A Melting Pot: Beer blends in and still stands out at Wine, Beer & Food Festival

It’s that time of year again, the time when the beer people dress up a little (maybe), and the wine people dress down a little (maybe), and meet in the middle for the Grand Rapids International Wine, Beer & Food Festival.

This one’s always a little different from the yearly and seasonal beer festivals filling the calendar. It’s indoors and a more tightly contained; the crowd is more diverse and perhaps less casual and the beer vendors themselves are more diverse. Bigger names like New Belgium and Sam Adams, and out-of-state brands like Blue Point from Long Island and Summit from St. Paul set up booths next to Michigan breweries.

But still, as the Michigan craft beverage industry has grown and evolved, so has this festival. It always finds new ways to highlight Mitten State products, and this year was no exception. This year, in addition to the Brewer’s Loft, the festival featured a craft cider area as well. (Maybe a cider “back porch?”). It also welcomed Michigan craft distillers like Coppercraft and Michigan meaderies like B. Nektar.

Michigan brewers always welcome their place in this festival. Greg Korson, one of the owners of Tapistry Brewing in Bridgman, says it’s good for beer to share the stage with food and wine. “There’s a growing awareness that beer pairs with food as well as, if not better than, wine,” he said. “We want to be a part of helping people understand that. There’s flavor to this; there are subtleties.”

Tapistry had a couple of beers on tap that showcased the wide flavor profile Korson spoke of. Its Mr. Orange blood orange wit featured a balanced sweetness flavored with, of all things, rose petals. On the darker side, its Autonomous Unit oatmeal raisin cookie ale offered dessert in the form of a brown ale warmed with cinnamon and smelling just like grandma’s cookies.

Tapistry was actually one of only a few breweries offering draft beer (another notable difference between this and most beer festivals). Christopher Mier of Right Brain Brewery had an explanation: marketing and branding is a big deal here. Because so many industry reps, distributors, and vendors attend this event, the brewers want to show them what they’ll be stocking or buying in stores. Cans and bottles showcase the brand; taps don’t.

Again, that’s a change, but the brewers see it as a good thing. With so many people from the industry, “you get that one-on-one time,” said Mier. “You can meet the decision-makers.”

Right Brain brought three of their four canned beers to help influence those decisions: CEO StoutNorthern Hawk Owl amber, and Smooth Operator cream ale. Smooth Operator is a newer release, and you should definitely give it a try. It’s a pilsener beer brewed like an ale and sweetened a bit with some corn in the batch. It is indeed really smooth. “Like it says on the can,” Mier pointed out, “‘for when you just want to drink.’”

Another good newbie showcased at this festival is Atwater’s just-released Lebkuchen Christmas Ale. In keeping with Atwater’s German heritage, this ale is brewed to taste like a popular German Christmas cookie (named, as you might have guessed, the “lebkuchen”). Whereas many Christmas ales bring the spice, this one brings the sweet with a mixture of honey and almond, tempered a bit by ginger. It smells good, it tastes great, and you should definitely ask Santa for some.

And while you’re at it, you should put a Duba & Company Steak and a bottle of Ciderye from Crow’s Hard Cider on your wish list. Obviously, neither of these things is craft beer, but each does represent another aspect of the craft industry in Michigan.

Duba & Company was one of the food vendors tucked between breweries in the Brewer’s Loft. Jeff Duba, the company’s owner, says that wasn’t by design, but it still seemed like a good fit. Duba himself works in the beer world as a server at Brewery Vivant, and he sees a clear parallel between the food and the beer that he sells. “Heritage [beef] is the microbrew of meats,” he said. “It’s the last frontier of the craft industry.”

Benjamin Crow of Crow’s Hard Cider (and also Good Neighbor Organic Winery) told a similar story. His products — including the rye whiskey barrel aged cider he’s named Ciderye — are made in Michigan using Michigan-grown ingredients. And though his booth may have been downstairs, he definitely had the brewers’ easy-does-it attitude. “We like to be the laid back guys down here,” he said.

Wherever you turn at the Wine, Beer & Food Festival this weekend, you’re sure to find craft. It’s a testament to the quality of that craft that Michigan beer can take such a prominent place at an event like this.

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