Originally Published July 26, 2011 in The Eastern Echo
I have never been a fan of festivals. They’re smelly, there’s too many people and everything costs too much.
They always seemed like places people go when they wanted to punish themselves. Until a few months ago, I wasn’t a fan of beer either, so the prospect of going to a festival whose purpose is to promote Michigan’s craft beer industry had this slightly jaded writer feeling a bit nauseous.
After my experience this past weekend at the 14th Annual Ypsilanti Summer Beer Festival, I can safely say my tune has changed.
I’m not sure if it was the awesome locally crafted beers, amazing food, fun music or strong sense of community that changed my mind — but I’m glad they did.
When I first arrived at the festival, I was shocked by the size of the crowd streaming into Riverside Park. Almost 10,000 people funneled in, despite rain, over the two day event.
Admittedly, I was apprehensive to step into the current, but I was able to muster the courage to retrieve my press badge and embark on a journey that turned out to be beer nirvana.
You might assume I’m using nirvana in a hyperbolic sense, but believe me I’m not. This year’s Ypsilanti Summer Beer festival had a selection of 62 different Michigan craft breweries. Together these brewers tapped thousands of kegs filled with more than 450 different lovingly hand-crafted brews.
Together these brewers tapped thousands of kegs filled with more than 300 different lovingly hand-crafted brews. All of these magnificent beers were served up by the men and women who put their heart into making sure each batch of hops becomes high-quality brew. Almost everyone there was content to commune for hours chatting about the beverage that inspires passion and excitement like few others can.
Each of the five huge tents that housed the brewers was constantly filled with people holding cups full of one of the many fine brews that were available. No matter which of the tents I found myself in, I was always shoulder-to-shoulder with people who seemed to genuinely love the art of beer making.
As I stood around observing the ever-moving current of people, I would catch snippets of conversations. As one would expect, there were plenty of people proclaiming how intoxicated they planned to be by the end of the day.
“Dude, we’re going to get so wasted,” said Derek James, an excited University of Michigan junior celebrating his 21st birthday at the event.
But there was a much larger majority of people who seemed to really care about the beer.
“Of course I love beer,” Francois Mason, a retired resident of Tennessee who travels the world searching for the best brews, said. “I’ve always loved beer. When I was still working I made my microbrews. Festivals like this give me a chance to mingle with others who love beer as much as I do.”
For many attendees, the community is what really draws them to the Ypsilanti Summer Beer Festival and others like it all over the state. They bring together all of the people who grow, ferment, bottle, store, ship, stock, sell and consume. It gives them the opportunity to share their thoughts, ideas, techniques, and, most importantly, a beer — or six.
Sharing definitely seems to be a major pillar of the beer-loving community. Throughout the day, I overheard several exclamations of “you’ve got to try this,” which was almost always followed by a swift passing of a frothy cup.
I experienced this firsthand as I ended up sampling about 30 different brews over the five hours I spent wandering around the festival.
I quickly learned to keep my cup full or out of sight so no one would look at me with a face of genuine concern and ask why it wasn’t full.
I have never been a big fan of beer; I’ve generally found it to be too bitter for my tastes. But the beers I was lucky enough to taste were so fresh and flavorful I had to re-evaluate almost everything I thought I knew about the drink.
My beer preferences tend to bend toward the lighter side of things, but there were several porters and ambers that shocked my mouth with their rich, deep flavor and verbose subtlety.
Of the porters I tried, Saugatuck Brewing Company’s Neapolitan milk stout was my favorite. I was told it had a chocolate flavor that was enhanced with vanilla and a hint of strawberry. I usually ignore those pretentious descriptions but this one really delivered on its promise. If I hadn’t been told, I would have guessed they brewed with cocoa powder to achieve such a rich chocolate flavor.
Other beers of note are Motor City Brewing Works’ fruity Blueberry Perry, Mt. Pleasant Brew Co.’s Gruit Ale, which is made with herbs instead of hops, and Vicious Hibiscus by Michigan Brewing Company.
I wasn’t a fan of every beer I sampled, but from talking to all the different brewers, I still got the feeling they had put a lot of time and work into producing high quality beer.
While beer might seem like the belle of this bubbly ball, in reality the Ypsilanti Summer Beer Festival is about the people. It’s about the men and women who work hard every day to produce world-class beer that will quench the thirsty masses. It’s about the people who bottle and share their passion with the world through a little beverage called beer.
This year’s Ypsilanti Summer Beer Festival was, in my estimation, an unqualified success. But it wasn’t successful just because the beer was great. It was a success because it, once again, helped to connect and solidify a community of passionate people. That community is what will ensure Michigan’s beer industry will continue to thrive. It also ensures that this newly initiated beer fan will be waiting, mug in hand, for the festival to open its doors again next year.