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Recap: Snowflakes, Stouts, and Serious Fun at the 2013 Michigan Winter Beer Festival

Michigan Winter Beer Festival

We’re spoiled in Michigan. From Kalamazoo to the Keewanau, and from the Motor City to Traverse City, Michigan beer is thriving. It seems that everywhere you look in the “Great Beer State” these days, a new brewery is adding even more quality beer to an already amazing array of brews found right in our backyard.

At the center of Michigan’s burgeoning brewing culture is Grand Rapids, recognized as “Beer City USA” in a national poll last year. With such a distinguished title, and with a beer scene that draws visitors from Portland to Pensacola, it’s fitting that GR plays host to what has evolved into the state’s signature celebration of craft beer: The Michigan Winter Beer Festival.

These festival-goers went well beyond pretzels for their “pretzelaces.”

Pretzelaces

Hosted by the Michigan Brewers Guild each February, this year’s festival sold out 6,000 tickets in just over 13 hours. Yes, it’s pretty popular. Here’s quick look at the 2013 numbers:

  • 7,500 attendance, including paid, staff, volunteers, retail, and media
  • 74 Member Breweries
  • 625 Beers
  • 240 31-gallon barrels of beer

Of course, the reason for all of the enthusiasm is Michigan beer, and when I think about winter beers, a stout often comes to mind. Michigan brewers and craft beer drinkers seem to agree. In fact, five of Ratebeer.com’s Top 50 Beers in the World are Michigan stouts.

When I approached Trisha and Audrey at Drink Michigan about covering the festival, I suggested a “Quest for Stout.” The concept was simple. Seek out new Michigan stouts, enjoy familiar ones, and ask for suggestions for others. However, as I would soon discover, with Michigan beer, it’s easy to be tempted by the full spectrum of beer styles.

I made my way into the festival and began my quest at Bell’s. Larry Bell and his crew from Kalamazoo brew a number of excellent stouts, including the barrel-aged beauty, Black Note Stout. While Black Note was on the beer list, it wasn’t pouring quite yet, so I opted for McGill’s Spiced Stout, a beer I hadn’t tried. Aromas of coffee and cinnamon are balanced with flavors of chocolate and roasted malt. The subtle spice with notes of clove and cinnamon were a nice way to start off a snowy afternoon of outdoor beer tasting.

Just a few spaces down from Bell’s was Right Brain Brewery, whose CEO Stout snagged top honors from Drink Michigan readers as Michigan’s Favorite Stout last fall. I spotted Russell, RBB’s very approachable owner, just outside the tasting bar. “You’ve had CEO,” he said when I mentioned my Quest for Michigan Stout. “Try something new.”

RBB was pouring three other stouts (Naughty Girl, Fat Lad, and Shadow Watcher), but Russell said,  “Actually, try our Imperial Brown Ale.” I’m glad I did. Even with a 7.7% ABV, Igor Takes a Digger Imperial Brown Ale drank very smoothly, with the toasty malt I like in a brown ale. I’ll be stopping into the brewery in Traverse City to enjoy it again soon.

Next up was Short’s, another northern Michigan brewery that also happens to be known for producing high-quality stouts.  I always enjoy a Cup of Joe, which was on the beer list, but I checked in with  “Woj,” whose official title at Short’s is ‘Beer Liberator,’ before making my selection. He suggested the Carob Stout, an Imperial Stout with 8.1% ABV. Medium-bodied with a unique combination of flavors, the beer finished with a nutty sweetness followed by a notes of licorice.

Sampling Short’s Carob Stout with ‘Beer Liberator,’ Woj.

Sampling Shorts

I finally caught up with Audrey and Trisha at the New Holland Brewing table, and they pointed me toward what would be my favorite beer of the festival. On a Quest  for Michigan Stout, New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk Bourbon Barrel Stout would likely be on anyone’s list. For the Michigan Winter Beer Festival, New Holland rolled out a rum barrel-aged version of this rich, dark brew, aged in New Holland’s own rum barrels.

Trisha and Audrey with Jimmy of New Holland Brewing.

Hanging with Jimmy from New Holland

The high-gravity beer presented prominent rum flavors up front, followed by notes of vanilla and caramel to compliment the beer’s rich, creamy finish. This was an excellent beer. In fact, I’d have to say it’s one of the more interesting beers I’ve enjoyed in a while. I hope New Holland decides to make this available more often.

Elvis was in the building. And he was pouring some really good beer at New Holland.

Elvis pouring beer

Right next door to New Holland was Kuhnhenn Brewing Co., always a big draw at Michigan beer events. Departing once again from my “Quest for Michigan Stout,” I took Audrey’s recommendation and went for the Raspberry Eisbock. I’m usually a bit hesitant to order beers with fruit in them, but this one may cause me to take a second look at more of them.

Bock beers are traditionally released in late winter/early spring, and Kuhnhenn’s take on this traditional German style adds a fruity spin to a dark, full-flavored beer. The raspberry flavor is present right away, but is never overpowering. Malt and chocolate flavors remind you this is a bock, and the subtle tartness of the raspberry in the finish makes this a tasty, unique brew that would pair well with chocolate or other desserts, but certainly stood well on its own.

The afternoon’s highlights included much more than beer, of course. I had to grab one of the now-famous giant smoked turkey legs from the food service area, and our group of craft beer lovers – which gets larger each year – spent some time in front of the stage grooving to some tunes and warming up around nearby fire pits.

But the creative costumes we saw are what put the “festive” in the 2013 Michigan Winter Beer Festival.

Even pirates love Michigan beer.

pirates love beer

Below are just a few of the many fun groups of folks we met who contributed to yet another great experience at Fifth Third Ballpark. Thanks to the Michigan Brewers Guild for staging yet another amazing showcase of Michigan Beer. Can’t wait ‘till next year!

Snow? Check. Beer? Check. Yeti? Check.

yeti

 

Furry hats were definitely ‘hot’ at this year’s festival.

furry-hats

 

But classic ‘can hats’ will never go out of style.

beer-can-hats

 

Sometimes it’s good to create your own style.

beer style

 

Or roll penguin-style.

penguin style

 

Or hula style.

hula style

 

Cheers to another excellent Michigan Winter Beer Festival. See you next year!

cheers

What were you favorite beers at the festival? Which Michigan stouts should I try next? Let us know in the comments!

About Nick Nerbonne

Nick Nerbonne drinks craft beer, skis powder, and takes pictures throughout the state of Michigan, often near his home in Traverse City. He also works in digital marketing for FINE Design Group, and leads impromptu wine tours on the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas. Connect with Nick on Twitter or LinkedIn.
  • Tom Wittman

    A nice write up on what looks to be a great event.

  • techsocialite

    My favorite beer hands down was the Rum barrel aged Dragon’s Milk from New Holland. So good!!!!

  • Elena Wollborg

    I’m not always adventurous with beer, but I’d actually love to try a festival like this so I could get small samples to see what I like. And I’m also game to go anywhere that I can wear a pretzel & bagel around my neck. Great recap, Nick! Looks like a fun day!

  • Joe Nagy

    Fabulous photo bomb in the second picture from the top!

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