Friday, March 1, 2013

Hit-and-Run Notes on the Winter Beer Festival

Note: A version of this article originally appeared Feb. 27 as "Complex, funky brews delight at Winter Beer Fest" on

The rest of the Internet has already beat me to the punch as far as recapping what went down at last Saturday's Winter Beer Festival in Grand Rapids, but if you’ve been to any of the Michigan Brewers Guild’s four annual beer fests, you pretty much already know the score. This year, there were again more people (7,500 including brewers, staff and volunteers), more beers (625+), and more breweries (74) than the previous year, a pattern also familiar to regular festgoers.

What was different for me this time was I arrived extra early to help get Grizzly Peak’s table set up, which took longer than expected because the wind kept breaking the tie wraps and threatening to blow the banner into the sky. By the time all five firkins were up and pouring and I was able to get my cup and tokens, half of the Enthusiast hour was gone.

Still, I managed to try a few anxiously anticipated beers before the floodgates opened and the lines grew long. Apart from the phenomenal Raspberry Eisbock from Kuhnhenn Brewing (totally worth the three tokens, by the way) and New Holland’s Rum Dragon’s Milk Barrel Aged Stout, here were some favorites:

Bell’s Wild One Raspberry Ale was a beautifully complex garnet-colored brew, blending tart, acetic, earthy and oak notes with a dry but fruity finish. It’s a variant of Bell’s The Wild One Ale, a sour brown, aged in barrels with raspberries, and if they bottled this, there would be some in my fridge right now.

For some time I’ve heard whispered rumors that Brewery Vivant made some delicious sour ales, but before now I’d never caught a glimpse of these rare animals. Even those who live in Grand Rapids assured me they were hard to come by. Happily, I was able to get my taste buds on both Helen Wine Barrel Aged Sour Ale and Angelina Belgian Sour Ale. The former is the brewery’s Farmhand Farmhouse Ale aged in Blue Franc wine barrels. The result: A delicious and delicate lactic brew. I don’t know the base beer of Angelina, but it was in the same family as Helen (the names refer to the names of different wood barrels at the brewery), though more intense and higher strength (6.5% vs. 5.5% ABV).

OK, this wasn’t “anxiously anticipated,” because unless, like me, you live a few blocks from Grizzly Peak, you’ve likely not encountered the Burton-Brussels Express IPA. It’s Grizzly’s Sheerwater English-style IPA aged for a month in their magic funky barrel and dry-hopped with Fuggle hops, yielding a wonderful array of earthy, spicy and floral hop notes floating atop funky, ever-so-slightly tart Brettanomyces flavors before disappearing into a dry, bitter finish. It’s named for Burton-on-Trent, England — birthplace of the IPA — and Brussels, Belgium — the place where brewers love them some barrel aging.

Sadly, I don’t have a long list of other beers I tried as I had to leave early to go on to my next beery stop in Grand Rapids, but I’m already looking forward to July when we do it all over again in Ypsilanti. Only this time without the parkas.

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