GRAND RAPIDS — For lovers of beer, cider, mead, music and comedy, the 6th Annual Great Brew Ha Ha! was a perfect date for Valentine’s Day weekend.

Grand Rapids-area Brewery Vivant, Cellar Brewing Company, Founders Brewing Co., Perrin and The Hideout were among the over 40 drink vendors whose libations were sampled by patrons. Several breweries had staff on hand describing specific offerings, including Right Brain Brewery’s Ryan Engemann, Resident Beer Geek., who explained what goes into the brewery’s popular CEO Stout.

The stout, which was the brewery’s first-ever bottled beer released in 2012, contains chocolate, espresso and oatmeal flavors — hence the CEO name.

The brewery also brought favorites such as Northern Hawk Owl Amber Ale, Will Power Pale Ale and Naughty Girl Stout.

Several vendors also peddled beer-related gifts for that special someone, while the Michigan Beer Film crew was present to sell DVDs and answer questions about the project.

Brave souls, or perhaps those who simply had enough to drink to feel brave, could ride the mechanical bull set up among inflatable safety equipment in the center of the action.

Music from the local comedy duo Bimini Brothers, long-known for their satirical lyrics, could also be heard in the arena as the evening wound down. On Saturday evening attendees were treated to comedy from nationally-known Pat McGann and Al Jackson.

GRAND RAPIDS — Over the weekend, Founders Brewing held the first installment of what will become an annual event — the Founders Firkin Freezeout.

Featuring 50 firkin beers, brisk late morning weather didn’t stop a few dozen hearty people from waiting in line for the opening of the taproom doors.With the sun shining and promises of never-before-tasted beers ready to be revealed, the crowd quickly swelled into the hundreds outdoors in the new beer garden. The gorgeous gas fireplaces and several patio heaters took the chill out of the air.

Ice sculptors from Chops Ice, LLC entertained the all-ages gathering with their carving skills. Using a variety of tools from picks to chain saws, the duo skillfully crafted blocks of ice into works of art. Coincidentally, both men are also employees at Founders — Shawn Winnell a Cellarman, and Kevin DeVries a bartender.

The event began at Noon with six firkins tapped initially and a plan to replace each one as they were emptied. Demand eventually boosted the number of firkins flowing to eight at a time.

John Merizon, Retail Beer Coordinator, had carefully crafted a schedule for the day but he admitted it “went out the window” as the event progressed quicker than anticipated.

He began the lineup with a few brews more suited to the early hour, and planned to progress into the heavier spiced beers, like Dirty Bastard with Arbol and Tien Tsin peppers, as the day went on. Thirsty enthusiasts waited patiently in the bar area in hopes of nabbing a sample or pint of the brews they coveted. Much sharing between friends made it easier to attempt to taste all of the offerings, a feat that may have been accomplished with the right combination of timing, luck, and perseverance. By 9 p.m. all the firkins were dry.

Brewhouse Cellarman/Shift Brewer Matt Blodgett (aka Baron of Firkins) had creative control over the beers served during the festival.

Reaching the goal of 50 different beers required using nearly half of the 102 firkins and both of the pins in his cooperage. Having worked on the project for about a month, he and his team produced some excellent variations of standard Founders favorites.

Only a small fraction of the firkins contained beer that had been enjoyed previously in the taproom. The rest were new creations made especially for this event. All Day IPA was dressed up with several different hop additions such as Chinook, Simcoe and Amarillo. Centennial IPA formulations included one with Jasmine Tea, and another with bourbon soaked oak chips. Orange extract was added to a firkin of Red’s Rye to create an unusually sweet concoction; bourbon oak chips were added to another. Ruby Crystal with lemon extract and Kaffir lime leaves could lead one to feel as if summer isn’t too far off.

Blodgett said playing with additions to the darker beers yields more fun results since lighter beers can only support so much manipulation before they’re overwhelmed. Many variations of Dirty Bastard and Porter wowed the crowd. The pin of Dirty Bastard with maple extract, vanilla beans and cinnamon was empty within 15 minutes of tapping. Porter with coconut extract and chocolate was dessert in beer form.

The most popular firkins will be made again in the future for the taproom’s weekly firkin tapping that takes place on Wednesdays at 5 p.m.

GRAND RAPIDS — Founders Brewing Co. is happy to announce that they’re doing something a bit different for their release of Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS) this year. The beer will be available starting April 1 across the brewery’s distribution footprint, but visitors to and residents of Grand Rapids will be able to enjoy it March 18-22.

KBS is an imperial stout brewed with coffee and chocolates that ages in oak bourbon barrels for a year in the caves beneath Grand Rapids.

Bottles of KBS available for pickup in the Founders taproom will be released using a pre-ticketed reservation process on EventBrite. Bottles can be reserved beginning on March 1 at 11 a.m., and they will be available for pickup March 18-22. Ticket proceeds will go toward Grand Rapids Whitewater. 

What’s new this year is Founders has decided to open up the release so that people coming to Grand Rapids for KBS can enjoy all of BeerCity USA. Fifteen Founders-supporting craft-beer-centric bars and restaurants in the Grand Rapids area are each tapping a keg of KBS on a day and time of their choosing between March 18 and 21.

KBS Week will culminate with the Founders taproom release party, where KBS will be poured all day on  March 22.

“We’re excited to turn the release of KBS into something that extends beyond the walls of Founders,” said Co-Founder and Vice President of Brand Dave Engbers. “KBS Week allows beer enthusiasts to celebrate the release of this beer with some of the retailers that make the West Michigan beer community so special.”

Ten area hotels will be offering KBS week packages — including discounted room rates, limited edition gear in rooms and more — with information available on the Experience Grand Rapids website.

Bottles of KBS will be available in the greater Grand Rapids area starting on March 25. 

For full KBS Week details, head to kbsweek.com.

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.