Before I worked in the craft industry, I was a beer festival attendee. My perspective only stretched as far as to see the glorious, seemingly never-ending flow of beer from taps. I sought out IPAs and Flanders Reds, but would absolutely try anything. My friends and I would all get different pours and trade them around, forgetting who had what, but enjoying all the different flavors and tastes anyways. People around me would start the beer battle cry and we would all join in, knocking elbows with friendly, slightly intoxicated neighbors and doing our best imitations of freed animals howling at the moon. It was always an atmosphere of (slightly reckless) happiness and friendship.
A couple of years later, I speak from the other side of festival operations as a brewery employee. The air of happiness and friendship is still very much there, but for different reasons. Beer is hard work. As an employee of a Michigan brewery, I now appreciate the science, creativity, innovation, patience, and elbow grease it takes to churn out one magical recipe. I respect brewers for their meticulous natures and passion for creation. I appreciate all of the pubtenders and barbacks for being on the front lines of service. I admire sales representatives and marketing gurus who grow the brand and spread the good word of beer. And I bow down to brave individuals who put every last iota of capital and confidence into opening their own small businesses.
I started as a pubtender in a small brewery to learn the beer and study the brand. I tried out brewing, and while I enjoyed it, it wasn’t the everyday vocation I wanted to devote myself to. I am now a brewery sales representative who dabbles in marketing. I’m also the lead on festivals and events, working with new people and old friends every day. Like all workers in the craft industry, I wear a lot of hats, and gladly. I am still new to the industry, but I recognize that the best brewery team is one that not only believes in the brand, but also in all of its individual members.
And only the best craft and brewery teams are brought to the Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Fest. Not only is it hosted by the largest craft beverage organization in Michigan—this festival takes place in Grand Rapids, known by many as Beer City, USA. For Michigan breweries, this is our semester’s final exam, making all of the festival-goers our very enthusiastic and very opinionated graders.
Like a majority of fellow breweries, we plan our beer list carefully (and usually months in advance). We want to bring recognized favorites, but also new styles and maybe a few surprises. Some of those surprises, like a barrel-aged beer, take months to age, with brewers carefully tasting and testing the product until that exact moment that it’s pronounced perfect. And when we tap that beer, crossing our fingers that it wasn’t damaged in transportation or that the tap lines aren’t too cold to pour through, nothing makes us happier than handing it over to an eager attendee.
The weather for this year’s Winter Beer Fest ran the gamut of possible Michigan forecasts. Friday kicked off the festivities with heavy rains downways, sideways, and everyway, drowning everyone, yet spirits remained high. Saturday ushered in a cold snap, welcoming back some fluffy white snow following a pretty mellow winter season. Luckily, the biggest issue weather caused was a few flyaway tents, so festivities went forward.
A huge attribute to the success of a festival is the volunteer staff. Sometimes, they are the close friends and family of fellow brewery staff. Sometimes they are complete strangers eager for a new experience. Whatever their motivations, they are often thrust into the thick of things with nothing but their enthusiasm to guide them.
We had a great mix of volunteers pouring with us at this beer festival, all with different experience levels. A couple had never poured beer before, while a few others were volunteer veterans, pouring with ease and fielding questions like they owned the place. This mix of strengths caters to all of the different festival goers as well. First-time attendees want more questions answered while some just want the beer options listed as efficiently as possible. Either way, it’s always good to have help.
Even with advanced planning and care, things don’t always go quite the way we want—weather, forgotten supplies, broken down vehicles, sick workers—it all happens. This is usually the nature of the beer business. Luckily, the Michigan craft industry is known for camaraderie. We all lend out a lot of spare wrenches, air tanks, and even volunteer workers at festivals to ensure that all attendees are allowed the best possible time of their lives. At this year’s Winter Beer Fest, we forgot an air tank, meaning we had no way to push beer through the taplines (sheer will does not work). I knew I could reach out to friends in the industry for assistance, and it was no surprise when someone had an extra they could lend us. Later that day, we helped jumpstart another brewery’s vehicle.
The Michigan craft industry is very much a community—a lot of give with little take. We only want to help each other excel in order to grow the industry into further success as a whole. It all comes down to our beer in a person’s hand. With our whole hearts, every fiber of our being, we want people to enjoy it. But we want honest feedback. We want questions and discussions. Most of all, we want to have a conversation with people about our beer and our brand.
With the number of Michigan breweries growing monthly, Michigan craft-drinkers are becoming more and more educated. They recognize quality, they ask questions about ingredients and brew systems, and they appreciate something new. The constant challenge of fulfilling and exceeding every attendee’s expectation keeps us all on our toes and guarantees an innovative and creative future for the industry as a whole.
Whether craft is a hobby or a career, Michigan craft is all about passion. We believe in what we drink and who pours it no matter what side of the bar we’re standing on.
Photography: Amee Rutan