ANN ARBOR — Dozens of homebrewing hopefuls descended on the Grizzly Peak Brewing Co. Den May 14 for a shot at winning the brewpub’s 6th Annual Mug Club Brew-Off. On the line? The chance to brew a batch of the victorious beer with head brewer Duncan Williams and have it served at Grizzly Peak.

Twenty-six entries — including five IPAs, three pale ales, three stouts, two Belgian tripels, two rye beers and a number of specialty brews like a double American wheat — vied for the crown, which was awarded by Williams and a panel of other local brewers. Included in the panel were Karl Hinbern of Wolverine State Brewing Co., Logan Schaedig of Arbor Brewing Co., John Ritenour of the Corner Brewery and Tim Schmidt of Blue Tractor BBQ & Brewery.

Two more familiar faces again walked away with the top honor. Jeff and Susan Rankert, husband-and-wife homebrewers and winners of last year’s Brew-Off, took the prize with their cream ale. The runner-up beer was a juniper rye IPA.

The event, which is not an officially sanctioned Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) event, is held every year in May and is open only to Mug Club members of Grizzly Peak.

WESTLAND — For craft beer lovers, having beer on cask is the ultimate way to experience their favorite brews. Without the added filtering process, drinkers can truly enjoy the ingredients that go into each brew.

Saturday was a cask beer enthusiast’s dream, with 24 cask beers featured at the Cask Ale Festival. An estimated 450 enthusiasts rotated through the doors of Ashley’s during the event, fetching some unique new brews, along with some old favorites.

Arbor Brewing Company brought three beers to the event — Framboozled, Mackinaw Fudge Stout and Buzzsaw — the most of any brewery at the event. I sampled Framboozled as well as Mackinaw Fudge Stout, and was impressed with both.

Framboozled poured a red color with a small head. The sour ale tasted like a combination of a Belgian ale mixed with a lambic, and was very tasty. You could definitely taste a balsamic flavor with this as well, offset by the fruit and some nuttiness. On the other hand, Mackinaw Fudge Stout (served in a wood cask) poured black with a small head, smelling like rich dark chocolate. The taste had some bitterness, in addition to the massive amount of chocolate coming through. Its thin mouthfeel was unexpected, but the brew’s rich flavors certainly made up for it.

Wolverine State Brewing Company brought a new brew to the event, its Pineapple and Coconut Maibock. The amber beer smelled a bit sour, but was otherwise filled with pineapple. The flavors were somewhat muted, but still present, with the coconut coming on the backend. It was a good experimental beer for sure, and one that left me wanting more.

Liberty Street Brewing Company’s Clementine Lemon Thyme was a winner in my book — a ton of lemon present, along with some orange flavor as well. It was unique, a bit sour and had some spice to it (which offset the lemon slightly). It was refreshing and different take on the usual summer wheat ales I’ve come to known.

But by far the brew I was most impressed with was Midland Brewing Company’s Pine River Smoked Porter. The brew was smoky, but not too over the top, also featuring some coffee sweetness. It reminded me a of a campfire or that summer backyard barbecue, with a medium body but a unique outdoorsy taste to it.

Being the company’s first ever firkin, I was surprised with how good this was. It was one that left others talking, as well, and was one of the beers that featured a line out the patio door.

In addition to the five brews above, Shorts brought a brand new brew, Franken Pils. I couldn’t taste the pilsner attributes — everything screamed IPA to me (it’s described as an India Creme Ale). It was a bit too hoppy for my liking, but it featured earthy, root-like flavors that combined well with the IPA attributes.

TROY – The most interesting thing about Granite City Food & Brewery may not be the beer itself so much as the way in which this chain brewery makes it.  Other chain breweries, such as Rock Bottom or Gordon Biersch, brew from corporate recipes at each of their locations, but they do actually brew their beers on site.

At Granite City, that’s not exactly the case. The company has developed a system they call “Fermentus Interruptus,” whereby all the wort and yeast used to make their beers are trucked in to every location from one central brewery and only fermented at each site.

“It’s all about maintaining consistency from location to location,” said R.J. Nab, Granite City’s field brewer. “We want our guests to be able to taste the same great beers at every one of our restaurants, whether in Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, or here in Michigan. This way, we’re using the same water, the same ingredients, the same yeast, the same process.”

Nab is responsible for riding the circuit of all 27 sites in the 12 states Granite City operates in, performing various quality audits, conducting training, and helping to maintain the fermentation tanks, serving vessels, and other equipment. But it’s Brewmaster Cory O’Neel who runs the 25-barrel corporate brewhouse in Ellsworth, Iowa (about an hour north of Des Moines), where he brews five days a week to keep all the sites supplied with wort and the yeast to ferment it.

“Obviously what we do as far as trucking the wort around opens us up to a lot more possibilities for infections, so we are really, really diligent about quality control,” he said.

O’Neel’s resume is as atypical as Granite City’s brewing process. Born and raised in Iowa, he moved to Colorado in the early 1990s to pursue a degree in microbiology – “I was doing the right thing in the right place at the right time,” he notes – when he became involved in the burgeoning beer scene there. Following stints as a brewer and brewing consultant, he moved to Hong Kong to run a brewpub during the handover of the British colony to China.

“It went really well,” he said. “The place was full of British expatriates, but it was started by Americans, we used American equipment, and we brewed popular American styles.”

As for Granite City’s styles, they offer five mainstays: Northern Light Lager, Wag’s Wheat, Brother Benedict’s Bock, Duke of Wellington IPA and Broad Axe Stout. A sixth regular tap is called Two Pull, which consists of a blend of the lager and the bock. A customer came up with the idea and it stuck because the mix seemed to pair well with a lot of different menu items.

Seasonal beers include a blueberry lager (coming this spring), a summer white ale, a nut brown ale, an Irish red, a Scottish ale, an Oktoberfest, and soon a “Batch 1000” double IPA. A barrel-aged version of the Scottish ale will be available at some point as well.

The Mug Club is ridiculously cheap at $10 for a lifetime membership (which even includes your first pint!), though oddly most of its benefits revolve around discounts on food, which is not bad considering the more-upscale-than-pub-grub menu.

“When, for example, the Irish Red comes out, we’ll tell all our members we’re going to tap it and throw a party for them,” he said. “We can’t give away alcohol in Michigan, but we’ll serve free appetizers, flatbreads, pizzas, basically take care of all the food and just have fun for a few hours.”

Granite City’s regular lineup of brews (I can’t speak to any of the seasonals) may impress noobs but are not likely to have much appeal to experienced drinkers of craft beer, a point I raised with O’Neel when I asked if he thought coming to Michigan, a state with so many amazing breweries, presented more of a challenge.

“No, I think it’ll be even easier,” he said. “The more breweries there are, the better educated the market is. The harder locations are the ones where there aren’t any breweries and we have to teach people what beer’s supposed to taste like and why we do what we do.”

Granite City Food & Brewery is located at 699 W. Big Beaver Rd. in Troy. Visit gcfb.net for more information.

ANN ARBOR – Today, May 7, is officially National Homebrew Day as designated by Congress in 1988, but approximately 7,000 homebrewers across the country and around the world celebrated on Saturday during the 15th annual American Homebrewers Association “Big Brew.”

Michigan homebrewers gathered at 15 AHA-registered sites from Kalamazoo to Warren and Monroe to Gladstone in the Upper Peninsula to brew from the AHA’s Big Brew recipes – which this year included an American Brown Ale and a Northern English Brown Ale – as well as others of their choosing.

At the Adventures in Homebrewing store in Scio Township, nearly 100 members and friends of the Ann Arbor Brewers Guild, including AHA Governing Committee Chair Chris Frey, congregated around 15 different homebrew systems set up in the parking lot. Everything from the makings of a double IPA to a Belgian wit boiled away under an intermittently sunny sky, while participants shared samples of homebrewed pale ale, kolsch, breakfast stout, and even mead and wine. In celebration of Cinco de Mayo, AABG members also put out a Mexican-themed potluck spread that included pulled pork fajitas, two kinds of chili, beans, bacon-wrapped jalapeños and more.

Other brewers participated at “unofficial” sites like Witch’s Hat Brewing Co. in South Lyon, where brewers made a five gallon batch of a Belgian-style tripel ale and enjoyed discounted beers. Like many commercial brewers, owner Ryan Cottongim began as a homebrewer and is helping start a new local homebrewing club.

Other Michigan breweries hosting Big Brew demonstrations included Liberty Street Brewing in Plymouth, Bell’s in Kalamazoo, BARTS in Bay City, Redwood Lodge in Flint and Kuhnhenn Brewing in Warren. Rochester Mills Brewing hosted its Big Brew event a week earlier, on April 28.

“AHA Big Brew highlights what is so special about homebrewers – their friendliness, interest in sharing with others, passion for beer, and of course, their affinity for having fun,” said AHA Director Gary Glass.

For more information on the AHA and National Homebrew Day, visit homebrewersassociation.org.

WESTLAND – More than two dozen beers from across Michigan, the U.S. and even Europe will be tapped and served May 12, at the Michigan Cask Ale Festival at Ashley’s Beer & Grill in Westland.

This is the fifth time Ashley’s has organized the festival, which occurs annually on the second Saturday of May and offers attendees the opportunity to sample from the largest selection of “real ales” available at one time anywhere in Michigan.

“Cask ale, or real ale, is the traditional way to enjoy beer, unfiltered, unpasteurized and naturally carbonated straight out of the vessel the beer fermented in,” says Jeff More, co-owner of Ashley’s. “The result is a fresher, more complex and delicate flavor, much closer to the way the brewer intended the beer to taste.”

This year’s festival is the largest yet, featuring 26 cask beers from 20 breweries including well known Michigan breweries like Arcadia, Dark Horse, New Holland and Shorts as well as relative newcomers to the Michigan market such as Blue Point (Long Island, NY) and Epic (Salt Lake City, Utah). Festgoers will be able to ask questions and learn more about cask ale from brewers and representatives from many of the participating breweries.

Some confirmed beers include Framboozled Raspberry Sour Ale from Arbor Brewing, Dry-hopped Commodore Perry IPA from Great Lakes Brewing, and Pineapple and Coconut “Dry-hopped” Maibock from Wolverine State Brewing. Two European beers will also be tapped: Granit Bock, a “stein beer” brewed with heated stones from Brauerei Hofstetten in Austria, and an “Engineer’s Reserve” version of Old Engine Oil Dark Beer from the UK’s Harviestoun Brewery.

Although tickets for the festival sold out in April, Ashley’s has created a “wait list” for those wishing to take advantage of cancellations and is working on various approvals to set up a beer tent in the parking lot, which will enable more tickets to be sold. Visit micaskale.ashleys.com to get on the wait list for tickets as they become available, and follow “Michigan Cask Ale Festival” on Facebook for the latest additions and updates.

AUBURN HILLS — It’s now official. On Friday, owner Mike Plesz, head brewer Eric Briggeman and the other fine folks of Rochester Mills Beer Co. joined with assorted local dignitaries for a ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the opening of RMBC’s new state-of-the-art production brewery in Auburn Hills.

Representatives from the Auburn Hills Chamber of Commerce, local elected officials and business leaders all engaged in speechifying and photo-op type activities before enjoying a brief tour of the 48,000 sq. ft. facility, which includes a 50-barrel brewhouse, a high-speed canning and bottling line, and sales and management offices. A beer reception naturally followed in the private tasting room.

According to spokesman David Youngman, RMBC plans to brew and can three of its beers for statewide distribution: The flagship Cornerstone IPA, Rochester Red Ale and Milkshake Stout, along with a rotating selection of seasonal beers including the popular Oktoberfest beer. Eventual distribution beyond Michigan is also under consideration.

The brewery is not yet open for public visits, but on April 28 the brewing staff will host its “Big Brew” event one week early in honor of National Homebrew Day (May 5), inviting homebrewers to bring their brewing systems to the parking lot area to engage in communal beermaking. (Information on this event is available at sites.google.com/site/pbtsite/big-brew-2012.) And on May 12, the first public open house at the facility will be held. Follow RMBC on Facebook for details as they become available.

The Rochester Mills production brewery is located at 3275 Lapeer West Rd. in Auburn Hills, just off of I-75. More information can be found on their website at www.beercos.com.

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.

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!”


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