TRAVERSE CITY, MI – I can still remember the life-changing moment when I took my first sip of a craft beer. I was having lunch at a local restaurant and ordered a Huma Lupa Licious from Short's Brewing. That first India Pale Ale -- intensely fruity and flavorful, with bursts of citrus and pine -- changed my entire view of beer.
But by the end of the Traverse City IPA Challenge last Thursday night, I was beginning to realize that one can have too much of a good thing, even beer. Trying 11 different IPAs in a row is like eating all your Halloween candy in one sitting; it starts out great, but by the time you're finished you have begun to realize the wisdom of moderation.
Actually, the timing couldn't have been better, since this is Traverse City Beer Week (TCBW), an event whose astonishing plenitude of craft beer tastings, dinners, workshops and contests (over 60 of them, last time I counted) is a seven-day challenge to all my reserves of self-control.
TCBW started last year as a way to showcase Michigan’s vibrant craft brewing movement, particularly the 15 microbreweries, brewpubs and taprooms in the Traverse City Area. The inaugural week was such a success that it was brought back this year with an even larger schedule of events at restaurants, bars, microbreweries and retail locations throughout Traverse City.
Traverse City is best known as a four-season outdoor adventure destination with a lively culinary and wine scene, but in the last couple of years it has also emerged as a major center of craft brewing. (Draft magazine named it one of Americas’ three “emerging beer towns” along with St. Louis and Oklahoma City, The Travel Channel listed it among the Top Seven Beer Destinations in North America, and Craftbeer.com calls it one of America’s Five Beeriest Beach Towns.)
Each TCBW event is developed jointly between brewers, restaurants and retailers, and is intended to educate or offer insight into some aspect of the craft beer movement -- a special product or style of beer, a food-beer pairing experience or some other topic of interest. On Saturday, for instance, I stopped in at Brewery Ferment -- a cozy neighborhood brewpub on Union Street -- which was holding a "beer/cheese pairing" featuring some of their brews paired with cheeses from Boss Cheese and The Cheese Lady here in town.
We though it would be fun to pick out several cheeses that would go well with our beers and show our customers how well beer and cheese go together," said brewer Dustin Jones. "Without a kitchen of our own we can't really do our own cooking, but the Beer Week people let us decide what we want to do and when we want to do it. It's a great opportunity for us."
But that “educational” component shouldn’t obscure the fact that this is intended to be a fun experience. For example, Friday night's opening festivities featured two late afternoon “pre-parties” at downtown restaurants, a beer-tasting/miniature-golf tournament at Right Brain Brewery, and a “pub crawl” of six downtown pubs sponsored by Short’s Brewing. Participants carried beer passports from bar to bar that could be traded in (when completed) for an official Beer Week t-shirt.
It certainly brought people out to downtown Traverse City -- in droves. Many were cyclists who'd come to town for the Saturday's Iceman Cometh Challenge race (coincidentally, sponsored by Bell's Brewing of Kalamazoo) but others were here specifically to participate in some of the Beer Week events, and still more were simply swept up in the excitement. At the U&I Lounge, for instance, I ran into a group of young women visiting from Fenton who'd been out wine-tasting on the Old Mission peninsula all afternoon and were now enthusiastically embarking on their first Beer Week pub crawl.
And it's only beginning. Ahead of us are five whole days of beer-themed events -- beer dinners, first-time keg tappings, retail tastings, trivia contests, food pairings, panel discussions, and even an after-dark scavenger-style “keg hunt” -- leading up to the final TCBW event: a 5K “Great Beerd Run” at the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa, complete with on-course beer tastings from three northern Michigan craft brewers and a post-race Best Beard Contest.
I'm learning to pace myself.