GRAND RAPIDS — The 2014 Winter Beer Fest, as always, was packed. By now, you all know the numbers. 89 breweries, 768 beers and a miraculous amount of portable toilets but somehow people still had to wait in line.
There were the perennial favorites like Founders and Short’s, with standards and fun one-offs and long, long lines. While we all know and love KBS and Short’s clever flavors like Carrot Cake, I sought out some smaller breweries by suggestion of the crowd at-large and found some gems that I wouldn’t have tasted otherwise.
Aaron Rzeznik, a brewer at Witch’s Hat Brewing Company, spoke with us about the brewery’s samplings and what Witch’s Hat is all about.
“This is our third year at the Winter Beer Fest, and as you can see (acknowledging the long line through the tent), it’s going pretty good. We are very excited to be there, there was a huge vibe before the festival. We’re pumped.”
Night Fury, an imperial stout at 10.2% ABV is one of Witch’s Hat’s seasonal offerings, and much of the hype beforehand was on the variations the brewery was bringing. The Cookies and Cream, which, yes, tastes exactly like what you think it would, was one of my favorites. “We use chocolate malt and a little bit of cocoa nibs that we age in after fermentation and actually coconut and vanilla bean, believe it or not. It’s a big hit, the keg’s gone now.” We got the last of it.
Aside from the Cookies and Cream, Witch’s Hat brought a bourbon barrel aged variety, a vanilla bean bourbon barrel aged Night Fury, and a Chocolate Espresso option, made with coffee beans from a roaster out in Leelanau Peninsula.
“Quality is our focus, we like to experiment, and we are family oriented. We’re in a small town and that’s what we focus on.”
+ + +
Our next stop was Brewery Ferment out of Traverse City where we speak with Dustin Jones, bearded owner/brewer. “This is our first full year of the beer festival circuit. We heard so much about this place, so we had to come here this year. Each festival has different crowds, different feels, and that’s what fun about them. You get to know the idiosyncrasies between them, feeling out what the people want and getting to meet all the different people who come and support the things we do.”
We sample the Lady Belma, an Imperial IPA. “This is made from all belma hops — a brand new variety — so it’s pretty different from all the other IPAs you are gonna have. It’s a unique flavor,” he said. “We try to keep a good range of things, at the same time keeping an eye towards what’s popular. We also play around with a lot of other flavors. We have the Captain Scorch, a stout with ghost peppers. How hot is it? It’s really hot.”
Yep, it’s pretty damn hot, like the hot that makes you want to drink more to make the hot go away. Brewery Ferment also used the same stout base made with salted caramel that had a much anticipated release time of 3 p.m.
MittenBrew also sampled the Big Busty B.A.R.B — a barrel aged rye barleywine, and a few of Ferment’s sours.
Brewery Ferment seems to really love its sour beers, which was great because we also love our sour beers. We tasted their Cornucopi-Ale, a cranberry wheat sour and their Spring in Sri Lanka — a sour stout with green cardamom and bitter orange peel.
When asked to sum up Brewery Ferment in three words, there wasn’t any hesitation. “Local, small and unique,” Jones answered.
We are definitely glad we stopped by Ferment’s booth.
+ + +
One booth over from Brewery Ferment we stop and chat with Greg Korson, one of the owners of Tapistry Brewing. “This is our first year at the Winter Beer Fest — we’ve been around for eight months, so it’s perfect timing,” he said. “We’re located in Bridgman, right on Lake Michigan, about 15 minutes south of St. Joe.”
We sip on Happy Colored Marbles — a Belgian Oatmeal Stout, one of the 20 beers Tapistry brought with them. The beer styles run the gamut, and really, that’s what they are all about.
“One of the big premises [of Tapistry] is the combination of artistry and chemistry, that’s how we look at it. There are hundreds and hundreds of different styles of beers, and we try to teach people about each of them. That’s part of what a microbrewery does, right? We provide education,” said Korson. “
“There’s all these different type of flavors and styles, and that’s why today we’ve got these taps that all different types of beer beers. If it’s an English style beer, we use all English grains, English yeasts, English hops, even modify the water to get the same profile of London, say. If we are doing an American pale ale, we’re just playing at that point so we’ll do whatever we want.”
Korson laughs and we sample The Hypnotist — a Dark Saison with smoky undertones.
If you are in the Grand Rapids area, you may be able to find Tapistry on tap, but you’ll have to wait until Friday if you are in Lansing or Ann Arbor.
“The vibe here in incredible, I mean it’s incredibly cold for one, but the people and sun have helped a little bit. The crowds are great, the reception has been great, and everyone is loving the beer.
“It’s been a fun little ride so far, and this is a great kickoff.”
+ + +
I run into Jenna Arcidiacono, owner and Chef at Amore Trattoria in Grand Rapids between beer tents.
“I got here at 10:30 so I could have breakfast with the Arcadia Food Truck and went on in with these two hookers,” laughs Arcidiacono, pointing to Grand Rapids photographer Terry Johnston.
“This is my first year, and it’s been fun. This is Big Willie from White Flame,“ she holds up her cup, “a double IPA and its really nice. My favorite so far.“
+ + +
To finish out our round of interviews and taste-testing, we stop by Blackrocks Brewery, based out of Marquette on the shores of Lake Superior. Chatting with Andy Langlois, whose official title is Co-Founder and Brewsician, he shares his thoughts and beer at his second year attending Winter Beer Fest.
“As always, it’s fantastic. Craft beer drinkers are a wonderful breed of people who enjoy a good Michigan made beer. It’s just fantastic to see a lot of familiar faces and meet new people.”
In addition to bringing some interesting one-offs like Whiteout — a black brew with fennel seed, Blackrocks was excited to share the three beers they are canning — the 51K IPA, Grand Rabbits Cream Ale and Coconut Brown.
“[Canning is] a really exciting thing for us, and we are really kind of blown away that we are at this point. We are just now distributing UP-wide, and we’re sending a pallet here and there to the Grand Rapids area,” said Langlois. “What I’m most excited about is the crew we brought down with us. There’s a lot of good guys here, and to bring a crew of seven guys down from a small brewery to an event like this — we’re really enjoying Grand Rapids.”
+ + +
If you weren’t lucky enough to score a ticket to the sold-out festival, mark your calendars for the Summer Beer Festival in Ypsilanti, slated for July 25 and 26. Tickets go on sale May 1; details can be found at mibeer.com.