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GRAND RAPIDS — The 2014 Winter Beer Fest, as always, was packed. By now, you all know the numbers. 89 breweries, 768 beers and a miraculous amount of portable toilets but somehow people still had to wait in line.

There were the perennial favorites like Founders and Short’s, with standards and fun one-offs and long, long lines. While we all know and love KBS and Short’s clever flavors like Carrot Cake, I sought out some smaller breweries by suggestion of the crowd at-large and found some gems that I wouldn’t have tasted otherwise.

Aaron Rzeznik, a brewer at Witch’s Hat Brewing Company, spoke with us about the brewery’s samplings and what Witch’s Hat is all about.

“This is our third year at the Winter Beer Fest, and as you can see (acknowledging the long line through the tent), it’s going pretty good. We are very excited to be there, there was a huge vibe before the festival. We’re pumped.”

Night Fury, an imperial stout at 10.2% ABV is one of Witch’s Hat’s seasonal offerings, and much of the hype beforehand was on the variations the brewery was bringing. The Cookies and Cream, which, yes, tastes exactly like what you think it would, was one of my favorites. “We use chocolate malt and a little bit of cocoa nibs that we age in after fermentation and actually coconut and vanilla bean, believe it or not. It’s a big hit, the keg’s gone now.” We got the last of it.

Aside from the Cookies and Cream, Witch’s Hat brought a bourbon barrel aged variety, a vanilla bean bourbon barrel aged Night Fury, and a Chocolate Espresso option, made with coffee beans from a roaster out in Leelanau Peninsula.  

“Quality is our focus, we like to experiment, and we are family oriented. We’re in a small town and that’s what we focus on.”

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Our next stop was Brewery Ferment out of Traverse City where we speak with Dustin Jones, bearded owner/brewer. “This is our first full year of the beer festival circuit. We heard so much about this place, so we had to come here this year. Each festival has different crowds, different feels, and that’s what fun about them. You get to know the idiosyncrasies between them, feeling out what the people want and getting to meet all the different people who come and support the things we do.”

We sample the Lady Belma, an Imperial IPA. “This is made from all belma hops — a brand new variety — so it’s pretty different from all the other IPAs you are gonna have. It’s a unique flavor,” he said. “We try to keep a good range of things, at the same time keeping an eye towards what’s popular. We also play around with a lot of other flavors. We have the Captain Scorch, a stout with ghost peppers. How hot is it? It’s really hot.”

Yep, it’s pretty damn hot, like the hot that makes you want to drink more to make the hot go away. Brewery Ferment also used the same stout base made with salted caramel that had a much anticipated release time of 3 p.m.

MittenBrew also sampled the Big Busty B.A.R.B — a barrel aged rye barleywine, and a few of Ferment’s sours.

Brewery Ferment seems to really love its sour beers, which was great because we also love our sour beers. We tasted their Cornucopi-Ale, a cranberry wheat sour and their Spring in Sri Lanka — a sour stout with green cardamom and bitter orange peel.

When asked to sum up Brewery Ferment in three words, there wasn’t any hesitation. “Local, small and unique,” Jones answered.

We are definitely glad we stopped by Ferment’s booth.

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One booth over from Brewery Ferment we stop and chat with Greg Korson, one of the owners of Tapistry Brewing. “This is our first year at the Winter Beer Fest — we’ve been around for eight months, so it’s perfect timing,” he said. “We’re located in Bridgman, right on Lake Michigan, about 15 minutes south of St. Joe.”

We sip on Happy Colored Marbles — a Belgian Oatmeal Stout, one of the 20 beers Tapistry brought with them. The beer styles run the gamut, and really, that’s what they are all about.

“One of the big premises [of Tapistry] is the combination of artistry and chemistry, that’s how we look at it. There are hundreds and hundreds of different styles of beers, and we try to teach people about each of them. That’s part of what a microbrewery does, right? We provide education,” said Korson. “

“There’s all these different type of flavors and styles, and that’s why today we’ve got these taps that all different types of beer beers. If it’s an English style beer, we use all English grains, English yeasts, English hops, even modify the water to get the same profile of London, say. If we are doing an American pale ale, we’re just playing at that point so we’ll do whatever we want.”

Korson laughs and we sample The Hypnotist — a Dark Saison with smoky undertones.

If you are in the Grand Rapids area, you may be able to find Tapistry on tap, but you’ll have to wait until Friday if you are in Lansing or Ann Arbor.

“The vibe here in incredible, I mean it’s incredibly cold for one, but the people and sun have helped a little bit. The crowds are great, the reception has been great, and everyone is loving the beer.

“It’s been a fun little ride so far, and this is a great kickoff.”

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I run into Jenna Arcidiacono, owner and Chef at Amore Trattoria in Grand Rapids between beer tents.

“I got here at 10:30 so I could have breakfast with the Arcadia Food Truck and went on in with these two hookers,” laughs Arcidiacono, pointing to Grand Rapids photographer Terry Johnston.

This is my first year, and it’s been fun. This is Big Willie from White Flame, she holds up her cup, a double IPA and its really nice. My favorite so far.

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To finish out our round of interviews and taste-testing, we stop by Blackrocks Brewery, based out of Marquette on the shores of Lake Superior. Chatting with Andy Langlois, whose official title is Co-Founder and Brewsician, he shares his thoughts and beer at his second year attending Winter Beer Fest.

“As always, it’s fantastic. Craft beer drinkers are a wonderful breed of people who enjoy a good Michigan made beer. It’s just fantastic to see a lot of familiar faces and meet new people.”

In addition to bringing some interesting one-offs like Whiteout — a black brew with fennel seed, Blackrocks was excited to share the three beers they are canning — the 51K IPA, Grand Rabbits Cream Ale and Coconut Brown.

“[Canning is] a really exciting thing for us, and we are really kind of blown away that we are at this point. We are just now distributing UP-wide, and we’re sending a pallet here and there to the Grand Rapids area,” said Langlois. “What I’m most excited about is the crew we brought down with us. There’s a lot of good guys here, and to bring a crew of seven guys down from a small brewery to an event like this — we’re really enjoying Grand Rapids.”

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If you weren’t lucky enough to score a ticket to the sold-out festival, mark your calendars for the Summer Beer Festival in Ypsilanti, slated for July 25 and 26. Tickets go on sale May 1; details can be found at mibeer.com.

GRAND RAPIDS — The ninth annual Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival took place Saturday, giving craft beer aficionados the chance to try some of their favorite, as well as some rare, Michigan brews.

Everything from sour fruit beers to habanero porters were featured, allowing for a wide variety of different flavors and beer experiences.

Some of the best brews of the day came from Traverse City’s Brewery Ferment, which brought several sour brews for guests to sample. 

The Root Beer Stout (7% ABV) looked just like the soda shop classic that we’re used to, but brought up with a bit of booze. Its endlessly complex scent and taste — the result of an ingredient list that included allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, vanilla bean and more — made for a great adult twist on the classic drink. This was by far our favorite of the day.

Ferment also brought its Cornucopi-Ale (7% ABV), a sour cranberry wheat beer that was a mix of tart and sweet cranberry flavor that really packed a punch. It was very easy drinking, allowing for a nice break from the heavier beers that were sampled throughout the afternoon. Finally, Spring in Sri Lanka (7.25% ABV) was a sour stout that featured green cardamom and bitter orange peel. It had a surprisingly light body and clean finish, despite the sourness present. Both brews were both inviting yet unique.

We wanted to sample other breweries throughout the state that may not have been as well-known. So, our other favorites throughout the day included, in no specific order:

  • Tapistry Brewing Peck’s Habañero Porter: 6.5% ABV. Deep brown, almost black color with a tan head. Get the rick malt porter taste on the front of the tongue, which is then met with the fiery pepper throughout the rest of the sip.
  • 51 North Snow Bank Winter Warmer (Chocolate Honey Black Rye): 8% ABV. Black with a thin amber head, features a complex bitter taste that’s moderated slightly by the sweetness of the honey and rye. Very full mouthfeel.
  • Griffin Claw Sour Dough (Sour Wheat Wine): Virtually no head, with an orange color. A bit smoky in the mouth, but the sour scent carries through to a strong sour taste and somewhat grainy residue.
  • Saugatuck Brewing Barrel Aged Neapolitan Milk Stout: 6.5% ABV. Very dark, virtually no head. You’re immediately hit with the strawberry, vanilla and chocolate flavors, mixed with the booziness you’d expect from being barrel aged.
  • Our Brewing Tobacconist Porter: 6.8% ABV. I was very hesitant about this brew, having a few other tobacco-heavy brews in the past that I didn’t care for. Yet Our Brewing puts the emphasis more on the smokiness, rather than the cigarette/nicotine taste I was hesitantly expecting. It makes for a good, easy-drinking smoked porter.

Bryan Esler and Philip Zoutendam contributed to this report.

For a complete recap of the fifth annual Detroit Fall Beer Festival, click hereTo view part one of our favorite beers from the fifth annual Detroit Fall Beer Festival, click here.

Brewery Ferment 45th Parallale: Brewery Ferment is a fairly young operation based out of Traverse City. One of their flagship brews, the 45th Parallale is light, crisp and slightly hoppy, This American Pale Ale has a nice, earthy hop up front, with a slightly sweet citrusy aftertaste. A nice, drinkable beer that could be enjoyed again and again.

Kuhnhenn Kürbis Sour Imperial Pumpkin Ale: Available only during the Michigan Brewers Guild Beer Enthusiast hour (take note, those on the fence about becoming Enthusiast members), this brew created with the second runnings of All Hallows Ale stood out as the most interesting beer of the festival. Advertised as 12.25% ABV, it was light bodied enough to sip like it was less than half that. The spices – including nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon – dominated the nose, but upon tasting faded into a well balanced blend of sour tartness and honey sweetness. The overall effect reminded of mulled wine.

Short’s Bourbon Hammer Jack: An outstanding and quite boozy barrel aged offering by Short’s. This is a strong winter scotch ale with sweet notes and malty body. Very thick palate and very bourbony upfront with the aroma. This high ABV brew clocks in at around 9%. Although it’s typically a pub exclusive, there is no doubt this one will warm your bones during the fall and winter.

Arbor Harvest Ale: This barrel aged, dry-hopped IPA delivered the full piney fragrance of fresh, locally grown Chinook hops along with a palate-pleasing balance of spicy bitterness and mildly toasted malt flavors. An impressive exemplar of what’s possible through the rapidly developing Michigan-grown hop scene.

The Livery FramBam Wild Ale: Barrel aged with raspberries, this tart delight stood out even from The Livery’s other solid offerings, which included several barrel aged brews. FramBam melded the raspberry fruitiness with oaky and bitter notes for a surprisingly dry and satisfying finish.

Odd Side Ales Bean Flicker Blonde: The draft version of this modified blonde was just as tasty as the bottle version. Coffee aroma dominates the nose and the consistency is smooth with a surprising clean body. This brew blends the best of both worlds with its light mouthfeel and stout qualities. For those who don’t like heavy stouts but appreciate the look and aroma, this one’s for you.

Dark Horse Bourbon Barrel Plead the 5th Imperial Stout: OK, nothing new here obviously. But is there anything wrong with sticking to an old stand-by? BBPt5 is one of if not the best bourbon-barrel stouts around. Smooth, dark, creamy and strong. In a time where everything is being thrown into a barrel, Dark Horse is still showing how it’s supposed to be done. Damn-near perfection.

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Compiled by Erik Hart, Mike D’Orazio and David Bardallis.

DETROIT — For the fifth year, Eastern Market played host to one of the largest all-Michigan beer festivals.

The Detroit Fall Beer Festival, presented by the Michigan Brewers Guild, was held Friday and Saturday, including almost 450 beers from over 60 Michigan breweries.

For five solid hours, heavily layered Michigan craft beer enthusiasts — some even dressed in Halloween garb — descended upon the tasting. They came prepared to hand their tokens over for some of the finest craft being poured in the heart of the Motor City.

Matt Cebula, Sales Manager for Atwater Brewery, said bringing people down to Detroit is a huge goal and accomplishment.

“This [festival] is the one that’s most important to us because our main goal is to let people know that beer is thriving in Detroit,” he said. “There are reasons to come down to the city other than a baseball or football game.”

Atwater came stocked with its normal roster of beers and also brought some single batch series beers, released once every two months.

Metro Detroit brewery Sherwood Brewing Co. also felt the pride associated with having the fall beer fest in its backyard.

“I grew up in Detroit so for me, the city’s always got my heart,” said Ray Sherwood, Owner of Sherwood Brewing Co. “Even though we’re way out in the suburbs, we love being able to bring people down to the city and to Eastern Market.

With so many breweries in attendance, festival-goers had plenty of variety to choose from.

Marshall-based Dark Horse Brewery came to the party with a slightly smaller list than usual this year, but still brought some non-flagship goodies for everyone.

“Right now we have a specialty on top called Top Fuel,” said Trent Thurston, Cellarman at Dark Horse. “It’s a collaboration we did with Local Option out of Chicago. They come over, they brew with us. We just did another one with them and we infused almost 200 pounds of tea.”

Dustin Jones, Head of Fermentology at Brewery Ferment, said the fall beer fest is rounding out the brewery’s first full season of festivals.

“We’re learning over the course of the festival what people want and how much to bring. And it seems to be weird stuff,” he said. “They want to try something new and different and things they can’t necessarily find on a regular basis or in a bottle.”

Brewery Ferment’s 45th Parallale seemed to be a huge hit even with other breweries.

“It’s all local hops and a simple recipe. But we run it through a dry hop vac all the time. Even at the festivals,” Jones said. “We’re right here next to Greenbush and the brewers there are obsessed with it. They cannot get enough. They are going around telling other people that they need to try it, which is about the biggest compliment you can get.”

The weather held out for the enthusiast crowd for nearly the entire festival, with exception of the last half hour. As the clouds hovered over and rain started pouring down, people ran for shelter in the tents and tried to cozy up to the kegs for after-hour pours.

The festival wasn’t strictly dedicated to those with tokens in their hands. According to Jones, the event also holds great significance for the ones behind the magical fermentation.

“We’re constantly making connections with other people at other places. And that’s why I love coming to festivals personally,” he said. “This is where collaborations start. This is where innovation happens. And that’s more or less why I’m in this industry and why I love it so much.”

TRAVERSE CITY — One step inside Brewery Ferment, and you might think you’ve walked into a coffee shop.

Instead, this laid back, bright atmosphere is home to Traverse City’s newest brewery.

Located right down the street from a coffee shop, local meat market, and in a district known as “Old Town,” Ferment has big aspirations for the future, and some great, bold recipes that co-owner and brewmaster Dustin Jones is already showing off.

“I try to put some of my culinary experience into the brewing, so I use a lot of fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices,” says Jones. “In the end we like to play around with it…we like to have fun.”

In addition to the brewery’s staple beers — Logger Lager, Worker’s Daily, Mitten Wit, The 45th Parallale, Bookstore Bitter and Old Town Brown — Ferment highlights a few seasonal or specialty beers available daily.

And those specialty beers are anything but ordinary. Jones points to his brews he’s undertaking at the moment — a barleywine with merrell mushrooms, a chocolate chipotle imperial stout and a brew called Cornucopia Ale — a cranberry orange wheat beer being released for Thanksgiving.

But what sets Ferment apart is its willingness to work with other local craftsmen — farmers and hop growers. “We’re trying to work with all the guys on this block, kind of what we call the ‘New Old Town’ — a revitalization of this whole neighborhood.”

Take, for instance, one of Jones’ favorite creations — The 45th Parallale. This mix between a pale ale and an IPA is malt-heavy, but still well-balanced — and is made with 100 percent local hops.

Jones says he has plans for even more drinks down the road — mead and cider are on the agenda, as are collaboration beers with some of the city’s new breweries. He’s also working on establishing bike/brewery and kayak/brewery tours throughout the city.

“It’s got a lot to do with the local food movement. Quickly behind that were the wineries, and now the breweries.”

Traverse City has another local watering hole to add to its ever-growing list of breweries.

Brewery Ferment, which opened late September, features six flagship beers — Worker’s Daily, Logger Lager, Mitten Wit, 45th Parallale, Bookstore Bitter and Old Town Brown. Brewery Ferment also offers a variety of seasonal beers, which primarily consist of porters and stouts.

Nestled in Traverse City’s Old Town district, Brewery Ferment is stationed in a more than 100-year-old building.

The brewery also features a small food menu and games for guests.

Ferment is one of many new breweries that have or are opening up in the Northern Michigan city. Still set to open this year, Boardman River Brewing Co., Beggars Brewery and Brewery Terra Firma will add to the growing landscape of Traverse City breweries.