Costs stir token, beer brewhaha ahead of Winter Beer Festival

Tom Gromak
The Detroit News
Scene from the frosty Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival in Comstock Park, in 2017

Speciation Artisan Ales sparked a stir on Facebook Tuesday with a post announcing that the Comstock Park brewery would only be bringing two beers to the Winter Beer Festival this weekend in western Michigan to avoid having to charge guests four or five tokens per taste of its high end brews.

Craft beer fans suggested the move was a result of breweries raising prices to the Michigan Brewers Guild, price markups by the guild, or some sort of crackdown by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission.

It’s none of those completely, said Scott Graham, executive director of the MBG.

But the controversy coincided with the online release of the program for this year’s winter festival, which takes place Friday and Saturday at Fifth Third Ballpark in Comstock Park. Saturday is sold out, but tickets are still available for Friday’s session.

The program lists 1,100 beers from 150 Michigan breweries, most available in 3-ounce taster sizes for a single MBG festival token. But it also lists 180 beers that will cost at least two tokens for a 3-ounce pour, 10 beers that will cost three tokens, and 12 beers (ten of them, mostly sour ales, by East Lansing-based Ellison Brewing) that will cost four tokens for each 3-ounce pour.

Graham said the uptick in higher priced samples isn’t the result of any change in costs or rules, but an acknowledgement that some breweries are simply producing more expensive beers, particularly in the area of sour beers and wild ales, which have a much longer and costlier brewing process. At the festival level, those collide with Michigan Liquor Control regulations that don’t allow beer or alcohol to be sold for less than its cost.

The festival works like this: When you drop a token in a bin, you’re not buying a sample from the brewer, but from the MBG which, in turn, buys the beer you drink from the brewers. The total quantity and cost is budgeted and paid-for ahead of time. And the MBG has to “price” every beer under the same rules as your corner beer store or local tap-room. They can sell it to you at cost, but not below cost.

“It’s not based on any new enforcement. It’s my obligation to understand the rules and follow them,” Graham said. “Nothing’s changed, except that there are a lot of more expensive beers.”

“If I let every brewery bring as much beer as they want to, we’d have way too much beer and it would cost us a lot. The only thing that’s changed is that there are more brewers – not all, but some – that are charging significantly more for some of their beers.”

In its Facebook post, that’s why Speciation said it made the decision to limit its beers to just two: “With short notice on the change and not enough time to produce a lower cost beer, we have decided to narrow our offerings to two beers: Mycoplasma and Polymorphism. We wanted to keep our selections at WBF as affordable as possible and still provide a sample of what Speciation is all about,” the company wrote.

Graham said the MBG has set the value of each token – you get 15 of them with your admission ticket – at 50 cents. And, for the vast majority of beers, you get three ounces for 50 cents, about the same as paying $2 for a 12-ounce beer at a taproom.

“This is not based on a margin. It’s just based on our costs,” Graham said. “Recently we’ve seen a couple beers cross over into higher thresholds.”

“If we pay two times, or three times, or four times, or five times what most of the rest of the beer costs for a few beers, we feel it’s the right thing to do to list it accordingly, and that’s the discussion you’re seeing now.”

And, he said, it would remain the practice under Michigan law, which is unlike the law in Wisconsin or neighboring Indiana, where festivals are allowed to charge a single admission price and give away unlimited samples.

“Would that be something that would be nice to change? Sure,” Graham said, but he doesn’t expect that to happen in Michigan any time soon.

Still, he feels the prices, even the 4-token pours, are a value. And festival-goers don’t need to worry about running out of tokens. They can buy more or, if they have them left over from previous MBG festivals, use those, as some members of the Detroit Area Craft Beer Enthusiasts Facebook group have already noted and planned to do.

“It’s an enormous cost to us, but the fact is that it is about the beer. We like having the highly sought-after beer,” which he compared to a wine drinker curious about Dom Perignon, the high-end champagne. “I’m never going to buy a bottle of Dom Perignon, just like I might never buy a bottle of one of these expensive beers, but, for a couple of tokens, or three or four – for a couple of bucks, really – you can try it.”

IF YOU GO: The Winter Beer Festival runs from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday at Fifth Third Ballpark in Comstock Park, just north of Grand Rapids. Tickets are $45 in advance and $50 at the gate.

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Friday’s forecast calls for clear skies with a high of 38 and a low of 27 on Friday. Saturday’s forecast for the area is for a high of 41, a low of 34, and a chance of rain or freezing rain.