Madison, Wisconsin, USA. Home to great food, excellent beer, and delightful people who have every right to be proud of their beautiful and friendly city.
And once per year, since 1986, Madison has also been home to the Great Taste of the Midwest -- easily one of the best craft beer festivals in the United States. I must warn you, however... not only is it set in a beautiful park, in a beautiful city, it's also beautifuly BIG. In many ways, it's like the Louvre of craft beer -- there's absolutely no hope of seeing it all in one visit (and since you only get the one six-hour window per year, well, you get the idea). So you really just have to focus on the Real Ale Tent, the special tappings that happen every hour on the hour, the rare and interesting, the small and obscure breweries, those beers you love but just can't get "back home" or the previously unknown up-and-comers... the master works, if you will, that might literally be once-in-a-lifetime beers.
Go ahead and stand in the lines for that something special... you're surrounded by awesome, beer-loving people just like you, enjoying a beautiful park on a lake shore. This is truly a festival to "take in the sights and sounds" as well as the craft beers. Just be sure you applied some sunblock first, because a good sunburn is literally about the only thing that you'll bring home with you from this event besides a great big smile, and you'll be having too much fun to notice it until it's too late.
But before we get into too much detail about Great Taste, I'd like to talk a bit about what I saw and did in Madison as a whole -- because the city itself deserves some recognition as well as a big part of why Great Taste is such a successful event.
Madison, WI is one of those cities I'd call a fun, funky "little" big city. With about a quarter-million people, it has the perks of a larger city, but because of its elegant planning and the way it straddles an isthmus between two beautiful lakes, it still feels "small." More than anything, however, is the friendliness of its citizens that make it feel warm and inviting, and really gives it that "small-town feeling."
Arriving in Madison at about 5:30pm, I quickly met up with my hosts for the week -- old friends who'd relocated to Madison about a 15 years ago -- and we caught up over local beers and ciders and a fine Irish dinner at Brocach. The corned beef and cabbage was pretty close to what mom makes every year in the Spring (high praise), and the enormous appetizer of "Lounge Fries" could have fed three on its own. I would later come to discover that "brocach" is Gaelic for "badger den," which put a smile on my face, being in Badger Country for the first time. The staff were friendly and the service was great as well. With a 10-hour drive behind me and a full stomach, I slept like a rock that night, happy and content.
The following day consisted of exploring the city. State Street, Atwood St, Williamson (or Willy, as the locals refer to it) -- all fun areas with lots to offer. Lunch consisted of Fish Tacos and a delicious Eastside APA at Next Door Brewing Co., the closest brewery to my hosts' home. Next Door had some excellent beers, terrific food, and even better people -- from co-owner, Pepper Stebbins, to Lead Brewer, Bryan Kreiter, to the rest of the front-of-house staff I met. I couldn't get over how established this place felt, despite having been open for less than a year. I congratulate them on their First Anniversary that is coming up later this month. I also appreciated the way they promoted other breweries and were quick to recommend other great things to see and do in Madison -- including a five-brewery bus tour offered by Hop Head Beer Tours that was free that night as part of the many pre-Great Taste celebrations that take place in Madison leading up to Saturday's main event.
I made a mental note to be back at Next Door at 7pm to catch the bus and headed out for more of exploring Madison.
For dinner, I met up with even more old friends for a meal of Thai and Vietnamese food at Ha Long Bay. Those same friends joked that the name should really be "How Long Bay," because the service is always slow. But it gave us time to catch up and reminisce, and the food was totally worth the wait.
At around 7, I returned to Next Door to check in on the bus tour. After a little more enjoyment of Next Door's offerings, my first stop on the bus tour was House of Brews (an awesome collective/collaborative brewing co-op that also leases/shares part of their space with MobCraft (a sort of crowd-sourced brewery that bases its recipes each month on a popular vote) and Alt Brewing (a gluten-free brewery that may have created the first GF beer that I've ever enjoyed with their IPA -- which for my few celiac-burdened friends out there, I hope they'll get into mass-production soon. (More to come on that as well.)
The party at House of Brews included live bands, an art gallery opening, and of course many a' beer to be tried. Sadly there were no taster-sized cup options at this particular party, which would have allowed for a wider sampling, but I did get to try an enjoyable gose from Mob Craft called, "Hop Gose the Grapefruit."
Overall, the concept behind the symbiotic nature of House of Brews and MobCraft is awesome, and is something I hope to talk about at greater length in the future. My thanks to House of Brews owner, Page Buchanan, for the tour and the explanation of how these three distinctly different breweries have created a win-win situation for themselves. I will endeavor to do a more in-depth story on this soon.
The tour also included Karben4, another great brewery focusing on more malt-forward, more balanced beers. Given that I had limited time and more breweries to check out yet, I went with a three beer sampler that included their Block Party Amber, Tokyo Sauna Pale Ale, and Fantasy Factory IPA. All were solid examples of their style, but of the three, I highly I recommend the Tokyo Sauna Pale Ale for its big, mango-citrus aroma and flavors. Again, in keeping with Madison's friendly reputation, the staff at Karben4 was charming and helpful.
Ale Asylum was the next stop on the tour, and left me feeling conflicted. Its beers were excellent -- the stand-out for me being the Bedlam! Belgian IPA. But the ambiance of its space was dark and bathed in red lights that felt more at home in a brooding goth club than a brewery. Especially one that served such bright and lively beers. I get the "asylum" theme, but the place felt somewhat sad as a place to sit and drink and enjoy a great craft beer with friends. I'm sure it's different during the day, or with more people there to brighten the place up a bit, but I didn't feel much like sticking around after I enjoyed my one drink, and hopped back on the bus eager to see what would come next.
The last stop on my tour was One Barrel, a boutique brewery that I could have easily curled up in for about a month, had I the time. One Barrel focuses on barrel-aged brews that blew my socks off with their intense and sophisticated flavors. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for them to keep up with demand right now. The place was full, and with the majority of their beers taking up to a year to develop, they will clearly need to expand their operation. Having arrived there last, I was barely able to scratch the surface of what this place had to offer. But I absolutely adored the Burgundy #2 -- a strong ale aged in French Burgundy wine casks for one year. One Barrel was definitely a great place to end the night, and could only have been improved by a longer stay.
Sadly, my Hop Head Bus Tour was at an end, and if I wanted to catch the last ride back to Next Door (which would become something of a navigational landmark for me), I would have to leave with my charming driver much sooner than I'd have liked. She has my appreciation however, for coming in to find me and making sure I got back within walking distance of my hosts' home -- which is so easy to do, thanks to Madison's remarkable bike/walking trails.
Getting to bed at a reasonable hour and limiting each brewery stop that night to a single beer/flight did result in getting to the Farmers' Market in the morning a real possibility though. I'd been told that it's a must-see for the spicy cheesy bread and incredible produce and much, much more, before heading on to Great Taste in beautiful Olin Park. Ringing the entire capital square, it is an enormous market. The brisk walk, beautiful capital building, colorful sights and smells, and the coffee at Michelangelo's Coffee House made the morning, and got me ready for Great Taste.
If I have any advice for fellow first-timers to Great Taste, it's this: It's BIG. In many ways, it's like the Louvre of beer festivals. You can spend entire days there, and you'll never be able to see it all. There just isn't time. Don't try. Relax. Enjoy the beautiful park. Pace yourself. Enjoy the Real Ale Tent and the one-of-a-kind opportunities that abound at every tent at the festival, from special firkins, to specially-timed tappings are happening every hour on the hour at every tent. Focus on the rare and the special, and the beers you can't get back home -- and whatever you do, be sure to also experiment a bit by trying the ones you've never heard of. They were some of the highlights for me -- such as Thirsty Pagan Brewing from Superior, WI, or Tyranena Brewing from Lake Mills, WI. Other highlights included Vintage Brewing Co, whom I'd only previously been able to enjoy at bottle-shares or other parties I was fortunate to attend where someone brought this elusive Madison staple within my reach in Kansas. It didn't hurt at all that they were also great people... and that they had ice cream made from their beer and liquid nitrogen as their special offering.
Well-loved Bell's Brewery was celebrating Shark Week, and had a Mango-Habenaro firkin of Oberon that was likely one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities I mentioned (even if it did wreck my palate for a bit). Always worth standing in line for was a timed-tapping of KBS (Kentucky Breakfast Stout) from Founders. A Caddy Shack-themed mead with tea and lemon called "Kill All The Golfers" from B. Nektar Meadery, multiple beers from the Lucette Brewing Company, Pearl Street Brewery, and Port Huron Brewing Company also stood out in my memory before it began to get blurry. These are just a few of the multitude of special tappings that take place at this great festival. Looking back, it's also a lot like the Louvre in that afterward much of the visit is just a blur of beautiful things -- but you're left with the feeling that you can't wait to do it all over again.
I have made so many new friends on this trip to Madison, and I know I'll be back for years to come. And I have so much more to share, but for now, I'm off to the next awesome event... a backyard BBQ put together by excellent Madison chef, John Pickle, whom, if there is any justice in this world, will be making waves in Madison with a new place of his own very soon.
Photos can be found in Matt's photo album for the event here, and we encourage you to upload your own and link to them in the comments.