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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  Overcast
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Small (-ish) bites at Burgers and Brew: REAP Food Group serves gourmet in miniature
Picking out three of the best served at the Capital Brewery Bier Garten on Saturday
Indo-Pakistani burger from Willy Street Co-op (left) and Hungarian Heritage pork sausage patty from Metcalfe's Sentry (right).
Credit:Kyle Nabilcy

Do you like burgers? Beer? Enjoy supporting local food growers? If the answer is yes, then Burgers and Brew is the festival for you.

The event, held at the Capital Brewer Bier Garten in Middleton from 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday, May 30, was organized by REAP (Research Education Action and Policy) Food Group as a fundraiser for the Buy Fresh, Buy Local program. Chefs and representatives of 10 local eateries served up burgers of somewhat reduced size, paired with suitable beers. A $25 ticket bought you three burger/beer pairings.

If your goal is to sample all the offerings, a problem becomes clear if you think about those numbers: 10 stalls (11 burgers, since L'Etoile offered meat and meat-free versions); only three meal tickets. Since preliminary inspection of the menu revealed no likely clunkers, my only option was to go with a friend and trade bites.

We decided it would be best to not duplicate any burgers, despite how incredibly tasty many of them looked on paper and on the tabletop. We came up with three loosely defined categories: Traditional, Exotic and Vegetarian. Each of us would get a burger in each category, then have a head-to-head comparison.

Round 1: Traditional
The undisputed superstar from last year's inaugural event was Lombardino's "Local Legend" lamb burger topped with a (barely) fried quail egg. The same burger was served with fries this year, and paired with an organic ESB from Lakefront Brewery. Against this tiny titan, the "Better Than Rhubarb Pie" burger from Sardine -- a beef burger topped with rhubarb marmalade and blue cheese - paired with the New Glarus Stone Soup, would have to put up quite a fight.

And fight it did. The rhubarb walked a fine line, not crossing too far into jam territory. The baby arugula returned some of the bitterness absent from the rhubarb, and the blue cheese deepened what might have otherwise been a fleeting flavor. The Stone Soup, sweet and funky, was a perfect match. The "Local Legend" lamb burger was no slouch, either; well-seasoned and very juicy, it was a decadent bomblet of flavor. The fries were pretty good too, but I wish we'd been given some of the housemade pickles on offer at the Lombardino's stand. By the time we noticed the absence, the line was 30 people deep -- too long for pickles.

Winner: Gotta say, the innovative-without-novelty rhubarb burger from Sardine.

Round 2: Exotic
My dining companion is a nut for Indian food, so the "Indo-Pakistani burger" from the Willy Street Co-Op was a natural choice. This lamb burger was nestled in an almost-spherical curry roll, and topped with tomato/red lentil dal, cucumber raita and a Carr Valley blended-milk feta. A Sprecher IPA came along for the ride. This round became a grocery store battle, as I chose the Hungarian Heritage pork sausage patty from Metcalfe's Sentry. This Old World entry came topped with sauerkraut and whole-grain mustard, with a Great Dane German pils alongside.

There was little subtlety in this round. The Indian flavors of the Indo-Pakistani burger were pronounced and clean, with the curry roll starting off each bite with a breath of iconic curry essence. The India Pale Ale was a smart choice, but I've had a lot of IPAs lately that were more satisfying. Metcalfe's Hungarian burger was by far the biggest serving we'd have all day. The Swiss cheese roll was substantial, and held its own against the strong sauerkraut and mustard flavors, as well as the spicy heat of the pork sausage patty. Those somewhat riotous flavors were smoothed out and quieted by the clean taste of the German pils. The creamy "Red White and Blue" potato salad was a nice accompaniment.

Winner: Willy Street's Indo-Pakistani burger, in another very close vote.

Round 3: Vegetarian
The sacrifices I make for you, the reader -- I actually chose to forgo another delicious meat patty for a vegetarian round just to even out the experience. My non-burger was truly that. Ian's Pizza offered a Savory Spring burger of Hook's five-year cheddar, caramelized onion and tomato jam, and a pea shoot salad with beer vinaigrette. The other vegetarian sandwich came from L'Etoile -- an ample slice of Brunkow Brun-uusto cheese, tomato and cucumber. Ian's paired its sandwich with a Central Waters Happy Heron Pale Ale; L'Etoile chose Oscar's Oatmeal Stout from Sand Creek.

According to the Burgers and Brew program, "there's nothing missing" from the Ian's burger; I'm no chef, but I beg to differ. There was no patty or central element. It was a great sandwich, but it wasn't a burger. Hook's cheddar will make any sandwich a decent sandwich. L'Etoile, on the other hand, hit their "cheeseburger" out of the park. Brun-uusto is a bread cheese (its non-brand name is leipäjuusto), which means it can be grilled directly without melting to goo. This burger was made to order to keep it hot and fresh. The cucumbers were bright and brilliant, and the deep, rich stout complemented the cheese perfectly. Here, it could truly be said that nothing was missing.

Winner: L'Etoile's Chef Tory turned in a line-blurring and delicious burger, and didn't bother the animal kingdom to do it.

Other burgers, from Weary Traveler and The Old Fashioned, and L'Etoile's meat option, looked mighty good, but I knew they'd be unlikely to hit an off-note. Offerings from Bluephies and Brasserie V were disappointing; the former made a barbecue-sauced sandwich of their well-known meatloaf, and the latter simply served a miniature version of their standard V Burger. Neither of us felt that it was worth spending a precious ticket on a burger we could get any day of the week on Monroe Street.

With the line extending past the eastern entrance well before the 4 p.m. start time, this year's Burgers and Brew appears to have exceeded last year's ticket sales. Lombardino's and L'Etoile were big draws; reeling in lines of close to 45 people. The front gate operation will require some improvement as this event grows; until we were handed our short-pour beer glasses, we weren't entirely sure we were in the right line or if our "tickets" were actually sufficient documentation to gain entrance.

For a good cause, and with such good food and drink, the ticket price turned out to be more than reasonable. We both left the event sated and happy, and by the time we got back to our parking spot, we'd even gotten a exercise. We were less successful in convincing ourselves that smaller burgers have fewer calories, but at the end of a pleasant afternoon in the sun, we weren't really that concerned anymore.

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