Over the past three decades, The Great Taste of the Midwest has established itself as the preeminent beer festival in the upper Midwest and one of the most prominent festivals in the country. On August 8th the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild hosted its 29th Annual Great Taste of the Midwest at Olin Park in Madison, Wisconsin, for 6,000 beer aficionados. The extraordinary growth of the craft industry was evident at this year’s show, as the top brewers in the region rolled out a myriad of outstanding beer in a variety of categories.

The Great Taste is the largest and most prominent beer festival in the Midwest. Each large tent houses about two dozen brewing companies.
The Great Taste is the largest and most prominent beer festival in the Midwest. Each large tent houses about two dozen brewing companies.

The brewing companies in attendance at the Great Taste place a special emphasis on this festival. It’s the ideal venue to celebrate proven standards and experiment with new brews. Not only do these brewers offer exceptional beer to a captive audience, many take the opportunity to show their brewing creativity and ability to develop exceptional recipes.

 

The Great Taste of the Midwest in session on the shores of Lake Monona.
The Great Taste of the Midwest in session on the shores of Lake Monona.

It certainly isn’t your run-of-the-mill festival in which brewers or their distributors serve only their year-round brews and maybe a special recipe or two. In fact, 187 brewing companies attended the Great Taste and offered more than 1,200 beers. The range of beer styles offered at the event is mind-blowing. Traditional beer styles, such as IPA, Double IPA, Imperial Stout, pale ale and Belgian Saison, are found in abundance.

Many beers are limited release or specially brewed for the fest, and these are experimental recipes you can’t taste anywhere else. For example, Lakefront Brewery offered Dirty Uncle Jim’s Pumpkin Pie. This herbed/spice beer was infused with pumpkin, clove, and cinnamon. While I didn’t have an opportunity to sample that one, Lakefront has brewed many excellent beers in the past. Bell’s Brewery from Kalamazoo, Michigan, brought out 29 different beers, and the vast majority of these were special brews, limited-release, or beer-festival-only recipes. If you’re a dedicated beer fan, you can only sample a fraction of what’s offered. After the event each year, I come away with a wish list of beers that I want to sample at my earliest opportunity. So many brews and so little time; it’s indeed beer nirvana.

Brewers use the event as an effective method for test marketing new creations. Most often the brewery owners and the brew masters are on hand. During the event, they connect with their core audience and receive effective, almost instantaneous feedback on these special beers. Special recipes that get a resounding approval may become a permanent member of brewer’s portfolio of beer, or a recipe may go back for some more tweaking and come back as a reformulated recipe. And sometimes the recipe evolves into another beer.

To attract attention and enhance the ambiance of the event, many brewers create unique booth themes for the event. And this year, several fascinating and entertaining themed booths dotted the landscape at Olin park. Bell’s Brewery booth and staff had a maritime/sailing theme. The staff wore Hawaiian shirts, leis, and captain’s hats. Several special release beers were served from a sailboat in their booth, and Bell’s staff was giving away the captain’s hats by the hundreds. Dark Horse Brewing Company’s booth featured a pulpit, and Jesus was in the pulpit proclaiming the goodness of beer. And a tap was fitted to the front of the pulpit beer so beer could be served.

 

The booth at Vintage Brewing featured an entertaining farm theme.
The booth at Vintage Brewing featured an entertaining farm theme.

The Madison Homebrewer’s association also judged and presented awards for the best table and booth displays. Titletown Brewing Company of Green Bay, Wisconsin, won the Best Table Display award for the Packer-esque football display, which featured the Titletown entry arch to the booth, miniature playing fields, goal posts, football ice sculpture, and pseudo snow making machine. Vintage Brewing Company took the runner-up award for the “down on the farm” motif that included an Allis-Chalmers tractor. And fest goers were entertained by games of chance at the Ale Asylum booth. The staff won an honorable mention for Best Table Display for “The Pint is Right” display.

Titletown Brewing of Green Bay, Wisconsin, won the award for Best Table/Booth Display at the event.
Titletown Brewing of Green Bay, Wisconsin, won the award for Best Table/Booth Display at the event.

 

Brewers from Across the Midwest

A large contingent of brewers at the show hailed from Wisconsin or Illinois while many breweries from Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Ohio were in attendance. In particular, the Chicagoland area had more than 20 participating breweries, so it was a chance to sample from that region. And Wisconsin veteran and up-and-coming brewers were at the fest, including New Glarus, Capital, Titletown, Ale Asylum, and many others.

Many of Minnesota’s finest brewing companies were represented at the festival, such as Shell’s Brewing, Barley John’s Brew Pub, Bent Paddle Brewing Company, Brau Brothers Brewing, Dangerous Man, Fulton Brewing, Indeed Brewing, Lift Bridge Brewing Company, Lucid Brewing, Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery, Third Street Brewing, Summit and Surly Brewing companies.

 

The Surly crew brought a full complement of beer for the fest, including a new IPA–Todd the Axe Man Firkin.
The Surly crew brought a full complement of beer for the fest, including a new IPA–Todd the Axe Man Firkin.

A portion of Olin park was cordoned off for six large display tents that contained brewery booths while many other brewers had stand-alone booths or tents. The picturesque venue is nestled on the shores of Lake Monona with the Wisconsin state capitol majestically perched over the far shore.

The Madison Homebrewers have made navigating the all the beer offerings much easier by offering a free Android and Apple iPhone app. With the app, you can find your favorite brewery and its beers, but you can also search by beer style, food vendors, and other events at the festival. In addition, a comprehensive festival program was offered at the gate that contains all the brewers, beers, and other vital information.

 

A 1980s vintage video arcade was set up at the Fest. As always, Ms. Pacman was a huge hit.
A 1980s vintage video arcade was set up at the Fest. As always, Ms. Pacman was a huge hit.

If this story has piqued your interest in the festival, tickets go on sale at the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild website (www. greattaste.org) the first Monday in May. But keep in mind that it isn’t easy to get tickets. Ticket sales are limited to 6,000 and the event sells out within the first few hours. But if you’re looking to sample the finest beer Midwest brewers have to offer, this is the event you need to attend.

TopplingGoliath
Three Floyds from Munster, Indiana, drew large crowds all day long. Their fine selection of beer is listed at the entry to the booth. Barrel-aged Dark Lord and 2011 Dark Lord Imperial Russian Stout were popular selections.

 

Is Colonel Sanders keeping everyone in check? I don't know. Still trying to figure it out.
Is Colonel Sanders keeping everyone in check? I don’t know. Still trying to figure it out.

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