The Shelf Ice Brewfest Gets Extreme In Michigan City
An outdoor beer festival on the shores of Lake Michigan in February? This is something we had to see. My wife Walter isn’t as cold-tolerant as I … I’ve got more natural insulation…. but despite her protestations, we headed up to Michigan City for the Shelf Ice Brewfest on the 18th of February. Boy, I am glad we did.
The festival sold out weeks prior to the event, so I suspected that people in northern Indiana knew something we didn’t. After all, it isn’t every festival you go to that includes a scarf along with your souvenir tasting glass, let alone has 100+ Facebook posts from people looking to scrounge up tickets from holders who might have found they had a conflict on that day. I guess an outdoor festival in February isn’t such a bad idea.
Of course, this is one of the few beer festivals where a patron actually might have to worry about their beer getting too cold rather than too warm before they got a chance to drink it. Justin Post, one of the organizers of the festival, told me that they always suspected that an outdoor festival in February could succeed in Michigan City. Downtown has a gap in activity during this period, so they looked for an event to bring people into the Arts District. Justin said that Midwest people are built just a bit tougher than most; no one in the organization ever considered that folks wouldn’t turn up for an outdoor craft beer festival in winter.
It’s named the Shelf Ice Brew Fest in honor of the mounds of ice that gather on the lakeshore in winter. The southern shore of Lake Michigan is famous for large shelf ice formations – they look like the surface another planet extending out into the lake (see image below). But be careful, shelf ice formations are rarely a solid sheet of ice and can have many voids that make them dangerous. Don’t walk on shelf ice! – OK, so much for the public service announcement. Fortunately or unfortunately, no Lake Michigan shelf ice was to be seen this beautiful February day.
The VIP session started at straight up noon, just in time for the Sun to warm up the streets, while the wind off the lake was better than manageable. The organizers were definitely prepared for a cold day, with ice sculpture beer mugs at every booth (Update: our friend Steve the Brit says that the mugs should have been named Albert Ice Stein – pretty good) and tents to help keep the wind away, but everyone was just as happy that the sun was out and that the mugs melted away in record time. In fact, the weather gods have smiled on this festival for all of its three-year history, which is a fact the locals might want to keep a secret. Despite the name and the reputation for bad weather, the festival has sold out and the sun has shone on each of the first three events.
The good weather is a double blessing because the festival benefits a good cause, the Michigan City Main Street Association (MCMA). This organization works to bring more events to Michigan City and to continue the restoration of the city’s downtown, especially the uptown arts district. The MCMA works to create a stable, total economy for the residents of downtown, including access to staple businesses and public services, but also to aid in the design and redesign of the downtown as a destination area for residents and visitors (I wrote that myself, but I heartily recommend that the MCMA adopt my description).
There were more than forty breweries grouped along Franklin Street, a short walk from the Blue Chip Casino across Trail Creek and just four blocks from the new (old) Zorn Brew Works on 9th Street. Being able to visit Zorn for the first time was one of the intriguing aspects that pulled us up to Michigan City. Zorn was a large pre-Prohibition brewery in Michigan City dating back to the 1870s. They produced up to 15,000 bbls/year in the 1910s, right up until the dreaded Volstead Act took effect on January, 1920. They made Zoro brand sodas during the dark days, but repeal didn’t guarantee them success. By 1938, the brewery had closed for good in 1938.
In the December of 2016, John Van Prooyen revived the brand in the pre-Civil War building that served as Zorn’s stables, across the street from the original brewery. The brewing duties are headed by Todd Matuska, aided by Brian Cronin, and by Chris Reisetter who came on after four years at Greenbush. They’re making some very good beers, including a chocolate hefeweisen (called Bitter Swheat) and the Snowball 100 schilling Scottish Ale.
Walter and I stopped by the Zorn taproom on Friday night before the brewfest and sat down for a nice discussion of Michigan City craft beer with the three brewers. The brewpub build out went very well, with lots of exposed brick and reclaimed wood bar tops and tables. They showed us the three bbl system they are currently brewing on and the ten bbl steam-jacketed system they are getting ready to switch to. The new system and the several fermenters they are continuing to acquire will help them stay in beer. Right now, everything they put on tap is being drunk almost immediately. It’s a problem – but it’s a good kind of problem. People are obviously enjoying their beer. They have ample space in back to put in both canning and bottling lines, and the amount of beer they are going through suggests that they’ll need both. Todd told us that canning and bottling have been in the plan for some time now.
We returned to Zorn Saturday morning before the festival to partake of their Kegs & Eggs pre-party. Live music and a breakfast buffet were just the things to get the blood going for the brewfest, with Zorn beer and stout Bloody Marys to boot. The new brewpub was packed for the event, but slowly people started to make there way down to Franklin Street in the Uptown Arts District as noon approached. It was warm enough that people didn’t mind standing in line prior to the official start.
We got into the brewfest very quickly (taking IDs and banding along the line helped immensely), and Walter went to find the Zorn guys again at their booth. She was impressed with Zorn’s We The People session IPA, which was one of three beers they brought along to Shelf Ice, their first official brewfest since opening. The lines at their booth testified to the quality of their beer, as the lines at Shoreline Brewery and Burn’Em spoke also to the strong feeling that the locals have for hometown beer. Our new friend Jim was hawking beer at Shoreline like a carnival barker; their sixteen taps included BBA Big Bella Scotch Ale and two different hop variants of the Sum Nug IPA on firkin.
Knox’s 10-56 Brewing was another newcomer to brewfests in general and Shelf Ice in particular. Owner/brewer Erica Hemphill and friends brought a chocolate peanut butter porter called Jane Doe that was a definite hit – Walter and I smiled at Erica across they way as we three observed the great number of people lining up for their beer. Started by a the husband and wife team while he was still a state police motorcycle cop, 10-56 is the police radio code for an intoxicated individual – so you can see that this group from Knox is approaching beer from a slightly irreverent direction. They are putting out craft beer only for distribution now, but Erica said they are considering a taproom in Knox, perhaps as early as this autumn.
Function Brewing made the trip from Bloomington and Carson’s came up from Evansville (the weather shock could have been really bad for them), and several breweries were up from Indy. Andy brought four beers from TwoDeep Brewing, including my favorite beer of the festival, the 2016 BBA Dead Rabbits Irish extra stout, but let’s be plain – this was a northern Indiana beer showcase. Shoreline, Burn ‘Em, Crown, Devil’s Trumpet (with Walter’s favorite of the day, My Ghetto), the ultra-local Back Road from Laporte, Barb Kehe and the folks from Ironwood in Valpo – northern Indiana has some solid, solid beer.
Great Lakes and New Holland were there as well, with beer being poured mainly be volunteers. This works out OK because so many people are familiar with their wonderful products, but in large, this was a brewery-driven festival rather than a distributor mediated event. I have to say that brewery-driven festivals are more my style. It is nice to see the brewer, the owner, or a couple of their beerslingers behind their taps, rather than a volunteer or a distributor employee or brand ambassador. To be sure, brand ambassadors often know their stuff about the beer on display, but I always find that it is nice to have a primary source of information on site discussing their beer. You should appreciate brewer-driven festivals when you get them, remember that the brewery folks are most often donating their time and beer for these events.
The festival as a whole was well organized and entertaining. Being held in the arts district lent an artsy feel to everything, and this was best demonstrated by the large mural posted on the brick wall at the corner of Franklin and 7th Street. In black and white were the words, “Create, Play, Repeat” but neon paint markers were available for everyone to add their own sketches and phrases. The final product was interesting; Walter and I spent several minutes listening to the music and observing the mural.
The European history of Michigan City was represented at the festival as well. The brewery tents were set up at the ends of the allotted space, which created a large open area for congregation, admiring the ice sculptures, listening to the band, and playing games amid the arts district architecture. One German drinking game was interesting mix skill and dexterity called hammerschlagen. I learned about this game from Alex at Triton brewing, a good Michigan City fellow who used to work at Shoreline Brewing. His explanations about hammering nails into stumps with a peen hammer or a hatchet didn’t really paint the proper picture – watching it was much more informative and fun (especially as the festival moved into its final hour). In most cases, the games is played so that a miss means you drink, winning (pounding the nail all the way in) makes the loser drink, and creating a spark with your strike forces everyone to drink. At the festival they played a tamer version of the game, but fun was still had by all.
The Shelf Ice Brewfest was a reminder to me that things aren’t always as they appear. February in Michigan City? It was beautiful. New breweries that might need some time to grow into their brewhouses? Zorn and 10-56 had great beers right out of the starting gate. Old friend breweries that we thought we knew well? Shoreline had more than a dozen of innovative beers that we hadn’t tried before. Brewfests are just about trying beers? The art, games, and food of Shelf Ice showed that there can be much more going on. This brewfest was revelatory in so many aspects.
I suppose you could make plans for attending the Brewfest next February to try out Michigan City, but why wait? Within 30 miles of Michigan City are a dozen craft breweries, and that doesn’t even count those in lower Michigan. We found that the city has much to offer (Walter’s three new Vera Bradley bags from Lighthouse Mall attest to that); it won’t take another outdoor beer festival with a souvenir scarf to get us up to Zorn, Burn ‘Em, and Shoreline again.
Walter’s words of wisdom – It’s incredible how many things can kill you while you’re brewing beer on even a small system. Appreciate the risks your brewers take for you.