Let’s get a few things straight. I love Michigan, I love beer, I love festivals, and I most certainly love Michigan beer festivals. About five years back, as a resident of Ohio covering the Columbus craft beer scene, I joined in on the tradition of attending the Michigan Brewers’ Guild Winter Beer Festival in Grand Rapids each year. Six months later, not only is it my pleasure, but my responsibility to cover the 14th edition of the largest beer festival in Michigan – Summer Beer Festival. Hosted annually by the Michigan Brewers’ Guild in Ypsilanti on July 22nd and 23rd, I and many other recognizable faces from MBG’s winter festivities traded snowsuits and knitted hats for cargo shorts and sundresses as we joined thousands of beer enthusiasts for the weekend celebration.
On Friday, lines were relatively short, and as the fest kicked off in the late afternoon, the heat of the sun relented to cool summer breezes. Lines remained long on Saturday despite the mid-day rays, and sprinklers and water stations provided temporary relief from both the heat and the endless stream of alcohol.
The folks at Dark Horse hit a home run with the decision to break up their tasting station into several smaller, themed stations (stouts, a variety of IPA’s, and some widely distributed varieties), each hosted at separate tables in separate tents. The slogan “Because we hate lines” demonstrated the reasoning behind their approach. A total win for a popular Dark Horse brand that already won me over with their Crooked Tree IPA and Scotty Karate Scotch ale lines, but they sealed the deal for me with a rich and creamy Bourbon barrel stout and a variety of exclusive ales.
Unlike this year’s Winter Beer Festival, there were relatively few scheduled tappings. Atwater fans plowed through a Vanilla Java Black Imperial Stout tapping at 6pm on Friday leaving not a drop for a stout-loving late-comer like myself. Unfortunately, another run at the 2pm VJ Black tapping on Saturday didn’t yield much better results for me. Thankfully Atwater has plenty VJ lack on tap at their riverside brewery off Jefferson. I’m happy to yield to folks who might not have a chance to visit the Detroit-based brewery as I have.
I have a penchant for supporting the beer industry south of 69 and east of 23, but the Short’s team did a great job of putting together a dual purpose tasting station and veritable billboard. The irony of a cabana-esque Michigan tropics theme gets the trophy for most outstanding display for non-tent tasting stations. Writers from coast to coast congregated at the Short’s destination Saturday morning where three wood-grain surf-side tables served a range of IPA’s, experimental brews such as Strawberry Short’s Cake and Spruce Pilsner, and seasonal beers. As it did Friday evening, Short’s Brewing would serve as one of Saturday’s hottest attractions at Summer Beer Fest ‘11.
If Short’s gets first prize for best non-tent display, Warren’s own Dragonmeade gets the nod for best tent display. The medieval setting included a castle-like entrance and jousting tournament flag backdrop together setting the tone for some great English styles such as their Under the Kilt Scotch ale and renowned Final Absolution. Both brews are tough to find outside of the Detroit area, but both represent the brewery and Detroit beer culture very well.
Many other Detroit area breweries offered some solid brews as well. Rock VanMeter of Bastone Brewery brought his usual lineup of award-winning Belgian beers. Great Baraboo Brewing Company’s new brewmaster Adam Berratta generated a few new additions to deliver some excitement in his first trip to SBF as brewmaster. Dan Rogers, brewmaster at Big Rock Brewery and Chophouse informed me of four new Bourbon barrels in which he will age a limited amount of his Flying Buffalo Imperial Stout for tapping sometime this winter…music to the ears of a Bourbon stout lover.
Chris Reilly, brewmaster/cheese maker at The Traffic Jam and Snug Restaurant served me up a slice of his seven-year gruyere with whole wheat crackers in the food tent just moments after tasting the Snug’s Saison Daydream. When asked why Chris was manning the food tent, the Snug’s suds slinger quipped, “Chris trusts us more with the beer than he does with his cheese.”
Ray Sherwood also bounced back and forth between the Sherwood Brewing tasting station and food table. His fare was as popular as his Alaskan Sister Wit and Mistress Jade’s Hemp Ale, his pride emanating from the success of his dichotomous approach.
I can’t mention the food at the Summer Beer Festival without giving props to a few retailers outside of the Detroit area that hit home runs with their offerings. The Blue Tractor out of Ann Arbor and the B.O.B. out of Grand Rapids brought some of the best pulled pork I’ve had in years. Tops on the list, though, was Arcadia’s limited availability bacon mac n’ cheese. The salty flavor of the bacon perfectly complimented the rich smoked cheddar creaminess of the dish.
With all the means to lose control…high gravity beers coupled with the summer heat…The Guild hosted a “blow as you go” station for imbibers to check their level of intoxication before setting out on the trek home. Two dollars is a small price to pay for ensuring we make it to next year’s festival.
As with all festivals, especially beer festivals, Summer Beer Fest 2011 came to a close much too quickly. The selection this year was so large even a week-long festival still couldn’t provide enough time and cognizance to try everything. True, there will be more festivals to come. In six months I’ll be wearing mittens and a parka as I nuzzle my tasting cup in Grand Rapids. But most importantly, I will always have a slew of Michigan Breweries to offer my palate adventure in the meantime.