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Monday, December 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 16.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
The Daily
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A view from behind the taps at Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest 2014
There's something invigorating about that turn-and-burn pace of pouring at a beer festival.
Credit:Kyle Nabilcy

The crowd was thirsty that day, my friends -- though, at Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest, put on since 2010, the crowd's always thirsty. And as bustling and eager as the event floor is from the perspective of the drinker and eater, there's a unique kind of press that the folks behind the tap handles experience.

At last year's festival, I helped out at a couple beer booths, pouring taster glass after glass of Leinenkugel Canoe Paddler and Rush River Nevermore. It was indeed something of a rush, with people streaming forward, excited that a certain beer was still available, or seeking advice with a curious expression on their faces. I've never been a bartender, but for those couple of hours, I got it.

It was with that experience in mind that for the 2014 fest, I set out to pour at even more booths, and document the party from the server's side of the equation. We put out a few emails, and the fine folks at Mobcraft, Titletown, Lakefront, and Red Eye all signed on to have me guest-pour.

After serving on the judging panel for the fest's first ever homebrew competition -- congratulations, Monolith IPA! -- I rolled up to Mobcraft. I would have started drinking here anyway, since there was going to be a sour beer on offer. Two Moon is an existing Belgian wit recipe that the brewing team wanted to amplify with fresh raspberries. The natural Lactobacillus on the fruit resulted in a secondary fermentation and a tart flavor profile similar to a Berliner Weisse. Pretty awesome stuff, and the crowds went for it.

Giotto, Henry, and Lisa from Mobcraft were enthusiastic and handled the constant flow of beer with aplomb. The new Hazelnut Amber was the first tap to run dry, and the Brettanomyces-finished Black Bretty (Bamalam) was funky and excellent. It felt like the beer geek appreciation level was high with the drinkers here.

The mighty Lakefront was a man down when I arrived, but there were only two beers on at a time anyway, so the business was brisk. I had hoped to get a definitive answer on what happened with the missing fourth beer in the brewery's anniversary series -- rumor is that the government shutdown stalled label approval and ended up killing the release's timing -- but that tidbit will have to wait for another day. (The AP reported back in October about other Lakefront delays.)

People were excited to have a slightly lighter, yellower option at Lakefront; the Big Easy Imperial Maibock poured neck-and-neck with the popular Bridge Burner Imperial Amber. John, the latest in the brewery's My Turn series, is a dark lager with cherries that was poured during the premium hour, and again starting at 4:30 p.m. It drew a crowd, and rightfully so; it was a chocolate-covered cherry in a glass.

I ducked out to lay down a solid falafel layer between sips, and Banzo was doing a brisk but speedy business. When I landed at Red Eye, head brewer Kevin Eichelberger was just about to pass the baton to business partner (and Madison resident) Dana Wolle. He works with Center for Dairy Research at UW-Madison, and hopes to offer a beer science short course during this year's Madison Craft Beer Week.

Red Eye had six taps and a firkin running while I was there, easily the most of any of my stations of duty. I was, of course, pushing the Red Eye 5, an American wild sour, whenever anyone asked for a suggestion; Bloom (a Belgian witbier) and Snow Bunny (a timed-tap milk stout) were also in high demand. I may have sung "I ain't got Snow Bunny" à la David Lee Roth to one visitor, despite that not being entirely accurate.

By the time I arrived at Titletown Brewing, some the fest's attendees were definitely into their cups. Green 19 IPA was shouted at us like the pre-snap call that inspired its name (it was formerly known as Hopasaurus Rex). When it temporarily ran dry, I encouraged visitors to shout Peyton Manning's "Omaha" call to audible to a different beer, like the Zizani Wild Rice Brown Ale.

One young woman, unsure of pronunciation, indicated "the one with the 'zed' -- I mean, 'Z'." We razzed her a bit, and she blushed and grinned, saying her Canadian background comes out when she drinks. For my part, my Fox Valley heritage was nourished by hanging out with a familiar Green Bay brewer, even if I never got around to having a sip of the excellent Sno-Cap root beer the guys had stashed away for special requests.

There's something invigorating about that turn-and-burn pace of pouring at a beer festival, helping the occasional visitor with a question, or making a recommendation for the open-minded drinker. Everyone's in a good mood, and while it's a party for the ticket-buying public first, it's clear the brewers are there to have some fun, too.

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