This past weekend I attended the Michigan Brewerís Festival. Prior to the fest, when I glanced over the list of attending breweries, it occurred to me that I knew very little about the Michigan scene. Other than Bellís, I probably had only tasted a dozen beers from that state. Considering that it is only a 4 Ĺ hour drive away, thatís quite sad, actually. I know upstate New York. I know Quebec. Heck, I even know Vermont. Why not Michigan. Then it sort of occurred to me, other than Bellís, what does anybody from outside the state know about Michigan beer? Well, I went to their festival to find out.
The first thing I do when I get to a festival is to attempt to formulate a game plan. My first step is to find the beers that sounded the most interesting. In this case, I also had a mandate to mix in some of the everyday beers, because thatís the best way to get a true feel for the local scene. Either way, however, I decided to ignore the presence of Kalamazoo Brewing, simply because I know their stuff. I like their stuff, yes, but I know it.
So instead, I started with Kaiserís KŲlsch, from Dragonmead. I wanted to try this first because kŲlsch is a delicate style and if itís not one of your first samples, youíll never be able to properly rate it. This example was okay, but suffered from the lack of cold-conditioning Ė itís just missed out on that smooth malt finish with lingering hops.
From there I went for a Rifle River Lager from Hereford & Hops. The Hereford part of the name derives not from the English county, nor the Hereford Hop cheese that hails from it, but rather from the cow, as the establishment is a grill your own steakhouse. This was a fun beer, but again one that needed to be tasted early lest the tastebuds miss the nuances.
Another of my mandates was to introduce myself to a number of brewers and try to get some kind of feel for what the scene is like. From H&H I went to Royal Oak, where I was blown away by the killer aroma of their Summer Wit. It reminded me of Allagash White in its explosiveness. Now I was becoming impressed Ė a great witbier and a well-structured Rye Lager in the first three beers.
I followed this with an appetizing Saison from Copper Canyon, the IPA from Royal Oak ( I just had to go back) before moving into some serious territory. The first brainblaster was the 12.2% Three Guys Off the Scale Old Ale, from Dark Horse. This is a bully of a beer Ė the alcohol hits hard and rough, and instead of the caramel malts cutting the intensity of alcohol, they instead played off of it. They did not negate it one bit on the palate but adding complementary notes Ė a very odd effect indeed.
One of the things I really admired about this fest was the way that many of the strongest beers were not available until the festival was well under way. It seems reasonable that the organizers would like to avoid people becoming inebriated thirty minutes into the proceedings. One of these high-test monsters that I was eagerly awaiting was Kuhnhennís Raspberry Eisbock. Assistant brewer Phil Sullivan explained that some leftover eisbock had been found, and they werenít really sure what to do with it, so they threw some raspberries in, pitched some lager yeast, and let it sit for six months. Well, it is an experiment worth repeating in my opinion. Of course, Iíd still like to try the regular eisbock, but the addition of fruit adds a stylish dimension to the brew, very much in the same vein as Weyerbacher Raspberry Imperial Stout.
Also available from Kuhnhenn was their Wheat Wine, which was available in a pin on the bar. This is a good example of the difference between barrel-aged beer and beer served from the wood. Whereas most barrel-aged beers bludgeon you over the head with totally unbalanced flavours of the caskís previous occupant, the wood here imparted a subtle note that really complemented the flavour. Mr. Sullivan says heís pushing management to always have beer from the wood at Kuhnhenn, an idea I am very much in favour of.
New Holland offered up a big, strong beer Ė a version of Dragonís Milk that, instead of being aged in barrels, was treated to a dose of blackberries instead. It wasnít half-bad, but it didnít sound like youíll ever see this one again.
The crickets were chirping at the Detroit Brew Factory booth. I went to investigate, and discovered that the attitude problem of the people behind the booth had a lot to do with it. Iíve never understood that. Donít brewers go to festivals to promote their products? Whatever, I did like everybody else and moved on.
A few brewers I talked to reluctantly admitted that golden ales and lagers were their best-sellers. Most of the breweries are tiny in their output. But give them full credit because there were some nice experiments and the regular beers were well-made. The brewers seem to be doing their bit to further the market, and with the festival selling out after 30 minutes, it seems the consumers really arenít that far behind.
Overall, though, the fest was a very positive experience. The security was about as low key as it could be, and with good reason. Quality beer = quality people. And from my rather bried sojourn into Michigan, I see a lot of both.