 3.5 out of 5.
After wandering through the crowds and sampling my fair share of beer, I made my way towards the front where some other vendors had posted up. One of the tables was manned by Stephen Roginson, founder of Batch Brewing Company in Corktown, the first nano-brewery in downtown Detroit.
Being a nano-brewery means they will only make 4-barrel batches and smaller. Roginson, a home brewer since 19 and self proclaimed Detroit fanatic, is starting the brewery because he wants to be a part of the revitalization of the downtown area.
“Well, I was born and raised in Metro Detroit. I live in Midtown, and my friend and business partner owns a building in Corktown, so it seemed like a good fit,” he says. “My day job is the marketing department of Vitamin Water, but I’ve been a beer fan and a total Detroit fanatic my whole life. To give you an idea, there are more breweries in downtown Royal Oak than in downtown Detroit, so I feel like I’m filling a need. I want to be innovative and help the city I love.”
Roginson is still working on funding his brewery. He has a website and Facebook page, but that’s just the beginning. He also has something called the “Feel Good Tap” which is a special tap that he picks every month for a special purpose: $3 of each pint goes to a different charity every month.
Royal Oak beer fans won’t have to look too far ahead for the next beer festival in their town — a summer beer festival is planned for June 22 to benefit the same charity, Camp Casey.