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COMSTOCK PARK — The end of winter in Michigan means only one thing — Winter Beer Fest. Despite the coldest February on record (we checked), the additional organization required to shape the first ever two-day version of the event and brief issues with frozen tap lines, the 10th annual Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival was one to remember.

Over 100 breweries from around Michigan descended on Fifth Third Ballpark on Friday and Saturday.  Easily navigable rows of breweries were flanked by merchandise and tokens, food and an ample amount of porta johns (very important).

The flow of this year’s fest was wonderful, and even though it was packed with a sell-out crowd on Saturday, it never seemed like the lines were too long or any one tent too crowded. The Michigan Brewers Guild festival teams did an excellent job making sure everything moved smoothly in all aspects.

Navigating and visiting with all of our favorite breweries was almost impossible, but we did get the opportunity to talk to the good folks from many wonderful places across the state.

Brewery Vivant: Kate Avery, designated Abbess of Beer was on hand. She poured the brewery’s newly tapped ‘Sous Chef’ — a Red Wine Barrel Aged Belgian Inspired Strong Ale — essentially their popular ‘Escoffier’ base, but not aged on a brett yeast.

“This beer is super complex, and even despite the cold temperatures, you’re able to taste the bold flavors,” shared Avery.

Another popular favorite was the Wizard Burial Ground, a Bourbon Barrel Aged Quad that comes in at 10.4% ABV. Notes of vanilla and oak from the long cellaring are pleasantly present, and, lucky us, it’s now available in cans.

BarFly Ventures — Grand Rapids Brewing Company (GRBC) and HopCat: Grand Rapids staples, both HopCat and GRBC brought some award winners for the crowd. Distinguished Eagle from GRBC, which won a silver medal at the World Beer Cup, is a totally organic imperial stout, aged in Woodford Reserve barrels. Strong notes of vanilla, and cherry are readily assessable, and it was a tasty treat and a nice warm up on a cold (very cold) day.

Another award winner was HopCat’s Red Nymph, a Flanders Red with a nice slightly sour, tart cherry note.

Jake Brenner, Head Brewer for BarFly, said the pubs made sure to select tasty, high gravity beers to help keep everyone warm. The cold did present some problems though. “It’s been really laid back and a lot of fun, but one of the jockey boxes froze up Friday. So far, today everything is looking gorgeous.”

Northern United Brewing — Jolly Pumpkin and North Peak: Jolly Pumpkin always brings something unique to the table, and this year was no exception. Sour beers are its game, and some include its variety of Sasions — Sasion X, brewed with candied ginger, orange and lemon peel, and a blend of peppercorns was a standout — a nice citrusy, ginger flavor with that wild yeast, Jolly Pumpkin signature ‘funk’, we know and love.

North Peak brought a lot of signatures, and Maylem — a Midwest heavy/old ale from its Grizzly Peak Imperial Series. North Peak’s taproom will host this particular beer, aged in run barrels, soon, so that’s something to look forward to.

Folks in Detroit should also be on the look-out for a Jolly Pumpkin build-out sometime in April.

Newer breweries were showcasing its wears as well, and MittenBrew had the chance to visit three of the WBF newbies.

Railtown Brewing: This might be the newest of the new; this brewery in Caledonia opened its doors in December of 2014. Jim Lee, Co-Founder, let us explore the selection and gave us some insight in to what Railtown is all about.

“We brought a lot of our mainstays to show off what we do on a normal basis, along with some fun one-offs,” says Lee. “Our Citra Warrior (an imperial IPA) is very popular in our tap room right now. We are stylistic brewers, and don’t do a lot of heavy adjuncts — clean flavored, medium-style beers, nothing over the edge. We are definitely a small town brewery with a loyal local clientele, and that’s what we want to be.”

Pigeon Hill: Who doesn’t want to drink something called Wild Rumpus? A barrel aged Flanders Red, this beer has a wonderful complexity, fruit notes and sour notes have a great balance.

Chad Doane, co-owner and head brewer, let us in on Pigeon Hill’s philosophy.

“We want to make delicious beer. We keep it simple, but use that classic base and do something funky with it. Pigeon Hill is about community, and our pub has a coffee shop feel. The space is for adults and their families. We want it to be a place the community (of Muskegon) can come and hang out in.”

Other interesting riffs on classics include the Walter Goes to Bang Coq Blonde Ale, brewed with Thai chilies and lemongrass — a little heat, peppery bite and gingered spice.

Territorial Brewing: This very new, Battle Creek-centric German influenced brewery brought a lot of their staples to showcase at their first WBF. Nick Yuill, Brewer at Territorial, shared its Spedunkel, a traditional style Munich Dunkel and their Red Headed Rauchstar, a ginger Rauchbier — a little twist on the classic.

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The consensus by attendees? Great beer, all around, with IPAs and Imperial Stouts ruling the day.

Some standouts mentioned frequently included White Flame’s Black Flame, an Imperial Stout and perennial favorites by Kuhnhenn and Griffin Claw, so we had to visit a few of those booths too.

Griffin Claw Brewing Company: Its booth was hopping, so apparently word got around. Project Clementine seemed to be a favorite of the weekend — a double IPA with clementines added during the mash.

The Birmingham brewery plans to double in production in the next year, and also distribute state-wide.

Kuhnhenn Brewing Company: “It’s amazing,” says Eric Kuhnhenn, co-owner. “For being so cold out and this many people attending. There’s over a thousand different beers here, the camaraderie — it’s great.”

Kuhnhenn likes to do a lot of aged beers, and brings at least one every year to WBF. This time, it was a Russian Imperial Stout.

“It’s a big robust stout aged on bourbon barrels for almost a year,” explains Eric.

The Crème Brule Java Stout was also well received by many people we talked to. Kuhnhenn tends towards the higher ABV, and Eric shares why. “We found out we could get more complexity, more flavors, this way.”

Kuhnhenn wants to put in the time, the effort, to take the old stylistic types of beer and take it one step further. Recall its ever-popular Raspberry Eisbock?

If you weren’t able to attend this year, we leave you with the words of Brad and Kevin — home brewers and frequent festival attendees.

“This is the first year that we came in with an Enthusiast membership pass. We were always jealously looking at the people who got in early. Everyone should do that, you have time to get in and don’t feel rushed.”

Other, timely advice: “Get your ticket as early as you can. Dress warm. You can never have enough clothes on, and, of course, wear shoes that don’t get wet! If you are coming from out of town, book your hotel in advanced and stay safe — arrange for transportation to get you here.”

Despite the cold and ever pervasive Michigan wild winters, the WBF continues to be one of the most well attended. Perhaps Vivant’s Kate Avery best sums up the popularity of the event: “The Michigan Beer Scene conquers all.”

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!

Michigan’s own Madonna once sang that “some boys kiss me, some boys hug me, I think they’re okay…” She went on to divulge that Mr. Right was always that man with the cold hard cash. Money is great, but I want to tweak those lyrics a little to say that the man with the beer is (usually) Mr. Right. And he is even more likely to be the right one if he comes to you on Valentine’s Day bearing beer and candy. To help out those wannabe Mr. and Ms. Rights, I offer the following suggestions for Valentine’s gifts.

Life is like a box of chocolates…

Ah, those lovely heart shaped boxes full of chocolate goodies! Unless you cheat and get the Whitman’s Samplers, you are in for a lovely surprise with each chocolate that you pick. Here are some of my personal favorite pieces that can be paired with a delicious Michigan beer!

Vanilla in the middle: Whenever my dad would get my mom a box of candy, I would always insist on getting the ones with the vanilla cream in the center. This often meant that I would bite into or at least poke a few pieces before finding what I wanted. Ah, youth! Nowadays, I would still really love that vanilla cream interior, but I would pair it with Saugatuck Brewing Companys’s Neapolitan Stout. You could also use this beer if you accidentally grab the strawberry cream interior, as well. The beer is quite versatile.

Caramel: I’ve always had a problem with caramel — specifically, it sticks to my teeth and will not come off unless I pry it off with a chisel. Fortunately, I can use Odd Side Ales Granny’s Apple Pie to wash it down with! The apple flavor in this beer is not overpowering, and just tart enough to balance the caramel’s sugar.

Toffee crunch: The long, flat candies in the box tend to be the toffee crunch ones. I love any food that makes noise, so I usually go for these after I find my vanilla ones. A good winter warmer would balance out that sugary crunch — Arbor Brewing Company’s Jackhammer Old Ale would complement the taste of toffee perfectly.

Chocolate in the middle: Every once in a while, you will grab what I call the “chocolate chocolate” piece. You know, that one with the pure chocolate inside and out? If that happens, just go whole hog and grab a Detroit Beer Company’s Sanders Chocolate Stout. It is made with Sanders chocolate and what better way to honor the cocoa bean?

Raspberry in the middle: I mentioned above that I would often get to my mom’s chocolate box first. She was okay with this, so long as I left the raspberry creams for her. Raspberry was and is my mom’s favorite flavor, and I was a nice enough kid to share her own chocolates with her! Given the sweetness and sometimes overpowering taste of raspberry, I would suggest pairing these candies with the best chocolate beer out there, Atwater Brewery’s Decadent Dark Chocolate Ale. The beer has the pure taste of chocolate, but isn’t overly sweet and doesn’t have any coffee or oatmeal undertones.

Chocolate covered cherries: How cool would it be to pair with these gooey, fun candies than a beer actually made with cherries? Fortunately, we have just such a beer that is made right here in Michigan: North Peak’s Archangel! This nicely hopped, well balanced beer will wash down the tasty chocolate.

Other Valentine’s Day treats

Marketers love dying things red, white and pink and calling them Valentine’s Day treats. I have absolutely no problem with this, and to celebrate that creativity, I suggest the following beers be paired with these fun Valentine’s Day treats.

M&Ms Dark Chocolate with New Holland Brewing’s Dragon’s Milk with Raspberries: This creamy stout with its touch of raspberries makes for a nice combination with M&M’s Dark Chocolate (or any dark chocolate, for that matter).

Reese’s Peanut Butter Hearts with Tri City Brewing Company’s Giant Slayer: The strong peanut butter taste will need an equally strong beer, and there are few better than this imperial stout from Tri City Brewing.

Hershey’s Chocolate Kisses with Dark Horse Brewing Company’s Tres Blueberry: It’s a pity that chocolate covered blueberries aren’t more of a thing, because the two tastes really taste great together. Until the candies become more common, make your own with the classic Kisses paired with a tasty blueberry beer.

Conversation Hearts (Kiss me! Love me! Text me!) with a lager from Wolverine State Brewing Company: Nobody does lagers better than this Ann Arbor based brewery, and a nice, crispy lager will balance out the sugary fun of these chatty hearts.

Red Hots and Bell’s Two Hearted Ale: Traditionally, IPAs have been paired with hot foods. Thus, I think that the spiciest of candies will pair nicely with one of Michigan’s finest IPAs. (In a perfect world, there would be another batch of Red Hot beer brewed at the Arbor Microbrewery!)

Peeps with Jolly Pumpkin’s La Roja: Peeps aren’t just for Easter anymore, and thank goodness for that! If you are going to ingest these gelatinous globs of sugar, just go for it! Balls to the wall! Eat the sugar, drink the sour and let the tastes mingle in your mouth.

These 12 beer and candy pairings should win your way into anyone’s heart. Happy Valentine’s Day!

DETROIT – “This is amazing. I’m used to festivals with maybe 20 breweries, two of which are Budweiser or Miller.”
The guy speaking stood before me, dressed in a red ball cap and sweatshirt with a large “N,” denoting where he recently moved from — Nebraska. In contrast to his native Cornhusker State’s beer events, the festival we were at — the sixth annual Detroit Fall Beer Festival — sported more than 75 breweries serving nearly 700 beers, all of them from right here in Michigan.
It was a timely reminder of what Michigan craft beer lovers are sometimes tempted to take for granted: we are blessed with a large, diverse array of great local brews that is the envy of most any other state in the union. Here are a few of the more interesting ones I sampled over the festive weekend, including several that confounded my expectations.

Got Their Claws in Me

Apridisiac Sour Apricot Amber Ale, Bourbon Imperial Pumpkin Ale, Griffin Claw Brewing Co. (Birmingham)
Cool story, bro: last month I attended a beer dinner with Griffin Claw head brewer Dan Rogers, who told the story of how he transitioned from chef to brewer during his days in Las Vegas in the 1990s. It turns out I drank his beer at the now defunct Holy Cow Microbrewery during my one and only trip to Sin City in 1996. Happily for me and the rest of Michigan, Rogers is back home and turning out some amazing brews including Apridisiac, a hay-colored, medium-bodied ale that delivers sweet and sour apricot jam and marmalade notes with a mild funky finish. Of greatest surprise to me was how much I enjoyed Bourbon Imperial Pumpkin, which combined three of my least favorite fads into one beer.

Livin’ on the Edge

Ctrl+Alt+Del Altbier, River’s Edge Brewing Co. (Milford)
I have yet to make the trip to River’s Edge, which opened just this past summer, but the buzz around its beers has been consistently good. This is no doubt due to the shrewd decision to bring Michigan brewing veteran Kim Schneider (formerly of Traverse City’s North Peak, among others) on board as head brewer. Ctrl+Alt+Del is fashioned as a traditional Northern German altbier, with a light malt flavor, balanced nicely by Spalt hops and a crisp, satisfying finish. Not to mention, it has a great name.

Goodd Beerr

Bourbon Barrel Aged Vanilla Porter, Gonzo’s BiggDogg Brewing Co. (Kalamazoo)
Longtime brewer of both the home and pro variety Greg “Gonzo” Haner finally put his extensive Siebel Institute training to its ultimate use in 2013 when he opened Gonzo’s BiggDogg in Kalamazoo. Despite my reservations about the brewery’s silly name, the beers are top notch, especially the Bourbon Barrel Aged Vanilla Porter, a robust, chocolatey brew with vanilla notes highlighted by the bourbon character, all smoothed out with a pleasantly silky mouthfeel.

Gravitas

440 Pepper Smoker, Barrel Aged Rye-Headed Stepchild, Original Gravity Brewing Co. (Milan)
The first time I had 440 Pepper Smoker on tap, I knew I had finally found a pepper-flavored beer I could get behind. The toasty amber malt notes are accentuated with just enough jalapeno heat to leave you with a slow burn and a thirst for another pint. The Rye-Headed Stepchild brought a brilliant balance of ginger and rye malt spiciness, overlaid with complex, woody notes from the whiskey barrel.

Hops and Oats

Oats ’N Hoes Imperial IPA, Unruly Brewing Co. (Muskegon)
Another surprise for me was Oats ’N Hoes, an imperial IPA from relative newcomer Unruly Brewing, the brainchild of homebrewer-turned-pro Eric Hoffman. Hoffman’s known for brewing beers with copious amounts of hops, and this rendition of the 8.1% ABV bitter bomb was all the more hoppy for being pushed through a Randall of, if memory serves, fresh Chinook and Simcoe cones. The malt backbone (which included flaked oats) held up nicely against even this much hoppiness. I’m not normally a fan of these types of beers (or even Simcoe hops in general), but this one managed to hit the spot. The name is apparently a reference to a rap parody by Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly that I’m not hip (hop) enough to have seen.

Beer Garden

Dandelion Rhubarb Saison, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales (Dexter)
Head brewer and founder Ron Jeffries of Jolly Pumpkin is known both for making some pretty funktastic wild ales as well as experimenting with various leafy green ingredients. His Dandelion Rhubarb Saison featured the well known Jolly Pumpkin sour profile, but topped it off with a counterbalance of earthy, vegetal notes. Dee-licious and gone too soon.

The Ones That Got Away

Two beers I wanted to try included Brewery Vivant’s Paris — a saison fermented with brettanomyces and aged in red wine barrels — and Bourbon Barrel Territorial Baltic Porter — a collaboration between Liberty Street and Witch’s Hat, named for a road that runs between Plymouth and South Lyon, where the two breweries are respectively located. A number of people enthusiastically recommended these beers, but I never quite got to them. Sad face.
There were, of course, many other amazing beers deserving of mention. But just like beer festivals, where time is limited, so is the word count for articles recapping them.
In the meantime, get ready for the next great Michigan Brewers Guild fest, the 10th annual Winter Beer Festival, now two days long — Feb. 27-28, 2015 — in Grand Rapids.  Tickets go on sale Dec. 4 (with pre-sale for Enthusiast members Dec. 2-3). See mibeer.com to buy online.

DETROIT – “This is amazing. I’m used to festivals with maybe 20 breweries, two of which are Budweiser or Miller.”

The guy speaking stood before me, dressed in a red ball cap and sweatshirt with a large “N,” denoting where he recently moved from — Nebraska. In contrast to his native Cornhusker State’s beer events, the festival we were at — the sixth annual Detroit Fall Beer Festival — sported more than 75 breweries serving nearly 700 beers, all of them from right here in Michigan.

It was a timely reminder of what Michigan craft beer lovers are sometimes tempted to take for granted: we are blessed with a large, diverse array of great local brews that is the envy of most any other state in the union. Here are a few of the more interesting ones I sampled over the festive weekend, including several that confounded my expectations.

Got Their Claws in Me

Apridisiac Sour Apricot Amber Ale, Bourbon Imperial Pumpkin Ale, Griffin Claw Brewing Co. (Birmingham)

Cool story, bro: last month I attended a beer dinner with Griffin Claw head brewer Dan Rogers, who told the story of how he transitioned from chef to brewer during his days in Las Vegas in the 1990s. It turns out I drank his beer at the now defunct Holy Cow Microbrewery during my one and only trip to Sin City in 1996. Happily for me and the rest of Michigan, Rogers is back home and turning out some amazing brews including Apridisiac, a hay-colored, medium-bodied ale that delivers sweet and sour apricot jam and marmalade notes with a mild funky finish. Of greatest surprise to me was how much I enjoyed Bourbon Imperial Pumpkin, which combined three of my least favorite fads into one beer.

Livin’ on the Edge

Ctrl+Alt+Del Altbier, River’s Edge Brewing Co. (Milford)

I have yet to make the trip to River’s Edge, which opened just this past summer, but the buzz around its beers has been consistently good. This is no doubt due to the shrewd decision to bring Michigan brewing veteran Kim Schneider (formerly of Traverse City’s North Peak, among others) on board as head brewer. Ctrl+Alt+Del is fashioned as a traditional Northern German altbier, with a light malt flavor, balanced nicely by Spalt hops and a crisp, satisfying finish. Not to mention, it has a great name.

Goodd Beerr

Bourbon Barrel Aged Vanilla Porter, Gonzo’s BiggDogg Brewing Co. (Kalamazoo)

Longtime brewer of both the home and pro variety Greg “Gonzo” Haner finally put his extensive Siebel Institute training to its ultimate use in 2013 when he opened Gonzo’s BiggDogg in Kalamazoo. Despite my reservations about the brewery’s silly name, the beers are top notch, especially the Bourbon Barrel Aged Vanilla Porter, a robust, chocolatey brew with vanilla notes highlighted by the bourbon character, all smoothed out with a pleasantly silky mouthfeel.

Gravitas

440 Pepper Smoker, Barrel Aged Rye-Headed Stepchild, Original Gravity Brewing Co. (Milan)

The first time I had 440 Pepper Smoker on tap, I knew I had finally found a pepper-flavored beer I could get behind. The toasty amber malt notes are accentuated with just enough jalapeno heat to leave you with a slow burn and a thirst for another pint. The Rye-Headed Stepchild brought a brilliant balance of ginger and rye malt spiciness, overlaid with complex, woody notes from the whiskey barrel.

Hops and Oats

Oats ’N Hoes Imperial IPA, Unruly Brewing Co. (Muskegon)

Another surprise for me was Oats ’N Hoes, an imperial IPA from relative newcomer Unruly Brewing, the brainchild of homebrewer-turned-pro Eric Hoffman. Hoffman’s known for brewing beers with copious amounts of hops, and this rendition of the 8.1% ABV bitter bomb was all the more hoppy for being pushed through a Randall of, if memory serves, fresh Chinook and Simcoe cones. The malt backbone (which included flaked oats) held up nicely against even this much hoppiness. I’m not normally a fan of these types of beers (or even Simcoe hops in general), but this one managed to hit the spot. The name is apparently a reference to a rap parody by Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly that I’m not hip (hop) enough to have seen.

Beer Garden

Dandelion Rhubarb Saison, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales (Dexter)

Head brewer and founder Ron Jeffries of Jolly Pumpkin is known both for making some pretty funktastic wild ales as well as experimenting with various leafy green ingredients. His Dandelion Rhubarb Saison featured the well known Jolly Pumpkin sour profile, but topped it off with a counterbalance of earthy, vegetal notes. Dee-licious and gone too soon.

The Ones That Got Away

Two beers I wanted to try included Brewery Vivant’s Paris — a saison fermented with brettanomyces and aged in red wine barrels — and Bourbon Barrel Territorial Baltic Porter — a collaboration between Liberty Street and Witch’s Hat, named for a road that runs between Plymouth and South Lyon, where the two breweries are respectively located. A number of people enthusiastically recommended these beers, but I never quite got to them. Sad face.

There were, of course, many other amazing beers deserving of mention. But just like beer festivals, where time is limited, so is the word count for articles recapping them.

In the meantime, get ready for the next great Michigan Brewers Guild fest, the 10th annual Winter Beer Festival, now two days long — Feb. 27-28, 2015 — in Grand Rapids.  Tickets go on sale Dec. 4 (with pre-sale for Enthusiast members Dec. 2-3). See mibeer.com to buy online.