Friday, March 01, 2013

The 2013 Michigan Brewer's Guild Winter Beer Festival

Written by  Ben Darcie
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Steve Berthel from New Holland Brewing Company

For the last few years, the Michigan Brewers Guild has watched their annual Winter Beerfest grow. Every year has seen the ticket count grow higher, the grounds pushed farther, and the response? Far exceeding the expectations of the Guild over and over again.
Grand Rapids has been nationally recognized for our excellence in beer, most notably by being titled “Beer City USA” in a statistical tie with Asheville, North Carolina, this last year. Aside from the title, Founders Brewing Company has made quite the impression Internationally, putting Grand Rapids on the map in many “Best Beer in the World” polls, inluding RateBeer.com's Best 100 Beers in America for multiple years in a row.

All of a sudden, beer lovers all over the world are seeing “Michigan” popping up frequently, especially in regards to the renowned Founders KBS, who saw themselves placed at #2 for the “Best Brewers in the World” list released by Ratebeer in 2012. Kalamazoo's Bell's Brewing Company came in at #3, and Kuhnhenn Brewing from Warren, MI placed #11. Overall, Michigan placed seven breweries in the top 100 list, including Short's Brewing Company, who only distributes in Michigan.

Over the last few years, Michigan has become known (and continually rated) one of the best beer cities in the United States, and the last few years have shown that Winter Beerfest isn't just a local interest anymore, but has grown into a serious regional event, dotting the calendars of beer lovers all over the states, but especially the region around the Great Lakes State.

There is no greater proof than the response to this year's MBG Winter Beerfestival. The 2012 Beerfest sold out in a record 23 days, but no one saw this year's response coming, not even the Guild. The increased amount of public tickets available sold out in a record-shattering 13 hours, leaving many hopefuls out in the cold – without beer.

This year's ticket allotment was under intense supervision by the Guild, in an active effort to control scalping. It had proven a problem in years past, and, in an effort to give everyone a fair chance to be involved in the event, went so far as to identify scalpers and revoke an early batch of tickets purchased in bulk at Rochester Mills.

The morning started for many as it had in the past – in line. The public entrance at 1pm hosted a line nearly a mile long, twisting around the ballpark and south along 131 for nearly a mile – the line was still pouring thirsty attendees into the grounds well after 2pm. Even the Enthusiast members who were privileged enough to get in an hour early still faced an extensive line.

Before the Enthusiasts entered, there was a buzz around the grounds. The brewers and volunteer teams had spent the morning putting the finishing touches on their tables, putting up beer information and erecting giant brewery banners to show patrons where they were. The kegs had been prepared and were ready to pour, the only thing left was the thirsty.

The moment the gates opened, Enthusiast members flooded right to the reception tent, where tickets were scanned and each person was given their cup and tokens for the event, and suddenly the grounds were buzzing with activity – breweries were swarmed with people trying to get the first tastes of beers chosen far in advance, asking brewers questions and getting the first peek at new apparel and brewery gear.

It wasn't until the public entered at one that the grounds really took to true beerfest form. With the grounds packed, it starts to feel more like a massive family reunion, with thousands of distant relatives who all love beer just as much as you.

The atmosphere of WBF is hectic, but respectful. Everyone has a great time, keeping in mind that we are all trying to share the same experience – but, like other things, some aspects start to deteriorate as the day progresses: your warmth, sobriety, and ability to remain true to your well-thought-out attack plan. No matter how thorough and dedicated you are, it's extremely difficult to stay focused on your 'most wanted' list, especially once you make the turn at 3oclock.

What you wear is a big aspect of your enjoyment of the festival. This year's weather proved perfect, for the first half, and turned toward the colder side of things around 3oclock. Patrons found themselves zipping up jackets and putting hats back on as the temperature dipped and the snow kept falling. The most common complaint I hear from attendees is soaked, cold feet – a great point to remember for you 2014 attendees.

I like to relate WBF to other people like this: It's like when you were a kid, and you finally got to go to Toy's R' Us for the first time in months, and you stood there, open-mouthed, overwhelmed by the massive amounts of toys for you to explore. It's like that – with beer.

The festival usually grows by a few breweries a year, but this year proved huge growth for the Michigan brewing scene, bringing a stunning 19 new breweries to the WBF for their first showing.

Short's BC (Bellaire) welcomed newcomers right past the entrance and maintained huge crowds throughout the festival, as well as Darkhorse BC (Marshall) and Bell's BC (Kalamazoo). A huge draw for the festival this year was Greenbush BC (Sawyer), who brought 49 beers for thirsty fest-goers to sample. Founders BC (Grand Rapids) stacked huge lines all day waiting for hourly releases of KBS, CBS, and Blushing Monk.

The newcomers made quite a splash this year as well, word spreading around the festival, turning patrons to their booths. Our BC (Holland) made a big splash with their Toasted Coconut Porter, the Mitten BC (Grand Rapids) with Death to Flying Things Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout, Perrin BC with their Bourbon Barrel Aged Rye Wine, Pike 51 with Knights on Mastadons Imperial Brown with Coffee; of course, there are countless more, and they all deserve mentions.

The beer was fantastic all day long, as was the music. Grand Rapids band The Crane Wives played a two hour set at entry, filling the grounds with their unique brand of pop-folk that kept patrons dancing all around the grounds (I even spotted people on the far side of the grounds rubbernecking, asking their friends 'who is this?'). Then James Reeser took the stage from 4-6 and rocked the grounds with some great blues to keep the crowd dancing through the afternoon, with DJ Snax mixing tunes inbetween the sets (and causing rather intense random dance parties by the stage).

One of my favorite aspects of WBF is simply what I like to call “The Yell”. This happens when a random group in one of the beer tents decides to shout “BEER!” at the top of their lungs as long as they can, and you get to hear the yell spread across 7,000+ people, across the entire length of the grounds– it's quite the feeling. An ode to beer and a collection of people that share the same passion – great Michigan beer.

From steaming turkey legs, king of the snow mound challenges, frozen extremeties, all the way down to the last sip of the day, this one goes down in the books.

For those of you who are highly anticipating WBF14', remember: tickets go on sale December 1st, 2013, and will undoubtedly sell out even faster than this year's 13 hours.

From this Beer Lover and Writer to everyone involved in the festival, my greatest thanks. From the Michigan Brewer's Guild Board, to everyone involved at 5/3, to distributors, to breweries, to brewers,to the guy who cleans kegs on tuesdays and thursdays, thank you one and all.

To see the complete list of photos from Winter Beerfest CLICK HERE

Ben Darcie

Ben Darcie

Ben Darcie has been homebrewing since 2006 and is currently the Brewery Representative for Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids, MI. He also provides public and private Beer Education and is a Beer Writer for BeerAdvocate, I'm a Beer Hound and three other Michigan publications. He is also the founder of Experience Beer WM and the 9wk Grand Rapids Beer Tasting Class (est. 2010).