Michigan Festival & Road-Trip Report: Part Three

Yes, here it is, the long-awaited third part in my bloated Michigan Road-Trip Trilogy. If you haven’t done so already, you might want to read Parts One and Two first.

Saturday was the main event – the Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Festival. The festival actually started the night before with an evening session that we decided to skip in favour of checking out the scene in Ann Arbor, although as the previous instalment in this series showed, we’d probably been better off going to the fest. But no matter, we had a good day ahead of us.

Now, I can hardly call myself a beer festival expert. I go to Toronto’s Festival of Beer every year, and have been to other smaller fests and events here in town, but my only out-town-festival experiences have been Montreal’s Mondial de la Biere a few years ago, and the Michigan fest in 2003 and this year. But I think I can safely say that the folks in MI put on one of the best beer events in North America. First of all, it’s held in the absolutely gorgeous Riverside Park – which is, fittingly enough, a big park beside a river – located in the picturesque town of Ypsilanti. And more importantly, it features astoundingly good beer from a range of breweries and brewpubs that is just mind-boggling, especially for those of us who live in a province where antiquated liquor laws and government red tape have led to a somewhat stunted – but thankfully improving – craft beer culture.

Soon after arriving with my crew (Jeff, Paul, Jeremy & Harry), we met up with fellow Canucks Mike & Derek, and a few American pals who we knew from RateBeer – they have real names, but we know them best as 11026, Styles and BBB63. We were soon joined by Quebec RateBeerian beerbuzzmontreal and his pal, and then the drinking began.

As much as I would have loved to try every beer available at the fest, the fact that there were something like 200 of them made it a little difficult. But by sharing some samples, I was able to get at least a taste of about 3 dozen or so, and some of my favourites included:

Livery Cask Aged Belgian Cherry Wheat
This Flemish Sour from The Livery brewpub of Benton Harbor was my first beer of the day, and it was so good I was worried that the day might go downhill from there. It featured a strong, inviting aroma of sour cherry and oaked whiskey, and a very nice flavour with tart cherry and wood notes. It was also dangerously smooth for such a strong beer (8.5%) – a theme that continued for much of the day.

Founders Blushing Monk Belgian Razz
Another wickedly strong fruit beer (10.3%), this one from the always reliable Founders Brewing of Grand Rapids. It poured a dark ruby-pink with a tiny white head, and had lots of fresh, tart raspberry in the aroma with some mild funkiness in the background. Sharp raspberry flavour, with enough tartness to keep it in line – some of the others at the table found it cloying, but I really dug it.

Bonfire Kristallweizen
This lovely beer from Northville’s Bonfire Bistro and Brewery was my first ever Kristallweizen, and I’m glad to have tried a fresh, locally brewed sample rather than a potentially stale bottle from Germany. It had a golden yellow colour with a very faint haze. Nice weisse aroma, a bit yeasty and tart with mellow banana notes. Very clean flavour with a bit of spiciness and wheat, and mild banana to finish. Excellent!

Fort Street Farmers Tan
I was going to call Lincoln Park’s Fort Street Brewery the dark horse of the festival, but since Dark Horse Brewing was there, that might get confusing. So I’ll just say that they surprised all of us with the quality of their beers, especially since we’d never heard of them before the festival, as this Brown Ale was the highlight of their beers that we tried. It was dark brown with a nice creamy tan head, and looked really nice for a festival sample. The aroma was roasty and a bit smoky, almost like a porter. It had a soft mouthfeel, and a mellow flavour of roasted malt with notes of yeast and cocoa.

Bo’s Solar Eclipse Imperial Stout
The folks from Bo’s Brewery and Bistro claim that this beer is 22.5%. All who tried it at our table were skeptical of this claim, but if it’s true, then they’ve discovered the secret to hiding the alcohol burn ’cause godDAMN this beer was smooth! It poured pitch black, of course, sitting in the glass like motor oil, and smelling sweet and smoky with notes of coffee with cream, molasses, vanilla – yum! The flavour was absolutely fantastic – roasted coffee & nuts, bourbon, wood, sweet malt – just completely luscious stuff.

Grand Rapids Bourbon Barrel Scotch Ale
Schmohz Kiss My Scottish Arse Scotch Ale
Livery Cask-Aged Kilt Tilter
If it’s nae Scottish, it’s CRAP!

Towards the end of the day, a few guys from Beer Advocate stopped by our table, and while we briefly considered starting a beer-rating-site rumble, we instead decided to enjoy our last beers together and have a few laughs. I was especially glad to meet up with Jonathan Surratt, the guy behind the absolutely indespensible RSBS, an aggregator of RSS feeds from around 100 (and growing) beer blogs and news sites. I gave him mad props, and promised a pint or two if he ever makes it up north for a visit.

Sadly, the festival came to an end at 6 PM, and tentative plans to do something or other with our American pals were scuttled when they found their car had been towed. We briefly considered another attempt to hit some of the Ann Arbor hot spots, but remembering the near disaster of the night before, decided it might be best to stay at the hotel for the evening. After all, with the goodies we’d purchased the day before at Bello Vino, it wasn’t like we were wanting for beer.

I don’t think I mentioned previously that we were staying at the Best Western Executive Plaza, a bizarre hotel/motel hybrid that seemed to be stuck in some sort of time warp, particularly when it came to Bedrock’s Eats & Beats, the hotel bar/restaurant where we had our dinner on Saturday. As the name suggests, the place had a weird Flintstones theme going on, and based on the size of the place and the large dancefloor and DJ booth, it looked as if it might’ve been a very happening place at one point. But on this particular Saturday, we pretty much had the place to ourselves aside from two other patrons who sat and smoked and drank Bud at the bar. At least the food was decent in a bar food sort of way – although Harry’s Bronto-Burger frightened the rest of us a little bit.

Hunger satisfied, we spent the rest of the evening hopping from room to room and sampling stuff from each of our stashes. Dead soldiers that night included HeBrew Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A, Avery Twelve, Arcadia Scotch Ale, Sprecher Generation Porter, Baltika 6 Porter and Arcadia Hopmouth Double IPA. You can click the links to see my notes and ratings at RateBeer.

The next morning, we hit the road bright and (fairly) early for our trip back to Toronto. He had a quick stop outside of Detroit to trade a few things with our American RateBeer buds (who thankfully got their car out of the pound the night before), had the easiest border crossing ever, and hit Windsor just in time to have lunch at our last stop for the weekend, Charly’s Brew Pub.

Walking into Charly’s is like walking into any roadhouse sports bar in any small North American town – lots of TVs; a group of regulars holding up the bar; a faint hint of cigarette smoke still lingering even though smoking has been banned for months; and a slightly surly but efficient waitress; and greasy but tasty food. But in addition to all of this, Charly’s has a beer list of 100+ bottles from around the world (mostly LCBO general list, but still impressive for this sort of place), as well as a small brewery where they brew their house beer, Time Out. In fitting with the atmosphere, Time Out is a pale lager designed to appeal to Blue and Bud drinkers, but unlike those industrial lagers, it has a fresh character and some recognizable malt and hop notes. It certainly wasn’t in the same league as any of the beers we’d enjoyed in the previous two days, but we still enjoyed our pitcher, and found it amusing to note that they also sell a bottled version called Buck Off Beer in honour of the fact that it’s priced at a dollar less than bottles of Blue and other domestic swill.

A few hours later, and we were back home again. All in all, it was a great weekend of good beer and even better company. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do it again sometime.

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