The Great Taste of the Midwest celebrated its 25th anniversary on Saturday, August 13, and not even a thundershower in its last hour could dampen the spirits of those attending. The annual beer festival organized by the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild is held every year at Olin-Turville Park overlooking Lake Monona and the downtown Madison skyline.
While the Taste may not have moved very far (geographically) from the first festival in 1987, which was held in the Italian Workingmen's Club on Regent Street, it has grown tremendously. Now over 125 participating breweries serve more than 900 different beers to some 6,000 attendees over the five-hour event.
Tickets are tough to acquire -- they sell out on the first Sunday of May in minutes, to lines that form overnight at the handful of locations where they are sold. There's also a mail-in lottery that offers no guarantees.
Meanwhile, over the past few years the number of pre-parties, tastings and other beer events around town over the week before the festival has also grown to more than two dozen. Bill Rogers, festival chairman and owner of the Malt House, was all smiles during the Taste. At the end of the day, when the horn sounded to stop pouring beer, he was heard saying, "Well now the pain begins." It was time for clean-up.
So for those with or without a ticket, here are a few beer notes from the weekend festivities at this year's Great Taste of the Midwest.
Best Pre-Great Taste Parties
- Thursday: Dexter's Pub
Dexter's hosted Tyranena Brewing (of Lake Mills, Wisconsin) and the first sip of the brewery's Oktoberfest beer that was kegged one day before.
- Friday: Capital Tap Haus
Other than at Capital Brewery (of Middleton, Wisconsin), this was the only place where Oktoberfest, Autumnal Fire and Eternal Flame were all on tap at once. For those who enjoy malty brews it was the place to be. Oh yeah, brewmaster Kirby Nelson was even pouring.
- Friday, second stop: Brickhouse BBQ
Central Waters Brewing (of Amherst, Wisconsin) took over the taps with 13-plus beers.
Hoppiest Beer with Balance
Hop Whoopin' from O'so Brewing of Plover, Wisconsin
Firmly bitter, this beer is made with Summit hops. Expect it to appear in Madison by winter in bottles for the first time.
Yakima from New Albanian Brewing of New Albany, Indiana
A rye India Pale Ale made with Columbus, Centennial, and Cascade hops, this finishes at nearly 130 IBUs (International Bitterness Units). For an idea about just how bitter, the standard big brewery lager is often around 20-25 IBUs.
Goldilocks Revenge from O'so Brewing of Plover, Wisconsin.
An imperial stout aged in brandy barrels for five months, this brew is dark and sweet. Let's hope that brewer and owner Marc Buttera will make this during the winter.
Biggest Beer With Flavor, Not Just High Alcohol
Russian Roulette from Town Hall Brewery of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
At 9% ABV, it is warm and rich in chocolate malt. This Twin Cities brewery is owned by Pete Rifatkes, who grew up in Middleton.
Best Non-Beer Find of the Day
Holiday Harbor from White Winter Winery of Iron River, Wisconsin
A smooth and sweet blend of honey and spices, this mead is enhanced by the French and American oak aging.
Lightest Brew with Distinctive Flavor
Miner's Treasure Amber Ale from Galena Brewing Company of Galena, Illinois
A light amber beer, this offered a firm caramel maltiness and hint of toffee in the finish.
Best Beer Names
- Decadence from Fitger's Brewhouse of Duluth, Minnesota
An imperial stout aged on raspberries and cocoa nibs.
- Gluttony from St. Francis Brewery and Restaurant of St. Francis, Wisconsin
A summer saison.
Strawberry from Lucette Brewing of Menomonie, Wisconsin
This special, non-advertised strawberry wine was homemade by brewer Jon Christiansen. Only a select few got to sample this very smooth and sweet strawberry treat.
Easy Drinking Favorite
A Cart Ride to Mexico from Red Eye Brewing of Wausau, Wisconsin
This rich golden-amber Maibock is smooth and sweet, and made with piloncillo sugar.
Cask Ale Favorites
- The Schwarz Will Rise Again from Vintage Brewing of Madison, Wisconsin
Dark black and smooth with rich black and chocolate malt.
- Porter from Broad Ripple Brewpub of Indianapolis, Indiana
Lots of chocolate, and a deep black color.
Out-of-Towner I Was Most Enamored By
Two from Surly Brewing of Brooklyn Center, Minnesota
A special anniversary brew, this deep black ale revealed a sharp fruity background from cranberries.
Best Beer and Food Combo
Salami and cheddar sandwich from Baumgartner's Cheese Store (of Monroe, Wisconsin) with a cask version of Hop Jack Pale Ale from the Great Dane Pub-Downtown in Madison, Wisconsin.
Sweet and Smooth
Infinite Wisdom Tripel from Upland Brewing of Bloomington, Indiana
A strong Belgian style beer with the aroma and flavor of banana and fruity citrus, this was strong at 9% ABV.
Rum Barrel Aged Pilgrim's Dole from New Holland Brewing of Holland, Michigan
A bold barley wine fermented in oak barrels formally used for making rum, it was sweet and high in alcohol at over 11 % ABV. And service was from a tap handle on the arm of a six-foot-tall Elvis statue.
The One That Left Me Wondering "Is This Really Beer?"
Ro Shampo from Figure Eight Brewing of Valparaiso, Indiana
This imperial red ale emitted a bouquet of cotton candy.
New Brews to Watch For around Madison
- Oktoberfest from Vintage Brewing of Madison, Wisconsin
Smooth and malty, and a "National Grand Champion" at the U.S. Beer Championships. It should be on tap later this month at the west side brewpub.
- Exodus from Central Waters Brewing of Amherst, Wisconsin
A deep reddish-copper beer with a sharp sour flavor and hints of oak from barrel aging. It's scheduled to appear this fall in 750 ml. bottles.
- Laughing Fox from New Glarus Brewing of New Glarus, Wisconsin.
A crystal weizen with a copper-amber color and yeasty tones. This beer is expected to be released around Labor Day.
- Eternal Flame from Capital Brewery of Middleton, Wisconsin
The 25th anniversary beer for the brewery has a deep amber color and lots of rich maltiness. It's made to "seed" future vintages of the brewery's fall seasonal Autumnal Fire. And at over 9 % ABV, it has a fire all its own. Watch for a limited release in four-packs this fall.
- Citra Lager from Dave's BrewFarm of Wilson, Wisconsin
A crisp hoppy beer made with a single variety of Citra hops. It's expected to be released in cans this fall.
Best Beer T-Shirt
"Beer -- Because one doesn't solve the world's problems over white wine."
Overheard during the festival's final hour: "Okay Paul, I think it's time to really start drinking."
On to the next quarter-century. The 2012 edition of the Great Taste of the Midwest will be held on Saturday, August 11, and tickets go on sale on Sunday, May 5. Mark your calendars, and plan ahead.