July 6 2011 12:00 AM

Thompsonville’s annual Beer and Brat Festival provides a chance to sample some of Michigan’s most notable brews


Craft beers. Micro brews. Whatever you choose to call them, appreciation for craft-brewed beers and ales and other specialty beverages, such as hard cider and mead, is expanding in Michigan. So when I heard about the 6th Annual Beer and Brat Festival at Crystal Mountain Resort and Spa in Thompsonville, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to detour from our usual vinous pursuits. As we enter the height of summer heat and barbecue season, examining more ways of slaking thirst and satisfying hunger couldn’t be timelier.

Twelve hundred eager tasters from the Midwest and Canada descended upon Crystal Mountain. Fifteen breweries — plus Acoustic Mead — presented dozens of beverage options while attendees sampled some of the most creative brats one could imagine. Among the 18 types of bratwursts available for pairing with the brews were bleu cheese/jalapeno and bacon/cheddar from Honor Family Market; cherry/bleu cheese and apple/bacon from the Dublin General Store; chorizo/cheese and cherry/ pecan from Pleva’s Meats; asparagus/cheddar and steak/mushroom from Max Bauer’s market; green pepper/onion from Land of Goshen; venison/jalapeno from Kelly’s Processing; and the ridiculously delicious morel mushroom brat from the hands of Crystal Mountain’s own Chef Darren Hawley. Paired with freshly grilled asparagus cut that morning, it was a reminder of why summer is so special in Michigan.

Acoustic Draft Mead poured Apple Mead, Cherry Mead and Harmonic Mead. My curiosity was quenched after sampling these extremely refreshing, light-alcohol, mildly carbonated beverages. Each has a bit of residual sugar, tart cherry juice for refreshing acidity and a honey base as an essential component of mead. The Apple Mead was like a milder version of apple cider and should be appealing to wine drinkers — a great summer beverage. Ditto the pleasantly tart Cherry Mead, and Harmonic Mead, created from a blend of multiple fruits.

A venison/jalapeno brat showed no gaminess or dryness, and was a good complement to Mt. Pleasant Brewing Company’s Cow Catcher Red Ale, showing a cloudy, reddish amber color, nice frothy head, and perfectly balanced malt and hops. A good step up for Killian’s lovers.

Houghton’s Keweenaw Brewing Co. presented its Pick Axe Blonde Ale, Olde Ore Dock Scottish Ale and Widow Maker Black Ale, distributed in cans, rather than the typical microbrewery bottles.

Pick Axe Blonde has a very dominant bouquet, a grassy, herbal component and flavor intensity that belies its marketing as the lightest of the ales. Olde Ore Dock Scottish Ale is oak-aged, showing mild caramel, nutty overtones. Widow Maker Black Ale is the color of root beer and very smooth, toward the Guinness end of the scale, but not as creamy and with a somewhat short finish.

Tri City Brewing Co. of Bay City presented a trio of distinctly different beers. Hell’s Half Mile Lager, on the amber side of golden, has a yeasty, bready component and a slightly sweet edge, likely to be pleasing to a wide demographic of tasters. Charity Island IPA was hoppier with a frothy head, big nose and intense flavors; a classic India pale ale, with hops all in balance. A winner. Giant Slayer Russian Imperial Stout is so dark it makes Guinness look light: huge burnt, nutty chocolaty bouquet springs from this espresso-like beer.

Arcadia Ales of Battle Creek specializes in British-style ales. Angler’s Ale had a buttery component, nice balance and was not overly hopped — refreshing. Whitsun Ale, a wheat ale, is a fine summer beer with a nice foamy head. It is a full flavored, drier style and not as overtly citrusy as, for example, Oberon. Sky High Rye pale ale is far higher on the hops scale, with spiciness, overtone of fruit and citrus on the finish and just a hint of sweetness.

From the southeast corner of the state came Atwater Block Brewery. Dirty Blonde, made with unmalted wheat, coriander and orange peel, is very crisp with a light mouth feel and no heavy flavors. Atwater Ale is golden and nicely balanced without going overboard with hops. Vanilla Java Porter is one of the most idiosyncratic brews I have ever tasted. Roasted coffee beans and vanilla extract are included in the blend and evident in the flavor profiles, an interesting balance of complementary flavors.

Space limitations prevent discussing the tasty beverages presented by other breweries, including Founders, The Livery, Arbor Brewing, Shorts, Schmohz, Right Brain, Bells, New Holland, North Peak, and Jolly Pumpkin, but suffice to say the amazing array of micro brews being made in Michigan was well represented. It was a great opportunity to appreciate why Michigan’s expanding micro-brewery total is now ranked fifth in the nation, with around 70. Who knows, maybe brew country touring will begin competing with wine country touring.

For more information regarding the array of fine craft beers and ales made in Michigan, visit www.drinkmichigan.org/beer/microbreweries.

In vino veritas.

(Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintners Club. His column appears monthly.)