Great Taste of the Midwest 2023
I attended my first Great Taste of the Midwest in 2013. I was immediately hooked and have gone every year since. Due to the pandemic, the Madison Homebrewers Guild canceled the 2020 Great Taste making the 2023 edition my tenth. From what I remember over my last ten attendances, I kept uttering one word over and over Great Taste weekend that I never really did previously.
Pretty much every Great Taste Eve event – chill. The Great Taste of the Midwest itself – chill. The weather – well not chill, but almost perfect for an outdoor beer festival. It was a great weekend of excellent beer with little to no hassle. Show up, have your beer (and maybe some food) and be on your way. And all that chill extended into the way I approached the Great Taste of the Midwest festival this year.
I know how the fest typically goes. Download the app before the festival, check off which breweries you want to check out, then completely forget about your list. Last year I completely missed some breweries I wanted to hit – like I didn’t even see their booths. But this year that chill vibe made me focus and I pretty much hit every brewery that I wanted to on my list – and then some!
With so much ping-ponging around the fest I really didn’t stop to enjoy a brewery’s entire portfolio. Therefore the “Best Brewery” section I typically write about will not be a section this year. But in its place – more Best Beers! On with the recap!
Great Taste Eve
As always, Great Taste Eve starts with a trip to New Glarus for their R&D release. In years past (I’m talking like Very Sour Blackberry batch 1 and Wild Sour Peach era) I would park nowhere near the brewery, walk over and wait in line to purchase my R&D allotment. This year’s theme of chill really began here, as I was able to park in the main lot (multiple spots were open) and leisurely enjoy my pour of Edel-Pils (delicious by the way) while having my choice of table to sit at. Even for the hour plus time there it never became as packed as previous years’ Great Taste Eve R&D releases. A New Glarus Fruit Cave release and an exceedingly chill atmosphere at one of the most gorgeous breweries in the United States. All day every day please!
Next on my docket happened to be a new place to me – Forward Craft & Coffee. Forward’s located a bit further than most of the events taking place that Eve – basically not on the Capitol square. They hosted a Dark Matter Coffee event featuring 3 beers from 3 different breweries – Working Draft, Supermoon and Revolution. The real draw here, though, came from Revolution with their Supermassive Cafe Double Barrel Very Special Old Deth (SCDBVSOD for those acronyming at home) a one-off that I’m not sure has ever been tapped.
Not wanting to absolutely destroy my day so early, I went with SCDBVSOD and Supermoon’s Wide Awake in Wallonia (biere de garde with Dark Matter Cold Brew) and passed on the 3 beer/1 coffee flight they were offering. Not a ton of space at Forward so thankfully it wasn’t too packed and I procured a seat. Later in the day I had heard SCDBVSOD had kicked, so a steady stream of people had showed up for it. Supermassive did what I expected it to do – tons of coffee roast, big barrel character and a definite chocoate note. Wade Awake in Wallonia leaned less on the coffee and more on the biere de garde but some fruity, roasty coffee came through a little bit.
Lucille’s on the Capitol square was next for some food. Ever since Central Waters moved from Brickhouse BBQ, Lucille’s has had the Central Waters Great Taste Eve bash – Central Command if you will. Central Waters always brings their A-level barrel-aged offerings so this year that meant variations on 25, their 25th anniversary beer. Years ago the bar would be three deep to get pours and getting a table was out of the question. But this chill year? 15 minute wait for a table with the bar barely having any depth. I popped over to meet some listeners at Young Blood across the street – inside was full while the outside had a fair amount of room – and my table was ready.
Luckily I came in near the hour mark. Every hour a new 25 barrel variant would go on tap. I sat down and ordered the Elijah Craig 12-year and then quickly asked for the Four Roses version when it went on. The Four Roses had more body and bourbon flavor while the EC 12-year didn’t feature the heat and bourbon flavor as much. Both version are worth a try. The real star here was the Onist, their Czech Pilsner. After starting my day with 3 big barrel-aged stouts, the Onist hit the spot perfectly and washed all that pizza down.
The event that interested me the most occurred next. What typically was Funk Factory’s insane Great Taste Eve party has become Black Rose’s Wisconsin-focused Great Taste Eve party. Funk Factory’s parties always featured tons of breweries – 20+ last year, many of whom did not pour at the Great Taste. (Things like Weldwerks, Angry Chair and Voodoo.)
Black Rose shifted the event in two ways – a focus on Wisconsin breweries (and Forager) and many fewer breweries (less than 20). Each brewery typically brought two beers and, at least from my experience, the hoppy offerings were not numerous; therefore my wife had limited options. The brewery list was highlighted by some excellent Wisconsin breweries – Supermoon, Sway, 1840 Brewing, Radix Fermentation, 608 Brewing. Nothing too crazy in terms of crazy rare beers being poured so that probably thinned out the crowd a bit. Tons of space and a great environment to have some good beers with good friends.
Last stop was the one that scared me. Barleypop had a Toppling Goliath tap takeover earlier in the day at noon and reports I got said there was a line going out the door to get in. Definitely not chill. Later on, starting at 3 PM, they took the reins on the Funk Factory-style Great Taste Eve party with their Friendships are the Best Ships party. Angry Chair, Dimensional, and Trillium led the way as non-Great Taste pourers while 608 Brewing and Lua led the Great Taste pourers. Chicago-area breweries were well represented with Mikerphone, More, and Hop Butcher having taps. Standouts included Dimensional’s stouts and 608 Brewing’s Mexican lager. Absolutely the least chill event all weekend but it wasn’t even that bad.
Great Taste of the Midwest Festival
Three years out from the canceled COVID Great Taste and they seem to have their layout set. The Real Ale tent is no more (sad panda here) and seven giant brewery tents are now the norm for the festival. Presentation tent returned as well, featuring a chocolate/beer pairing and cheese/cider pairing. Few if any changes all around. Great for hitting as many breweries as possible.
Much like Great Taste Eve, the fest seemed to be less crowded in years past. Now I might’ve been avoiding the high profile timed tappings that were happening but even those lines didn’t get too out of control (save for the Toppling Goliath line at the beginning of the festival). Rarely did I have to wait for a pour of anything. Yet another reason why this is a beer bucket list festival that you need to attend at least once.
It seemed like feast or famine on the booths this year. Lots of breweries went all out with their booths. Some breweries that have had interesting concepts/booths in years past either scaled back or didn’t bring it as hard this year. But the following booth really stood out. (Or, as it seems in the post-COVID Great Taste world, where are Mikerphone and 3 Sheeps going to end up on this list.)
Last year’s Gold Booth slipped to Bronze this year but not for lack of trying. The pinball machines set up in the tent next to the taps pulled you out of the sun for a nice respite. Not only was it something fun to do but the high score on each machine also will be invited to help put together a barrel-aged blend of beers next year. I have no idea how they were keeping track of who had the high score (when I played Jurassic Park I was never asked to enter anything after the game ended) but they were! The line was a bit long (and sometimes confusing as to which machine you were waiting for) but another great booth from Mikerphone.
Silver: 3 Sheeps
And here’s 3 Sheeps. They decided to set up a bingo hall next to their booth. Sign up and show up at the designated time and play some bingo to win 3 Sheeps swag. I didn’t participate myself but I heard they were getting players pours from what ever was on tap as well. Another inventive 3 Sheeps booth.
Gold: The Lone Girl
Sometimes it’s the simple ideas that are the most effective. While wandering the fest early on someone from Lone Girl approached and asked if we’d like to sign up for a Rock-Paper-Scissors tournament. OF COURSE! Pick a spot in the tournament-style bracket, get a marathon-like number to pin to your shirt and then come back at the start time. Simple and effective. Everyone got in one of two circles (one circle in later rounds) and the two combatants would meet in the middle. Winner received a GOAT trophy and other Lone Girl swag. Everybody involved had fun with it and it was an absolute blast. (Yes, I did participate but only made it to the second round.)
BA Coconut Rules Everything Around Me (CREAM) | Barrel-aged stout with coconut and vanilla | 608 Brewing | La Crosse, WI | 14.1% ABV
I picked this one because I thought I heard their anniversary beer wasn’t ready yet. I’m not mad; I’m only mad that I never returned to their booth for it later. BA CREAM did everything a coconut barrel-aged stout needs to do. The coconut never veered towards suntan lotion while the vanilla added a bit of flavor and sweetness to things. The beer wasn’t overly boozy but you could tell it was barrel-aged mostly by the mouthfeel and the sweetness being cut. I wish some of these bottles (or cans) made it down a bit closer to Chicago. La Crosse is really a drive, but it’d be worth it.
25 – Blue Label | Barrel-aged stout | Central Waters | Amherst, WI | 15% ABV
I had a majority of the 25 anniversary beers and this Blue Label Weller version stood out. (I missed the Pappy tapping due to a previous rock-paper-scissors committment.) In addition to the typical roast and chocolate came an added bonus of smooth bourbon, fruit, vanilla, and caramel that added to the base. While typically thin as a Central Waters barrel-aged stout is wont to be, the barrel added a fair amount of body to the beer. It also added more flavor than the typical regular Central Waters anniversary stout had. It’s always interesting to see how the different barrels play with the base beer. Here’s hoping Central Waters does some epic 25th anniversary tasting with all the variants at some point in the future!
Cabo Kooler | Fruited Hard Seltzer | Eagle Park Brewing | Milwaukee, WI | 5% ABV
It’s that brewery again. The Ecto Kooler they brought last year was outstanding and this one just continues their insane fruited seltzer run. Cabo Kooler’s meant to mimic Mountain Dew Baja Blast and succeeds in every way. Much like the Ecto Kooler, Cabo Kooler has all its fruit dialed in and hit the refreshing nail on the head. Only reason I didn’t get a second pour was because it ran out. I’m now all in on Eagle Park’s fruited seltzers.
Freischutz | German Pilsener | Falling Knife | Minneapolis, MN | 5% ABV
Despite opting for the lower ABV beer more times than not at various booths, a lot of big things have shown up on this list. But Falling Knife’s Freischutz really kept me refreshed while still maintaining a nice amount of grassy and earthy bitterness. If I would’ve been more stationary during the fest this probably would win my walking beer of the festival. A lovely and flavorful palate cleanser that would hang with the Goldfingers, Art Historys and Dovetails of the Chicago scene.
Anonymous Caller | Double IPA | G5 Brewing Company | Beloit, WI | 8.4% ABV
Thanks to listener Matt Polzin (who I met at Forward Craft & Coffee) for recommending G5. Anonymous Caller won Third Space’s IPA fest last year and I can see why. A West Coast IPA through and through, pine, grass and a little bit of citrus combined with a big body of malt sweetness to make this one stand out even among all the hoppy things at the festival. The fact that it didn’t drink anywhere near the listed 8.4% ABV helped things out immensely. IPAs rarely stand out this much in a festival setting but if it does you know it’s something special. Anonymous Caller is something special.
Paint It Black Braggot | Braggot | Giant Jones (collab w/BOS Meadery) | Madison, WI | 8.2% ABV
A stout with mead in it? Usually a recipe for sweetness overload and cavities. Somehow Giant Jones managed to make the roasty character on this stout stand out above any mead sweetness. If you put your mind in the place that you’re drinking a throwback stout – roasty and bitter with a little hint of chocolate – you’ll love Paint It Black even more. The mead serves to add another level to the mouthfeel of the stout. It’s thick and full without adding an insane amount of ABV. Among Giant Jones other offerings, this one is downright sessionable.
Cuppa Neat (Elijah Craig 18) | Barrel-aged stout | Maplewood Brewing & Distillery | Chicago, IL | 13% ABV
The Cuppa Neats that fly off the Oznr shelves have finally been spotted in the wild. While not as transcendent as the Pappy version, the Elijah Craig (EC) 18 reminded me of a classic barrel-aged stout from 10 or so years ago. Roast and chocolate coming from the base. Vanilla, caramel, and booze notes from the barrel. Nothing overly complicated or crazy. Just an excellent base beer put in a nice barrel that yields a delicious libation. Just wished these lasted longer so I could stand a chance to get them!
30th Anniversary Belgian Quad | Belgian Quadruple | New Glarus Brewing | New Glarus, WI | 10.5% ABV
Among all these barrel-aged stouts, barleywine and sours it’s hard for a more traditional beer to stand out. On my first sip, this Quad stood out. Big spice and fruit notes of fig, raisin and cherries really popped and made for a nice change of pace beer from all the vanilla and chocolate beers around. Those flavors stayed around for a while after the sip making that 4-pack I purchased at the brewery a prescient move. Should I be surprised New Glarus made a quad that popped so much?
Rum VSOJ | Barrel-aged barleywine | Revolution Brewing | Chicago, IL | 15.8% ABV
Damnit Revolution. I checked your beer list before the fest. Only really wanted to try Might Tea Hero. I went to the booth and things checked out. Then a friend told me they tapped Rum VSOJ and I bolted over there. That, along with Apple Brandy VSOR, were on tap. I got pours of both and the Rum VSOJ clearly stood out. The typical VSOJ notes of butterscotch, caramel, and vanilla had some nice spices and kick added to it. Unlike the AB VSOR, no perceivable sweetness came through. A nice dry finish accompanied this version just adding to the drinkability. Only Revolution would get me to frequent a booth of a local brewery.
Eldwood | Double barrel-aged stout with vanilla beans | Stray Barrel Project | Machesney Park, IL | 13.3% ABV
Apparently a “hidden” or “secret” pour at the Pig Minds booth (the bottle was just sitting on a table behind the booth). Stray Bottle Project is the Ryan Jacobs-half of Saint Errant along with Pig Minds. One of their first 3 releases, Eldwood was a smooth, big beer with a boozy kick and an excellent amount of vanilla coming through. The base leaned more chocolatey than anything else, lending itself to the vanilla nicely. Slight roasty notes as well as the booze balanced any excessive sweetness. Don’t know the status on these bottles but I would like to get my hands on them to try them in a podcast setting.
Dearest Anna (2023) | Barrel-aged stout with coffee and vanilla beans | Triptych Brewing | Savoy, IL | 15.8% ABV
We had the previous version of Dearest Anna on the podcast. It still slapped even though it came out in December 2021 (we drank it earlier this year). The fresh version, though, really excelled in coffee flavor and roast. Triptych’s barrel program is second-to-none in the state and it shows when they can produce a 15.8% ABV so creamy, smooth and drinkable. The vanilla made this drink like a coffee with cream and some booze. Everything worked well together and became just something you wanted to drink again and again. I also just realized I should’ve blended Forces Way Beyond Our Control (a coconut BA stout) with it. An unholy coconut-coffee-vanilla behemoth! Yes please!
Cabana Dreams | Mango, jalapeno and tamarind sour | Tumbled Rock Brewery | Baraboo, WI | 5.1% ABV
Jalapeno beers at a beer festival are always a dicey proposition. They could be amazing or absolutely wreck your palate. Thankfully Cabana Dreams lies in the former. A sense of jalapeno heat on the nose and only a little vegetal note on the tongue kept any worries I had at bay. The mango added some fruity, citrusy notes to everything. The tamarind added a bit more citrus to things but never too much. Cabana Dreams manages to be refreshing, interesting and flavorful all at once.
Barrel Aged Up in the Early | Barrel-aged stout with coffee, cacao nibs, and maple syrup | Wax Wings | Kalamazoo, MI | 15% ABV
As soon as I saw Wax Wings at the fest with a barrel-aged beer I knew they would be one of – if not the – first stop at the fest. While the carbonation wasn’t up to snuff, everything else had the trademark Wax Wings barrel-aged features – deftly applied adjuncts, a fair amount of barrel character but not too much, and a smooth finish. The coffee was the star here, adding a bunch of roast and keeping any sweetness in check. The maple syrup did make things a bit sweeter but never to a cloying point. Chocolate showed up in adequate amounts that supported any barreled-flavor chocolate. Some vanilla and mouthfeel came from the barrel as well. One of the better barrel-aged breakfast stouts around.
Scroll for more pictures, including my action rock-paper-scissors shots! (Rock-Paper-Scissors pictures taken by Joe Jung.)