Great Taste of the Midwest 2022
The Great Taste of the Midwest – a rite of passage during the summer for a beer drinker – returned to Olin Park on August 13, 2022. Due to it being an outdoor affair, the Great Taste managed to only skip one year due to COVID precautions (2020) but has continued much the same as it always had since. While some things have changed, some things have returned and yet others have not returned, the Great Taste still maintains its status as the best beer fest in the midwest. And it all starts with Great Taste Eve.
Great Taste Eve
Some breweries participating in the Great Taste of the Midwest the following day – heck, some that aren’t even pouring at the fest – hold events around town in the bars, breweries, and bottle shops of Madison. A wide variety of events crop up, from fest like conditions all the way down to simple tappings. Sometimes you can even try things from a brewery that they aren’t pouring at the main event. It’s always a blast and something I wish would happen for a Chicago event like FoBAB (it kind of happened one year a long time ago, but quickly petered out).
I started out my Great Taste Eve at Young Blood as they held their Pre-Great Taste CollabA-Festa-SaveaThon starting at noon. Eight collaborations beers between Young Blood and other breweries (Working Draft, Sway, Maplewood, Mikerphone, Fair State, Mobcraft, Eagle Park and Lion’s Tail) all hit the taps along with some new Saturday Brewing Company beers. Unfortunately Young Blood doesn’t offer half pours (so I couldn’t, nay, wouldn’t try all 8 collabs), but what I had hit the spot. My standouts were the Fair State collaboration Death, Taxes, and I-94 Construction (EXCELLENT NAME), a Belgian-style saison dry-hopped with HRC 008 and Is That Cameron?, their unfiltered lager collab with Sway Brewing and Blending (more on them in a bit).
In what’s become probably the most attended Great Taste Eve event, Funk Factory had their usual fest, featuring a host of breweries, a majority of which were not pouring at the Great Taste. You purchased tickets at $5 a pop and exchanged that for a pour. All of the heavy hitters showed up, including Weldwerks, Forager, Angry Chair, Blackstack, Mikerphone, and countless others I’m definitely forgetting. Naturally, offerings trended towards the barrel-aged side of the ledger (with stouts being omnipresent). Some light food options, ice cream, and raffles were available as well. The event didn’t feel as packed as it had in previous years, although lines snaked a fair distance for certain beers. Highlights were Weldwerks Single Barrel Medianoche Twix, Forager’s Nillerz (I think), and Lua Brewing’s Fleeting. All were barrel-aged stouts and the Forager beer would’ve ranked third, just to tell you what kind of competition they were up against. Still the best Great Taste Eve event you can attend.
In need of nosh, I swung by The Brass Ring for their Third Space tap takeover and paper airplane throwing competition. Featuring 10 Third Space taps (including Mystic Knot!) and solid burgers, the Flight School was exactly what I needed – food, space, and a fun time. Watching various people crafting their paper airplanes and then testing them out (sometimes extensively) would keep anyone’s attention. Seeing them throw the paper airplane at the target and in most cases miss on all three attempts was worth it. Everyone was cheering on everyone else and had a blast. Note to self: I need to attend more of these events next Great Taste Eve.
Barleypop held a Friendships Are the Best Ships at their bottle shop/tap room and I ended my night there. Perennial, 608 Brewing, Mikerphone and Phase Three all had about 6 beers each on tap, along with some BA Perennial bottle pours. Things got a little tight in terms of space when I arrived, but it thinned out over time. A nice little event but probably one I would pass on next year for something similar to the Third Space Flight School instead. Standout here was 608 Brewing BA Cream coconut stout.
A little bit of sleep, some Subway, and then on to the Great Taste of the Midwest 2022!
Changes to the Festival
Great Taste of the Midwest 2021 featured some slight changes necessitated by COVID precautions. The biggest two changes occurred with the removal of the Real Ale tent (always a staple) and the presentation tent. Ticketed attendance was also limited. With most if not all COVID restrictions eased for 2022, the Great Taste returned to its former glory – and then some.
However, one casualty was the Real Ale tent. Usually situated near the entrance in the 100 tent, this year it was replaced by breweries like all the rest of the tents. While it’s great more breweries were able to attend, losing the Real Ale tent kind of sucks. I would always find one or two absolute standouts at the tent and a majority of the beers poured there were exclusive or unique to the festival. But again, the trade off was more breweries, so it’s not like it was a total loss. But a loss nonetheless.
Somehow that remained the only subtraction. The presentation tent returned and was as popular as ever. I had planned on attending the 1:30 PM chocolate session with Kuhnhenn and Gail Ambrosia but the line looked like it had almost reached its limit (100 people) at 12:50 PM, so I opted for more beer tasting. I highly recommend attending a presentation, as it gives you a beer break, a seat, and some shade. Plus, you know, you’ll learn stuff.
Attendance seemed to return to pre-pandemic levels as well. Great Taste 2021 only really got crowded near brewery booths where lines existed but this year it seems crowds were everywhere. It being outdoors helped a lot as you could just avoid the group, but it definitely felt more crowded than 2021. Not a complaint, just a return to pre-2020.
The biggest addition, however, occurred with the 700 tent. Previously years have featured breweries in tents 100-600, with others on islands around some of the walking paths. This year a 700 section popped up, south of the southern-most portion of the fest (previously the 600 tent). It took some getting used to, but it helped that organizers put Goose Island, Drekker, Falling Knife, and Karben4 (among others) as well as the presentation tent in the area. After an hour or two I was locating that tent with ease. More breweries equals more options and better variety!
Every year some breweries bring their absolute A game to the fest, whether it be a thematic or game and events. My three favorite booths this year incorporated some unique things I’ve never seen at the Great Taste of the Midwest (or maybe that I missed in previous years).
BRONZE: 3 Sheeps/Surly
They both had their own specific booths, but along the river they combined for a carnival-like atmosphere. Three games were available to play – plinko, ring toss and the dunk tank. $5 (donated to charity) gives you a go at one of the games. Winners were entered into a raffle for Viking/Packers tickets at either stadium. Of course I had to try the dunk tank; for those wondering my third throw hit and I dunked some 3 Sheeps media person. A nice fun diversion from the rest of the fest.
I’ve seen it at GABF before, but never at a booth at the Great Taste of the Midwest. Next to their pouring station Metropolitan had set up Club Air Pump, an area with inflatable seating and bubbles. Oh and DJ Jill Hopkins spinning some Silent Disco tunes. Fun and wildly entertaining, this booth put a smile on my face every time I walked past it. Great idea.
Mikerphone gets the gold here because they let me try to French Press a chocolate IPA. Ingredients were laid out on a table. You put on a mustache, put some ingredients into a French Press and asked for one of the beers they were pouring to be poured in. It was then pressed and tasted by you (the creator) and a member of Mikerphone’s staff. The best concoction would get the opportunity to brew that beer at Mikerphone for release. Amazing idea. Ingredients ran out at around 3:30 PM, so things lasted a good 2.5 hours. Alas, my chocolate IPA (using their Cold IPA along with cacao nibs, Andes Mints, and Oreos) did not impart the chocolate that I wanted. All those hops just dominated everything!
Update: We have a winner.
Did I miss some beers at the festival? Of course I did. Did I completely miss some breweries too? Absolutely. What follows is the best of what I remember having.
Split | Barrel-aged imperial pastry stout | Forager Brewing | Rochester, MN | 13.4% ABV
Seriously, I just saw a line and jumped in it. Little did I know what everyone was waiting for. It was really smooth and tasty, but then I read the description. A blend of (deep breath) 34 month old Modist stout, 32 month old Horus stout, 23 month old Forager stout, 20 month old Barrel Theory/J. Wakefield stout. But there’s more! Forager threw in banana, peanuts, coconut, vanilla beans, cocoa nibs and toffee. That’s fucking insane. Did I get banana off of it? Yeah. Chocolate and vanilla dominated and there were hints of coconut. But this thing was smooth and thick and worth the line. My wondering – is there a non-adjuncted version of this beer that I could try? Needless to say it’s one of the very few beers I might consider trading for.
X | Barrel-aged stout with vanilla beans | Toppling Goliath | Decorah, IA | ??? ABV
I managed to grab Assassin earlier in the festival and this one destroyed it. X had a much thicker mouthfeel and a bit of vanilla bean sweetness helping it out. I guess that’s what happens when it’s a blend of your best six barrels. Probably one that excelled due to me getting a festival pour, but I would try and grab some of this. Big thanks to Ryan Tracy from Beer on the Wall for dragging me into this line to get it.
Super Rica | West Coast IPA | Cruz Blanca | Chicago, IL | 6% ABV
I see a West Coast IPA at Cruz Blanca; I get the West Coast IPA from Cruz Blanca. Significantly hoppy, a nice crisp finish and a big hit of pine and grass. Just like a West Coast IPA should be (I would know; we just had a few from the West Coast). Thankfully it never got too sweet or anything like that, just a nice kiss of sweet malt to help it go down. Great in its own right, but absolutely essential during an outdoors summer festival.
Pawpaw Expedition | American Wild Ale with pawpaw | Cruz Blanca | Chicago, IL | 6.3% ABV
Yes, they get two on the list and were only not included in best breweries because I’m readily familiar with them. Now not so “under the radar” due to their Luchador barrel-aged beers, Cruz Blanca does have an “under the radar” series – their wild ales. We had their Amigovio on our interview podcast with them and it blew us away so it wasn’t surprising that one with pawpaw would wow me as well. Residing on the tarter side of American Wild Ale, Pawpaw Expedition features a little bit of funkiness to spice things up a bit. That tartness never eclipsed the beer, its light body or the lovely dry finish.
Barrel-Aged Gammelhjärtad | BA Barleywine/BA Imperial Milk Stout blend | Old Irving Brewing | Chicago, IL | 13% ABV
Ambitious. Gammelhjärtad features a barrel-aged barleywine aged in maple and port barrels blended with rum barrel-aged Krampus. There are so many things that could go wrong with it. But it works. The killer thing about it is that it hides the alcohol extremely well which is essential at a festival. While a hint of alcohol burn lets you know you’re drinking a high gravity beer, the rest is a very smooth melange of chocolate, caramel, vanilla, spices, toffee, and berries, resulting in a pleasurable and unexpected 13% ABV. It’s still available at the brewery, so if you’re intrigued at all, jump on in.
Prrrt The Rainbow | Fruited Sour with Skittles | Drekker Brewing Company | Fargo, ND | 7.3% ABV
My favorite for “Weird Beer of the Festival,” Prrrt the Rainbow is a Skittles sour. Yes, I missed out on trying the garlic stout and no, my festival beerings weren’t that weird, so this was the weirdest one. (Unlike the durian sour from last year.) Sufficiently tart and fruity, it gives you just enough Skittle to remember the candy but not enough to make it overly sweet. Don’t know if I’d want a full can of it, but my festival pour was enough. For my money, I prefer the Skittle powder my wife stumbled upon at Mariano’s.
Reserved for breweries whose entire offerings kill it, and typically are not located in the Chicagoland or Illinois area.
Bronze: Eagle Park Brewing (Milwaukee, WI)/Falling Knife Brewing Company (Minneapolis, MN)
Two breweries most craft beer drinkers have heard of brought their A-game to the festival. Eagle Park brought Ecto Cooler, their fruited hard seltzer that doesn’t drink like a hard seltzer. Their Czech Pils was crisp and refreshing with some nice grassy notes. Most people probably hit their timed tapping of Stave and were rewarded handsomely, with an unadulterated blend of some of the best barrels released for their 5th anniversary. Smart to let the barrel and beer shine with smooth chocolate dominating things here instead of adjuncting it to hell.
Falling Knife brought a range of beer mostly focused on their NE IPAs and barrel-aging program. While Verbal Tip (their flagship NE IPA) was fine, their Freischütz German Pilsner hit the spot, finishing dry and grassy and having me coming back for more. But their barrel program is where they really brought it, with both Dark Match and Very Old Painless exceeding my expectations. Dark Match featured a big rye whiskey barrel character complementing a thick stout. The adjuncts (particularly the hazelnut thankfully) never took over, making for an easy ride down Flavor Lane. The real surprise for me was the Very Old Painless, as I had it on tap at its release. Then it was exceedingly sweet with a ton of barrel and not much else; now, while the barrel still featured heavily, other aspects of the beer came through, including some dark fruits and vanilla.
Silver: Unexpected Craft Brewing Company (Oak Park, MI)
Sometimes the best beer you have is… Unexpected! Recommended on a post I saw on Facebook, I mentally took a note to stop by their booth. While I stayed away from the NE IPA (for reasons) everything else hit the intended mark without going overboard. The Peanut Butter Chocolate Stencel Stout? A nice hit of peanut butter with some chocolate that wasn’t too sweet. 1st Rule of Stout Club brought a nice blend to the peanut butter chocolate stout and added some nice barrel character to the proceedings. The VCP 123 porter, much like the stout, came at you with not-over-the-top vanilla and coffee notes that you could easily finish a full 16oz can. But the stand out – and most winner of the “Walking Beer of the Festival” – was the Coconut Kolsch. A nice, refreshing kolsch with some equally refreshing coconut supporting things, I could walk around all day with it in my glass and never be disappointed. Balance was the key at this booth.
Gold: Sway Brewing and Blending (Bailey’s Harbor, WI)
I first heard of Sway when they were mentioned as a participant in the “I really wanted to go” Pittsburgh Mixed Culture festival (seriously check out that lineup). When I saw them as a Rookie in the Great Taste program, they became my main target. And hey, I’m smart! They brought 3 saisons (A Lovely Place To Be, Country Yarrow, and Cracks In The Sidewalk) and a Belgian pale ale (A Very Happy Start) and nothing over 6% ABV. So that meant multiple trips through the line that helped slow down the drunkenness and keep me a bit sober. Country Yarrow stood out for me with its mild funkiness and nice lemon character. But everything they brought was worth a stop. They’re still just starting out so distribution is very limited (if any at all), but if you’re ever in Bailey’s Harbor check them out.
We’ll have more from Sway on the podcast soon!
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