900-plus varieties on tap at this year’s beer fest in Ypsi

A crowd of more than 15,000 is expected at this weekend’s Summer Beer Festival at Riverside Park in Ypsilanti. The first festival was held in 1998 and drew a crowd of 700-800.(Photo: 2013 by John Froelich/Special to the Detroit Free Press)

A favorite summer beer-drinking event is returning to Ypsilanti for its 18th year with its highest-ever number of breweries: 103. And they’re all from Michigan.
If you’ve never had a Lichtenhainer, an apricot wheat beer or a dark saison lager brewed with chestnuts and honey, these and at least 930 other varieties will be poured at the Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Festival on Friday and Saturday.
“A lot of people go for things they’ve never seen, never heard of,” says Rockne Van Meter, 40, brewmaster for Bastone Brewery in Royal Oak. “It seems to me that people want to drink crazy beers and high-alcohol beers.”
By “crazy,” he means beers like the peanut-butter beer he has brewed for previous festivals. This year, Van Meter says he’s offering all Belgian-style beers, including his Private Stock No. 472 oak-wine-barrel-aged saison (6.9% alcohol by volume) and Thor’s Hammer Belgian strong pale ale (9% ABV), both of which won medals in last year’s national Great American Beer Festival. Bastone was awarded small brewpub and brewer of the year at the event.
As craft beer becomes increasingly popular across the country, Michigan has had “dramatic, exponential type of growth” the past few years, says Eric Briggeman, president of the Michigan Brewers Guild.
Tickets for Saturday, the second day of this year’s beer festival, have been sold out for weeks, but there still appear to be tickets available for Friday. Briggeman says it has been challenging to squeeze everyone into the space at Riverside Park in Ypsilanti. Last year, there were 88 breweries, 15 fewer than this year.
“We could sell a couple more thousand tickets for Saturday, but then people would wait in line two hours just for a sample of beer,” Briggeman says.
Up to 13,000 ticketed guests are expected over the two-day event. When brewers passes and comp tickets are included, the crowd is expected to top 15,000.
The first Summer Beer Festival was in July 1998 at Greenmead Historical Park in Livonia, where 25-30 brewers served 700 or 800 people under threat of a tornado.
“We were all scared to death it was going to ruin the event and nobody was going to come back, but they gave the all-clear,” Briggeman recalls. “That was the first one. They’ve been growing ever since.”
Duncan Williams, 46, head brewer with Grizzly Peak Brewing Co. in Ann Arbor, says it’s fascinating to see breweries making it even in small towns like Sawyer (home of Greenbush Brewing Co.) and Hudsonville (home of White Flame Brewing Co. and Pike 51 Brewery).
Because of all the options, he says he has found he needs to bring less quantity to the Summer Beer Festival. Among his six offerings is the Bear-Witch Project (about 3.7% ABV), a collaboration with Witch’s Hat Brewing Co. (also participating). It’s a Lichtenhainer, a smoked, soured wheat that includes wheat grown in Michigan and smoked German malts.
“It’s a really interesting balance of this smoky, slightly bacon-y kind of quality and this tart, almost lemonade-like quality,” he says.
Williams asserts that strong beer isn’t all people are after at festivals like this one.
“It’s like, ‘Dude, if you’re into craft beer, you really shouldn’t care that much about ABV,’ ” he says.
In fact, one of his beers has a surprisingly low 2.8% ABV. It’s called Table Dance, brewed in collaboration with Fermenta, the Michigan Women’s Craft Collective. Williams says it’s a throwback to 200 years ago when water wasn’t safe to drink and people turned to beers and ciders because they were boiled. He describes the beer as a pilsner that’s flavorful, lighter and “pretty ideal for summer.”
To see a list of all the breweries and beers at the Summer Beer Festival, visit the Michigan Brewers Guild website: www.michiganbrewersguild.org/2015SBF-beer-list.
Contact Robert Allen: rallen@freepress.com or www.twitter.com/rallenMI.
Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Festival
5-9 p.m. Fri., 1-6 p.m. Sat.
Riverside Park
5 E. Cross St., Ypsilanti
The event is sold out Saturday, but Friday tickets remain available: $35 in advance, $40 at the gate (if still available then)
Spirits of Detroit
Greetings from the Detroit Free Press’ first-ever alcohol writer.
Starting now, I’m sending weekly dispatches on the latest happenings and most fascinating characters from the beverage culture in metro Detroit and Michigan — everything from raucous beer festivals to shadowy dive bars.
I hope to offer a bit of guidance about the brewers as well as the places vending their products by the glass.
I’ve never had formal training or certification in beer tasting, so don’t expect any highbrow reviews or meditations on the differences among Belgian yeast strains. I do have experience in home brewing and have read a number of books on it and other beer topics. I’ve tasted hundreds of beers, mostly in Michigan and Colorado, where I lived for several years before moving to Detroit. And I know a good whiskey, gin or tequila when I taste it.
I like all kinds of beer, and I enjoy walking across Detroit’s downtown or Midtown on a summer evening to try the latest brews from my favorite spots — generally, the more dive-like, the better.
This weekend’s Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Festival is a highlight of the local brew scene, and I’ll be sending live updates from the field through Untappd, raDetroit; Twitter, @rallenMI; Facebook, robertallen.news; and Periscope, @rallenMI.
Feel free to drop me an e-mail any time you want to suggest a good story: rallen@freepress.com.

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