People sometimes ask questions that we cannot answer, like, what’s your favorite beer? or, what’s your favorite bar or brewpub? We simply don’t have a single favorite. However, when asked what beer festival we would most like to attend, we don’t hesitate to answer, The Great Taste of the Midwest in Madison, WI.
It was loud, it was rowdy and not everybody was stone cold sober.
We don’t make it there every year, but we circle the date in red on our calendar and look for an excuse to be in the neighborhood come early August.
This is the time of year to scribble the names of other beer gatherings on the calendar, just in case. Delightful events are held somewhere in the United States every week of the year. Some are big and well known―like the Great American Beer Festival in Denver and Oregon Brewers Festival. Some are pretty good sized and not so well known―such as the Peoria International Beer Festival each March. Some are small and for locals―most particularly, beer dinners and tastings at brewpubs and taverns.
We love the Great Taste because it is big (about 100 breweries) and intimate at the same time. The beer choices cover the spectrum, brewers are on hand to pour and talk about their beer (and often bring special beers), and the setting―beside Lake Monona with downtown Madison in the background―is beautiful. Most important, everybody has fun.
We aren’t the only ones who have noticed. Breweries and homebrew clubs across the Midwest organize bus trips to the festival. Many festival goers bring blankets and lawn chairs to Olin Turville Park, then hook up with friends to set up staging areas. Five thousand tickets go on sale each year on May 1 and are gone long before the second Saturday in August (August 10 this year).
In 1999 we bumped into Chris Black, publican of Denver’s well-known Falling Rock Tap House, at the festival. He had the same excited look in his eye that beer lovers get when they have a fabulous new beer for the first time. “Colorado doesn’t have anything like this,” he said, reeling off a list of new beers he had tried and brewers he had met.
Second Only to the GABF
The Great Taste, now in its 16th year, is the second longest running beer festival in the country, behind only the GABF. It is put on by the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild, the local homebrew club, with plenty of volunteer help and cooperation from the city and other public organizations. The proceeds go to community radio WORT (need we say more?).
As at other events that were considerably smaller not many years ago, you may talk to those who will say, “You should have been before it got this big.” Yet, you can still buy a Lawnmower Beer T-shirt directly from Broad Ripple Brewpub (Indianapolis) owner John Hill and talk to him about his India pale ale (definitely not a “lawnmower” beer).
You won’t usually find Kalamazoo Brewing owner/spiritual leader Larry Bell pouring beer, although you can pay your dollar and try to send him for a cold swim in the dunking tank. Bell deserves at least some of the credit for helping the festival keep its rowdy edge.
The civilized side of the event―the food is a lot better than at too many other festivals, there are wandering musicians, the demonstrations are always interesting, and kids have plenty of room to roam―has helped it grow, but not at the expense of allowing boisterous celebration. Regulars come to enjoy a variety of “big” beers, such as the vintage barley wines that Great Dane Brewing in Madison will haul out. These people ride the bus because they know they’ll drink enough that they shouldn’t be driving.
Breweries post times when special (usually strong) beers will be released. Kalamazoo Brewing started the practice in the early days of the festival by offering a small quantity of “Psychobrau.” As its release time neared, those in attendance would begin to chant, “Psy-cho, psy-cho,” the cheer growing louder and louder with each syllable.
Grateful for Beer
In 1995, shortly after Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead died, one of the Kalamazoo releases was titled “Jerry’s Beer.” It was a mixture of strong Bell’s beers served from a jeroboam (3-liter bottle). Bell ceremoniously opened the bottle in the midst of a large crowd and then tilted it from side to side to serve the beer. Happy festival goers held out their glasses to be filled, and it appeared that not a drop was spilled.
Not all brewers are quite as brave as Bell. In 1999, Flossmoor Station Brewing Co. set out a half keg of barley wine aged in bourbon barrels (Old Conundrum, which a few months later won a silver medal at GABF). Then the brewers opened the tap and stood back. The crowd around the keg looked like a rugby scrum, with the luckiest shoving their tasting glasses below the keg’s tap.
The next year, festival organizers put Flossmoor Station and Kalamazoo Brewing back to back at the end of one of the beer tents. As the afternoon wore on and the release of various beers (Flossmoor brought three bourbon-barrel beers) neared, those crowded around both serving areas amused themselves with challenging cheers. “Lar-ry, Lar-ry,” chanted those in front of Bell’s. “Todd, Todd,” replied those awaiting beer made by Flossmoor brewer Todd Ashman, somehow turning “Todd” into two syllables.
It was loud, it was rowdy and not everybody was stone cold sober. Nobody would have mistaken this for a wine festival. It may not have put beer in the most civilized light, but it sure sent a message that it’s OK to be passionate about the beverage―and that’s worth celebrating.
Other Events for Your 2002 Calendar
Real Ale Festival
February 28-March 2
We spent much of the first evening of the second Real Ale Festival (1997) sampling cask-conditioned ale with noted British beer writer (and AABM columnist) Roger Protz, then with Anheuser-Busch brewer Mitch Steele. Such is the appeal of Real Ale. We finished off the evening with a late dinner in Greektown. Such is the appeal of Chicago.
The festival features 165 brands of cask-conditioned ales from across America and guest beers straight from Britain. It is an astonishing opportunity to drink traditional British ale, American interpretations of British ales, and ales that are nothing but American. The latter may be more (a lot more) heavily hopped than British brewers would approve of, or just plain funky―variations on Belgian-style beers, German wheat beers and even wheat wine―but they show off the beauty of fresh, living, cask-conditioned beer, no matter the style.
Colorado Brewers Rendezvous
This is the festival the brewers of Colorado flock to, and if they are having a good time you can count on having one as well. The park is in the historic downtown area. A railroad town, Salida was founded in 1880 and instantly became famous for its rough-and-tumble saloons and brothels. Many of the brewers set up right along the fast-moving Arkansas River, which is dotted with rafting gates.
Although brewers tend to feature more of their flagship beers than at the Great Taste, you’ll always find something out of the ordinary. In 2000, BJ’s Brewery in Boulder brought a gruit, and last year Boomtown Brewpub in Leadville served a malt liquor. The brewery to visit early is Ska, from Durango, because it tends to run out of beer (and pins) first.
Gigantic trees provide plenty of shade―and a certain amount of protection from the festival’s annual thunderstorm. A playground to the east is usually packed, as parents alternate pushing their children on swings and tasting new beers. The 2001 festival took on even more life because of Marty Jones & The Pork Boilin’ Poor Boys―one of those groups that proves that listening to live music is a little like drinking living beer (see Real Ale Festival, above).
Friday the Firkinteenth
Grey Lodge Pub
Philadelphia has earned a reputation as one of America’s best beer cities, in part because of restaurants featuring Belgian beers and because of the many outstanding craft breweries in the region. Yet, few beer tourists venture into working-class Northeast Philadelphia to look for beer. Too bad, because they are missing a gem of a pub, one that features 10 cask-conditioned ales from regional breweries whenever Friday falls on the 13th of the month. This year that happens in September.
The rest of the time, the Grey Lodge features specialty beers and Budweiser and Coors Light side by side. Think of it as a tavern from the 1960s with better beer. The food is basic―although the tomato pie at $4.50 is both a bargain and strangely intoxicating.
There are electronic and video games, including shuffle bowling, board games, TVs and a few animal heads. The tile floor isn’t in very good shape, and the upholstery on the semicircular booths is well worn. These are things nobody mentions when they recommend the Grey Lodge. Those in the know send you there for the beer and to see the smallish bathrooms, which are lovingly decorated with art tile featuring beer quotes (visit the website for pictures from the bathroom).
The place will be packed September 13, but stick around until 10:00 p.m. By then, things should begin to clear out and they’ll even fill your growler from firkins that haven’t been emptied.
Redbones Northwest Festival
The “festival” includes official events and a couple of beer dinners in mid-November but really begins a little earlier, when 50 or so kegs of beer arrive from the Pacific Northwest, and continues until they are all gone. Since 1996, Redbones has turned over its taps every November to showcase beers otherwise unavailable outside of Washington and Oregon.
A good time to visit can be early December, when some beers from the Northwest remain and can be compared with those from the Northeast. You might be able to try, for instance, the Lucky Lab IPA (from Portland, OR) and the McNeill’s IPA (from Brattleboro, VT). On the other hand, this is one of the few places in the country where we are willing to let them spin a wheel featuring the tap selection (they have one) and take whatever beer it lands on.
The biggest problem at Redbones is making room for both beer and barbecue. We have to recommend the “Barbeque Belt” with Memphis, Texas and Arkansas ribs and sliced brisket.