A friendly rivalry between Wisconsin and its neighboring states makes everything from sports to food more fun, and it's hard to imagine a more exciting "battlefield" than the Midwest craft beer scene. Poised to rival the West Coast for quality with only distribution differences standing in its way, the region is putting out some of the most sought-after beers in the nation -- and the Great Taste of the Midwest is an exciting opportunity to sample the best from multiple states all at once.
For those keeping score, it's easy to see that the actual winner in the amicable competition between Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa is the craft beer enthusiast.
What makes a state great for beer?
Large cities may thrive on visitors' dollars, but when that market is largely one-time drinkers, the product needn't be anything special; it just needs to be good enough for everyone to buy once. Furthermore, the costs associated with big-city brewing can be prohibitive; witness New York's failure so far to nurture a competitive craft beer scene despite its hundreds of wonderful bars. Chicago, on the other hand, has seen an explosion of small breweries over the last two years, and is discovering that catering to tourists and growing a local following are hardly mutually exclusive.
Wisconsin and Michigan are such strong beer states because they have a craft-oriented populace that supports the best breweries loyally, allowing them to make more products that attract festival-goers and tourists. There's no need to stress over national distribution when there's a thirsty and supportive market right at home.
How do Wisconsin and its neighboring states stack up this year? The 2014 edition of the Great Taste offered a side-by-side comparison of their best beers as well as a glimpse of what's to come.
Illinois: Brewing catches up with distilling
While Chicago has had a strong beer bar scene quite some time, and can boast the Siebel Institute of Technology, the country's foremost brewing education program, it's only in the last couple of years that small breweries have really exploded around the city. As a region with an outstanding distillery lineup and unbeatable restaurants, it was only a matter of time before a windfall of breweries popped up -- and started challenging the Wisconsin and Michigan scenes for quality.
Illinois made a strong showing at this year's Great Taste, with the Blind Pig Brewery of Champaign showing off a soft, spunky, taste-the-fuzz Peach Berliner Weiss (the king of the Real Ale tent) and Samburro Chile Beer, which delivered a slow, clean burn. Kaiser Rauchtenstein, a beautiful smoked helles lager from Haymarket Pub and Brewery of Chicago was also impressive, as was Irritated Koala, a delightful black tea IPA from Two Brothers Brewing of suburban Warrenville.
And the Great Taste scene surrounding Chicago's best-known brewery, Goose Island, laid to rest notions that its sale to InBev resulted in any loss of popularity. The lines at its elaborate and centrally-located festival booth and a Great Taste Eve sour tasting at Madison's showed Goose Island still has legions of fans among beer geeks. The brewery isn't resting on its laurels, either: Gillian, a new farmhouse ale named after Gillian Anderson of The X-Files, was the best Goose Island beer this writer has tasted and the top saison of the weekend.
Michigan: The reigning champion
Though beer fans from rest of the B1G states may cringe if they admit it, Michigan brewing tops out in the Midwest. From the indisputably great beer city of Grand Rapids and its Founders Brewing to the incredible creations of Dark Horse Brewing, Kuhnhenn Brewing, Short's Brewing and Bell's Brewery, not to mention new operations coming out swinging every month, the only question for Michigan is how to translate some of that bar money being printed into economic prosperity for Detroit.
Wisconsin: The contender
From the tremendous Belgian styles being made at Vintage Brewing to the magnificent sour lineup from O'so Brewing, or from the increasingly impressive recipes from MobCraft to the surprisingly good barleywine and jasmine imperial wit put out by Sand Creek Brewing, Wisconsin's showing at the Great Taste befits its role as host. Throw a party like this festival, and you'd better be ready with across-the-board greatness. Wisconsin hasn't caught up with Michigan yet, but that day seems more possible than ever.
Iowa: The hot new kid
Sunglasses off, everyone: Iowa got back from its lifeguarding gig at summer camp with a rather sexy tan, and hasn't figured out yet it's the hottest kid in school. A thriving locavore scene in Des Moines has developed a thirsty market, and superstars like Toppling Goliath Brewing of Decorah and Peace Tree Brewing of Knoxville pulled in huge crowds at the Taste for their fierce and -- dare I say it -- Colorado-esque brews featuring unapologetic hops and remarkable creativity.
Minnesota: Ready for a power play
I hadn't heard of Bent Paddle Brewing before last month, but the relatively new Duluth outfit knocked it out of the park with its Venture Pils while its 14º ESB showed remarkable promise. Minnesota seems to be a growing market. With cult favorite turning major player Surly Brewing leading the charge from the Twin Cities, the North Star State seems ripe for a beer explosion. I'll be there for it with my glass ready.
The Midwest brewing scene's relatively lower profile compared to Colorado and the coasts is both a curse and a blessing -- people outside the region have to hear about its beers and want to visit badly enough to try them. Meanwhile, an environment of local competition for increasingly sophisticated palates is honing Wisconsin and its neighbors into fierce brewing states. This regional race is already bringing out many breweries' best game, and all beer fans have to do is keep tasting.