A Boston Beer Drinker Goes (Mid)West

26th Annual Great Taste of the Midwest

8/11/2012 in Madison, Wisconsin

Sponsored by the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild

Class glass glass.

Since this is my first blog post, and I have a well documented tendency to ramble, I will limit my commentary to what I think my (as of yet nonexistent, but hopefully very loyal and generous) readers find interesting. This past weekend I attended the Great Taste of the Midwest in Madison, WI with my dear college friend J. He is the man that, many years ago when I was still in graduate school and he had already secured gainful employment, introduced me to the wonderful world of craft beer. At best we just called it ‘better’ beer at the time, but it is equally likely that once J’s return visits to campus were over, I went back to drinking Natty 9 weekends out of 10, with only the occasional Sam Adams Cherry Wheat (don’t judge) when student loan checks cleared early next semester.

In any event, our relationship has only grown stronger since then, heat tempered in the volunteer trenches of the Beer Advocate festivals (Next event September 7-8, 2012. Get TICKETS!) and through fruitful exploration of the greater New England craft beer scene. When he informed me that there was a festival in Madison so popular that tickets could only be acquired in-person at some podunk liquor stores in WI or through an old-school mail-in lottery, I wrote my check immediately (but didn’t mail it until the specified date since all entries must be postmarked on the date indicated by the festival organizers. The devil’s in the details!). I won the lottery, and then 8 weeks later when Great Taste rolled around, I won the lottery again.

I will save the long essay that could be written about the value of just going to the pre-festival parties on Friday night for another day, but please check out the following link here (courtesy of Isthmus) for a sense of the difficult choices that come from wanting to be everywhere at once. We dealt with that all weekend, and I will say that we were supremely pleased with our pre-party choices of Vintage Brewing Company (left) and Brickhouse BBQ (right; they hosted a tap takeover from Shorts, Nebraska Brewing, and Central Waters).

Look at all the pretty taps…
Head Brewer Scott Manning (hat) tapped outstanding archived beers and offered tastes for $1! The brewpub also supports a dozen or more other local brewers by giving them space on the 21 tap system!!! #supportlocal

Saturday brought the festival. I would love to write a nice piece about what beers I had that were particularly notable, what was good/improvable about the festival logistics, and other interesting anecdotes, but to be honest this one got away from me. I don’t mean in the ‘too much to drink’ way (in fact I’ve never poured out so much ridiculously good/never to be poured again beer in my life simply because I had to make room in my glass), but rather in the ‘I still like that I can go to beer festivals, meet great people, take a couple of pictures that are interesting to me, and reminisce later without worrying about the documentation’ way. So in the spirit of a picture being worth a thousand words, here is my treatise on the Great Taste of the Midwest:

The Arrival:

The Magic School Bus and the Journey to Intoxication.
GTMW organizers ran shuttles from area bars to the park. Yes, some people were drinking before the festival. Cheers?
Fears of the line taking forever to move through the gate, as the volunteers checked tickets in the line and issued writsbands to move patrons through the gates. There is no perfect way to deal with large, feisty crowds, but in my opinion analog trumped digital this day.

Goose Island

I have never done more homework and still felt so unprepared as when attempting to plot a course to try all the special release beers. Goose Island figured prominently in that action plan, and we were handsomely rewarded at 1:00PM and later in the day.
The most unique experience I’ve ever participated in at a beer festival, Goose Island Blending School was designed to allow patrons to formulate their ideal blend of Bourbon County Stout…
…But all I know was I felt like a complete idiot. I had had one 2 oz. pour of New Glarus Bourbon Barrel Aged Kriek before this, and I couldn’t tell which one was the Chocolate, Vanilla, Smoke, or Bourbon version. And they were supposedly LABELED! A novel idea and great fun, but I’ll leave it to the pros, thanks!

Lots of love for New England at Olin-Turville Park:

Cambridge Brewing Company…
…Hill Farmstead…
…and Ebenezer’s Pub. Gotta make it there someday soon!

One of the things I love most about beer festivals is the people that make their own prep list. There was a Great Taste app available for iOS and Android, but many people (ourselves included) found it necessary to make a complimentary paper version as well:

Not exactly sure what all the color coding is about, but I heard the guy who made this talking about an Enigma machine.
This gentleman, Dan, is a 14 veteran of Great Taste, and has been preparing his own list for years. Due to the notoriety (I suppose) of his choice, he has, in recent years, come prepared with 20 extra copies of his homemade list. The copies are highlighted as well, and there is no charge for his insider knowledge. Thanks, Dan!

Three Floyds:

Bells Brewery, New Glarus, and Goose Island were popular stops all day, but my personal feeling is that longest wait of the day was found at Three Floyds. If you drink craft beer and don’t live in a cave, you likely know that Three Floyds is the brewery behind Dark Lord (released on ‘Dark Lord Day’, and another beer ‘whale’). I waited in line at Three Floyds for 25 minutes or so earlier in the afternoon, unthinkingly not realizing that there would be no Dark Lord available when I got to the table (they did pour two versions, but they were timed releases). When the 2009 Dark Lord release did come around, I did a quick survey of the line and surmised that even if I did get in line at that point, I would not receive any. So I pulled an audible, and one of the riskiest moves I’ve ever done: I asked a guy that had just gotten some if I could have a sip of his. After some initial confusion at my request he said, “sure, but just a sip.” I said, “of course” and it was magical (the beer, that is). So in the future, if you go to this move, pay it forward. Next time I get something rare at a beer fest, I will most definitely be offering it, unsolicited, to someone who I see didn’t get any. I don’t care if you think it’s weird, I think it’s awesome. Thanks, mysterious stranger, you’re a hero!

2009 Dark Lord, I love you.

Wrap up photos:

I’ll end this post with just a few more of my favorite photos. But first, if you were not fortunate enough to make it to Great Taste, please check out this year’s PROGRAM and be jealous. Then please do this poll: 

I love Zombie Killer Cherry Cyser, but I love this sign more. This was posted at 4:30PM, by the way (festival ended at 6:00; I’ll attribute it to popularity more than poor planning).
This is fantastic. I absolutely love the simple but structured approach to having a unique and memorable experience at a beer festival. I don’t think a shirt like this would be out of place at even the most exclusive festival. Sometimes we miss the best thing because we’re chasing the ‘best’ thing. Cheers!
Tom didn’t quite make it, but he’s everything that is right with Great Taste of the Midwest. Probably had a great time, and totally deserves that nap as the festival was shutting down. Enjoy the $1 cab back to the hotel, Tom!

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