Well, to be honest, I was going anyway, but I figured I may as well try to keep my wits about me and pass along a few thoughts as I explored the fabulous world of Michigan beer in the Michigan Brew Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival, located in the parking lot behind center field at the West Michigan Whitecaps’ Fifth Third Park, just north of Grand Rapids.
This is the third year the Guild has held the event at the ballpark and they keep learning and improving every year. The first year was actually in the ballpark, along the concourse above the stands …but that proved to be too crowded. Last year moved outside the park to the outfield lot, but the setup was plagued by too few “used beer departments” which caused LONG lines for relief. This year, they got most things right as the festival fenced space was expanded and they just about doubled the number of bathrooms, along with adding eight new breweries to the lineup …not the least of which was Bell’s Brewery, the largest player in Michigan and the 21st largest in the U.S., in terms of volume.
Unlike the horrific Beer Fest movie, this beer fest featured an amazing array of tasty and innovative brews from among the seventy plus breweries occupying the Great Lakes State. Click here for a list and the full program.
For the second year in a row, the event sold out ahead of time, even with the expanded allotment of 4000 tickets. As a Guild member, I was fortunate enough to snag VIP entrance—which meant an hour’s head start and access to the indoor VIP area within the stadium. While I was happy to get the early access and avoid the lines for a few choice early selections, I never did make it to the VIP area, as that would’ve cost me time in the beer tents.
Upon entering for the day—after the ID inspection—I checked in to receive my bag of 25 tokens for samples, roughly 3-6 ounces each. There were then five huge tents to explore, each with a lineup of brewery stands arranged (mostly) in alphabetical order. For breaks, there was a half dozen large fire pits for smokey treats or a warm up. There was also a large food tent, just in front of the VIP area inside the ballpark, featuring some ballpark food and huge roasted turkey drumsticks, which were nearly impossible to eat without wearing a portion on your person.
I managed to acquire about 15 extra tokens from a friend “who didn’t want any beer,” and after highlighting a few of my personal “must tries,” set off to get a few notch marks in my program. I concentrated on beers that I had never had before.
Among the highlights, Blue Tractor out of Ann Arbor had a surprisingly strong lineup and a dynamite Schokolade Weizen, Bell’s Brewery released samples of Batch 9000 and Black Note Bourbon Barrel Aged Stout, Sherwood Brewing of Shelby Township had an incredibly interesting Gunpowder IPA—made with habanero peppers—Darkhorse Brewing featured a wide and varied selection of brews, including a Donut Beer, and Frankemuth Brewery reawakened with a few classic German brews.
The crowd was abuzz over Bell’s, of course, with chants of joy and anticipation at the tapping of new brews as they rotated four taps throughout the day. There was also a big response for Jolly Pumpkin, Arcadia, Walldorf (Marshall), Arbor/Corner and Dark Horse. If you’ve never tried Jolly Pumpkin, seek them out when in Michigan. Ron Jefferies has a few things on tap that you’ve never tasted before, guaranteed, including his Flemish and Belgian sours. They’re not for everyone, but they’re always creative and well done.
The atmosphere was festive and fun. While most everyone was bundled up for the chilly weather, there were a few “dressed” for the occasion with some rather creative attire, including costumes, crazy hats and even a mink coat. Random cheers and toasts would break out and the lines were usually never more than a minute or two—and always polite. By 5:00 p.m., I had somehow managed to conserve a few tokens, thanks to my “extra” supply, but my ride was punctual so I was on my way.
You, too, should be “on your way” here if you’re in the neighborhood next winter. As always, check out their website.