Summer Beer Fest Returns to Ypsilanti

Everyone knows the sign at the beer store: “You must have been born on or before this date in 1996 to purchase alcohol.” By that standard, the Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Festival is almost of legal age, as it returns to Ypsilanti’s Riverside Park July 21-22 for its 20th year.

It all started inauspiciously in a Saginaw “Budweiser bar” in 1997, when Rex Halfpenny, who founded the bimonthly Michigan Beer Guide that same year, gathered together representatives from the state’s roughly two dozen existing microbreweries.

“I wanted them to support my new publication and asked if they would be interested in forming a guild,” says Halfpenny. “The only thing I could get them to agree on was, ‘I want to sell more of my own beer.’”

A Guild is born

Thus was born the Michigan Brewers Guild, with Halfpenny serving as its first director and running its first Summer Beer Festival, which he modeled after the Oregon Brewers Festivals he attended before moving from the Pacific Northwest in 1988.

Today, the Guild, which serves as the official trade association of Michigan’s craft brewers, boasts more than 240 member breweries and hosts three other annual festivals – in Grand Rapids, Detroit, and Marquette – in addition to the summer fest, which has taken place in Ypsilanti since 2001 and remains the highest attended.

“It’s the oldest, biggest, and most celebrated of our festivals, and we’re proud of it,” says Scott Graham, current executive director of the Guild. “This year is a real milestone, and if you look back to where we were and where we are now, the sheer growth is impressive.”

The numbers bear him out. The summer fest has mushroomed from a paid attendance of just 600 its first year to the approximately 12,000 beer lovers who now annually flock to the two-day event. Beyond that, the Michigan craft beer industry has also blossomed. According to Halfpenny’s Michigan Beer Guide, the state ranks fifth nationally in number of permitted breweries, with sales of Michigan-brewed beer accounting for nearly nine percent of all in-state beer sales, up 9.5 percent from the previous year. Meanwhile, Graham and the Guild have their sights set on a 20-percent market share for Michigan-brewed beer within the next 10 years.

“We’re going to see a lot more breweries, a lot more neighborhood brewpubs, and overall volume will continue to grow,” he says.

The 2017 summer fest is expected to bring together the largest-ever number of Michigan beers in one place – approximately 1,200. Many of the more than 100 breweries represented will be familiar to local beer connoisseurs.

Featured beers for summer ‘17

Names such as Arbor and Wolverine State, for instance, are bringing some delectable summer flavors. Arbor will be pouring Funky Vengeance, a soured blackberry and raspberry wheatwine; Peninsularity, an IPA brewed with Michigan ingredients; and a special 22nd anniversary brew. Wolverine is offering Wheelbarrow Weekend Radler, a Munich helles style beer with lemon juice, available in several different varieties including basil, cucumber, watermelon, and meringue pie.

With new breweries launching around the state, there will also be newbies to look out for, such as Pontiac’s Fillmore 13, makers of War Cry IPA and Summer Sun Hefeweizen; Speciation Artisan Ales of Grand Rapids, whose funky repertoire will please fans of Jolly Pumpkin’s sour ales; and – perhaps most intriguingly – Schoolcraft College, which offers students a program in brewing and distillation technology and the opportunity to make beer on the school’s own brewing system. They will be offering several student-produced beers, including a Czech pilsner that recently won a gold medal at Frankenmuth’s World Expo of Beer.

Lest we forget the women

Members of Fermenta, the Michigan women’s craft beverage collective, have also collaborated with a number of breweries to create some unique festival offerings, such as Sounds of the ’70s Farmhouse Table Beer (with Short’s) and Dandy, a dandelion kombucha (with Ypsilanti’s Unity Vibration).

As in years past, there will be an array of local food vendors and, to complete the picnic party atmosphere, plenty of live music from The Tosspints and The Native Howl on Friday, Stone Clover on Saturday, and the Reefermen and Behind the Times on both days.

Riverside Park, Ypsilanti, July 21 and 22
Visit the Guild’s website,, for more details or download the “BeerFestList” mobile app for the full list of breweries and beers.

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