Like any respectable beer geek, I love beer festivals. I will find just about any reason to attend. Whether I've seen all the breweries before, I'm always up for another tasting. The real beauty of the festival, is that there's always the glimmer of hope that the breweries you know and love will be putting on something different. The festival format really gives them the opportunity to expose what's new, what's chic, what's outrageous. It's really what I love about a beer festival - the unknown. This past weekend I had the opportunity, to travel south (not very south, it was freaking freezing) into Michigan, for their 9th Annual Brewer's Guild Winter Beer Festival. *Cough, cough* Sweet Mother of Mercy! It was incredible.
When my intrepid band of beer junkies and I arrived at the Ball Park (the Festival was held at 5th 3rd Ball Park, home of the Grand Rapids Ice Caps), we were greeted with a massive line up that stretched to the far end of the parking lot. Lucky for us the weather wasn't too bad, so the walk in was pleasant enough.
Now, I have never seen this before, so I can only surmise that it is a US thing; all the festival goer's were sporting necklaces of food (if it is not a US only thing please let me know). The most standard ones were made of pretzels or crackers, but some sported whole cheese and sausage plates. I saw one guy wearing an entire Kielbasa coil. It was well outside anything I'd seen at a festival before.
There were costumes, crazy outfits and enough Duck Dynasty clones to support a camouflage factory.
As we got into the venue I knew I was in for a real eye opener. Now I understand that they have been at the craft beer game longer than us, and yes, they have a significantly larger population then us, but Holy Sh*t! I was blown away. First of all, the sheer number of breweries represented was daunting. I have never seen anything like it. There were over 80 breweries with over 800 beers to choose from. There were big crafts, small crafts and everything in between. Names like Bell's, Shorts, Founders, Greenbush and Darkhorse headlined the festival with huge set ups and tonnes of beer. They were flanked by smaller operations like Brewery Ferment, Vivante, Tapistry, Gravel Bottom and Midland. Vendor booths were set out in a giant square with a single row down the middle. I won't lie, I was intimidated by just how many choices there were. I was at a complete loss as to where to start. The sheer number of choices made it a daunting task. In the end, we just picked a side and started down the line.
The staff at each booth were helpful and friendly, some were having almost as much fun as the festival goer's and token collection was on the honour system. But I was a bit let down by the amount of time I had at each booth. I felt like I had to know exactly what I wanted when I reached the front of the line. No time to discuss options. No time to take suggestions. With so many people there and with such long line ups, I didn't want to linger too long lest I raise the ire of those behind me. I really didn't feel like I had time to talk beer. We chatted with other beer festers but really didn't get the time with the beer staff that I'm used to at Canadian events. Anyone who knows me knows I could have sat there until the end times talking with these guys, but it just wasn't the venue for it.
Samples were 3 oz for one token (a $45 entry ticket got you 15 tokens), and we tried to stick to the minimum. I mean, there was so much to tackle. I wanted to be able to taste some of my late entries. As we went along I was seriously impressed at some of the offerings laid out before me. It was like meeting the mad scientists of beer. Each one trying to out do the other. Some more interesting entries were a sour root beer stout that almost created a black hole in my face, a ghost pepper stout that was like pouring liquid fire in my mouth, a coffee infused pilsner that was both rich and crisp at the same time, an imperial creme brule java stout that delivered on the name and an imperial white Russian stout that I really have no words for. I could go on for pages just naming the various and diverse beers that were offered. There were names like, The Penetrator, Damn Dirty Ape, Backwoods Bastard, Kilauea Joe and Funk in the Trunk. Needless to say there were many and they were very tasty.
There was also plenty of US style fair food such as giant corn dogs, enormous smoked turkey legs and meat pies that looked good enough to kill for. However, I only had eyes for one thing; Beer.
With our tokens spent we made for the exit. A tent selling breathalyzer tests was prominent at the gate as we left. I looked back...only once. A tear welled in my eye for all the beers untasted. I took a moment to reflect on what I'd tried. Some were good, some were bad, some were ugly, but they were all the epitome of craft beer. Someone poured their heart and soul into each one. Crazy ideas and old standard alike, they were all great in their own way. We queued up with others for cabs and our day was done, and so was my adventure with Michigan beer. What an experience! If you ever get the chance - DO IT! You won't regret it. I've already started making a list of breweries I want to try next year.