winter beer fest

There’s something about having over 1,000 of the most cared for craft beers at your mitten-covered fingertips that makes standing outside in winter weather simply worth it. For the Michigan Brewers Guild’s 11th annual Winter Beer Fest, they recognized the increasing demand for their signature February event and for the second year in a row they re-upped adding Friday making it a well deserved two-day event.

For those who weren’t quick enough to snag a ticket for today, which sold out in minutes, Dianna Stampfler, Public & Media Relations for the Guild, welcomed the public to consider Friday in an effort to be a part of something new. Less crowds, shorter lines and special tappings that might not be repeated today were obvious benefits to making day 1 of WBF the new norm. Truthfully, she acknowledged, “you could actually still get tickets yesterday, too.” However, after the intimate experience yesterday offered, we don’t think it’ll be long before the secret about Friday gets out.

Before the gates opened to the public, members of the Guild were privy to an Enthusiast Hour. A worthwhile membership perk available upon joining, this gave the ultra-dedicated a nearly private hour of being able to sample at their leisure. As soon as the public entered, we met Kara Kanwischer, 21, of Grand Rapids – the first person through. This was her first beer fest experience. When asked about what she looked forward to most, Kanwischer set the tone for the rest of the day — “I’m just pumped to be able to experience all these new beers, and then travel to visit the breweries in person.”

winter beer fest

“Plus, Saturday was sold out,” she added.

Not short on passion or creativity, brewers brought their A game. Known for their wildly ambitious homemade ingenuity, Dark Horse Brewing Co. brought a replica of the Mackinac Bridge as their “booth.” Their owner and fearless leader Aaron Morse casually told us, “Yeah, we just came up with idea this past Tuesday [to do something new and crazy], and built it Wednesday and yesterday.” He joked, half seriously, “We’re kind of known as ‘Last Minute Brewing Co.’” Still, Morse and Co. managed to pull it off. In addition to their large-scale interactive set design, they brought big, higher ABV beers to battle the cold. Morse recommended and poured us a sample of Blueberry Double Crooked Tree. But, there are also blood orange, coffee, and hot pepper variants for when you cross that bridge.

Our state’s craft beer scene is a team sport. Tom Payne, Director of Artistic Fermentation at 57 Brew Pub & Bistro, was all smiles showing off their Rally Round the Family. A wild fermented version of their 57 Chevy Michigan IPA, Payne proudly shared, “In twenty years, that’s the BEST beer I’ve ever made!” He was quick to not take all the credit. Payne made sure to sincerely thank Jeff Williams, head brewer at Pike 51 and Steve Berthel, Head Pub Brewer at New Holland Brewing. Williams shared ten-year-old barrels that were used for his Renegades of Funk, and Berthel supplied the wild cultures. Rage Against the Machine much? Testify.

Payne showed a sincere love for his craft and the people who help him keep it funky. Check out his ShutterBug Cherry Saison, which he brewed with MittenBrew Owner, Steph Harding — lovingly named in her honor because she’s pretty good with a camera, too. When asked what sparked them brewing together, he didn’t hesitate, “Why not? We’re friends.”

Before we switched gears to dark beers, Griffin Claw Brewing Co., turned us on with their Apridisiac – a wild ale soured with apricots that carried an even balance of sweetness to balance the tartness. And then, we took a hard turn to sampling Flying Buffalo, a bourbon barrel-aged Russian imperial stout. Attendees today, however, will get to try its coffee variant — but it’s the Krakatoa, also tapping today, that will likely get you hot and bothered. This Russian imperial stout is aged for a couple days with ghost peppers. Angie Williams, self-proclaimed Cellar Bitch (she’s actually the biggest sweetheart), said she had to wear a mask and gloves when blending the peppers and adding them to the tank. “It was brutal,” she said, “but it’ll warm your gullet.” Andy Jarois, in packaging and design, sold us by promising “it’s a really good throat feel.”  

While you’re waiting for your throat to cool off, go get in line early for one of sixteen Dragon’s Milk Reserve variants at New Holland Brewing’s Stop and Taste trailer. Their campground vibe compound offers a tricked out Airstream (with built-in tap system) to relax in, handcrafted lounge chairs, fire pit and giant Jenga. You’re going to need a place to hang out for a minute if you try to tackle their bourbon barrel stout portfolio.

One of New Holland’s partners and resident “Beervangelist” Fred Bueltmann, also VP of Brand and Lifestyle, said making all the Dragon’s Milk variants happen was “a great marriage between our marketing team and brewers.” It started from a casual roundtable idea late last year that turned into a whiteboard wish list of close to fifty variants. Bueltmann and team take the Michigan Brewers Guild festivals very seriously. “We know the audience is thirsty and wants something special. Our attempt to pull this off is really just a response to that expectation.”

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While taking our time with our pour of Dragon’s Milk Reserve with coconut aged in a rum barrel, we chatted with Dave Fischer of Grand Rapids, who was enjoying Dragon’s Milk Reserve Sarsaparilla. Fischer, who also attended on Friday last year came prepared yesterday with a short list of essential beers he wanted to try. “I could be here all day and still not try everything I want — there’s just so many good beers.” Well-stocked with a pretzel, meat and cheese necklace, before he excused himself to cross off another beer on his list, Fischer said of anyone hesitating to attend, “I wouldn’t let the cold hold me back. This is such a good time.”

Greenbush Brewing Co. also went all in. Their typical beer fest modus operandi is to bring a few dozen beers, and yesterday was no different. They brought thirty-nine. And, if you don’t dally, you should be able to catch most of them still today. Marketing Director Aaron Darling counted them off for us. Nine were barrel-aged. Six were imperial cream stouts – five of those were variants of their smooth and roasty Pain: Cranberry, Peach, Mint, Peanut Butter and Honey Apple. And, three variants of Mr. Hyde, their coffee cream stout (Strawberry Vanilla, Chocolate and Orange) – all made with coffee from Infusco Coffee Roasters.

Greenbush’s Brewery Operations Manager Tyler Ream explained how, and why, they tackle nearly forty beers. “We love to experiment. With small batches, we can try something we haven’t done before and test whether it could turn into something bigger,” said Ream. They brought an army of fifteen employees as ambassadors to engage with guests for their feedback on what beers work and which ones could be tweaked. Interestingly, aside from the brewers, the festival beers are also a surprise to the staff working their taps – to keep the excitement about what they’re offering fresh and authentic. Greenbush owner Scott Sullivan echoed their philosophy to not deliver something static, “Festivals like this are an opportunity to crush what’s typical.”

The thread among breweries that they care about delivering a special experience to the people was consistent and sincere. Bill White, owner of White Flame Brewing Co., said, “This event is our Super Bowl. It’s our opportunity to prepare for 6-8 months to bring awareness to our modest brewery in Hudsonville.” For the past four years, White and his wife Jenn “The Flame” have worked diligently to constantly improve their increasingly popular bottle releases out of their taproom. The demand for Black Flame, their anniversary bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout with maple, has gotten so high that he intentionally allocates enough for the Winter Beer Fest, he says, “to give as many people as possible a chance to try it.”

To be in the company of over 120 breweries and thousands of your new best friends you haven’t met yet, Winter Beer Fest is an undeniably cool experience. Try a new beer you otherwise wouldn’t, or get another pour of the one you just fell in love with. Either way, bundle up and get here.


Photography: Bri Luginbill

GRAND RAPIDS — If you’re on a beer forum or two, you’ll find plenty of advice on which whales to slay during the Saturday session of the 10th Annual Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival.

For the first time in it’s history of celebrating in Grand Rapids, the Guild added a second day to the party.

Based on Friday’s experience and enhanced by previous tasting research, here are a few beers I suggest you seek out tomorrow in no particular order:

Big Lake Brewing Company “Dark Star” breakfast stout. Travis Prueter, brewer, told MittenBrew it’s brewed using “Kona and Sumatra coffee, Godiva dark baker’s chocolate, then aged on cacao nibs.”

The barrel aged version spends “at least three and a half months on the barrel.”

Big Lake also provided a mean Imperial Brown — BB Elroy, which was aged in bourbon barrels.

Jolly Pumpkin “Saison X” farmhouse saison. A nice refreshing, complex, saison to treat your palate to. Brewed with candied ginger, lemon peel, orange peel and a blend of pink, black and green peppercorns.

Pike 51 “Oud Bruin” sour brown. I didn’t get to enjoy it Friday; it’s only being tapped today. I’ve had it from the source and will be seeing you in line for it tomorrow. Probably more than once.

Chelsea Alehouse “Hollier 8” double brown ale. A beautiful, roasty, toasty brew.

Dark Horse “Black Bush” black IPA. This relatively new release does worthy battle with their more well-known beers.

Witch’s Hat “Night Fury” imperial stouts. This series of bourbon barrel beers provides everything from vanilla bean to espresso and cherry flavors. We tried the vanilla bean variation, and were blown away by its subtle sweetness an overall balance, especially with it being a bourbon barrel age brew.

The Saturday session of Winter Beer Festival opens to the public at 1 p.m. today, with early entry available for VIPs and Enthusiast members at Noon. We hope to see you there!

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

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.

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.”

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.