LANSING — One of the benefits of membership in the Michigan Brewers Guild “Enthusiast” program is VIP tours and tastings at member breweries around the state.

To participate in one of these special tours, one must be a current Enthusiast member – a group dedicated to celebrating the growing craft beer industry in the Mitten State. Enthusiast memberships are $35 each and are available online at MBG Enthusiast Membership. There is no additional charge for the tours, but reservations are recommended and attendees must show their Enthusiast card.

The Summer 2012 schedule includes seven tours, beginning in early May and running thru mid-August.

Saturday, May 5 (11:30 a.m.)
Harmony Brewing Co.
1551 Lake Dr. SE, Grand Rapids
(616) 233-0063 ‎
www.facebook.com/pages/Harmony-Brewing-Company/116651378360910

Join Barry VanDyke for a guided tour. Free Harmony Pint glass which can filled for $1 off the normal price on the day of the tour only. RSVP: Barry VanDyke: admin@bearmanorproperties.com.

Saturday, May 12 (2 p.m.)
Saugatuck Brewing Co.
2948 Blue Star Hwy., Douglas
(269) 857-7222
www.saugatuckbrewing.com

Enthusiasts receive $1 off their first pint, free samplings, a complimentary SBC Logoed Pint Glass, as well as a tour of brewery. RSVP: Scott Farney, scott@sbrewing.com.

Saturday, June 2 (3:30 p.m.)
New Holland Brewing Co.
690 Commerce Ct., Holland
(616) 510-2259
www.newhollandbrew.com

Join brewmaster John Haggerty for a guided tour and tasting. All participants receive 10% off the pub store and $1 off their first pint at the pub. RSVP: jenney@newhollandbrew.com or (616) 510-2259.

Sunday, June 24 (1 p.m.)
Corner Brewery
720 Norris St., Ypsilanti
www.cornerbrewery.com
(734) 480-2739

A guided tour by the brewing team at Corner Brewery. RSVP: Sarah Adcocksarah@arborbrewing.com.

Saturday July 7 (1 p.m.)
Vander Mill Cider Mill, Brewery & Winery
14921 Cleveland St. Spring Lake
www.vandermill.com
(616) 842-4337

Join the Vander Mill crew for an in-depth guided tour of our modern hard cider production facility in Spring Lake. RSVP: adam@vandermill.com or (616) 842-4337.

Saturday, July 21 (11 a.m.)
Founders Brewing Company
235 Grandville Ave SW, Grand Rapids
www.foundersbrewing.com
(616) 776-1195

Take a tour of the newly expanded brewing facility, open exclusively to enthusiasts only. Enjoy a guided tasting as well as a sampling of our delicious appetizers from the Founders Deli. The tour has a limited number of spots, so respond early! RSVP: gabe@foundersbrewing.com.

Sunday, August 19 (1 p.m.)
Arbor Brewing Company
114 East Washington St., Ann Arbor
www.arborbrewing.com
(734) 213-1393

Join the crew at Arbor Brewing for a guided enthusiast tour. RSVP: beth@arborbrewing.com.

A Michigan Brewers Guild “Enthusiast” membership is $35. Benefits include VIP status at MBG festivals with early admission, discounts at participating membership brewpubs, special VIP brewery tours and a free T-shirt proclaiming your Michigan Beer Nuttiness. Enthusiast memberships can be purchased online at  MBG Enthusiast Membership.

GRAND RAPIDS — For Matt Lee and Laura Wolfe, it doesn’t get any better than Founders Annual Black Party.

On Saturday, the two sat with friends they met during the previous year’s Black Party to sample the 10 special “black” brews offered at the 11th annual event.

“Black Party’s great,” Lee said. “Last year was the best experience, so we decided to come back again.”

Hosted at Founders Brewing Co.’s taproom, the Black Party wasn’t limited to just 10 specially-made brews for the event — various firkin were released throughout the day and two of Founders most-famous beers were tapped, KBS and CBS.

Following the release of KBS on March 10, during which patrons were turned away with empty glasses, the company vowed to triple its volume for next year’s release. Having heard about the empty-handed patrons at the KBS release, Lee and Wolfe arrived at Founders by 7 a.m. Saturday after commuting to Grand Rapids the evening before.

“I didn’t want to stand outside in line all day,” said Lee, a Munster, Ind. resident.

“We’re always looking for Founders beer and it’s hard to find (in Chicago area),” Wolfe added. “It makes the trip worth it.”

In addition to some of Founders’ regular brews, these 10 were on tap for the entire day of the event:

  • Milk Stout (4.9 % ABV) — Milk sugar is added to this brew during boiling, creating extra body and a perceived sweetness.
  • Black IPA 2012 (7% ABV) — Using a four variety dry hop (Centennial, Amarillo, Simcoe and Zythos), this IPA is brewed using a new malt called “midnight wheat.”
  • Party Stout (6.9% ABV) — Described as “roasty” and “yummy.”
  • Baby Nilla Po (6.1% ABV) — Added Madagascar and Mexican vanilla beans to the traditional porter.
  • B.A. Berzerker 37 (7.7% ABV) — With generous wheat malts, this brew was aged 233 days in bourbon casks.
  • Rock Me Like a Maplecane (8.5% ABV) — Aged for a full year in maple syrup and bourbon barrels, this was award-winning during last year’s tap.
  • Barrel Aged Black IPA (8.5% ABV) — Aged in 21-year-old bourbon barrels.
  • Blackwoods Bastard (9.5% ABV) — Spicy, sweet, oaky and boozy, this was darker-hued take on Dirty Bastard.
  • Rye Aged Rye Stout (8% ABV) — Spicy and roasty after 375 days of aging in rye barrels.
  • Coat2 (5.1%) — Oatmeal Stout in non-nitrogen form.

With the variety of specialty brews and proximity of Founders, Lee and Wolfe call this annual event their “fun secret.” But — with a steady line outside the door throughout the day — not too secret.

“Even in Chicago we don’t have a brewpub this size,” Wolfe said. “This is a unique situation.”

For the two travelers, a trip to Founders for an event like the Black Party is a more enjoyable weekend than trekking through the Windy City.

“The people who work at Founders are really, really cool,” Lee said. “We need to take advantage now before (Founders) is over-saturated with people who want to know more about craft brewing.”

YPSILANTI — Who doesn’t love an excuse to dress up?

The Corner Brewery provided one April 20 with its first “People Are Strange” event, where a parade of freaks, geeks and weirdoes tapped into some oddball beers while digging off-kilter tunes courtesy of several DJs and a live band.

The beers, created by brewer Logan Schaedig, included Pork Roll Egg and Cheese Ale, a 4.5% ABV smoked beer brewed with black salt and poppy seed, and Dr. Gonzo, a 6% blonde ale “doctored” with wormwood, chicory root and Japanese tea. A specially prepared menu of strange food featured hop pizza and Jell-O, which is always strange if you ask this reporter.

Beers from the Corner’s regular stable were also available, including some heavy hitters like the 7.7% Ryeclops Imperial Rye Ale and Buzzsaw Imperial IPA, an 8% assault of Simcoe, Amarillo and Centennial hops that took Best of Show at the 2011 World Expo of Beer in Frankenmuth.

People who dressed appropriately — i.e., insanely — received happy hour prices all night, and among those taking advantage were a female Jesus, the Skipper and Gilligan, a pair of space aliens and other less identifiable wackjobs.

The Corner also provided a variety of colorful glue-on fabrics, ribbons and accessories at the “Creation Station,” where guests were encouraged to create their own wearable artistic masterpieces. Members of Spontaneous Art, a local performance collective, engaged attendees in acts of random artistry.

A strange time was had by all.

For more information on Corner Brewery’s beers and upcoming events, visit arborbrewing.com/brewery. And check out Spontaneous Art at spontaneousart.org.

GRAND RAPIDS — Combining music and beer, Founders Fest is back for its fifth year with a wide-ranging music line-up. While details on special beer offerings have yet to be announced, this year’s headliner is Brooklyn-based Soulive.

“Founders Fest is our biggest party of the year and is always a great time,”said Mark Dorich, festival coordinator and Founders Brewing Co. director of retail operations. “We are excited to celebrate with our community again, and we’re really excited about this year’s music lineup.”

The rest of the line-up includes: Asheville’s Toubab Krewe; Michigan folk favorites Seth & May and Friends; one-man band That 1 Guy out of Las Vegas; the locally sourced improvisational progressive rock band Ultraviolet Hippopotamus; and Grand Rapids indie-folk outfit The Crane Wives. Hometown rockers Four Finger Five and the 12-piece African funk group Afro Zuma join local favorite and SXSW sweethearts The Soil and the Sun and a super-group of Founders employees, the FBC All-Stars, to round out the entertainment lineup.

The June 23 outdoor festival is hosted on the streets near Founders. The brewery expects to cram more than 5,000 participants on Grandville Avenue between Cherry and Bartlett and on the grounds of the brewery.

This year’s event will again feature local food vendors, including The Cottage Bar and the Pita House, as well as a Local Artists Row, which showcases the various works of some of the area’s finest artists and designers. There will be other strolling surprise entertainers sprinkled throughout the day, according to organizers.

Founders calls its annual festival a celebratory “thank you” to Grand Rapids and West Michigan for making Founders what it is today. Founders Brewing Co. opened in Grand Rapids in 1997, and it has grown its brewing tradition from modest beginnings to most recently being rated the second best brewery in the world, for the second year in a row.

“We’re proud of how we’ve grown to become not just a local name but a serious contender on the regional and national beer scene,” says Founders President & CEO Mike Stevens. “We’ll be celebrating our 15th anniversary this year, and we’re proud to say that our crew is making some of the best beer in America. Founders Fest allows us to take a day to toast those efforts with our friends, family and community.”

WESTLAND — Add another laurel wreath to the growing number of accolades enjoyed by Short’s Brewing Company. On April 4, the Bellaire brewery defeated Webberville’s Michigan Brewing Co. to capture the championship trophy in the first-ever Ashley’s Invitational Brewery Throwdown.

Ashley’s created the competition, which began in January with a bracket of eight breweries, in order to “get people talking more about craft beer,” according to co-owner Roy More.

“The event overall was a great success,” said More. “Sales of beers were way up over the typical Wednesday night, but more importantly, the buzz from the competition got more people thinking and talking about craft beer.”

Each competition began at 6 p.m. and went until close of the bar at midnight, with the brewery selling more pints being declared the winner. Four beers apiece were featured by breweries in the first round competitions, six beers in the semifinals, and eight beers in the final. Representatives from each brewery worked the crowds, talking up their beers and answering any questions. Short’s defeated Marshall’s Dark Horse Brewing and Saugatuck Brewing Co. to advance to the championship. Michigan bested Victory Brewing of Pennsylvania and Ann Arbor’s Wolverine State Brewing.

For the championship round, nearly 600 pints were sold between Michigan and Short’s. Short’s pursued a strategy of enticing customers with rare and experimental beer — four of the eight Short’s beers on tap were beers unavailable anywhere else outside of the taproom in Bellaire. These included Whiskey Sour, a Belgian-style sour aged with lime in whiskey barrels; Cinnamon Doppelbock, a spiced traditional bock; Bourbon Barrel Soaked Sustenance, a schwarzbier aged in oak; and Thundeur, an experimental black ale brewed with charred pine needles, cones and branches.

For its part, Michigan Brewing created a “ninth” beer by offering a mixture of their Celis Raspberry and Nut Brown Ale, dubbing it “Trail Mix” in a bid to increase sales, which were brisk for their flagships High Seas IPA and Wheatland Wheat as well as their Russian Imperial Stout, but ultimately they fell short by less than 60 pints.

The competition was fast and furious but friendly.

“We definitely enjoyed some good brews here tonight,” said Joe Carpenter of Michigan Brewing. “But what we really enjoyed about the Throwdown was the friendly competition. We know each other, we’re both craft breweries, we both have the same goal of educating people about good beer. Whether you chose Short’s or whether you choose Michigan, there’s some great, flavorful beers out there!”

“It was great to compete against our peers in a fun fashion like that and have another excuse to enjoy the camaraderie of craft beer lovers as well as our fellow craft brewers,” agreed Short’s “Beer Liberator” Jon Wojtowicz. Asked what Short’s was going to do with the trophy, he added, “We’ll put it on display in the pub and then it will eventually be retired to Joe Short’s office with other honors bestowed on us!”

More says Short’s will not participate in next year’s Invitational Throwdown, but will be part of an envisioned “champions’ round” pitting them vs. next year’s champion.

“Congratulations to all of the brewers in the tournament,” he said. “They’re all great and passionate about their craft and our guests. We can’t wait until next year’s competition!”

WESTLAND – Somewhat overshadowed by the (justifiable) hype surrounding a certain other beer festival in Grand Rapids, the Ashley’s Belgian Beer Festival ended Feb. 19, and its growth, particularly in a “blue collar” area of Metro Detroit, is yet another strong indicator of increasing interest in the art of good beer.

In just its second year, the festival grew out of a 2010 trip that brothers Roy More and Jeff More, co-owners of Ashley’s, took to Belgium, where they visited a number of the Low Country’s many small and often family-owned breweries. They came away impressed with, in Roy’s words, “the level of game” Belgian brewers bring to their craft, arising from centuries of beer-based traditions and culture.

“Most Americans only know the mass-market Belgian beers like Stella Artois,” said Roy. “What we found in Belgium was a passion similar to what we see in Michigan craft brewers, and we wanted to bring these relatively unknown beers to the U.S. market.”

Roy and Jeff were also impressed, but in a negative sense, with the pressures facing Belgium’s small, traditional brewers from the same sort of international conglomerate brewers that also dominate the American brewing scene. Thus was born the Ashley’s Belgian Beer Festival, to not only help these small brewers grow their export market, but to introduce more Americans to beers they might otherwise never find — beers that are the result of a unique brewing traditional unlike any found in other countries.

For 2012, Ashley’s expanded the event from five to 11 days and made good use of its Belgian connections to introduce to the U.S. Brouwerij Van Eecke’s Poperings Hommel Bier Dark (sort of a Belgian “black IPA”), debut three other Belgian ales in the Midwest region, and bring a dozen others to the state of Michigan for the first time. Ashley’s festival planners created a Belgian-inspired food menu, presented two ticketed Belgian beer dinners, put on three educational seminars with experts from around the U.S. and Belgium, commissioned the creation of four different Belgian beer-infused Valentine’s Day chocolates, hosted Belgian pub games and offered more than 180 Belgian beers on tap and in bottles, making it one of the largest — if not the largest — festivals of its kind.

“The U.S. population is moving away from mass-produced ‘pilsner’ beers and toward higher alcohol, more flavorful ales,” said festival presenter Steve Villani, president of the Boston-based Global Beer Network, an importer specializing in Belgian ales. “Belgian beers represent the highest end of the quality spectrum and are enjoying a surge in popularity as more folks find out about them.” Villani pointed to a doubling of Belgian beer sales in the Midwest in just the past three years as evidence.

And word is getting out not only about Belgian beers but about Ashley’s annual celebration of them, with attendance way up from the inaugural year. Festgoer Anthony Penner of Westland snapped a photo of the beers he was enjoying and texted it to his brother-in-law in Pennsylvania, who then drove all the way over from Pittsburgh the next day to join in the fun.

“I had to rub it in a little,” said Penner. “Where else can you find even five Belgian beers on tap, never mind more than 40?”

Not even in Belgium itself, according to Penner’s fellow festgoer Michael Scott. “What an incredible experience,” he said. “I’ve been to Belgium twice and never had so many good Belgian ales!”

Festgoers were encouraged to experiment during events like Sour Day and Trappist Day, with those respective beer styles being discounted and also served in pre-selected flights. For those who really like a challenge, various achievement ribbons were awarded for every “level” attained, including “Dubbel,” “Tripel,” “Quad,” “Sourmaster,” “Fruitfreak,” and others. Ashley’s presented John Voymas of Detroit with a gift basket of bottled Belgian ales for working his way through all the beers required to earn 19 different ribbons.

It was also possible to take home packages of selected beers, including four packs of featured brewery Van Eecke’s Kapittel Abbey beers, a great option for enjoying some of the higher gravity brews without the need for a designated driver.

Planning has already begun to make next year’s festival an even bigger and better experience.

“Guests from as far away as Minneapolis, Boston, Cincinnati and Chicago had a great time at this year’s festival,” said Roy. “That just makes us want to deliver an even better experience next year, and we’re already hard at work making sure that we will!”

COMSTOCK PARK — Saturday was a day of records.

With crowd numbers estimated to be over 6,000, and more than 450 beers brought by Michigan breweries, the 2012 Winter Beer Festival was the largest ever. Beer lovers came from across the state and beyond to sample some of the best, brightest and sometimes even whackiest beers in Michigan.

The 7th annual festival, held at Fifth-Third Ballpark, sold out in record time in December. Several breweries brought not only their staple beers, but also high-ABV and rare beers otherwise unavailable to the public. With everything from a sweet wintertime ale to a hopped-up IPA, there was a beer for everyone.

Shorts Brewing Company featured several bottled and non-distribution beers, including its Turtle Stout (8% ABV). Pouring a deep chocolate hue, with about one finger of a light tan pancake head, you could immediately sense an aroma of roasted pecans. The scent was balanced with notes of caramel and chocolate malt, making for an overall very pleasant smell.

The instant taste of sweet chocolate malts and vanilla soon gave way to a pecan and nutty roasted flavor. The beer finished with sweet caramel and chocolate, with the pecan roast lingering to the very end. This brew isn’t as heavy as you’d expect given its appearance, with a light carbonation and silky chocolate body, yielding a very creamy, coating mouthfeel. The unique flavors are very well balanced and integrated, making for one of the highlights of the day.

In addition to the Turtle Stout, Shorts highlighted its Wintertime Fun Ale (8.5% ABV) — an American Brown Ale brewed with peppermint, milk chocolate, marshmallow and cinnamon.

Dark Horse Brewing Co. had not one — but four — tables at the festival. Known for its mastery with barrel aging, the Bourbon Barrel 666 Sarsaparilla Vanilla Stout was no disappointment. The brew pours a deep midnight black colored brew with a caramel head. There’s a massive vanilla smell, coupled with hints of milk chocolate and cocoa. The bourbon barrel really accentuates the vanilla notes here.

Sweet chocolate malts and cocoa are immediately present when tasting, but most of all the brew features heavy vanilla overtones that are very reminiscent of a creamy root beer. Cocoa and vanilla linger toward the finish, where a little more of the bourbon shows up. There’s a slight alcohol warmth here, but the brew is very smooth, and features a creamy mouthfeel throughout.

In what was the biggest surprise of the day, Right Brain Brewery’s The Demise (10% ABV) hit the spot for us. An American Barleywine, the brew pours a light copper color, with a thin rim of fizzy white head that rapidly dissipates. It features a complex smell, predominated by honey and sweet, sticky malts with citrus hops and alcohol.

As in the nose, honey shows up first, on a sweet, sticky body of red and caramel malt. Sweetness fades a bit, leading to a citrusy hop finish with a lingering, astringent alcohol burn. A full bodied brew, The Demise has some good carbonation and warming alcohol. For as much going on with this brew, Right Brain definitely found a way to balance it nicely.

The next Michigan Brewers Guild festival is July 27 and 28 in Ypsilanti. Tickets go on sale May 1.

WESTLAND – Serious beer lovers know some of the best craft brews in the world come from Belgium, and from Feb. 9-19 at Ashley’s Beer & Grill, 7525 Wayne Rd., they can sample from more than 160 different Belgian ales at the second annual Ashley’s Belgian Beer Festival, one of the largest of its kind.

The event, expanded from five to 11 days this year due to its runaway popularity, includes the first U.S. release of one new Belgian beer, the regional release of three, and the Michigan debut of more than a dozen others; a menu of Belgian-inspired dishes; several ticketed beer dinner events, educational seminars and food pairing sessions; and even a Valentine’s Day Belgian beer-and-chocolate special for lovers.

“This Festival gives our customers a rare opportunity to explore the diversity of all these amazing Belgian beers at one time and in one place, as well as the culture of a unique country,” said Roy More, co-owner of Ashley’s.

“We’ll have up to 44 different Belgian beers on draft at a time – it’s impossible even in Belgium to find a selection anything like this,” added More, noting how on a 2010 research trip he was unable to locate any Belgian restaurant or bar offering more than 20 different beers on tap, with most establishments having just six or fewer.

The growing demand in Michigan – home to one of the largest Belgian expatriate communities – and nationally for microbrew, or craft beer, alternatives to products from large multinational concerns is a key driver for the Festival as well as other such craft beer events. According to Steve Villani, president of the Boston-based Global Beer Network, an importer specializing in Belgian ales, sales of Belgian beers in the Midwest have doubled in the past three years despite overall beer consumption being down.

“The U.S. population is moving away from mass-produced ‘pilsner’ beers and toward higher alcohol, more flavorful ales. Belgian beers represent the highest end of the quality spectrum and are enjoying a surge in popularity as more folks find out about them,” said Villani.

Villani will join several other Belgian beer experts from around the country at the Festival, including Danny Dieussaert, export manager from Brewery Van Eecke, a seventh-generation family brewery in Watou, Belgium, that dates back to 1795 and is the Festival’s 2012 featured brewery.

Van Eecke’s Poppering Dark Hommel Bier is making its national debut at Ashley’s. It is a variation on Poppering Hommel Bier, brewed to showcase the Watou region’s best known agricultural product, hops. The beer is rated 100 out of 100 on popular review site BeerAdvocate.com and described as “World Class.”

More information on Ashley’s and the Belgian Beer Festival can be found at abbf.ashleys.com.


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