Winter Solstice on "Kuhnhenn Time"
I found out about Santa way too late in my adolescence because when I did I was wrecked emotionally. My uncle Dave broke the news when I just couldn’t accept why Santa would’ve given my brother the Swatch watch I was very specific about. That was in 6th grade.
Yesterday might’ve been the first time in my life since then when the magic I was anticipating the morning of woke me up at 2:18a and kept me awake until I poured myself out of bed at 3:45a. I showered (don’t know why I bothered), chugged a coffee, grabbed a protein bar and was in my car and on I-96 East by 4:30a. I was en route for my first visit to Kuhnhenn. More understandably, the reason why my biological alarm clock subconsciously triggered was to ensure I’d be one of the estimated first 1,000 people in line for a chance to buy their rarely-released, highly sought-after bottles during their annual Winter Solstice Celebration.
I was surprised that there were parking spots still available in their modest lot when I rolled in at 6:52a. I really didn’t know what to expect other than a line down the block because of the viral demand for their limited bottled beer. Reading between the lines on Facebook led me to believe that, based on 2014’s turnout, there could be 400-500 people in line by the time bottle sales started at 9a.I was in line somewhere between 40 and 50 people deep, dressed pretty appropriately. I could’ve had warmer gloves on, but only had to rub them together and make due until their heated tent opened at 8:00a.
It was about 8:20a or a little after when they opened the tent. Once filed inside, it looked like the morning after a mild college tailgate party during homecoming. White plastic banquet tables and chairs lined the interior, snaked between spent ⅙-barrel kegs and yellow caution tape as informal boundaries for the bottle sales queue. Winter Solstice started Friday night and this was the aftermath. The biggest teaser was seeing Raspberry Eisbock scrawled in Sharpie on duct tape above one of the mobile trailer’s tap handles. It had been tapped out, so it still evades me.
They activated bottles sales around 9:30, a half-hour later than announced. I learned a few things from talking to Griz, of Mason, MI, fellow guest in line and experienced Kuhnhenn festival attendee. He confirmed that our late admittance into the tent and half-hour delay with bottles were simply “par for the course” because of “Kuhnhenn time,” which is “generally fifteen to thirty minutes after whenever they say something’s going to start.” I challenged Griz and asked, “Would it have made a positive difference if they would’ve opened and started on time?” His response: “No. Everyone just expects it.”
Personally, I’ve waited a lot longer for a hell of a lot worse. With the exception of one guy on the event’s Facebook page who seemed to be personally offended that the line for bottles didn’t start moving until after 9:20a, and of course had to stir the pot with rudeness, no one else seemed to be so bent out of shape. Kuhnhenn kept things personal while we waited with strolling servers offering pours of DRIPA, Loonie Kuhnie, Penetration Porter and serving piping hot sausage, egg and cheese biscuit breakfast sandwiches that steamed as soon as they hit the cool air. For $3, it was an easy choice to layer the bottom of my stomach.
Griz enlightened me about what he referred to as “The Great Debacle of 2013.” It was his first Winter Solstice. Back then, he said per person allotments were 28 bottles - all a la carte. Yeah, I can see how that would’ve went sideways real quick. Good in the sense that Kuhnhenn gave the customer carte blanche to go home with a case-plus filled to their preference. That’s a pretty worthwhile debacle, if you ask me. The downside, of course, is the utter chaos of its logistics.
Griz told me when he got in line that year at 7:30a he was about 230th in line. After waiting in line to place his order, he went inside to have a few and then had to come back later that evening to pick up his packaged allocation. Based on my experience, he’s absolutely correct that the bombardment has calmed down, but I really don’t think the demand has subsided. Griz thinks this year was smaller in comparison because the hype has subsided due to the increase in craft competition in Michigan, even if gauged on only with what’s distributed. True. The local competition is friendly and increasingly frequent, but fierce. It seems like there’s a new limited release every week somewhere within a responsible driving radius in Michigan. That’s a good thing for beer, bad thing for everyone’s wallet.
I asked Griz what makes for a successful release in his opinion. He answered with one word, that is has to be “fun.” He added, “Of course, the beer has to be great, there should be good food, live music is cool and if [a brewery] offers a variety of rarities the people will come.” For me, what Kuhnhenn offered this year was plenty rare considering I’ve struggled to land anything by them in a bottle. As any fan of their beer and mead knows, they just don’t put out as much as we’d like. I’ve had a decent swipe at their portfolio on draft, particularly at beer fests, so they weren’t going to hear any complaints out of me.
The restless excitement of waking up at 2a paid off. I happily handed over $105 cash for my full allotment of three pre-determined 4-packs of their elusive Bourbon Barrel-Aged 4D, TRIPA Triple Rice IPA, Bourbon Barrel-Aged Barleywine and Dark Heathen Triple Bock, a collaboration with Dragonmead. They also had an even more limited inventory of two of their meads (360 bottles of each), on which my budget forced me to have to pass: Bourbon Barrel Aged Orange Blossom and BBA Manhattan Project.
I couldn’t drive all the way there and split before having a pull or two. I warmed up inside with a full pour of Aldebaran Belgian Imperial IPA. Then, I went back out under the tent to taste three out of the four bottles for sale straight from the source. I took my time with sample pours of BBA 4D, TRIPA and BBA Barleywine. I felt no guilt in having my cake and eating it, too. When in Warren.
Before I left for my 2+ hour drive back to Grand Rapids, I had the opportunity to talk to Eric Kuhnhenn, one half of the brothers Kuhnhenn who shares ownership and brewmaster responsibilities with Bret. Rightfully so, Kuhnhenn spoke with confidence and pride about his company and product. He’s fully aware of the demand for his beer and mead. I asked him about their expansion in nearby Clinton Township, which will serve as a full-scale production brewery and second taproom. Kuhnhenn assured the thirsty, “The new facility will pretty much be a DRIPA and Fluffer factory.” He acknowledged his love for making “big beers.” Anyone who’s ever had Kuhnhenn knows exactly what he means. “The drawback,” he admits, “is that many of them occupy prime real estate in our tanks for up to a year, so our plan for Warren, once the new building opens, is to keep focusing on our high-gravity beers.”
Kuhnhenn was gracious in my excitement for the anticipation of increased production and availability. I told him how fortunate I felt to have finally caught his beer in a bottle and he was appreciative. When I asked him whether he pays attention to the chatter online about trolls never seeming satisfied with their choice of what’s bottled or its frequency, he swears, “Without sacrificing its quality, trust me, we make it as fast as we can.” Until their Clinton Township facility is alive and kicking, the hunt for Kuhnhenn must continue at its current pace. And, after finally having success in capturing and tasting their earned self-proclaimed “big beers,” they can keep me on Kuhnhenn time as long as they want.