winter beer fest

There’s something about having over 1,000 of the most cared for craft beers at your mitten-covered fingertips that makes standing outside in winter weather simply worth it. For the Michigan Brewers Guild’s 11th annual Winter Beer Fest, they recognized the increasing demand for their signature February event and for the second year in a row they re-upped adding Friday making it a well deserved two-day event.

For those who weren’t quick enough to snag a ticket for today, which sold out in minutes, Dianna Stampfler, Public & Media Relations for the Guild, welcomed the public to consider Friday in an effort to be a part of something new. Less crowds, shorter lines and special tappings that might not be repeated today were obvious benefits to making day 1 of WBF the new norm. Truthfully, she acknowledged, “you could actually still get tickets yesterday, too.” However, after the intimate experience yesterday offered, we don’t think it’ll be long before the secret about Friday gets out.

Before the gates opened to the public, members of the Guild were privy to an Enthusiast Hour. A worthwhile membership perk available upon joining, this gave the ultra-dedicated a nearly private hour of being able to sample at their leisure. As soon as the public entered, we met Kara Kanwischer, 21, of Grand Rapids – the first person through. This was her first beer fest experience. When asked about what she looked forward to most, Kanwischer set the tone for the rest of the day — “I’m just pumped to be able to experience all these new beers, and then travel to visit the breweries in person.”

winter beer fest

“Plus, Saturday was sold out,” she added.

Not short on passion or creativity, brewers brought their A game. Known for their wildly ambitious homemade ingenuity, Dark Horse Brewing Co. brought a replica of the Mackinac Bridge as their “booth.” Their owner and fearless leader Aaron Morse casually told us, “Yeah, we just came up with idea this past Tuesday [to do something new and crazy], and built it Wednesday and yesterday.” He joked, half seriously, “We’re kind of known as ‘Last Minute Brewing Co.’” Still, Morse and Co. managed to pull it off. In addition to their large-scale interactive set design, they brought big, higher ABV beers to battle the cold. Morse recommended and poured us a sample of Blueberry Double Crooked Tree. But, there are also blood orange, coffee, and hot pepper variants for when you cross that bridge.

Our state’s craft beer scene is a team sport. Tom Payne, Director of Artistic Fermentation at 57 Brew Pub & Bistro, was all smiles showing off their Rally Round the Family. A wild fermented version of their 57 Chevy Michigan IPA, Payne proudly shared, “In twenty years, that’s the BEST beer I’ve ever made!” He was quick to not take all the credit. Payne made sure to sincerely thank Jeff Williams, head brewer at Pike 51 and Steve Berthel, Head Pub Brewer at New Holland Brewing. Williams shared ten-year-old barrels that were used for his Renegades of Funk, and Berthel supplied the wild cultures. Rage Against the Machine much? Testify.

Payne showed a sincere love for his craft and the people who help him keep it funky. Check out his ShutterBug Cherry Saison, which he brewed with MittenBrew Owner, Steph Harding — lovingly named in her honor because she’s pretty good with a camera, too. When asked what sparked them brewing together, he didn’t hesitate, “Why not? We’re friends.”

Before we switched gears to dark beers, Griffin Claw Brewing Co., turned us on with their Apridisiac – a wild ale soured with apricots that carried an even balance of sweetness to balance the tartness. And then, we took a hard turn to sampling Flying Buffalo, a bourbon barrel-aged Russian imperial stout. Attendees today, however, will get to try its coffee variant — but it’s the Krakatoa, also tapping today, that will likely get you hot and bothered. This Russian imperial stout is aged for a couple days with ghost peppers. Angie Williams, self-proclaimed Cellar Bitch (she’s actually the biggest sweetheart), said she had to wear a mask and gloves when blending the peppers and adding them to the tank. “It was brutal,” she said, “but it’ll warm your gullet.” Andy Jarois, in packaging and design, sold us by promising “it’s a really good throat feel.”  

While you’re waiting for your throat to cool off, go get in line early for one of sixteen Dragon’s Milk Reserve variants at New Holland Brewing’s Stop and Taste trailer. Their campground vibe compound offers a tricked out Airstream (with built-in tap system) to relax in, handcrafted lounge chairs, fire pit and giant Jenga. You’re going to need a place to hang out for a minute if you try to tackle their bourbon barrel stout portfolio.

One of New Holland’s partners and resident “Beervangelist” Fred Bueltmann, also VP of Brand and Lifestyle, said making all the Dragon’s Milk variants happen was “a great marriage between our marketing team and brewers.” It started from a casual roundtable idea late last year that turned into a whiteboard wish list of close to fifty variants. Bueltmann and team take the Michigan Brewers Guild festivals very seriously. “We know the audience is thirsty and wants something special. Our attempt to pull this off is really just a response to that expectation.”

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While taking our time with our pour of Dragon’s Milk Reserve with coconut aged in a rum barrel, we chatted with Dave Fischer of Grand Rapids, who was enjoying Dragon’s Milk Reserve Sarsaparilla. Fischer, who also attended on Friday last year came prepared yesterday with a short list of essential beers he wanted to try. “I could be here all day and still not try everything I want — there’s just so many good beers.” Well-stocked with a pretzel, meat and cheese necklace, before he excused himself to cross off another beer on his list, Fischer said of anyone hesitating to attend, “I wouldn’t let the cold hold me back. This is such a good time.”

Greenbush Brewing Co. also went all in. Their typical beer fest modus operandi is to bring a few dozen beers, and yesterday was no different. They brought thirty-nine. And, if you don’t dally, you should be able to catch most of them still today. Marketing Director Aaron Darling counted them off for us. Nine were barrel-aged. Six were imperial cream stouts – five of those were variants of their smooth and roasty Pain: Cranberry, Peach, Mint, Peanut Butter and Honey Apple. And, three variants of Mr. Hyde, their coffee cream stout (Strawberry Vanilla, Chocolate and Orange) – all made with coffee from Infusco Coffee Roasters.

Greenbush’s Brewery Operations Manager Tyler Ream explained how, and why, they tackle nearly forty beers. “We love to experiment. With small batches, we can try something we haven’t done before and test whether it could turn into something bigger,” said Ream. They brought an army of fifteen employees as ambassadors to engage with guests for their feedback on what beers work and which ones could be tweaked. Interestingly, aside from the brewers, the festival beers are also a surprise to the staff working their taps – to keep the excitement about what they’re offering fresh and authentic. Greenbush owner Scott Sullivan echoed their philosophy to not deliver something static, “Festivals like this are an opportunity to crush what’s typical.”

The thread among breweries that they care about delivering a special experience to the people was consistent and sincere. Bill White, owner of White Flame Brewing Co., said, “This event is our Super Bowl. It’s our opportunity to prepare for 6-8 months to bring awareness to our modest brewery in Hudsonville.” For the past four years, White and his wife Jenn “The Flame” have worked diligently to constantly improve their increasingly popular bottle releases out of their taproom. The demand for Black Flame, their anniversary bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout with maple, has gotten so high that he intentionally allocates enough for the Winter Beer Fest, he says, “to give as many people as possible a chance to try it.”

To be in the company of over 120 breweries and thousands of your new best friends you haven’t met yet, Winter Beer Fest is an undeniably cool experience. Try a new beer you otherwise wouldn’t, or get another pour of the one you just fell in love with. Either way, bundle up and get here.


Photography: Bri Luginbill

Gravel Bottom Craft Brewery