On Saturday, January 26, between 2:00 PM and 5:00 PM, nine Michigan home brewing groups will be assembling at Ypsilanti’s Corner Brewery to share their most inspired beers, and compete for the coveted title of “King Rat.” As this will be my first time at the annual tournament, which is called Rat Fest, I decided to reach out to my friends at the Brewery and ask them a few questions. Following is my interview with Head Brewer John Ritenour, Event Manager Bari Simon, and Brewery Manager Daniel “Dannyboy” Peron.
MARK: Next Saturday, as I understand it, representatives from a bunch of Michigan home brewing clubs will be converging in Ypsi, competing for the title of King Rat. Let’s start at the beginning. How did Rat Fest come about in the first place? And, more importantly, why’s it called Rat Fest? I don’t imagine it’s a reference to vermin in the grain bin… Or, is it?
DANNYBOY: Rat Fest was named after our 10 gallon pilot brew system, the Rat Pad. The name came about after a discussion I had with home brewing mentor, and friend of the Corner Brewery, Dr. Nick. We were talking about the newly built system, and what it should be called. Knowing that I like all things ratty and unpolished, the good Dr. came up with the nick-name. The name stuck, and the “Rat Pad” was born. The very first Rat Fest was a 24 hour brewing melee resulting in 24 beers brewed! This was spearheaded by the infamous, Mike “Brewgyver” O’Brien, along with numerous supporting members of the Ann Arbors Brewers Guild and the brewers of Arbor Brewing Company and the Corner Brewery. It was a huge and exhausting success, and we vowed never to attempt the 24-hour format again.
MARK: Looking over the list of participants, which includes representatives of the Ann Arbor Brewers Guild, local businesses like the Ugly Mug, and what appear to be loosely affiliated groups of friends with roller derby-inspired names, like the Detroit Draft Divas, and the Muskrat Mashers, I’m wondering what the criteria for participation are. Was there some kind of qualifying round, or is anyone who can field a group welcome to participate?
BARI: At this point, we’re still able to accommodate groups that express an interest in participating. They don’t have to be an official club or anything, just interested in the science and creativity that is beer. This year, we’re welcome two new clubs; The Detroit Draft Divas and CraftBeerinMi to the festival. In the future, if the event continues to grow, there may be an application process, but this year we just plan on expanding into the beer garden to accommodate the growth.
MARK: Having never been to a Rat Fest event, I’m not certain of this, but my sense is that, when this whole thing started a few years ago, individual brewers were encouraged to participate. Assuming that’s correct, why was the decision made to transition to a more team-oriented event? Have you found that the quality of the beer improves with the input of more individuals, or is it just easier to manage an event with fewer participating entities?
DANNYBOY: The original event couldn’t have happened without brew club support, and we’ve continued to partner with local home brewer clubs to grow the event each year. As you mention, team participation definitely helps produce fine small batch craft beers. And, working with the clubs is also cool because many of them have their own brewing equipment, bring their own draft dispensing gear to the event, and come with stuff like brew club banners and other themed materials. But, I think it’s worth pointing out that having a team isn’t necessarily essential to creating great beer.
MARK: Looking back over the past events, what are some of your favorite beers that have been introduced to the world during Rat Fest?
DANNYBOY: Some of the most memorable have been the Shebrew Rye Caraway Ale (tastes just like rye bread), the Pear Smoked Lager (malt smoked with pear wood), and the Lady Marmalade Triple Wit Bier (brewed with orange marmalade, coriander and black pepper). And then there are the crazier ones, like the Baked Potato (potato, bacon, smoked hops, chives) and the BLT Ale (with lettuce and tomato puree).
MARK: This year, it looks as though you’ve changed the rules a bit. For Rat Fest 2013, each team has been charged with creating four distinct beers… three that have been chosen from a “a predetermined list of styles,” and one that uses a common grain and yeast. And, with that one, if I’m not mistaken, the brewers have some flexibility with regard to hops and other ingredients. Is that correct? And how does that differ from previous years?
JOHN: Since Rat Fest is all about creativity, we wanted to encourage a balance of styles, so that we didn’t end up with 20 IPA’s and 16 Imperial Stouts. So, in an effort to push the creative prowess of our participating brewers, we thought it would be fun to challenge them with a limited pantry of common ingredients, which would allow them to inspire their brews in other ways. In years prior, we’ve simply let brewers choose their own path, resulting in many great results, but we found that often groups created very similar beers. The new guidelines have helped diversify the offerings, and will hopefully ensure that attendees will get a fresh and creative perspective from each home brewer team.
MARK: I’m curious as to what’s on this “predetermined list of styles.” How many styles are we talking about? And do you know in advance which ones these various groups have chosen to work on?
BARI: Each of the clubs had access to a spreadsheet indicating 14 different style options. Each style had 2-3 slots, and everything was on a ‘first come, first served’ basis… Like John said, we wanted to assure more diversity this year.
MARK: As for the ‘same grain, same yeast’ challenge, I image you’re doing that so that you have more of a baseline, head-to-head comparison between the participants, right? What’s the grain? And what’s the yeast?
JOHN: The original idea was to keep the grain and yeast the same across the board, and allow the brewers to experiment with the hops, water, and adjuncts, which would showcase the influence that those ingredients have on the beer. It turns out there was some confusion among the groups, though, and some of them added additional grains to their brews. So, at this point, it mostly serves as a baseline for the beers, without necessarily being a showcase of the ingredients… The yeast is Safale S-04, and the grain is mix comprised of – 65% 2-Row, 13% Munich, 4% Crystal-20, 9% Crystal-65, and 9% Flaked Oats.
MARK: How is the judging going to be done? Is it all by popular vote, or is there a panel of judges? And will there be awards for each style, or is there just one winner, based upon each team’s collective body of their work?
BARI: Ticket holders will be voting this year via a smart phone app or paper ballot. Awards will be presented in the 5 following categories: Favorite group of beers, Favorite overall beer, Most original use of predetermined recipe, Best decorated group table, and Most unique beer. The coveted Beer Cheese Trophy will again be presented to the club that takes Favorite Group of Beers.
MARK: Can you describe the Beer Cheese Trophy? Is it majestic?
BARI: It is literally what it sounds like – a pint of beer with a huge piece of cheese on top. We felt it was perfect for the theme. Last year is the first year that we gave the cheese trophy as a prize, so we’re hoping it will become more majestic over the years. If anything, it’s fun and a little bit strange, in a good way.
MARK: How much are tickets, and what do people get for the ticket price?
BARI: Ticket price is $30, and includes a sampling of the 36 featured beers, a commemorative tasting glass, and light appetizers. Last year, tickets sold out in advance, but, if any are still available, people can purchase them for $35 at the door.
MARK: Do you test these beers beforehand to make sure that there’s nothing beyond the pale? I ask because, in the past year, I’ve read both about a beer that was created with yeast cultivated in the beard of its brewer, and a beer that was fermented with a severed pig’s head. While, personally, I don’t have an issue with either, I’m wondering if you anticipate ever having to draw a line, or post warnings.
JOHN: We do sample and test all beers prior to releasing them. As this is indeed a food product, we want participants to have a safe and enjoyable experience. Every recipe is scrutinized by our staff prior to the brew session, and is monitored throughout fermentation and conditioning, the same way we would with any of our production beers. We have yet to see any outlandish attempts at pushing the envelope, such as an Ypsilanti Irish Red Squirrel, a Déjà vu Dunckel, or a Michigan Avenue C’mon Inn Bedspread Stout.
MARK: What’s the most outrageously creative beer that’s ever come to your attention through the Rat Pad process?
DANNYBOY: The Chips & Salsa Lager. Yes, it had salsa in it (and Ann Arbor Tortilla Company corn!). The flavors were so accurate that we decided to brew it on a large scale. It was not as highly regarded as we’d hoped, though, so it’s no longer in production.
MARK: Is there a chance that we might ever see one of these beers come to life as a regular Corner Brewery offering?
JOHN: We use the Rat Pad to test out recipes before bringing them to the production level. A couple Rat Fest beers have made the cut, and many of our present offerings began on the Rat Pad, including Mr. Delicious and Mackinac Island Fudge Stout.
MARK: Aside from Rat Fast, how are things going at the Brewery? Is there anything new that you’re working on that folks should know about?
BARI: Our ‘green brewery’ installations have been live since this past fall, and we’ve had many interested parties connect with us looking to become greener.
DANNYBOY: Next month we’re going to start bottling on our new line, which will triple our current output of packaged beer.
JOHN: We’re in the midst of a collaboration with Brouwerij The Musketeers of Belgium, who produce beers like Troubadour Blonde, Troubadour Magma, and Troubadour Obscura. We will be releasing two beers together, one brewed in Belgium, and one brewed in Ypsilanti. Immediately following Rat Fest, some of us will be traveling to Belgium to brew, and, the following week, their crew will come to Ypsi to brew. Both beers will be available statewide in May!