COMSTOCK PARK — Saturday was a day of records.

With crowd numbers estimated to be over 6,000, and more than 450 beers brought by Michigan breweries, the 2012 Winter Beer Festival was the largest ever. Beer lovers came from across the state and beyond to sample some of the best, brightest and sometimes even whackiest beers in Michigan.

The 7th annual festival, held at Fifth-Third Ballpark, sold out in record time in December. Several breweries brought not only their staple beers, but also high-ABV and rare beers otherwise unavailable to the public. With everything from a sweet wintertime ale to a hopped-up IPA, there was a beer for everyone.

Shorts Brewing Company featured several bottled and non-distribution beers, including its Turtle Stout (8% ABV). Pouring a deep chocolate hue, with about one finger of a light tan pancake head, you could immediately sense an aroma of roasted pecans. The scent was balanced with notes of caramel and chocolate malt, making for an overall very pleasant smell.

The instant taste of sweet chocolate malts and vanilla soon gave way to a pecan and nutty roasted flavor. The beer finished with sweet caramel and chocolate, with the pecan roast lingering to the very end. This brew isn’t as heavy as you’d expect given its appearance, with a light carbonation and silky chocolate body, yielding a very creamy, coating mouthfeel. The unique flavors are very well balanced and integrated, making for one of the highlights of the day.

In addition to the Turtle Stout, Shorts highlighted its Wintertime Fun Ale (8.5% ABV) — an American Brown Ale brewed with peppermint, milk chocolate, marshmallow and cinnamon.

Dark Horse Brewing Co. had not one — but four — tables at the festival. Known for its mastery with barrel aging, the Bourbon Barrel 666 Sarsaparilla Vanilla Stout was no disappointment. The brew pours a deep midnight black colored brew with a caramel head. There’s a massive vanilla smell, coupled with hints of milk chocolate and cocoa. The bourbon barrel really accentuates the vanilla notes here.

Sweet chocolate malts and cocoa are immediately present when tasting, but most of all the brew features heavy vanilla overtones that are very reminiscent of a creamy root beer. Cocoa and vanilla linger toward the finish, where a little more of the bourbon shows up. There’s a slight alcohol warmth here, but the brew is very smooth, and features a creamy mouthfeel throughout.

In what was the biggest surprise of the day, Right Brain Brewery’s The Demise (10% ABV) hit the spot for us. An American Barleywine, the brew pours a light copper color, with a thin rim of fizzy white head that rapidly dissipates. It features a complex smell, predominated by honey and sweet, sticky malts with citrus hops and alcohol.

As in the nose, honey shows up first, on a sweet, sticky body of red and caramel malt. Sweetness fades a bit, leading to a citrusy hop finish with a lingering, astringent alcohol burn. A full bodied brew, The Demise has some good carbonation and warming alcohol. For as much going on with this brew, Right Brain definitely found a way to balance it nicely.

The next Michigan Brewers Guild festival is July 27 and 28 in Ypsilanti. Tickets go on sale May 1.

GRAND RAPIDS – With a cold bite in the air and pint in hand, beer lovers from all over Michigan and surrounding states will descend on Fifth Third Ballpark on Feb. 25 for the Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival. But this year, craft beer fans can spend an entire week in Grand Rapids.

GR Beer Week makes its debut this year, during the week leading up to the Winter Beer Festival. Events will take place over the course of five days at locations in and around Grand Rapids. Beer dinners, rare beer tastings, tap takeovers and other unique events are being planned.

While the focus is on Michigan beer as a whole, GR Beer Week is a time for Grand Rapids breweries to shine. With six established breweries within the city limits, (Schmohz, Hopcat, B.O.B.’s Brewery, Founders, The Hideout, and Brewery Vivant), and several more on the horizon for 2012 (Harmony Brewing and Elk Brewing to name two), Grand Rapids is quickly becoming a destination for craft beer culture.

Detroit-based Liquid Table Beverage Solutions is producing and marketing GR Beer Week. Liquid Table began Detroit Beer Week in 2009 in cooperation with the Michigan Brewers Guild, piggybacking the Detroit Fall Beer Festival. This concept will be brought to Grand Rapids for the first time this year.

“Liquid Table has proven to be uniquely qualified in the organization and promotion of craft beer events,” said Eric Briggeman, President of the Michigan Brewers Guild. “This partnership will continue to further the Guild’s mission of promoting a healthy beer culture in the State of Michigan.”

GR Beer Week events and information will be constantly updated on Facebook,

“We have several large events planned for each night of the week,” said Barry Johnson, West Michigan Liaison for Liquid Table. “The wholesalers, breweries, retailers and consumers have been extremely helpful and supportive of our cause. Everyone understands the importance of such a vibrant, growing industry, especially in a down economy – everyone loves beer.”

GR Beer Week culminates with the Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival, held Feb. 25 at Fifth Third Ballpark in Comstock Park. Roughly 6,000 tickets for the event went on sale December 1, 2011, and sold out in a record three weeks. In addition to the other GRBW events, two charity ticket auctions are scheduled on Feb, 23. Head to for details.

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