DETROIT – “This is amazing. I’m used to festivals with maybe 20 breweries, two of which are Budweiser or Miller.”
The guy speaking stood before me, dressed in a red ball cap and sweatshirt with a large “N,” denoting where he recently moved from — Nebraska. In contrast to his native Cornhusker State’s beer events, the festival we were at — the sixth annual Detroit Fall Beer Festival — sported more than 75 breweries serving nearly 700 beers, all of them from right here in Michigan.
It was a timely reminder of what Michigan craft beer lovers are sometimes tempted to take for granted: we are blessed with a large, diverse array of great local brews that is the envy of most any other state in the union. Here are a few of the more interesting ones I sampled over the festive weekend, including several that confounded my expectations.
Got Their Claws in Me
Apridisiac Sour Apricot Amber Ale, Bourbon Imperial Pumpkin Ale, Griffin Claw Brewing Co. (Birmingham)
Cool story, bro: last month I attended a beer dinner with Griffin Claw head brewer Dan Rogers, who told the story of how he transitioned from chef to brewer during his days in Las Vegas in the 1990s. It turns out I drank his beer at the now defunct Holy Cow Microbrewery during my one and only trip to Sin City in 1996. Happily for me and the rest of Michigan, Rogers is back home and turning out some amazing brews including Apridisiac, a hay-colored, medium-bodied ale that delivers sweet and sour apricot jam and marmalade notes with a mild funky finish. Of greatest surprise to me was how much I enjoyed Bourbon Imperial Pumpkin, which combined three of my least favorite fads into one beer.
Livin’ on the Edge
Ctrl+Alt+Del Altbier, River’s Edge Brewing Co. (Milford)
I have yet to make the trip to River’s Edge, which opened just this past summer, but the buzz around its beers has been consistently good. This is no doubt due to the shrewd decision to bring Michigan brewing veteran Kim Schneider (formerly of Traverse City’s North Peak, among others) on board as head brewer. Ctrl+Alt+Del is fashioned as a traditional Northern German altbier, with a light malt flavor, balanced nicely by Spalt hops and a crisp, satisfying finish. Not to mention, it has a great name.
Bourbon Barrel Aged Vanilla Porter, Gonzo’s BiggDogg Brewing Co. (Kalamazoo)
Longtime brewer of both the home and pro variety Greg “Gonzo” Haner finally put his extensive Siebel Institute training to its ultimate use in 2013 when he opened Gonzo’s BiggDogg in Kalamazoo. Despite my reservations about the brewery’s silly name, the beers are top notch, especially the Bourbon Barrel Aged Vanilla Porter, a robust, chocolatey brew with vanilla notes highlighted by the bourbon character, all smoothed out with a pleasantly silky mouthfeel.
440 Pepper Smoker, Barrel Aged Rye-Headed Stepchild, Original Gravity Brewing Co. (Milan)
The first time I had 440 Pepper Smoker on tap, I knew I had finally found a pepper-flavored beer I could get behind. The toasty amber malt notes are accentuated with just enough jalapeno heat to leave you with a slow burn and a thirst for another pint. The Rye-Headed Stepchild brought a brilliant balance of ginger and rye malt spiciness, overlaid with complex, woody notes from the whiskey barrel.
Hops and Oats
Oats ’N Hoes Imperial IPA, Unruly Brewing Co. (Muskegon)
Another surprise for me was Oats ’N Hoes, an imperial IPA from relative newcomer Unruly Brewing, the brainchild of homebrewer-turned-pro Eric Hoffman. Hoffman’s known for brewing beers with copious amounts of hops, and this rendition of the 8.1% ABV bitter bomb was all the more hoppy for being pushed through a Randall of, if memory serves, fresh Chinook and Simcoe cones. The malt backbone (which included flaked oats) held up nicely against even this much hoppiness. I’m not normally a fan of these types of beers (or even Simcoe hops in general), but this one managed to hit the spot. The name is apparently a reference to a rap parody by Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly that I’m not hip (hop) enough to have seen.
Dandelion Rhubarb Saison, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales (Dexter)
Head brewer and founder Ron Jeffries of Jolly Pumpkin is known both for making some pretty funktastic wild ales as well as experimenting with various leafy green ingredients. His Dandelion Rhubarb Saison featured the well known Jolly Pumpkin sour profile, but topped it off with a counterbalance of earthy, vegetal notes. Dee-licious and gone too soon.
The Ones That Got Away
Two beers I wanted to try included Brewery Vivant’s Paris — a saison fermented with brettanomyces and aged in red wine barrels — and Bourbon Barrel Territorial Baltic Porter — a collaboration between Liberty Street and Witch’s Hat, named for a road that runs between Plymouth and South Lyon, where the two breweries are respectively located. A number of people enthusiastically recommended these beers, but I never quite got to them. Sad face.
There were, of course, many other amazing beers deserving of mention. But just like beer festivals, where time is limited, so is the word count for articles recapping them.
In the meantime, get ready for the next great Michigan Brewers Guild fest, the 10th annual Winter Beer Festival, now two days long — Feb. 27-28, 2015 — in Grand Rapids. Tickets go on sale Dec. 4 (with pre-sale for Enthusiast members Dec. 2-3). See mibeer.com to buy online.