Great events create great memories. However, a festival that features over 500 different beers makes it a little tough to remember the magic moments.
On Saturday the 21st annual Great Taste of the Midwest turned the grassy knoll on Lake Monona we know as Olin-Turville Park into a beer mecca. Counting ticket holders, brewers and volunteers, attendance was around 6,500. Many beer drinkers and suds aficionados consider this the premier outdoor beer tasting event in the country.
Being one of those to make it through the gates with a ticket wasn't easy. The event sold out in just 90 minutes back in May. Sean Nashold of Madison, who has often attended in previous years, was without a ticket this year, so when he awoke Saturday morning he wasn't planning to go. But plans have a way of changing.
"My cousin called me while he was in line waiting to get in," recalled Nashold, "and said, 'Hey, you got to get down here, it's too nice a day.' So I dropped everything." Nashold came not knowing if he'd find a ticket, but he did -- at face value, surprisingly, from someone else in line. Appropriately, or not, he paused for comment near a booth offering a beer called "Stickin' It to the Man," from Lake Mills' Tyranena Brewing.
John Crowley of Tinley Park, Ill. made a three-day weekend of the event. This was Crowley's second time attending, and he liked being able to try so many different beer styles. He was especially fond of the Real Ale tent, where about 45 kegs of cask beer were offered. These are beers that continue to ferment in the keg, or cask, and are served warmer. Cask conditioned beers often have a smoother texture with soft, fruity tones.
Among the real ales creating a buzz were Tea Bagged Furious from Surly Brewing (Minneapolis), with aggressive bitter flavors; and Malcolm's Old Settlers Ale from New Albanian Brewing (New Albany, Ind.), whose smooth caramel flavors and warmth make it the kind of beer that cries out for a moonlit-evening bonfire (even though the day brought temps in the upper 80s).
"This is a beautiful day," said Crowley. "I'm a big fan of real ale, beers that are not carbonated, beers with true flavor, so I'll stay here in this tent awhile."
Those coming to the Great Taste made the pilgrimage in various ways -- on foot, by bus, cab, bike, even canoe. Some of those making the trek didn't let distance get in their way. Dona Lee of Alexandria, Va. was one of 30 members of a Washington, D.C.-area home brewers and tasters club who flew to Chicago and bused it to Madison. "This is our eighth year here," said Lee. "We have T-shirts since 2000."
Club members, calling themselves BURP (Brewers United for Real Potables), came prepared with a strategy. "Over the years we've tried to focus on certain styles like stouts and bocks," said Lee. "One year we tried barley wines, which was a mistake because we had trouble remembering what we'd had after a while." Barley wines often have a higher alcohol content than other beers.
This year the club got an advance list of the breweries and short-listed those with high marks from beeradvocate.com. "We started with a list and map of the event showing breweries with scores of 3.8 or higher, but after we hit those 40 we intend to lower our standard to 3.7," joked fellow club member Mark Korabik.
With so many beers, strategy is critical to make the most of the five-hour event. Andy Gurstelle, 22, a Madisonian and Great Taste first-timer, used food strategically. "We have some chairs up in the shade," he said. "For every five beers we try we take a break with some smoked sausage, crackers and cheese."
For repeat performers, like Ron Puttkammer, the event made for great conversations with friends, and with a few of the brewmasters he's met over the years. He wasn't shy about walking up and putting his arm around New Glarus' Dan Carey to let him know how much he enjoyed his products.
"I've made it to every one of these, except one when I was sick," proudly stated lederhosen- and Hamm's-shirt-wearing Puttkammer, who was a Madison mayoral candidate in 1979. "This is an amazing event. Look at the crowd. Makes me feel like the only way for peace in the world is to put a beer in everyone's hand."
More reports, photos, and blogging from the Great Taste of the Midwest is available in Madison Miscellany.