2015 Winter Beer Festival Recap

The cold presented some challenges, but the breweries rose to the occasion
A sell-out crowd enjoys the Michigan Brewers Guild 2015 Winter Beer Festival despite the cold temperatures.
Photo by Jeremy Altier

The sun has set and the last beer has poured for the Michigan Brewers Guild 10th Annual Winter Beer Festival.

On Friday, freezing temperatures, some light snow, and subzero wind chills led to some serious line freezing problems for most breweries participating in the event.

On average, the breweries that reported numbers said about 50 percent of the beer they were trying to serve could not reach the tap due to the extreme cold.

Hair dryers, heat guns, hot packs, and hot water were all pressed into service to help alleviate the problem, often providing little relief. The problems continued until a fireworks display signaled the end of day one.

A few of the festivalgoers expressed dissatisfaction in not being able to get a particular selection, and the breweries were feeling their pain.

“We’re trying to get everything functioning and then maintain functionality as long as we can,” said Greg Burke of Woodward Avenue Brewers. “It’s like the airplane deicing process before takeoff.”

Burke could only smile as a disgruntled attendee cursed at him after not being able to get a sample. “It’s below freezing out here,” Burke told her.

Jeff Sheehan, the head brewer at Rockford Brewing Company, said that some of the coils in his jockey box froze and split, resulting in the loss of a few kegs of beer. “The problem wasn’t apparent until a waterfall of beer came pouring out of the cooler. We had been draining the kegs into the cooler for some time before we even noticed the problem. We took our equipment back to the brewery overnight and cleaned and rebuilt everything.”

As the first night wound down, the brewers broke down their setups for overnight storage. The kegs were moved to a warm storage room to keep the contents from freezing.

Photo by Gerald Blakeslee. Cold temperatures and subzero wind chills caused problems with beer and CO2 lines. The frozen towels on the left provide additional evidence of the problems brewers faced trying to serve beer to thirsty festivalgoers.

Brewery Vivant provided a heated trailer for breweries to store their jockey boxes to prevent them from freezing overnight. Some brewers even ran vodka or other spirits through their systems to attempt to keep them from freezing shut.

Day two of the event started out with many similar problems. Jockey boxes began to freeze after pulling them out of storage, lines were freezing after tapping, and all the while, the line to get in was growing with the 6,500 expected attendees gearing up to enjoy the day.

The brewers maintained a positive attitude and kept working to make sure the beer was flowing.

Jeremy Altier of The Great Baraboo Brewing Company and the WAB’s Burke decided to take the bulk of their jockey boxes back to their hotel to get them thawed out. “We ran them in the shower for about twenty minutes each,” says Altier. “I think it was the only way we were going to be able to pour beer.”

The shower solution worked — allowing Altier and Burke to serve 90 percent of the beer they brought. “Yesterday, we were serving ‘unintentional imperials’ when we could pour something,” joked Altier. “I think the alcohol content for everything was a little higher than expected.”

As the start time approached, the temperature began to rise and the sun came out. The sun certainly had a positive impact on the remainder of the day – as did the wide variety of high gravity winter beers.

Ray Sherwood of Sherwood Brewing Company was relieved with the warmer temperatures. “We were worried there for a bit. All the lower alcohol beers were a problem yesterday, but we’re doing better today.”

By the end of the day, everyone seemed to be all smiles. The attendees were dancing to the live music and the brewers seemed relieved it was over.

Scott King of MillKing It Productions joked: “I’ve been listening to people’s conversations all day, and the one thing I can take away from it is that it is sunny today.”

The can-do attitude and the good sense of humor of the brewers helped everyone through the cold, trying weekend. The Michigan Brewers Guild staff spent a lot of energy relocating kegs and trying to make sure everything ran as smoothly as possible during the first two-day Winter Beer Festival.

Final attendance numbers for the event have not been released, and the guild will certainly have a lot of feedback from attendees and breweries to comb through before deciding if adding the second day was worth the effort.

The bottom line was that a good time was had by most  … and 100+ breweries participated in the event.

Burke summed it up perfectly: “It’s Michigan, it’s winter, we’re outdoors drinking beer in really cold temperatures; we’re a hearty breed. There will always be some problems with events like these, but we do whatever we can while doing what we love.”