A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
For the second weekend of October, we went to Wisconsin to escape the ceaseless inanity of New Albany’s annual Harvest Homecoming festival. While in Madison, Fred Swanson joined us on Saturday afternoon for a couple of beers.
Fred’s been an organizer of the Great Taste of the Midwest beer festival from the start, and his official title these days seems to be “brewery liaison.” All it really means is that Fred and other members of the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild work year-round to stage a bucket-list-quality beer gathering. They’re to be thanked and venerated for doing so.
The New Albanian Brewing Company participated in the Great Taste from 2005 through 2014, and I was on hand for perhaps seven of these appearances. NABC has dropped out the past two Augusts, which I find regrettable, but can do absolutely nothing about.
Que sera sera … and so it goes ... with this and so many other avenues in life.
Chatting with Fred back in wonderful Madison served as a reminder of those good times. It also got me thinking about the notion of beer festivals in a general sense. What follows is an amalgam of several previous ruminations, building to shameless praise for the Great Taste.
That’s as it should be.
Let’s begin during the halcyon days of my youth in Southern Indiana, when summer always brought a profusion of outdoor beer festivals.
So did fall, winter and spring.
At 17 years of age, looking more like 13, living at home, ducking prying eyes and requiring divine intervention to get served at rarely obliging package stores, natural settings constantly beckoned.
Priority was placed on those patches of isolated farmland belonging to folks who didn’t know or care that we’d found someone older to procure the cheapest swill possible, borrow a steel tub otherwise used to hydrate future beefsteak, buy ice, and await the grapevine-laden onslaught of teenagers who’d learned there was a field party abruptly in progress.
When it rained, we got soaked; not the worst conceivable outcome in hot weather, especially if any girls bothered to come -- which was seldom.
Every now and then, a measure of transcendence was achieved, and an enterprising reader might insert one of Bob Seger’s nostalgic AM radio hits to accompany this narrative, although I never liked his music very much after “Katmandu,” heard for the first time – where else? – at a summertime outdoor beer festival in the Knobs, with any style of beer you wanted for thoughtful sampling so long as it was Falls Sh(expletive)y, and tunes like Seger’s blaring from the subpar radio of a car stuck axle-deep in a muddy field littered with cigarette butts and spent plastic cups.
Decades have passed, and nowadays, lying about one’s age generally implies a downward revision of chronological information on Facebook. Falls City, our illicitly old-fashioned lunch pail lager, went away – and then reappeared with a craft nouveau makeover. It's not an expletive any longer.
Outdoor beer festivals have evolved considerably, too, bearing little resemblance to the midsummer’s night screams we staged during the presidency of Jimmy Carter – who, after all, legalized homebrewing, but probably never experienced the nuzzle of a well-turned beer bong in the steamy July drizzle.
As befits the era of “craft” beer’s ascendancy, today’s outdoor beer festivals take place in summer – and also in fall, winter and spring. They’re devoted to the exaltation of contemporary brewing, and follow a common template.
Ideally, breweries and wholesalers provide a diverse selection of beers, and when possible, brewers and beer sales representatives will be on hand to answer questions and provide insights. A festival entry fee covers numerous, if not always truly unlimited, wee tastes of these many beers.
Local purveyors vend food, and musical entertainment typically deriving from the rock, pop, blues and bluegrass spectrum is offered, although just once I’d love to hear a string quartet performing modern chamber compositions, or a rollicking Klezmer band covering the Ramones.
As billed, “craft” beer festivals enhance the genre’s visibility through heightened consciousness and increased recognition. They also give back to the community by supporting chosen charities – and if they don’t, suspicion is fully warranted.
Reduced entry prices for designated drivers and the encouragement of moderation theoretically illustrate that beer consciousness and social conscience go together like espresso beans and imperial stout.
In Louisville, the scrum known as Brew at the Zoo probably remains the largest outdoor “craft” beer festival. Keg Liquors Fest of Ale is the best, with props to Louisville Independent Business Alliance’s annual local brewfest and Tailspin Ale fest, although the latter are partly indoors and partly outside (in Louisville Slugger Field and a Bowman Field aircraft hangar, respectively).
Speaking personally, my favorite festive rite of summertime beer held in an outdoor setting takes place each year on the second Saturday in August: It’s the Great Taste of the Midwest, in Madison, Wisconsin.
The Great Taste of the Midwest is 30 years young, and has been directed from inception by the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild. It is justifiably celebrated throughout Craft Beer Nation. There are more than 150 breweries in attendance, serving samples of 1,000 beers for five hours to more than 6,000 attendees who congregate amid the pleasing greenery of Olin Park on the shore of Lake Monona.
For the participating brewers, who occupy a finite number of display slots and abhor the thought of losing their place in line, the Great Taste is no ordinary festival gig. Brewers bring their “A” teams to Madison, and few beer festivals inspire such good-natured competition, with rare ales and lagers aplenty, and limited releases occurring throughout the afternoon.
(As a side note, Fred remarked that one brewery recently eschewed the practice of hyping “special limited releases” in favor of organizing its everyday core lineup in precisely the same teasing manner: “At 4:00 p.m. – Kӧlsch,” or some such. That’s wickedly appropriate).
Lucky ticket holders cherish these liquid rewards, and fortunate they surely are, because to be sampling within the compound means beating considerable odds. The Great Taste of the Midwest sells out months in advance, and last-minute road trips are discouraged unless you have a guaranteed “in.” For those lacking ducats, there’s a thriving “resale” market under the trees near the festival entrance, and of course, the usual proliferation of on-line scalpers’ bazaars.
There simply is no equal to the Great Taste. It is savory and savvy, its clientele customarily well-behaved, and the organizers among the friendliest and most efficient you’ll find anywhere. Best of all for an unreconstructed social democrat like me, the state capital has a noticeably leftist tinge, so much so that Wisconsin residents of a more right-leaning persuasion routinely refer to the city as the People’s Republic of Madison.
Since this IS Wisconsin, children whose attending parents wish their children to sample beer must pay the full admission price. Parents of consuming children cannot allow their children to ask for pours. The parent must hand the minor the drink and must remain with the minor at all times. No exceptions!
In Indiana or Kentucky, we'd be in jail for this.
When your number comes up at a future Great Taste ticket lottery, plan ahead. Reserve hotel rooms early, and save time for the proliferation of fine breweries in Madison (Great Dane, Ale Asylum, Vintage, Next Door, Karben4, One Barrel, Rockhound, Wisconsin Brewing, and on, and on) as well as nearby, including Capitol in adjacent Middleton, Grumpy Troll and Lake Louie, and New Glarus’s namesake brewing shrine roughly 25 miles south.
On the day of the show, start by attending the incredible farmers’ market, which surrounds the Wisconsin capitol on all four sides and features edibles ranging from ostrich jerky to the freshest squeaky cheese curds on record. Bring a camp chair and some sunscreen, and drink plenty of water during your session. Study the program, and target your choices, because some of them won’t last long.
The Great Taste of the Midwest represents the thinking man’s way of drinking. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, you can take more from the Great Taste than it takes from you.
October 3: AFTER THE FIRE: New Albany’s Harvest Homecoming occupation isn't alleviating my "craft" beer Twitter depression.
September 26: AFTER THE FIRE: The seasonality of Oktoberfest in time, beer and year.
September 19: AFTER THE FIRE: This week in solipsistic beer narcissism (2014).
September 12: AFTER THE FIRE: England, or one man's heightened cholesterol panic is another man's nostalgic repast (2013).