Reporting from Great Taste of the Midwest



This past weekend my girlfriend and I rented a little black Hyundai and drove to Wisconsin for the Great Taste of the Midwest craft-beer festival, presented by the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild and held in Olin Park on the shore of Lake Monona.

By my back-of-the-napkin math, the roughly 120 brewers serving at the Taste had more than 700 beers on offer. I only managed to try 21 (next year I'll know to ask for short pours), and paging through the festival guide now is pretty heartbreaking: Founders tapped their Kentucky Breakfast Stout at 5 PM and I missed it! I didn't remember to visit the folks who brew ciders from heirloom apple and pear varietals! Who even knew you could make plum mead!

Anyway. Though I didn't get to half what I'd hoped to, I did sample some wonderful stuff. Bear in mind that I'm a bit of a novice at this, and still get excited about things that veteran beer snobs tend to dismiss as trendy nonsense--imperial IPAs with exotic hop varieties, for instance. I tried to get outside my comfort zone at Taste, and here are some favorites:

Surly Darkness 2008 (pictured, in my souvenir tasting glass): Very possibly the best stout I've ever had. Only Three Floyds' Dark Lord can compare, and that's a bit apples-and-oranges. Dark Lord is richer and heavier (though Darkness is hardly light--we're talking grades of motor oil here), but on the other hand I feel like I could drink more than four ounces of the Surly without needing to lie down and rest.

Minneapolis Town Hall Thunderstorm: A strong honey ale with orange zest and lemongrass. Not too sweet, with bright, clean fruit flavors instead of the vague, fusty, caramelized notes in MTH's mango IPA. Really wonderful.

Three Floyds AlphaNaught: A hybrid of Alpha King pale ale and Dreadnaught imperial IPA. I went back for this three times. Combines the mango-peach aroma of Dreadnaught with even more assertive piney bitterness. If FFF bottles this, I will fill my basement with it, just in case we have an apocalypse.

Upland Blueberry Lambic: We missed this Indiana brewery's Bumblebee Saison, which was tapped late in the day and apparently consumed entirely in mere minutes. But we did manage to elbow our way to the counter for a splash from the lone bottle of their blueberry lambic, and it justified all the fuss. Lovely violet in color, sour and funky and fruity in perfect balance. (By which I mean "makes Lindemans taste like Kool-Aid.")

Jolly Pumpkin Calabaza Blanca: A wheat beer aged in oak. If you've had 312 or even Oberon you probably think of wheat beers as sweet and mellow, but this cuts through all that with a nice earthy sourness and almost Belgian spritziness. I like wheat beers better the Calabaza Blanca way, as it turns out. 

Viking Mjod: Please pretend there's a Scandinavian-style slash through that "o." This is a honey brackett from Viking Brewing in Dallas, Wisconsin. Similar to mead but with added malt, it's lighter, drier, and more complex.

Piece Camel Toe Double IPA and Dysfunctionale: The only Chicago beers I tried. Two more reasons to brave the sports-bar-style profusion of flat-panel TVs at Piece's cavernous Wicker Park pizzeria and brewpub. I can't recommend the pizza--it's only so-so--but their beers are outstanding. Pick up a growler and take it somewhere less obnoxious to share with your grateful friends.

Surly Bourbon One: OK, this was late in the day, so I can't say much. But I do know that I've often found the whiskey flavor in bourbon-barrel beers too dominant--that tannic corn-mash bite just comes out on top of everything, and you can't taste all the stuff going on inside the beer. This dark lager was an exception, with all the different notes balanced and integrated--and right out of the tap, rather than cellared for a year. It's also the only lager I had all weekend that I'd seek out again, despite stiff competition from all those ales. When will these guys start distributing for real in Chicago? Minnesota isn't that far away.

The morning before the festival we made the drive to the New Glarus brewery. I picked up a few six-packs, two big bottles of their heavenly Belgian Red, and four-packs of two "Unplugged" series beers, a Berliner weisse and a smoked porter. (Enigma, one of the Unplugged beers from 2007, was a fascinatingly strange and delicious sour smoked cherry ale, so I'll try anything New Glarus comes up with at this point.)

Alas, even though the second New Glarus facility south of town is now up and brewing, the company has no plans to distribute in Chicago. They seem to have made a principled decision to remain an "indigenous" business, as one of their many slogans has it.

Overall the Taste experience was surprisingly trouble-free for an event explicitly dedicated to public drinking--the only thing I could really complain about would be the high incidence of big dudes going "Wooo!" late in the day. I'd like to compliment the Taste organizers on their smarts--even if this weren't the 22nd annual festival, it'd be clear they've been at it for a while.

At the grounds there was no parking at all, not even bike racks. We were encouraged to get to the fest on foot, by free shuttle bus, or by subsidized one-dollar cab--anything to keep us from operating machinery more complicated and dangerous than a cigarette lighter or ball-point pen.

There were also several free water stations--basically perforated pipes suspended horizontally over metal washtubs, so that you could rinse your sampling glasses, wash your hands, and take a stab at staying hydrated, all without creating plastic-bottle litter or standing in line. 

Kilt count: seven, at least that I saw. And the gentleman at the Kuhnhenn booth who served me a dram of "fraoch" (an ancient style of heather ale, sweet and musty, that tasted oddly like a blend of flowering grasses and chicken soup) was wearing a full plate-mail helmet and a Dead Kennedys T-shirt.

Anybody else out there in Internetland go to the Taste? What especially excellent beers do you dimly remember drinking?

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