GRAND RAPIDS — It’s only fair that the brewers and beer geeks, who can attend a festival somewhere in the state almost every weekend, let the wine and food people have their own party once a year. Still, it’s nice to be invited.
Michigan breweries graciously shared the stage with wineries, meaderies, restaurants and even the big beer companies at the Grand Rapids International Wine, Beer & Food Festival, now in its fifth year.
Actually, brewers essentially had their own stage, the makeshift “Craft Beer Hall” cloistered behind a wall in the rear gallery of DeVos Place. And though one had to navigate a sea of suit coats and Italian leather shoes to find it, neither the brewers nor the patrons seemed to mind.
When asked if they felt “quarantined” in the back, most brand reps strictly denied it. Chris Lasher, a salesman for Dark Horse Brewing in Battle Creek, imagined the division as something of an honor, a nod to the sense of community that binds Michigan brewers.
Matt Cebula of downtown Detroit’s Atwater Brewery agreed: “They make this feel like a beer event,” he said, referring to the beer hall; “they make that,” referring to the rest of the convention center, “feel like a wine event.”
It’s true that the air changed as one wandered to the back. The attire grew more casual, as ties and blazers disappeared among sellers and buyers alike. The music and conversation grew a little more raucous: A band with a blues harmonica replaced the mellow jazz trio of the main hall, and the concentrated chatter threatened to drown out even that. The sample fees changed, too, becoming less steep.
For a taste of beer, one had to surrender only one or two sample tickets, while a trickle of wine might cost three to five. (For further reference, a lamb slider from Bar Divani or a filet slider from the Fire Rock Grille required 10 tickets — though both were well worth it.)
Despite the barriers — physical and cultural — the two hemispheres weren’t entirely separate. The beer vendors deferred to the customs of their neighbors, pouring conservatively.
As Jim Brown of Arcadia Ales noted, the event was “not a drunk-fest, but more of a sampling-fest.”
In exchange for the tickets, a guest — even one with a media badge — would receive enough to appreciate but not quite enough to savor. And these samples were poured from bottles opened, capped and iced, like the wine bottles next door. Gone were the coolers and nozzles and ocotopodal hoses of the portable draught system.
None of the breweries seemed to begrudge the temporary culture shift; to the contrary, they embraced the chance to appeal to a wider audience and perhaps surprise a few new customers.
Jim Brown said the event “exposes [craft brewers] to a whole new demographic,” a more affluent, “on-tap” crowd. Dark Horse’s Lasher agreed and spoke of it as an honor to have so many wine-drinkers wandering back into the beer hall.
John Green, partner and Managing Director at Founders, playfully objected that brewers weren’t “front and center” as they should be, but still appreciated the chance to meet a more diverse segment of the Grand Rapids population, explaining, “This is our base.”
Even with all of the changes, most brewers altered nothing in their preparations. Most brought their staples and one or two seasonal offerings. As autumn turns to winter, “seasonal” means fewer IPAs and ambers and many more brown ales and porters and stouts. Trends this winter involved coffee and vanilla, sometimes in a stout like Arbor Brewing’s Espresso Love Breakfast Stout, sometimes in a porter like Atwater’s Vanilla Java Porter.
Wine drinkers and beer drinkers alike seemed to appreciate these darker, cozier beers.
At the end of the day, Michigan brewers can be confident, even among upscale clientele and top industry representatives. As Brown from Arcadia said, “We let the beer do the talking for us.”