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.”

Imperial Mud

12.5% ABV — Imperial Mud is an imperial stout with all of the qualities you would expect from the style. With a high ABV at 12.5%, Imperial Mud is the same recipe base as Kuhnhenn’s famous Michigan Mud. Brewed with Michigan malt and hops, the aroma is dominated by combination of them. The vanilla beans and cocoa nibs ease the bitter chocolate found in the brew.

As the beer warms, the bitterness calms and the chocolate notes come through. The taste is thrown back and forth from bitter to sweet and finishes with slight bitter chocolate on the tongue with a tingle. This imperial milk stout is huge and by the time you’re finished, the lace on the glass will be nothing but a reminder of the heat provided.

Michigan Hops Loonie Kuhnie Pale Ale

5.8% ABV — This limited-release batch of Loonie Kuhnie Pale Ale is brewed with exclusively with Michigan-grown hops from Top Hops in Goodrich. The brew is golden in color with very minimal head. The nose is sweet and very inviting.

There are a ton of fruity notes throughout this beer. Much like the aroma, the palate of this brew is outstanding and enjoyable. The taste is very clean and crisp and the finish is also smooth, making it very dangerous for a near 6% beer.

Samoa Nut Brown

6.7% ABV —  Who doesn’t like Girl Scout Cookies? Samoa Nut Brown is rich brown in appearance. At first waft, the nose is full of all the goodness that comes with a brown ale. It’s laced with a slight coconut aroma and a hint of yeast. The taste is purely nut, caramel and coconut. The body is medium and not too thick or thin. The finish will leave your palate full of sweetness that will linger with coconut.

Samoa is a very smooth brown ale in a world of overpowering IPAs and barrel aged brews, and tastes just like your favorite cookie.

Fluffer Session IPA

4.5% ABV — Typical to the modern day family structure, Fluffer Session IPA is often overshadowed by its big brother DRIPA. While it’s elder clocks in a 9.5% ABV, little brother Fluffer is concocted with all of the same ingredients and about half the alcohol with a 4.5% ABV tag.

This is a true session beer. The brew is clear as day and as golden as a sunrise. Citrusy hops dominate the nose and palate. Your first and last sips will be smooth as all get out and refreshing as can be. The body is light but filled with character, but not too sharp. Fluffer is clean and crisp with no blemishes on its resume.


Just off of the corner of Mound and Chicago in Warren, you will find the humble and hidden Kuhnhenn Brewing Company bustling at capacity most days of the week.

In that brewery, you’ll discover the Kuhnhenn family still doing business in their original location.

The location where Eric Sr. ran his hardware store. The location where brothers Bret and Eric began selling homebrew supplies and eventually the beer being drank today. Kuhnhenn Brewing Company started out as, and still remains, a family owned business in the Old Village of Warren.

Where a hardware store once served a generation of fixers and doers, the brewery now serves a generation full of craft beer drinkers in a different manner.


During the 1990s, Brett and Eric Kuhnhenn took over operations of Lutz True Value from their dad, Eric Sr. Their management of the store coincided with their new found hobby of brewing.

Unfortunately, it also coincided with the opening of many big-box home improvement stores in the area, putting a strain on their business. Foreseeing how the story would play out, Bret and Eric started selling homebrew supplies out of the store, eventually converting it fully to homebrew supply retail shop in 1998.

“There was a time where you could get your screen repaired and get a beer. You could wait for your screen and drink,” explained Bret Kuhnhenn. “It was hard to give up the sales of the hardware shop. In the beginning, hardly anyone would come in.”

In 2001, the brothers officially launched the brewery. But not without the hard fought battle of convincing their father it was the way to go.

“He was against it. He did not like that idea,” Bret said. “We had to drive him around the local breweries and at the time there weren’t very many. We drove him to the local places to get the experience.

“I think after the third place we finally convinced him.”


As the brewery came of age, so did the beers. Brews like Simcoe Silly and Penetration Porter have been around since the beginning, while newer and award winning beers like DRIPA and 4D have helped round out their flagships and truly establish the Kuhnhenn name.

Jon Piepenbrok, VP of Marketing and Sales for Kuhnhenn Brewing Co., said the brewery’s reputation often precedes itself, especially with its customer base.

“While we may appear to be huge, 99.99% of people who come through these doors think we’re so much bigger than we are,” he said. “We’ve kind of unintentionally had this puffer fish or peacock attitude without even realizing it.”

For comparison, Piepenbrok used Founders Brewing Co. as a basis.

“Last year we produced right around 2,000 barrels of beer. This year we’re on track to produce somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 barrels,” he said. “If you compare that to Founders, for example, if I’m not mistaken they’re close to 200,000. So we’re just a fraction the size of Founders. And still just a drop in the bucket compared to ABI or Miller-Coors.”

Kuhnhenn Brewing Co. also feels they face certain geographical challenges that the west Michigan breweries may not.

“In southeast Michigan, it’s been a little more difficult,” Piepenbrok said. “I’ve said throughout my time in the industry, the west side of the state is at least five to seven years ahead of where we’re at in Detroit.”

However, Piepenbrok feels the tide may be turning in their favor.

“Something really strange has happened over the last two years especially,” he said. “The west side of the state has seen it gradually increasing over the last four to six years. Metro Detroit has only really seen it the last 18 to 24 months.”

Along with the perception of being a large brewery, Kuhnhenn is also dealing with the old economic principle of supply and demand. While supply has remained on the same trajectory, the demand trajectory has skyrocketed.

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Because of the production pinch they’re in, the brewery has answered with the purchasing and revamping of a new facility in Clinton Township. But the expansion hasn’t come without its hold ups.

“Anyone who’s ever embarked on an expansion project or any type of construction effort can tell you whenever you think you’re going to open, it’s going to be way later than that,” Piepenbrok said. “Because we’re such a heavily regulated industry there are so many additional governmental bodies that have a say on what we do on a daily basis, it definitely adds challenges.”

Originally scheduled for a 2014 opening, the new Clinton Township location, formerly a home and garden center, will feature a full view into the brewhouse and bottling line, as well as a huge outdoor patio. The brewpub and production facility will feature a full kitchen with a concept menu of gourmet sausages and sides.

“With the production brewery open, that location will produce our core brands not only for distribution, but for both pubs as well,” Piepenbrok said. “That includes DRIPA, Fluffer, Penetration Porter, Loonie Kuhnie, Simcoe Silly, White Devil and maybe a handful of others.

“The Warren brewery will focus on single-batch beers, draft only and more experimental beers.”

Even with the new facility poised to open in 2015, Pipenbrok said it will merely help keep up with the demand Kuhnhenn is facing.

“We’re at capacity now. There’s literally no more physical space in [the Warren] building, which is why we needed the expansion to the new facility,” he said. “Probably within five years of opening the new brewery, we’ll already need another facility. Because there’s no end in sight for the growth of craft beer and locally produced beer as long as it’s good. And we’ll continue to make good beers.”

Beers so good, Piepenbrok and the rest of the crew aren’t shy when it comes to talking about quality.

“I like to walk the fine line of confidence and arrogance. Arrogance is ugly, no one likes that. But, there’s nothing wrong with being confident in what you do and what you produce,” he said. “I have no qualms saying we produce some of the best beers in the world.”

Not only good beers, but meads as well. With the rise of meads across the country, Kuhnhenn plans to stay ahead of the curve.

“We bought two 1,000 gallon fermenters to expand our mead production, with the possibility of using our other fermenters for production,” Bret said. “I see us in the future as possibly being one of the largest mead producers there is.”

Bottling and distribution are very much on the radar for Kuhnhenn. Currently, the brewery does special releases every so often throughout the year. The hold-up for the brewery is the measly four beer bottle filler, which also requires four people to run it.

“We’re, on average, filling nine bottles a minute. We’re talking a ridiculous amount of man hours. There’s a physical toll on our guys,” Piepenbrok said. “They’re waiting on the new place to open because of this sexy new bottling line we have over there, which will bottle up to 250 bottles a minute with three guys running it.”

In order to get ready for a 2015 opening, Piepenbrok said its all hands on deck to get things ready.

“We’re still a very small, family owned company. And the owners are involved on a daily basis,” he said. “Most of the hours of the week, Bret and Eric are over at the new facility getting their hands dirty, wrenching on equipment, installing plumbing, running electrical. That’s what we do. We do what needs to be done.”


While the brewery’s collective eye is on the prize of growing the Kuhnhenn name and getting their beers into the hands of more consumers, the corner of Mound and Chicago will always be home.

“It’s amazing to think that we’re coming from this little pub on the corner of the Village in Warren with a tiny little brew system to going full-scale production,” Piepenbrok said.

“We want people to know where we’re from. This is the Michigan mentality, this is the Detroit mentality, the Macomb County mentality. We’re hard working, blue collared and that’s not a dirty word. That just means we make things and we’re passionate about making them. We don’t do jobs half-assed. We start things and we finish them. We’re just a bunch of normal dudes making some good beers.”

WARREN — Wassail toasts were plentiful at Kuhnhenn Brewing Company this weekend as the brewery celebrated its annual Winter Solstice party.

The yearly two day event held on Friday and Saturday is not only a gathering and celebration on the shortest days of the year, but also a bottle release of limited beers from the brewery.

Patrons lined up as early as 5 a.m. in order to make sure they got their hands on the highly coveted beers. A tent just outside the brewery doors snaked with people throughout, eventually spilling over into the rest of the parking lot and down Chicago Road almost a quarter mile.

The bottle release allocations took on a different format this year as purchasers were only allowed to buy up to a case of mixed six packs. The mixed packs consisted of 2013 Fourth Dementia Olde Ale (4D), Bourbon Barrel Barleywine, Bourbon Barrel Fourth Dementia Olde Ale, Old Village Stock Ale, Bourbon Barrel Aged American Imperial Stout and Braggot.

“Stress levels are lower this year thanks to the pre-packed six packs,” said owner Bret Kuhnhenn. “In previous years we were hand-picking orders and it was monotonous and too hard to do.”

While the mixed six packs may not have been the most popular decision for the release, all 300 cases were sold within a few hours of being released at 11 a.m.

Kuhnhenn admits the bottle sale situation isn’t ideal for everyone, but they’re always looking to improve.

“We’re trying different things to make it smoother,” he said. “This worked out but you still have some disappointed people. We never want to turn anyone away.”

The bar hit capacity quickly as drinkers looked to get out of the cold after braving it for several hours. The overflow of people found themselves in a large heated tent where they were able to purchase some of the limited and cellared beers on tap, including the popular Raspberry Eisbock and the infrequent Blueberry Eisbock.

Delectabowl Food Truck & Catering, Detroit BBQ Company and Vincenzo’s Pizza provided much needed comfort foods throughout the morning and into the evening as patrons drank, laughed and toasted their wassail for Yuletide.

Minnesota resident Karl Witthuhn was in town visiting friends and found himself at the brewery for the first time.

“We were here at open for the bottle sales,” he said. “It is packed. They have really good beers and I think I just had one of my favorite beers of all time, which is Bourbon Barrel 4D.”

The outside tent doubled as a concert stage where bands Reggie Smith and the After Party blessed the mic on Friday. The Orbitsuns kicked things off Saturday afternoon and RJ Spangler Trio closed it out during the evening.

With the brewery’s ever-growing popularity, there is the realization of eventually needing to make a decision on where the solstice party take place in the coming years.

“What are we going to do with that? Are we going to do solstice as both places? I could get a way bigger tent over there, but that would take away from the nostalgia of here,” Kuhnhenn said.

Kuhnhenn also said he always appreciates honest feedback on their beers and events, going on to say how they have thought about different formats for the bottle release.

“Maybe when we open the new place it will be different,” he said. “I was thinking about having a kind of cafeteria setup. Where you walk through and let them pick the bottles they want. We’ll see.”

ST. CLAIR SHORES — The Wine Garden celebrated the much anticipated release of its Big Tony’s Imperial Stout this past Saturday.

Eager patrons snaked the inside the store for a sample of the limited stout and the opportunity to purchase bottles of the small-batch brew. Over 50 cases were sold within 45 minutes of being released.

“I expected a lot of people to be here,” said owner Tony Batou. “I’ve been talking about it the last few years.”

The American Imperial Stout is an original recipe brewed by Kuhnhenn Brewing Co. exclusively for The Wine Garden. The stout was then aged in Buffalo Trace barrels, hand-selected by Batou, for 18 months. The final ABV clocks in at 12.9%.

The idea for the exclusive brew happened by chance one night when Kuhnhenn owner Bret Kuhnhenn visited Batou’s shop a couple of years back based on a friend’s recommendation.

“I finally made it over and Tony happened to be here. We tried some stuff and I noticed he had this whole pile of Buffalo Trace bottles,” Kuhnhenn recalled. “I told him I was a huge fan and he told me he had the barrels.”

Kuhnhenn was excited to find out about Batou’s barrel selection.

“We use bourbon barrels all the time but we don’t get Buffalo Trace barrels,” Kuhnhenn said. “So we tried [the bourbon] and we talked about what kind of beer we would like. Do we want to do a barley wine? Do we want an imperial stout?”

Ultimately, the two decided on an American Imperial Stout.

“We thought the marriage would be perfect with it, so that’s what we did,” Kuhnhenn said. “We thought it would add a little vanilla character from the bourbon barrel and it came out phenomenal.”

The nose on the brew is strong bourbon, identical to the Buffalo Trace bourbon. The stout is full of cocoa, espresso and vanilla notes throughout and finishes smooth while leaving a little spice from the bourbon.

Batou recalled wanting to make a collaboration happen with a local brewery for many years.

“I wanted to make a bad ass beer and I’ve been in his brewery many times,” he said. “Every time I went to Kuhnhenn’s and I tried any stout or anything dark like Michigan Mud, Crème Brule, anything like that, I said, ‘This is amazing.’ And all I could think about was that beer going into those barrels.”

Batou also gushed proudly about how the beer ideation and creation all happened in Macomb County, including the bottle labels designed by local artist Katie Alfonsi.

“This beer is beyond just making beer,” Batou said. “It’s the passion of a brewer, the passion of a shop owner and the passion of an artist.”

Batou hopes to continue collaborating with Kuhnhenn in the future on similar projects.

“I don’t think I’ve done anything else that makes me this happy other than having my kids,” he said. “Twenty years in business and I’ve never done anything more exciting than this. And I couldn’t have done it without Bret and Kuhnhenn.”

Is it just me, or have American Pale Ales recently become more and more like an IPA? Loonie Kuhnie goes back to its roots and epitomizes the style as being a well balanced, clean, and hop forward brew with a refreshing American hop aroma and an ABV level that is on point with the BJCP standards for the style.

The hops cut right through on your palate but they also don’t beat your tongue to death with bitterness. It’s aromatic and is a gorgeous color. It hits all the right notes for me and I hope it will for you as well.

5.6% ABV

Appearance: A burnished gold colored brew sits before me. The head is white and has tightly packed bubbles. Overall it is relatively clear, but I wouldn’t say crystal clear.

Aroma: In my “drive-by” sniff I detect grassy, pine and resin forward hops. In the background lingers some subtle notes of strawberry. The malt character is like the middle portion of wheat bread (not the crust). The finish in my aroma reminds me of the crispness of cutting a green bell pepper.

Flavor: Strawberry, grape and pineapple seem to be the outstanding fruit characteristics, though they are relatively subtle compared to the pine needle-esque hops pulling through. The bittering components are quite mild, and are soothed with a sugar forward, bready malt note.

Mouthfeel: Medium-high carbonation. Bright and spritz-y. This brew is dry throughout. Very well balanced.

Aftertaste: Resin forward hop character lingers into the finish, along with an alcoholic glow and that mild twinge of hop bitterness.

Food Accompaniment: The Killer Mac and Cheese at HopCat. I chose to included grilled chicken, basil, marinated tomatoes and spinach in this meal. The bitterness and carbonation of the beer cuts out the fats and starches from both the pasta and cheese, while the acidity of the marinated tomatoes clears out the dryness of the beer. The basil and the spinach resonates with the herbal and vegetal characters of the hops. Overall, this food and beer pairing works, although it is not my absolute best. My recommendation? Eating this particular meal with a Belgian Tripel instead. The Pale Ale? I recommend eating it with a classic burger.