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How to walk the line and score on ticket day for the Great Taste of the Midwest
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What's the key to getting a prime line spot?
Credit:Kyle Nabilcy

Let's say there was an event. A beer event. One that made a limited number of tickets available at a small number of locations, selling out every year since forever. This event causes its fans to strategize, scout, and camp out at stupid o'clock in the morning just to get their two-per-person limit. If a guy had a method, a way that had yet to let him down in getting his tickets, he'd have to be a madman to write an article talking about it, for thousands of people to read, right?

(Author loosens collar awkwardly.)

Well, Saturday, August 9 will bear witness to the 28th edition of the Great Taste of the Midwest beer festival, and once again, tickets will go on sale at noon on the first Sunday of May. The Great Taste is renowned as a much-desired and tough ticket, but where it has one over on its competition -- the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, or niche brewery events like Dark Lord Day in Indiana -- is in its analog nature. No website to keep from crashing, no credit cards to swipe, just the dedication of its potential attendees to sit in line and wait their turn.

"It still amazes me how dedicated people are toward this event," says Great Taste chairman Mark Garthwaite. "You've got guys from Detroit setting up a campsite with lounge chairs, couches, and a TV to play video games at one site, and a couple from Minneapolis sleeping in their car in the parking lot at another site waiting to get in line as soon as they see people arriving."

That sure makes it sound impossible for the normal human to score a spot in line close enough to the front to get some tickets, but the fact remains that there's usually space in lines around Madison until 9 or 10 a.m. Different sites are allocated different ticket amounts, from relatively numerous (Capital Brewery, Star Liquor) to much more limited (Cork 'n Bottle, Wine and Hop Shop).

There are different advantages to each site, and a couple -- Vintage Brewing on Whitney Way and the Malt House at Milwaukee and East Washington -- are new for 2014. (If you were loyal to the line at Tyranena Brewing in Lake Mills, sorry, but you'll have to find a new spot.) The two ticket-selling breweries will have a strong party vibe in the big parking lots, and the tailgate party atmosphere is usually strong at Star on Williamson.

The two Steve's locations that sell tickets -- University and Junction -- are some of the more accessible locations for those who live west of downtown, although the Junction Road location is currently suffering from road constructionitis. Cork and Bottle, across from Burnie's Rock Shop on Johnson, has a big draw with the Johnson Public House; the owners open very early for Great Taste line-sitters, turning out aggressively leisurely-paced craft coffee pour-overs before the sun crests the neighborhood roof line. Sophia's Bakery & Cafe is just a few storefronts farther up the road.

"It's a pretty chill line [at Cork and Bottle]," describes home brewer, game designer and festival volunteer Brett Myers, "with a couple of places to get a good breakfast and hot coffee nearby. I always see people playing cards and board games in line at C&B, which makes me happy."

So what's the key to getting a prime line spot?

Well, don't sleep in. You don't have to camp out the night before, but it's a fool who rolls out the front door at 10 a.m. expecting a walk in the park. That said, it doesn’t hurt to scope your destination out around midnight, or even a little later if you're a night owl. Go grab a doughnut from Greenbush Bakery and get your prowl on.

You must pack a comfortable camp chair, or at the very least a cushy sleeping bag if you're willing to park it on the ground or sidewalk. If you're not near a cafe or grocery store, bring a bite to eat. Bring something to read. Bring a battery backup or a wall charger (just in case you're sidled up next to an outlet) if you're planning on line-tweeting. Check the weather; line organizers might get you an expedited line number (for assured placement when tickets go on sale at noon) if the clouds open, but it's better to be prepared. Take if from someone who got drenched a couple years ago.

And bring cash! No credit cards, no debit cards, no checks -- just your friends Grant and Hamilton. Tickets this year are $60, which is a bump up from last year, but still worth every penny. Sure, you can enter the check-by-mail lottery, and folks often find a ticket or two online or at the gate -- Great Taste stalwarts are typically very good about asking no more than face value -- but if you ask me, the line is its own little festival. Hit the ATM and take your place.

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