The author, right, with Kevin post-pretzel necklace, pre-glass drop.
It's going on 2:30 p.m. when I hear the first rumble. It emanates from the opposite corner of the room, starting as a low moan and growing until everyone is shouting something -- I just can't tell what. I turn to my buddy Kevin to ask him what's going on, but midway through my sentence I'm interrupted by the sound of breaking glass.
A larger gentleman about three feet to my right sporting jeans, a Packers cap and a ruddy pink glow looks at his feet in horror. He has dropped his embossed sampling cup, which now lay in a thousand jagged fragments on the cement floor of the Alliant Energy Center exhibition hall. For Kevin and me, the appropriate reaction is obvious. There's only one word that can convey the appropriate disdain for such an egregious party foul, and it comes in the form of a gleeful shout: "Ooooohhhhhhhhhh!" It takes less than three seconds for the rest of the room to join in. Yep, this is everything a beer and cheese fest should be.
The cab situation was my first sign that the Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest might be a bigger deal than I had originally thought. Like any seasoned party goers, Kevin and I planned on arriving at the event about fifteen minutes after its announced start. That way, we thought, we wouldn't be walking into an empty room, but, you know, there'd still be beer left.
There was not a cab to be found in the entire downtown area. Apparently every single driver was en route to the Alliant Energy Center, dropping off fares who made the wise call to not drive to the event. Three phone calls later, we finally arranged a ride conditional on a half-hour wait. Thirty minutes never felt so long.
In perhaps the most ironic juxtaposition of conventions in the history of the Alliant Energy Center, the Madison Well Expo for healthy living sits directly next to the Beer & Cheese Fest. The arrangement was undoubtedly coincidental, but the effect is like seeing a few religious zealots protesting outside of a pro football game. This day is about beer and cheese; it seems almost offensive to think about exercise.
Probably the single biggest factor working in the fest's favor is that it's kept as simple as possible. Booths for the different cheese and beer makers are arranged in straight rows spanning the width of the room from front to back. There are no lines to speak of, nor is the room divided into a vendor area and an eating area. The process is simple and efficient: take the embossed sampling glass, wander until a brewery name or a type of beer catches your eye, hand the glass over to the bartender, ask a few questions about what you're about to imbibe, sniff, check for color, take a sip, and move on to the cheese vendor next door.
Kevin and I start fast, trying Leinenkugel's Limited, Blue Moon Spring Blond Wheat Ale, Potosi Snake Hollow IPA and Cave Ale, Ale Asylum Contorter Porter, and Freestyle and Tippy Toboggan from Vintage Brewing, all within the first twenty minutes. Then, realizing there's no way we can keep up this pace, we begin talking to random people in the room. Add one more item to the list of pros for an expo with unlimited free alcoholic beverages -- everyone is really friendly and willing to talk.
A large proportion quite clearly represents the beer aficionado crowd -- the ones who carry their programs at eye level and skip booths like New Glarus and Ale Asylum in favor of the more obscure vendors. But there's also a decent sized group that is clearly here just to have fun. This group is identifiable by their pretzel necklaces. Some veterans of the beer fest scene have made their own edible jewelry at home, but we soon discover that the necklaces are also on sale at a small concession stand at the back of the room. Kevin asks if I think we should buy some. It seems like a dumb question. "Well, obviously."
I try Blueberry Amber Ale from BluCreek Brewing and Wintertime Shandy from Brewery Creek. Both are sweet enough to cut through the lingering salt and bitterness on my tongue, which was a welcome sensation by 3:30. My two favorites of the entire festival are Pride Doppelbock from St. Francis (again, disarmingly sweet), and Makeweight from Furthermore, a higher proof brew that's a mixture of three distinct beers. On the cheese side, Maple Leaf's Chipotle Jack and Apple Harvest Cheddar, as well as Meister Cheese Co.'s Three Alarm Colby Jack stick in my mind as being the crème de la crème, so to speak.
Of course, no cheese vendor tops Fromagination's set-up, loading a small piece of baked crostini with generous helpings of soft mild blue cheese and honey, then adding a small fig as a finishing touch. The combination is heavenly, well worth the small line that quickly forms in front of the booth as the patient Fromagination employees explain to each and every attendee what exactly they're serving.
The fest is a blast, a success on all levels. But toward the end of the day, happy, stuffed, tired, and maybe a little tipsy, Kevin and I make the obligatory trip to the men's room in the back of the hall (man in the crowd quote: "The only place on earth where you'll see a line for the urinals and not for the women's bathroom.") I agree to watch Kevin's stuff while he goes, and he dutifully hands over his program, tasting cup and camera. And while I can handle these, plus my notepad, cell phone and pen, what I can't balance is my own sample glass. It plummets to the floor and shatters loudly. The crowd's reaction is immediate, boisterous, and predictable.
All in good fun? Of course. Does my head hang in shame? Well, obviously.