detroit fall fest

Beer festivals happen several times a year. From fest to fest, some things are different—the weather, the breweries, the food. But many things are exactly same from year to year—the 15 tokens in the plastic glass, the good beer, and at least one discovery of a fantastic new-to-me brewpub. This year, I discovered not one, not two, but three new-to-me breweries. It was a good fest.

First, the top five brews from pubs I knew about.

Big Lake’s Leroy Brown appealed to me because of the name and the fact that there were dice on the can. It would have been cool to have the custom Continental and the El Dorado, but the dice were a nice touch. The beer was very nice too! An English brown ale made with four malts and chocolate, it had a smooth finish of toasty bread.

Schmohz Gingerbread Brown was great as always, as was the Mad Tom’s Porter. Brewer Gabi Palmer explained that this beer “is a solid porter—smoky, some chocolate. No hype, no b.s., just a solid beer.” And it was! Slightly bitter with a hint of smoke made for a tasty beer.

The Smoke on the Porter from ROAK was another excellent porter. An imperial smoked porter by style, this beer hit all the right notes. Roasty, dark, and perfectly balanced. But I would expect no less from this outstanding pub.

Unruly Brewing had the Orange Julius beer, which my husband described as “smelling like an Orange Julius, tasting like it, but then finishing like a bourbon barrel aged Belgian wheat.” Orange peel and vanilla beans make this beer what it is.

Lake Charlevoix Double Cookie Stout is one of the tastiest stouts I have had. Made with ten pounds of Oreos, it manages to not be overpowering or too sugary sweet. This is a solid, hearty beer.

The first of the big discoveries at this fest was One Well from Kalamazoo. Their Sweet Water Street was billed as a “coffee and donut” beer and it delivered. Much like the breakfast of champions itself, this beer had a hint of the sugary taste of donut plus all the roasted coffee taste one could want. They also had a Root Beer Stout that—unlike some root beer beers I could mention—managed to not just taste like thick, sappy syrup. It actually had a taste of root beer but never forgot it was a beer—absolutely wonderful!

The second new-to-me pub was Grand Armory from Grand Haven. Their Nutter Your Business Stout tasted like an honest-to-God peanut butter cup. My husband was so thrilled that he got three separate tastes of this beer, just so he could dance around delighting in the peanut butter and chocolate deliciousness (okay, he really didn’t dance around, but it’d be fun to pretend he did).

The top discovery this year was Railtown Brewing Company from Dutton. The brewery won a bronze medal at the recent Great American Beer Fest for its Good Mooed Milk Stout. And to be sure, this solid stout hit all the right notes. We also had their Peanut Butter Cocoa Time porter which conveyed the peanut butter taste while remembering it was a porter, and thus not too heavy or overpowering. The absolute hit for me was their Coffee Blonde, one of the best coffee beers I have ever had. Until this fest, I couldn’t find Dutton on a map but I can now, and I can’t wait to go there.

As I always do, I kept another tradition—ending the fest with Liberty Street’s Punkin Pie Ale. It is still the best pumpkin ale I have ever had, and nothing I’ve had since has changed my mind.

Some things change, some things stay the same, but Michigan beer remains far ahead of all the rest. It was a good fest.


Photography: Erik Smith

Not that long ago, pumpkin spice did not invade every aspect of our society. Oh, sure, there were pumpkin pies, pumpkin muffins, and the occasional pumpkin cheesecake. But one couldn’t get pumpkin spice lattes or pumpkin spice Oreos.

Now, of course, that flavor is everywhere—including in our beer. Pumpkin spice signals fall and all of its glories—colorful leaves, football games, warm hoodies, apple cider. Another sure sign of fall is the Michigan Brewers Guild’s Detroit Fall Beer Festival. Along with thousands of others, MittenBrew attended the festival to sample the best fall beers around, as well as to get some expert opinions on the ubiquitous pumpkin spice.

Tri-City Brewing Company featured many non-pumpkin beers, but did release their Scarecrow Spiced Brown on Saturday. Self-described “brewery ninja” at Tri-City, Jay Green, indicated that while he is not a fan of the spice himself, the pumpkin beer is a big seller. But, he adds, “you have to keep it balanced. It has to taste like pumpkin spice, but you’d better taste the base beer underneath. Like any good beer, balance is key.”

Gabi Palmer, head brewer of Schmohz Brewery Company in Grand Rapids, agreed.

“It’s the season for all things pumpkin, but you have to balance it,” she said.

Palmer loves pumpkin spice and recommended Griffin Claw’s  Screaming Pumpkin and Liberty Street’s Punkin’ Pie Ale.

“Both are great examples of well- balanced beers that still give you spice.”

CRAFT Homebrew Club President Tracy Broomfield also loves pumpkin spice.

“I hate this meme that is going around,” Broomfield said as she enjoyed Dark Horse Brewing Company’s Cocoa Bourbon Nibbler. “It says to enjoy pumpkin beer, you should throw it in the trash. Pumpkin spice beer can be great, especially when the brewer restrains herself a little and lets the base beer come through.”

Both pumpkin spice lovers and non-lovers could enjoy plenty of both kinds of beer at the festival. Over 80 breweries featured more than 675 beers for thirsty attendees.

Pumpkin Spice Standouts:

Northville’s North Center Brewing Company’s Headless Horseman Pumpkin Pie Ale, like the examples cited by Palmer, did an excellent job of providing a taste of the pumpkin spice but not overpowering the beer. Truly tasted like pumpkin pie in fermented form.

Muskegon’s Unruly Brewing Company came through with an excellent pumpkin beer called Punk’n’Rock. The real pumpkin taste stood out, but not to the exclusion of the tasty spices.

Shelby Township’s Sherwood Brewing Company featured its Smoked Pumpkin Porter. The addition of smoked pumpkin gave this dry porter a wonderful taste.

Non Pumpkin Spice Standouts:

There is a reason that Tri-City’s Brownhoist has won three gold medals at the World Expo of Beer—it’s a darn fine brown ale. Some browns tend to taste like plain beer, the malts being hidden under adjuncts or too many hops. Not this beer. It is a creamy blend of five grains and two hops, resulting in a creamy mouthfeel and smooth finish.

Lansing’s Sleepwalker Spirits and Ale had a huge winner in their Hazed and Confused coffee brown ale. One of my friends described it as “Nutella in a glass.” I took a drink and said, “Yes. If Nutella actually tasted good.” So just the fact that a Nutella fan and non-fan can agree should indicate how terrific this beer is.

Milford’s River’s Edge Brewing Company featured a beer called Karate Bonfire, a coconut vanilla stout. Sometimes vanilla beers taste like a bottle of vanilla extract. This beer, however, perfectly married coconut, vanilla, and coffee. Warm as a bonfire, but much tastier.

South Lyon’s Witch’s Brewing Company treated us to its Furious Ginger. This milk stout was aged in bourbon barrels and spiced with ginger and peppers. Would it be cheesy to say that one could not possibly be furious after drinking this wonderful beer? Too bad, because I am saying it anyway.

As always, the Fall Beer Festival had something for everyone—Oktoberfests to stouts to smoked porters to IPAs and yes, plenty of pumpkin spice. Maybe the pumpkin spice invasion isn’t such a bad thing after all.