By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS, firstname.lastname@example.org
TRAVERSE CITY — The annual summer Traverse City Microbrew & Music Festival returns this weekend with a new twist: a Homebrew Court.
Area homebrewers get to offer samples of their suds for the first time at this year's event, today and Saturday, Aug. 24 and 25, at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.
Besides nearly a dozen homebrewers, who will vie for a Tasters' Choice award and a spot in the festival's Hop n' Brew Shack, the festival features some 50 breweries and more than 200 flavors of beer, wine, cider, mead and non-alcoholic beverages.
Joining local and Michigan favorites like North Peak Brewing Company, Keweenaw Brewing Company and Saugatuck Brewing Company are breweries from as far away as the San Francisco area (Lagunitas Brewing Co.), Philadelphia (Victory Brewing Company) and New Orleans (Abita Brewing Company).
Adding homebrewers to the festival mix will help attendees appreciate more than just the taste of craft beers, said festival beverage manager and homebrewer Deven Larrance.
"We're hoping for it to be an educational element so people can understand the process of brewing beer," said Larrance, who worked with the Michigan Liquor Control Commission to allow homebrewers at the festival under a new law that permits homebrewing clubs to meet at breweries and to share their beer there with other members.
"People love to go to the festival and ... taste beer, but they don't understand what's involved in crafting beer. There's this whole culture of beer that has grown up around homebrewing. So many brewers started out as homebrewers first, and so we really want to give people those aspects of the craft beer culture," Larrance said.
Saturday festival attendees will receive free taste tokens to try a sample of each homebrew and can vote for their favorite. The top brews will then be tasted and judged by a panel of festival brewers and Michigan Hop Alliance officials. The winner will receive a Tasters' Choice prize and can join breweries in the Hop n' Brew Shack Saturday night.
"The brewers love to be in there because they get a chance to bring their special brews and talk to people one-on-one and let them test it out," Larrance said. "I think that people are really going to respond to the fact that they're going to be able to taste homebrews they can't find anywhere else. And there's always that aspect of mystery, too. Can a homebrewer deliver a really good, quality brew?"
Beer isn't the only highlight of the summer festival, which also features a lineup of bands from local favorites to national acts.
"It seems to me it's music first, beer second," said Kristen Messner, fun facilitator for The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, where shops and restaurants stay open during the festival. "I know quite a few people who are coming who don't drink. These events bring people out of the woodwork."
This year's headliner is country music superstar Dierks Bentley, who recently celebrated his 10th No. 1 radio hit. The CMA Awards winner performs at 8 p.m. today in a concert that will feature songs from his new EP, "Country & Cold Cans," released on Tuesday.
While not giving it top billing, the festival also celebrates "yummy grub" from local restaurants like Little Bohemia, Siren Hall, Pleasanton Brick Oven Bakery and Mana. This years' craft brew-worthy eats include everything from pizza, gyros and hot dogs (and beer brats and Polish sausage) to paella, falafel and vegetable lasagna.
The festival takes place rain or shine. Shuttles run between the Old Town Parking Deck and The Village at Grand Traverse Commons during festival hours.
Advance tickets range from $35-$45 for single days, plus fees, to $75 for both days. They're available at Oryana, Brew, High Five Threads, 7 Monks and Left Foot Charley or online at www.brownpapertickets.com and www.porterhouseproductions.com. Tickets also are available at the gate for $5 more.