Great Taste of the Midwest 2018
The Great Taste of the Midwest has long been a staple of the Madison beer scene. Always taking place the second weekend in August on the banks of Lake Monona, the fest brings in breweries from all over the Midwest – as far away as Kansas and Kentucky – to pour in Olin Park. Is it worth the weekend in Madison though?
Great Taste of the Midwest Pre-Parties
The best recommendation I can give to anyone planning on attending the fest is to take that Friday before the fest off (but do you really me to push you to do that?) and attend the pre-parties that are going on around Madison. Some start as early as 10 AM and they go all day and all night.
This year, however, I was fortunate enough to register to the New Glarus hard hat tour. If you have the time to plan far enough in advance, it’s a wonderful experience. From having a tour guide who’s been there since 1999, to touring the old facility and the fruit cave, to getting to ask Dan Carey questions, it was well worth missing a few of the pre-parties.
Of course New Glarus also released their latest R&D beers, just as they do every year during the Great Taste. This year two were released – a Kriek and their Vintage ‘17 gueuze. The Kriek was available on tap as well (a first for a R&D as far as I know) and was tasting mighty fine – very similar to the Dovetail Kriek. There were definitely less people milling about, most likely due to the banning of bottle sharing.
Then it was back to Madison. Outside of a few events (Funk Factory and Toppling Goliath to name a few), a vast majority of pre-parties are located in the capital square. Good for you, as it’s one Uber/Lyft ride there and then walking to each event. You could attend tap takeovers and events by Central Waters, Bell’s, Lift Bridge, Lakefront, and Great Lakes (and surely some I’m missing) all within walking distance from each other. Unless you’re looking for some rare hype whale (and Central Waters did tap Black Gold, but I don’t know if that counts any more), going to the capital square is your best bet for Great Taste Eve.
Great Taste of the Midwest
Now in it’s 32nd year, the Great Taste of the Midwest is the second longest running craft beer festival in North America (behind the Great American Beer Festival, which started in 1982). It really shows in the organization. This was my 6th year attending, and the tent layout has not changed one bit. It was a telling sign that this fest had the greatest number of “rookies” attending the fest (with the exception of the first year). In all, over 190 breweries pouring over 1200 different beers (Off Color accounted for about 2% of those different beers).
I’m always amazed at the number of breweries and brewers having fun at the event. Booths can get really wacky, from whatever Bell’s yearly theme is (Vegas this year), to Ale Asylum’s Back to the Future theme (no future McFly hats though!), to Central Waters’ booth winning horror theme, complete with brewery representatives in full costume. There were so many booths with outrageous themes, I could write the whole wrap-up on that. It’s easier for you to just go.
Also of note is that this fest is entirely run by volunteers. The Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild is a non-profit, and those that run and work the fest do it in their free time and for the love of beer. Fred Swanson, the brewery liaison for the fest, sounded genuinely excited to be giving Central Waters the Best Booth award. This fest is about everyone – organizers, brewers, reps, attendees – having as much fun as you can have on the banks of Lake Monona in August.
Beers and Booths of the Fest
As an introductory note, I stayed away from a majority of Chicago-area breweries, preferring to swing by those out-of-state or those that don’t distribute to the area. That doesn’t mean I outright avoided them but, given the choice, I went with the new to me brewery. I also shied away from booths with long lines. Too much good stuff elsewhere to wait!
Forager Brewing – Pudding Goggles – This 10.3% porter aged on coconut, vanilla beans, cacao nibs and cinnamon was as delicious as it was at the Great American Beer Festival in 2017. Tons of fudgy chocolate and vanilla sweetness, with a light notes of coconut and cinnamon. One of the best beers of the festival.
Raised Grain – Black Walnut Coffee Stout – Definitely one to hit up at the beginning of the fest as it wasn’t overpowering, but an excellent example of an English stout. Tons of roast from both the stout and the coffee, and a smooth finish. Look for this one, as well as an interview with Raised Grain, on an upcoming show.
Civil Life – STL Best Real Ale – You saw that right. Civil Life brought a hand pump beer engine to a festival, which is the first I’ve seen at a fest (please correct me if I’m wrong). An English bitter, this might’ve been my beer of the festival. Light, slightly bitter, very, very smooth and perfectly served, it was a joy to be able to experience it in a festival setting. More breweries need to bring hand pumps to festivals, please!
The Livery – Noir Blue – From the Real Ale tent (more on that later), this is their Maillot Noir (an oak aged Biere de Garde with red and black raspberries) with blueberries and vanilla. Tons of fruit with some tartness and vanilla sweetness thrown in. Did not make it to their booth in time to try the Maillot Noir, but this was outstanding and another reason to get more real ales to the fest.
Perennial – Barrel-aged Abraxas – Backed in to a pour of this. Still fucking unbelievable. That is all.
August Schell Noble Star (Berliner Weisse) series – You’ve heard us rave about August Schell’s berliner Dawn of the Aurora on the MN Show, but they just keep makin’ ’em. Like years’ past, Schell brought no less than five from the series, with standouts Framboise du Nord (brett, lacto and raspberries) and Basin of Attraction (blend of 2 different berliners and dry-hopped with Citra and Denali) leading the way. Bottle-only, so it behooved me to get to their booth near the beginning of the fest.
Working Draft – Having already visited their location before the festival, I can tell you they make a quality product. The Hindsight pilsner was crisp and refreshing, their Future Tense Brut IPA was hoppy with a long, dry finish, and their Mom Jeans BA Oatmeal Stout perfectly integrated the whiskey and maple-syrup barrels into a full bodied beer. Definitely a stop next year.
Cruz Blanca – They absolutely killed it. Their Agent Pina (Chardonnay-barrel Saison) was outstanding, both from a technical aspect and a refreshing one (it was 85 and very sunny out). Their Gringo Honeymoon (Passionfruit and hibiscus lager), while not as complex, was very fruit forward and refreshing. The Brut IPA had that bitterness and dry finish you want in a Brut, and the Rey Gordo BA Imperial Stout (this one with coconuts, pecans, and cinnamon) had just the right amount of each addition to make it balanced and enjoyable while hiding the 10%. Cruz Blanca will be at the Great American Beer Festival this year. If you’re going, do yourself a favor and stop by their booth. I know I will.
Transient Artisan Ales – Brought it, much like Cruz Blanca did. Made stout fans happy by bringing ALL the Buckleys (that would be Buckley, Kentuckley, Canuckley, and Bring the Ruckley) and sour-goers light up with Cherry Anachronism and The Shepherd. Cherry Anachronism was right up there with Dovetail and New Glarus Kriek (just a bit more tart) while The Shepherd balanced blueberries and blackberries wonderfully with the wine barrel it was aged in. Wish his black currant saison was pouring, but we can’t win them all.
Revolution – One of the bigger booths (and lounges), they brought four of their Freedom Of berliner weisse series, raspberry Bottom Up, some heroes, Deth by Currants, and DB VSOJ Cherry Rye. I tried the Freedom Of’s that I haven’t had yet (I loved Speach) and the raspberry Bottom Up – all of which were refreshing and fruity – and got out. Outstanding and a must stop if you’re not from Chicago.
Pulpit Rock – Pastry stouts from a brewer formerly of Toppling Goliath? Cue the line. What I had, though, was outstanding. Nothing Original – a milk stout meant to evoke Rocky Road ice cream – wasn’t too sweet while still managing to show off each adjunct in the beer. Their Sticky Stink Juice hit all the right hazy notes, from using the classic hazy Citra/Mosaic combo to a little bit of bitterness on the end. Next year I’ll hit them first to minimize the line.
Off the Beaten Path
Real Ale Tent
Real ale is beer that is matured by secondary fermentation in the container that it is served from, without any extra carbon dioxide. At the Great Taste of the Midwest, the Real Ale Tent contains firkins with numbers and names next to them. You can order by number or name, and they conveniently had a list of numbers, breweries, and beer at one end of the tent.
In years past, the Real Ale tent was jammed with firkins on both sides. This year, one side was full while the other had only about 10-15 firkins. I’ve had some good beers before, particularly a red velvet beer many years ago and The Livery’s Noir Bleu this year. It’s interesting trying a beer from a firkin with whatever changes the brewer decided to make on the usual beer, and I wish more breweries participated in it this year.
Located south of the main festival tents, the presentation tent is definitely off the beaten path. It’s a chance to sit down, take a break from drinking a ton for a bit, and relax in the shade. This year there were three presentations – a beer and food pairing with Schlafly, a chocolate and beer pairing with Working Draft, and a Funk Factory blending and tasting talk. In my six years of going to the Great Taste I had never gone to a presentation in the tent, so I figured this was the time to do it. Being situated right near the midpoint of the fest, I chose to hit up the Working Draft chocolate pairing.
The session started around 2:45 and, since it was limited to only 100 people, I got there 10-20 minutes early and waited in line. Volunteers came around with the beers and chocolate pairings we were going to have after everyone was seated.Gail Ambrosius of her namesake chocolatier business was up first and talked about her business’ origins and her process. Clint Lohman of Working Draft – the Jnco jeans of brewing – spoke next about making beer, particularly lagers and IPAs. While usually paired with heavy, roasty stouts and porters, lagers and IPAs can be effectively paired with chocolate.
Of the five pairings, four hit their mark (with one being a home run) and one didn’t quite work. Working Draft’s Pulp Culture Hazy IPA was paired with Gail’s blueberry chocolate and it tasted just like a blueberry muffin. I was amazed at how an IPA and chocolate could work so well together. The miss was Takes Two to Tango sour blonde – a beer with tangerine, mango, sea salt, and lime zest – and paired it with a passion fruit chocolate. It became extremely tart when paired together; something a bit sweeter on the chocolate side (or less tart on the beer side) would’ve worked much better. The best chocolate, for those wondering, was the caramel with sea salt, incidentally their best seller.
The presentation tent is definitely worth your time if you go to the Great Taste, provided you’re interested in what’s being presented. And the shade under the tent was nice as well.
As I popped in to Rev’s booth to get a pour of one of their Freedom of beers, Nick (of Revolution Instragram Story’s What’s Fresh?) had a cutout of Nicolas Cage’s face (from Face-Off). He was kind enough to give it to me, as my girlfriend is a huge Nic Cage fan (thanks Nick!). Later on, near the end of the fest, we were talking to some people who also had a Nic Cage face cut-out – a different one – that we obtained by trading a Bell’s Brewery Vegas bandana. Neither person knew what brewery was handing them out. If you were there and know, please hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org. I need to thank them for the countless times I’ve been scared/startled by the two different disembodied heads of Nic Cage.
Still, after all these years, the Great Taste of the Midwest is one of the best, most fun, and enjoyable fests in the nation. It might not have the consistent “whales” that a FoBAB has, or span the entire nation like the Great American Beer Festival, but it more than makes up for it in both location and ambiance. Tickets seem to have become more difficult over the years to get, but if you’re ready and prepared for the onsale dates – almost always in early May – you’ll be should be able to get one. And you’ll be glad you did.
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