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The 18th Annual Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Festival took place at Riverside Park in Ypsilanti on Friday and Saturday. Over 100 breweries gathered to deliver 932 brews for the celebration of our state’s wildly popular beer culture.

Hot and steamy weather didn’t discourage the thousands of exuberant attendees. Shade trees and numerous water stations helped folks keep their cool as temperature soared. Thankfully, rain held off until after official festival hours on Saturday.

Lines to enter the park began forming well before the gate opening times. Enthusiast Members of the Guild gained entry to the festival grounds an hour before the rest of the crowd, giving them a head start on the high-demand specialty beers that didn’t last long.

Within mere minutes of the early opening, members had descended on the Witch’s Hat booth creating lines 50 people deep, all hoping for a shot at tasting the brewery’s coveted Night Fury Imperial Stout variations.

“On Friday they were gone within an hour,” said Nancy Haas, owning partner.

Many breweries offered up sours, goses and other unique thirst quenchers for those who wanted something lighter.

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One Well Brewing from Kalamazoo brought a blonde jalpeño brew, Xalapa, that managed to have all the flavor and aroma of the hot pepper without the expected spicy heat. It was a surprisingly refreshing creation. Sliced jalapeños were available as garnish for those who wanted to amp it up.

“I never brew anything I know I’m not going to like,” said co-founder and brewer Chris O’Neill, who created the recipe.

His beers have gained a following, leading the company to explore expansion options less than a year after opening.

“Right now we brew four batches a week on average and we’re going to have to do more especially if we want to get into distribution. We’re already looking for expansion places,” O’Neill said.

Another intriguing strange brew was Cotton Brewing Company‘s The Cat’s Meow, a wheat beer with a subtle hint of earthy mint derived from catnip.

Arbor Brewing Company stood out from the crowd with its beer-dispensing vintage firetruck. As impressive as the restored truck’s appearance was, the real attraction for many fans was the larger than usual list of sour beer offerings. Velvet Hammer 9, usually only available at the microbrewery one day a year, was served to those who were quick enough to score it during the timed releases.

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 mibeer.com.

ANN ARBOR – Today, May 7, is officially National Homebrew Day as designated by Congress in 1988, but approximately 7,000 homebrewers across the country and around the world celebrated on Saturday during the 15th annual American Homebrewers Association “Big Brew.”

Michigan homebrewers gathered at 15 AHA-registered sites from Kalamazoo to Warren and Monroe to Gladstone in the Upper Peninsula to brew from the AHA’s Big Brew recipes – which this year included an American Brown Ale and a Northern English Brown Ale – as well as others of their choosing.

At the Adventures in Homebrewing store in Scio Township, nearly 100 members and friends of the Ann Arbor Brewers Guild, including AHA Governing Committee Chair Chris Frey, congregated around 15 different homebrew systems set up in the parking lot. Everything from the makings of a double IPA to a Belgian wit boiled away under an intermittently sunny sky, while participants shared samples of homebrewed pale ale, kolsch, breakfast stout, and even mead and wine. In celebration of Cinco de Mayo, AABG members also put out a Mexican-themed potluck spread that included pulled pork fajitas, two kinds of chili, beans, bacon-wrapped jalapeños and more.

Other brewers participated at “unofficial” sites like Witch’s Hat Brewing Co. in South Lyon, where brewers made a five gallon batch of a Belgian-style tripel ale and enjoyed discounted beers. Like many commercial brewers, owner Ryan Cottongim began as a homebrewer and is helping start a new local homebrewing club.

Other Michigan breweries hosting Big Brew demonstrations included Liberty Street Brewing in Plymouth, Bell’s in Kalamazoo, BARTS in Bay City, Redwood Lodge in Flint and Kuhnhenn Brewing in Warren. Rochester Mills Brewing hosted its Big Brew event a week earlier, on April 28.

“AHA Big Brew highlights what is so special about homebrewers – their friendliness, interest in sharing with others, passion for beer, and of course, their affinity for having fun,” said AHA Director Gary Glass.

For more information on the AHA and National Homebrew Day, visit homebrewersassociation.org.

SOUTH LYON — It was love at first sight for Ryan and Erin Cottongim. When they found the used “Mr. Beer” homebrewing kit at a garage sale in 2004, the couple began a passionate, years-long affair that has now resulted in the birth of a bouncing baby brewery: Witch’s Hat Brewing Co., located at 22235 Pontiac Trail (about 15 miles north of Ann Arbor), opens December 26 at noon.

The project was born not only out of a mutual enthusiasm for craft beer but also from a love of community, a love that made the decision about where to locate a no-brainer.

“We both grew up in South Lyon, went to school here, got married here — this is definitely home,” says Ryan. “It’s great to be able to create something new in this little town that’s treated us so well over the years.”

The name of the brewery itself comes from a South Lyon landmark: A one-hundred-year-old train depot called the Witch’s Hat after its conical design. It stands in nearby McHattie Park, where Ryan and Erin exchanged wedding vows in 2007.

“That area is kind of the downtown of South Lyon, and it obviously has a spot in our hearts,” says Ryan. “We figured what better way to showcase the town than with this name?”

The dual themes of town and trains also permeate the tap room, a snug space previously occupied by a coffee shop, and local lore informs the names of the beers themselves, including Bear-Ass Wheat and Rumble Under the Red Light. Antique and reproduction railroad lanterns adorn the bar, which sports 12 taps, and the café-style tables, many of which were built using Ryan and Erin’s extensive bottlecap collection. The relatively small but comfortable-looking space is made cozier with a gas fireplace and wall art provided by local artists and photographers (much of which is for sale).

As a small microbrewery, Witch’s Hat lacks a kitchen and does not have a food menu; however, apart from a popcorn machine behind the bar, there are many nearby options for bringing in food, including Jet’s Pizza (which will deliver for free to the brewery), Chinese and Italian restaurants, Jimmy John’s sandwiches, and fast food joints like Taco Bell and McDonald’s. Erin also anticipates carrying products from Blue Apron Baking Co., another family-run local business.

The brewhouse features a locally designed and built four-barrel system, which Ryan and two assistants (also drawn from the ranks of area homebrewers) use to create beers from recipes he’s been developing since he began homebrewing as well as newer experiments as he gains more experience on the system.

“In the beginning I made some horrible, horrendous beers with that Mr. Beer kit, but it was enough to get me hooked,” says Ryan. “Then I started doing it right with extracts and then moved on to all-grain. I love brewing and have a real passion for it.”

The beers available for opening day are as follows:

  • Lyger Common Ale – 4.5% ABV, 21 IBU. Described by Ryan as his “lawnmower beer,” Lyger is an ale-lager hybrid in the California common tradition, at least yeast-wise. Light yellow in color and light in body, it delivers crisp citrusy notes with just a kiss of Saaz hoppiness.
  • Train Hopper IPA – 6.2% ABV, 75 IBU. Served uncarbonated out of the tank (it will be ready to go on draft by opening), Train Hopper is a relatively easy-drinking IPA bursting with Centennial, Citra, and Cascade hop aromas and bitterness.
  • Edward’s Portly Brown Ale – 5.5% ABV, 35 IBU. 
Not quite a porter but bigger than a brown, Edward’s is named after Ryan and Erin’s springer spaniel, which explains why five percent of the sales from this anticipated mainstay brew will go to the Huron Valley Humane Society. The burnt caramel head, creamy mouthfeel and chocolatey flavor profile combined to make this beer a standout. The light-medium body and lower alcohol guarantee you’ll want more than just one.
  • Bear-Ass Wheat Hefeweizen – 4.6% ABV, 25 IBU. A hazy golden brew with a faceful of the classic banana/clove aroma, Bear-Ass is a play on the unofficial name for a local beach area and it delivers all the tartness and refreshing citrus notes you expect from a hefeweizen.
  • Holy Confusion Barleywine Style Ale – 10.2% ABV, 103 IBU. Originally contract brewed by Frog Island Brewing, this beer attracted some attention at the 2011 Michigan Winter Beer Festival with its massive but well balanced malt and hop flavors. It wasn’t on during my visit but should be ready for the opening.
  • 1908 Smoked Wheat Ale – 6.5% ABV, 36 IBU. Confession: I am not a big fan of smoked beers; consequently, I recuse myself from any attempt to describe this beer except to say, yep, it’s smoky! (It was also served not quite finished out of the tank.) The reason for all the smoke? 1908 is named after the original Witch’s Hat train depot, which burned to the ground that same year.
  • Rumble Under the Red Light Irish Red Ale – 4.5% ABV, 29 IBU. This beer’s name comes from stories Ryan’s father and other South Lyon old-timers tell about the epic throwdowns between them and neighboring Brighton kids underneath the town’s then-lone stoplight. A work in progress, Rumble delivers a medium-bodied, grainy taste with a surprisingly hoppy finish.
  • Klucking Kat Belgian Style Ale – 4.8% ABV, 30 IBU. Another evolving brew, Klucking Kat’s varied malty and fruity flavors combine with a mild tartness for a complex finish.

Ryan and Erin expect to distribute kegs soon; bottling, if it happens, will likely have to wait for a larger facility with sufficient space, if it’s deemed viable. Erin also is already working on a variety of meads, which will eventually be served alongside the beers in the tap room. (It should be noted Witch’s Hat has root beer and cream soda for designated drivers or anyone who prefers a soft drink for whatever reason.)

Witch’s Hat is open Monday through Thursday from 2 p.m. to midnight, noon to midnight Friday and Saturday, and closed Sunday. Lifetime Mug Club memberships are available for $75-$175 (depending on if you want a personalized, hand-blown mug), growler fills range from $12-$14, and sampler flights of five 5 oz. tasters are $6.50. Give the brewery a call at (248) 486-2595 or check out witchshatbrewery.com.

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