Over a quarter-century of the Great Taste of the Midwest’s evolution, during which I’ve had the sheer pleasure of attending six, this legendary beer festival in Madison, Wisconsin, has evolved into one of those signature “tale of the tape” events.
Give or take five hours, a couple dozen portable johns, 140 breweries, 500 sticks of bacon, 1,000 kegs, 6,000 attendees, and you begin to get a vague impression of the scrum that awaits. Furthermore, what you’ve always heard is true: Participating brewers plunder their top-most cellar shelves, bringing rare, innovative, barrel-aged, secret-ingredient-infused beers to suit the eager completist’s zeal.
Given civilization’s steady technological advancement, it’s only a matter of time until willing beer enthusiasts can implant a microchip into their noggins, enabling an optical scanner linking directly to RateBeer’s database, permitting the collector to make the absolute best use of limited time at the Great Taste, and drink only the most highly rated, elusive, badge-of-honor styles.
I believe this would be a mistake, and here is why.
Amid the Great Taste’s perennially heavy hitters, those breweries occupying corner tent slots with costumed crews and timed tastings, are scattered numerous veritable tadpoles, usually in the form of brewpubs from across the Midwest. Many of them don’t distribute their beers at all, or if they do, there are very limited ranges of availability.
One gets the impression that many of these brewpubs don’t make it the Great Taste every year. After all, pouring slots at the festival randomly come open, and then shut. Company travel budgets vary, and many of the brewpub kits appear small and easily packable into trunks of cars or pickup truck beds, leaving room in the cab for a couple of brewers to over-caffeinate while driving back and forth to Madison from somewhere in Nebraska, all in the same day.
Such was the case back in 2005, when the Great Taste’s organizers contacted a three-year-old brewpub in Indiana, asking if it would be interested in filling a fest slot unexpectedly pried open. The brewpub scraped together a last-minute road trip, and that’s how NABC came to be a part of the show. From the original two-man team of Jared and Jesse, we’ve grown to include multiple vehicles, 13 company employees, a dozen beers pouring on fest day, and months of hard work to fund and organize the annual trip.
Last Saturday, my muse issued marching orders, suggesting that my consciousness might be expanded by contracting its field of vision, and so I devoted my Great Taste amblings to sampling the wares at the brewpub tables too often ignored by throngs of other attendees.
To me, it’s like this: You can wait in a long line to ogle the wooden barrels magnanimously supplied by the foreign shareholders of the 100% non-American-owned Goose Island, or you can talk to the guy in Illinois who’s making Pale Ale for ordinary men and women who are damned happy to have a brewer in their city.
I ventured numerous nips and thoroughly enjoyed conversations otherwise impossible at nearby, crowded “name” dispensing locations. Most of the beers consumed were everyday, lower gravity brewpub styles, conceived and produced to slake thirsts and accompany pub grub, and while there may have been three or four less notable examples, the bulk of them proved entirely tasty.
Through it all, my program remained unopened, and neither a word was written, nor a brand recorded. It just wasn’t necessary. By and large, irrespective of their ultimate aspirations, these brewpubs are part and parcel of places, and by their very existence, they’re making places within their larger locales. For many years already, whether home or abroad, I’ve scouted their positions and arranged travels to facilitate visits to them. These brewpubs are the shop floor, where the regulars evangelize, friends are made, meals taken, stories told, and growlers schlepped.
None of these comments should be construed to imply a dismissal of production-scale brewing, of which NABC is a growing part. In large measure, we earned our trip to Wisconsin by being just big enough to brew beer in sufficient quantities to supply outside seasonal events, and be paid for it.
Rather, It is my aim to recognize the critical role of Midwestern brewpubs as independent small businesses, playing their vital place-making parts in the community, and when possible, giving themselves a holiday to motor off to Madison and have some well-earned fun.
Yes, it’s true. Quite a lot of award winners did not pass through my lips on Saturday at the Great Taste of the Midwest, and yet at the end of the day, I was serene and unperturbed. In fact, there was considerable enlightenment, and for that I am grateful.