In the weeks leading up to the 27th annual Great Taste of the Midwest beer festival in Madison, WI, my mind was focused on little other that forthcoming weekend. Yes, I performed my duties satisfactorily at work (I’m a brewer at New Albanian Brewing Co.), but my thoughts were elsewhere. NABC makes the yearly trek to Madison for the GTMW not only to set up a booth and pour at the event, but also to explore the city and surrounding area. Everyone in the brewery was talking it up so much so that I thought everyone was speaking in hyperbolic tongues. What was all the brouhaha about this festival in particular? I had attended as well as worked a few in the area, so I couldn’t imagine how this one was so much better. Well, I was wrong. Dead wrong. Before details are disclosed about the festival, our adventures on Friday merit mentioning, as well.
Not only did I have the actual festival to look forward to after the 8.5 hour van trip, but directly after unloading gear at the festival site Friday morning, we were headed to New Glarus Brewing Company. New Glarus is the second most amazing brewery I have ever been to, second only to Jester King (which is truly fantastic, in my personal opinion). Never have I ever seen a cleaner, more organized brewery. Their beer was fantastic, as well, and we were able to enjoy some pints in their new beer garden with a spectacular view of Wisconsin countryside under a beautiful blue sky. My personal favorite from New Glarus was Serendipity, a fruited sour ale that had the perfect balance of tartness and sweetness. My only regret was not buying more of their beer to take home, since they only distribute in Wisconsin.
The Great Taste of the Midwest is held in Olin Park right on Lake Monona, overlooking the picturesque Madison skyline. The festival is organized by the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild, and is one of the longest running beer festivals in the nation. The fact that the festival has so many years under its belt was immediately evident to me when we unloaded all of our kegs the morning before the big day. Fork lifts, refrigerated trailers, knowledgeable staff, and organization beyond belief, just to name a few of the things that awaited us. I immediately realized that this was no ordinary festival; that these were no ordinary homebrewers and beer-lovers putting on some rinky-dink festival. These were homebrewers and beer-lovers with an insatiable thirst and passion for craft beer.
The morning of the festival came and hotel breakfast was quickly consumed. After a short jaunt right next door to Olin Park where the festival was held, feverish booth setup commenced. After the setup, there were two wonderful hours of staff and brewer commingling. Friendly brewers, no lines, and various samplings provided a much needed calm before the storm. After all, there were 6,000 tickets sold to thirsty beer enthusiasts (which sold out within hours the tickets went on sale). Video footage of the opening of the gates resembled a horde of extremely malnourished zombies chasing after the promise of flesh. It was a sight to see, that’s for sure. The layout of the park was very organized as well. Huge tents spread out across the park and along the lake provided not only a nice view, but a nice flow as well, especially since there was live music interspersed throughout the grounds during the festival.
As the day progressed and waves of thirsty people sampled our exceptional lineup, I was able to tag in fellow New Albanians for pouring duties so I could wander for short stints to sample even more breweries. A few of the highlights included, but definitely not limited to: NABC Bourbondaddy (Hey, I hadn’t tried it yet, and it was phenomenal), Flat 12 Pinko KGBaylor RIS aged in Pappy 23 year barrels, Three Floyds Dark Lord 2013, New Glarus Strawberry Rhubarb, Founders Rubaeus, Ale Asylum Bedlam! IPA and Surly Darkness to name a handful.
Not only was this a showcase of some of the best beers in the region, but some of the booths themselves were impressive to say the least. Lakefront Brewing Co. held a silent disco complete with a dance floor and DJs, Revolution Brewing Co. had a skate park with a half pipe, and Bell’s had a beer laboratory complete with lab coats and taster test tubes. One of my all-time favorite pastimes, people-watching, was at a peak as well. One guy from Schlafly was in Ghostbuster garb complete with beer-dispensing backpack, another guy was carrying and playing an accordion all day, and my personal favorite was a woman in a cheerleader’s outfit with a panda head.
Now, it is clearly apparent that the GTMW is more than just a beer festival. It is a well-oiled machine that pays testament to the fact that craft beer is a movement worthy of attention. I’m very thankful that NABC welcomed my wife and myself on such an adventurous trip and we can’t wait for next year’s (mark your calendars for August 9, 2014). Great Taste of the Midwest? More like Best Taste of the Everywhere.
Below are some beautiful photos from Aubrey Renee Fingerson, and under that, see the video LouisvilleBeer.com produced at GTMW 2011 (right before Against the Grain Brewery was born).