GRAND RAPIDS — #MichiganBeer. The ubiquitous symbol you may have seen stuck on light posts, tacked onto bulletin boards and on t-shirts in breweries and shops in the West Michigan area. Simply phrased, a representation of 21st century sensibilities. It’s a hashtag. No, it means pound, you just didn’t know that because you’re 21. Pound Michigan Beer. Get it? Get it? No, it’s a hashtag. #MIBeer. 

Let’s just say it’s whatever you want it to be, but ultimately it represents the pride Michigan has in its brews, consuming and creating some of the best beer in the world.  Anyone can wear a “#MichiganBeer” shirt and feel that pride. 

And that is its’ creator, Mark Daniels, goal. A resident of Grand Rapids, Mark’s artistic eye, interest in design and business abilities led him to produce these now well-known t-shirts (on some of the softest, most comfortable material ever) in 2012. The year that will forever be known, at least in Grand Rapids, as the year of the tie for the BeerCity USA title.

“We sold them at the Eastown Street Fair, and sold out in two and a half hours. I told my wife ‘I think we might have something here.'”

More business followed.  And followed. T-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, stickers, buttons and their newest product, beer koozies, are available on Daniels’ online shop and many retail locations around West Michigan. 

The newest design, Bike 4 MI beer, has steadily picked up steam. A very logical step in this bike-friendly community, Bike 4 MI beer represents a growing trend in the craft beer scene. Craft brew fuels bike culture, and those who ride hard like to play hard as well. 

Ultimately, Daniels hopes for organic growth with his company, and has no plans to limit this design to only the West Michigan area. After all, it’s all about Michigan pride in our beer, and there are too many wonderful breweries and craft beer aficionados all across our state for that. 

Expect some new designs in the near future. 

Interested in purchasing some merch for your shop or self?  Visit the website or Contact Mark & Co. here.

GRAND RAPIDS — High Five Co-op Brewery hosted its first official membership event and “sixer mixer” this past Saturday.

Members and non-members alike met in The Factory, a collaborative workspace, and brought along their favorite and homemade brews to share and taste. Attendees sipped on samples while engaging in light discussion.

The event was the first of what will be several sixer mixers and was an opportunity for members to meet each other and discuss their own brewing and beer enthusiasm. Prospective members could attend to learn more about the co-op’s goals and operations. Everyone sipped on a brew they selected from coolers filled with snow instead of cubed ice — which has to be one of the more resourceful uses of the surplus of snow with which Grand Rapids has been inundated.

Attendees could enter their beer selections in a competition for Oldest Cellared Beer, Highest ABV, Lowest ABV and Honorable Homebrew. Those who were selected won a free High Five Co-op Brewery T-shirt. Each title was taken by a home brew.

Andrew Brouwers, High Five member of two months as well as the recipient of the Lowest ABV award, said he joined because he likes the small, personal side of the cooperative.

“I like brewing beer and I like the idea of a smaller organization geared towards people’s desires more than the commercial side of it,” he said.

Brouwers said he’s looking forward to watching the process of the brewery’s start from the ground up.

“I think the initial opening is really interesting — like the procurement of a property, and trying to understand where they want to go and then raising the capital to do it,” he said. 

Rachel Weaver came to the event with Brouwers as a non-member. She said she may be interested in investing in a membership in the future, but for now, sharing a membership with Brouwers will do.

“When it gets bigger and if it were to get limited to members only, maybe that would spur me to purchase one, but until then I’m just kind of along for the ride,” she said.

In its second year, High Five has already made strides in breaking ground as the first co-op brewery in Michigan. Much of its struggle has been rooted in meeting legal requirements. President Nick LaVelle said the co-op’s hard work is making the project come together more quickly than its predecessors in other parts of the country and will make it easier for future co-op breweries to start up in Michigan.

The co-op currently boasts 88 members and is working on diversifying its methods of funding the project. High Five is currently searching for investors who are interested in supporting the cooperative. A Kickstarter campaign is also in the works.

“We’ve been in contact with a few different individuals and are currently working out a good collaborative strategy for their interests,” says High Five board member Josh Smith. “One thing we’ve been discussing is allowing our first phase of investors to purchase our building and equipment and leasing those items to the co-op.”

In the meantime, High Five is seeking to strengthen the community in the 88 members they’ve accrued since the beginning and the people who are just interested in learning more about the co-op.

“By hosting events like the sixer mixer we’re really hoping to create a strong community of homebrewers, beer enthusiasts, and community advocates that enjoy coming together, sharing brews, meeting new people, and supporting the goal of creating a co-operative brewery to call their own,” said Smith.

GRAND RAPIDS — Libraries are a gathering space, a way to exchange and garner information, to learn something new, or to learn something more. And in Michigan, what could be more logical than wanting to learn more about beer?

Kent District Library, a public library system comprised of 18 branches that serves residents throughout Kent County, is known for their extensive family and kid-friendly programming. They were looking to do something a little more grown-up.

“We had been looking for ideas for more adult programs. We do have programming specifically for adults but it tends to be things like quilting, sowing. We were getting a lot of people in looking for books on homebrewing, so we said, why not look into this?” Morgan Jarema, a Communications Assistant at KDL, said.

Jarema and her colleagues hit the mark, and the KD aLe Series was born.

Eight events held throughout this winter include beer tastings, brewery tours and home brewing 101 sessions. “We’ve had two events so far. The first event, a ‘Backstage Pass’ tour of Rockford Brewing Company, had sixty people show up, which is huge for us, and more than Rockford expected.”

Jarema laughs. “They [the guys at Rockford] are really passionate about what they do, and they spent a long time with the tours. They couldn’t get people to shut up! It was great.”

Rockford will play host to another tour on Feb. 19, and Schmohz will host today. The tours are open to anyone — just show up, and look for the people with the books. If you can’t make to Schmohz, join the GR Makers as they host ‘Home Brewing 101’ at the Grandville Branch. Learn from long time home brewers, and mingle with others who share your interests. Two more home brewing sessions are scheduled for later in the month at other branches

Fred Bueltmann of New Holland hosted a beer tasting just last week, and will host another on Feb. 13.

“Both beer tastings maxed out on registrations — pretty quickly. When you pair the word ‘free’ with the word ‘beer’, they go pretty fast,” says Jerema. However, you can put your name on the waiting list and cross your fingers.

KDL hopes to expand upon this series in the future. Evaluations from the past two events are encouraging, and ripe with suggestions — as was Fred Beltman from New Holland. Will there be a beer and cheese ‘smackdown’ in KDL’s future? It’s possible. 

If you are looking for a good beer book, visit KDL’s Pinterest site, maintained by KDL librarian who knows her beer, Ms. Penny Speets, for some suggestions. Utilize your public library. Attend a brewery tour, learn about home brewing, and help to shape programming like this yet to come. 

“What’s great about this [series] is that they are true socializing events, which you don’t really see at all of the other adult programs,” says Jarema. “You want to get adults to hang out together at a library, give them beer.”

GRAND RAPIDS — The Backstage Series, those 750mL bottles filled with taproom one-offs or something new altogether are what epitomizes the Founders’ Philosophy of Brewing. Just ask Dave Engbers, Co-Founder and Vice President of Brand & Education. 

“The Backstage Series is one of the fun things that wasn’t part of the original business plan.  We get to push the liquid envelope, to create brands that are exciting, and give the consumer something interesting to drink,” Engbers says.

Engbers is a talker. His conversation is effortless. It’s obvious he is passionate about Founders and what it does, and it’s also obvious that’s hard for him to contain.

“Music is a big part of what we do; we had live music soon after we opened the taproom and so, [calling it] Backstage was kind of in reference to that quality, the atmosphere of Founders.”

That atmosphere, coupled with the growth and expanding popularity of Founders, is what sparked conversation to create Backstage in 2011. 

“As we grew, we were essentially filling orders. Unfortunately. For a long time, all we were doing was trying to fill these orders and we weren’t allowed to itch that — ” Dave pauses here, searching out the correct word, “creative itch,” he laughed, “that we have.

“It frustrated our brewing team that we weren’t able to create those fun and exciting brands. The whole idea behind [the creation of Backstage] was to share something that historically was available only in the taproom, and bring it to people who might not have the luxury to visit us in Grand Rapids.”

An instrument for creativity and test market to Founders’ biggest and more valued focus group, the taproom is the place for experimentation and for that itch to get scratched.  The most recent release in the Backstage arsenal will be the Smoked Porter, set to release in February. First brewed utilizing the new three-barrel pilot system, this is Founders’ first ever smoked beer. The pilot system will play a big part in further aiding the creative urges of the brew staff, allowing more room for experimentation and playing a part in Backstage beers of the future.

The long list of beers that have already graced the Founders floor includes a myriad of taproom-only specials that many would love to have bottled. But how are the decisions made to select what gets the honor of becoming a Backstage beer?

“We have a tight R&D team, a small group of people that talk about future Backstage product. I can tell you there are a very limited number of people here at Founders who knows what the upcoming Backstage Series are. Out of the 205 employees, maybe seven or eight people know. Honestly, it’s kept very quiet — often times the beer is already produced — some of the brewers might not know what it is, sometimes the Cellarmen will be moving beer from tanks or in the barrels and have no idea. A lot of our beers just have stamped codes on them,” Engbers shares.

The magic of Backstage is not just in the mystery of what will be next. The limited quantities and possibilities of never seeing a beer again definitely have something to do with it. Regardless, it’s not about the marketing, not about driving sales. Founders is Founders, and remains true to its mantra.

“For Backstage, the beer has to be unique. One of the most common questions I get is ‘when is CBS going to be brewed again?’ CBS was one of those that hit harder than anything we anticipated, but we won’t brew it again just to create buzz. When we say ‘brewed for us,’ that’s legitimate. We create the beer, we don’t create the buzz. Some of that just happens because the beer enthusiast community is so strong and so engaged in what we do that there’s often this anticipation,” says Engbers.

The best way to drink them? Engbers shares an enthusiasm that all craft beer lovers can relate. “If I score a bottle of something really awesome or rare, my first reaction is to go ‘I gotta call my friend, let’s share this’, because it would mean so much to them to be able to experience this beer,” he says. “Our industry lends itself to people who are a little more selfless.”

So be selfless, find yourself a bottle of Sweet Repute, pull that Blushing Monk out of the beer cellar, or snag some Smoked Porter in February and call your friends. You may not see these beers again, but you can always anticipate something unique in the future. So drink to that.

GRAND RAPIDS — The Backstage Series, those 750mL bottles filled with taproom one-offs or something new altogether are what epitomizes the Founders’ Philosophy of Brewing. Just ask Dave Engbers, Co-Founder and Vice President of Brand & Education. 

“The Backstage Series is one of the fun things that wasn’t part of the original business plan.  We get to push the liquid envelope, to create brands that are exciting, and give the consumer something interesting to drink,” Engbers says.

Engbers is a talker. His conversation is effortless. It’s obvious he is passionate about Founders and what it does, and it’s also obvious that’s hard for him to contain.

“Music is a big part of what we do; we had live music soon after we opened the taproom and so, [calling it] Backstage was kind of in reference to that quality, the atmosphere of Founders.”

That atmosphere, coupled with the growth and expanding popularity of Founders, is what sparked conversation to create Backstage in 2011. 

“As we grew, we were essentially filling orders. Unfortunately. For a long time, all we were doing was trying to fill these orders and we weren’t allowed to itch that — ” Dave pauses here, searching out the correct word, “creative itch,” he laughed, “that we have.

“It frustrated our brewing team that we weren’t able to create those fun and exciting brands. The whole idea behind [the creation of Backstage] was to share something that historically was available only in the taproom, and bring it to people who might not have the luxury to visit us in Grand Rapids.”

An instrument for creativity and test market to Founders’ biggest and more valued focus group, the taproom is the place for experimentation and for that itch to get scratched.  The most recent release in the Backstage arsenal will be the Smoked Porter, set to release in February. First brewed utilizing the new three-barrel pilot system, this is Founders’ first ever smoked beer. The pilot system will play a big part in further aiding the creative urges of the brew staff, allowing more room for experimentation and playing a part in Backstage beers of the future.

The long list of beers that have already graced the Founders floor includes a myriad of taproom-only specials that many would love to have bottled. But how are the decisions made to select what gets the honor of becoming a Backstage beer?

“We have a tight R&D team, a small group of people that talk about future Backstage product. I can tell you there are a very limited number of people here at Founders who knows what the upcoming Backstage Series are. Out of the 205 employees, maybe seven or eight people know. Honestly, it’s kept very quiet — often times the beer is already produced — some of the brewers might not know what it is, sometimes the Cellarmen will be moving beer from tanks or in the barrels and have no idea. A lot of our beers just have stamped codes on them,” Engbers shares.

The magic of Backstage is not just in the mystery of what will be next. The limited quantities and possibilities of never seeing a beer again definitely have something to do with it. Regardless, it’s not about the marketing, not about driving sales. Founders is Founders, and remains true to its mantra.

“For Backstage, the beer has to be unique. One of the most common questions I get is ‘when is CBS going to be brewed again?’ CBS was one of those that hit harder than anything we anticipated, but we won’t brew it again just to create buzz. When we say ‘brewed for us,’ that’s legitimate. We create the beer, we don’t create the buzz. Some of that just happens because the beer enthusiast community is so strong and so engaged in what we do that there’s often this anticipation,” says Engbers.

The best way to drink them? Engbers shares an enthusiasm that all craft beer lovers can relate. “If I score a bottle of something really awesome or rare, my first reaction is to go ‘I gotta call my friend, let’s share this’, because it would mean so much to them to be able to experience this beer,” he says. “Our industry lends itself to people who are a little more selfless.”

So be selfless, find yourself a bottle of Sweet Repute, pull that Blushing Monk out of the beer cellar, or snag some Smoked Porter in February and call your friends. You may not see these beers again, but you can always anticipate something unique in the future. So drink to that.

GRAND RAPIDS — A line was forming outside on the morning of HopCat’s sixth anniversary, but owner Mark Sellers was concerned first of all with the crowd inside.

“When we opened,” he told the congregation of about 25 employees, “I didn’t even know if we’d make it to one year. Now we’ve made it six years, and we’re setting records every year, and that’s thanks to all of you.

“Now get to work!” he added wryly, and opened the doors for the anniversary celebration. The all-day event featured limited release stouts, free “crack fries,” and a crack fry eating contest so intense that an impromptu halftime was needed to help the kitchen keep up.

It was clearly a successful day for one of the most celebrated beer bars in the country. But while success has become the standard outcome for everything HopCat does, it wasn’t exactly what Sellers planned for at the beginning.

Sellers just wanted the place to stay afloat at first. He didn’t anticipate the craft beer craze. He wasn’t thinking that far ahead. “I told my manager,” he recalled, “that my goal [for the first year] was to break even so I could have a bar to hang out in.” 

The vision was a place for “the true beer geeks,” a place that emphasized craft and kept out corporatized macrobrews. People told Sellers it would never work. “I got lucky, I guess,” he said.

Whatever caused it — luck, intuition or maybe just good taste — Sellers isn’t too concerned about his personal success with HopCat. He’s most gratified by the prosperity it has brought to others. Between HopCat and the other bars he owns (under the umbrella of Barfly Ventures), Sellers employs more than 430 people who have made over $7 million in wages since he opened HopCat in 2008. “It really gives me a sense of pride that I’ve given that many people a way to make a living,” he said.

Two of the staff making their living at HopCat are Ernest Richards and Bobby Edgcomb, the brewers behind the spectrum of stouts released for the anniversary. Both enjoy the challenge of brewing for a place where the in-house beers aren’t the only option or even the main attraction. Edgcomb said that, because their beers face more competition, the brewers “have to bring their best” in order to get any attention. 

Their best on this occasion was the Oil Rigger, a rich but smooth Russian imperial stout, plus six flavor-infused variations on it: Chocolate raspberry, coffee marshmallow, crème brûlée, molé, orange brandy and vanilla bourbon.

The stout’s full body offered a nice backdrop to each of these flavors, the most popular of which seemed to be the molé, a beer that smells a little like French Toast but finishes with heat from ancho and chipotle chili peppers. Special edition bottles of the standard Oil Rigger were sold to a limited number of customers, but all the flavors (plus 2012 and 2013 brews of the Oil Rigger) were available on draft.

You can expect more crack fries, more brews, and more people to be on hand this time next year for the seventh anniversary. If you can’t wait that long for a HopCat party, though, you’re in luck. Sellers plans to announce the opening of a third HopCat restaurant soon. He wouldn’t say where, exactly, but he would say this: “If you keep going east past East Lansing, you eventually hit another city.” 

GRAND RAPIDS — “Beer before liquor, never sicker.” But how about beer with your liquor, in the same glass? It’s a more appetizing combination and, in Michigan, certainly an inevitable one.

The beer cocktail has evolved from the Irish car bombs of its frat days. It’s no longer just shots-in-pints to break the monotony of shots-after-pints. It’s porters and IPAs with gins and tequilas and liqueurs and olives. The rise of craft beer has led to the rise of the craft beer cocktail.

That being said, the more creative mixtures — with fancy cocktail names like Black Velvet and Sidewalker — aren’t always easy to find, even in Michigan. Brewpubs abound, but most don’t have a full bar. Often a Black and Tan is the most creative your neighborhood taproom can get.

But there’s one place in Grand Rapids at least that always has a few concoctions ready: Harmony Brewing Company. 

Luke Schmidt, Harmony’s general manager, occasional bartender and cocktail creator, describes beer cocktails as “trendy,” but he adds that Harmony has always had some on their menu. “They’ve evolved a little over time, like everything here,” he says. And though the idea of beer cocktails sometimes meets with some hesitation, especially from patrons more familiar with standard cocktails and less inclined toward beer, most customers are more than willing to try one — and they aren’t disappointed.

Harmony’s beer cocktails fluctuate with the tap list. (That can mean quick turnover at a smaller brewpub, so check in often.) When we visited last week, there were two of the regulars on tap — the beergarita and the Proud Mary.

The beergarita combines whichever IPA is on tap (Fiddlestix or Crossroads), tequila, triple sec and lime juice. From a beer lover’s perspective, it’s better than a regular margarita — refreshing and tart, but with a heartier finish.

The Proud Mary is a Bloody Mary — vodka, tomato juice and some “secret ingredients” — mixed with Harmony’s Black Squirrel smoky porter. It’s a drink that’s almost a meal. 

According to Schmidt, creating a beer cocktail is mostly a matter of common sense and taste buds. “It’s not like I’m a cocktail wizard,” he says. “I approach it just like cooking at home.”

That means mixing flavors that usually go well together, and at Harmony it also means collaboration and a lot of feedback before (and after) a drink lands on the menu.

For those wishing to mix their own beer cocktails at home, Schmidt recommends enhancing a beer’s bitter side with something savory or balancing it with something sweet. Citrus flavors from liqueurs like triple sec are a natural complement to a hoppy beer.

But in the end, a healthy dose of trial and error is needed to achieve the perfect beer-liquor union. “It’s harder to come up with a beer cocktail than a regular cocktail, because beer is such a strong flavor,” Schmidt says.

So if you’re in the mood for some adventure, stock up on Michigan brews (both light and dark), unlock your liquor cabinet, grab some open-minded friends, and mix away.

UPDATE: West Michigan Whitecaps officials have stated they plan to be ready to host this year’s Winter Beer Festival. Michigan Brewers Guild Executive Director Scott Graham has also released the following statement:

“We have been in contact with our friends at Fifth Third Ballpark since the unfortunate fire which damaged a portion of the property and we are happy to report that all ballpark staff are safe and unharmed. We have also been assured that as they work through the rebuilding process they will be ready to host the Winter Beer Festival February 22, 2014 as planned. We wish them all the best.”

[hr]
COMSTOCK PARK — The location of this year’s Winter Beer Festival may be in question just six weeks before the Mitten’s largest beer gathering.

Fifth Third Ballpark caught fire today around 11 a.m., according to WZZM-TV. Firefighters from several municipal departments are still fighting the blaze, the Grand Rapids news station reported.  

A source tells MittenBrew that the fire was out as of 1:30 today, thanks to the work of nearly 50 firefighters from five departments during a two and half hour effort.

The Michigan Brewers Guild has sold more than 6,000 tickets for the Feb. 22 event. Executive Director Scott Graham did not speculate on the Guild’s plans for Winter Beer Fest moving forward, but did express concern about the event’s location and for West Michigan Whitecaps staff — Fifth Third Ballpark is home stadium for the minor league baseball team.

“The Michigan Brewers Guild is certainly concerned about our upcoming beer festival at the Fifth Third Ballpark, but our first concern is for all of our friends at the West Michigan Whitecaps,” Graham said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the staff at the ballpark today.”

It appears the loss in the stadium is significant; however, Winter Beer Fest is primarily held outside the park in the adjacent parking lot. 

“We will assess what it means to the Guild after the damage…can be assessed,” Graham said. “Because our event is held outside the ballpark in the parking lot we are hopeful that it will turn out well.”

Vendor events and an after party for staff take place inside the ballpark facility.

“We will do our best to keep fans of Michigan beer informed in coming days as we learn more,” Graham said.