There's a lot of common beer festival DNA, no matter which one you attend. You'll see a lot of pretzel necklaces, of course, and some kind of crazy clothing accessory -- hat, novelty glasses and beer-themed socks are common. If the festival is indoors, you'll definitely get to know the ooooooh..., that half-sympathetic, half-judgmental cheer that goes up whenever a glass is dropped. So yes, you would have witnessed all these things at the Isthmus Beer and Cheese Fest (IBCF) which just wrapped up its jam-packed sixth annual iteration last Saturday.
The challenge for every big beer festival, though, is differentiation. There's a self-limiting factor -- a combination of ticket prices, calendar space and liver capacity -- that every festival has to mitigate, and organizers will want to make theirs stand out. Isthmus pairs its beer fest with cheese, but there are any number of other draws used by others all over the country.
The Great Taste of the Midwest is outdoors, lakeside, in the heart of summer. Sun Prairie's Bacon, Brew & BBQ Fest is outdoors, too, and puts its breadth of offerings right there in the name. Nationally, events like the Festival of Barrel Aged Beers in Chicago and the Great American Beer Festival in Denver hand out awards that inspire brewers to bring their very best, or at least their most avant-garde, beers to the show.
I've been to all of those save Festival of Barrel Aged Beers, and I can say that an early roadblock to any festival's success, or at least enjoyment by its attendees, is its layout. Bacon, Brew & BBQ Fest was a rookie last summer, so its horrible layout can be forgiven, slightly. The tents were spaced awkwardly and too far apart, and the competition barbecue area was so remote I never found it. Under the tents, things were fine, with the exception of the too-few and overflowing garbage bins.
Great Taste of the Midwest has only so much real estate to work with, but has tinkered with tent locations over the last couple years. I've found that it's easier to lose track of entire tents with its current layout, and I don't think that's just festival impairment talking. The Great American Beer Festival has had 290,000 square feet to work with (and will be expanding by 90,000 square feet for 2015), and keeps its organization rigorously geometric.
Isthmus Beer and Cheese Fest has grown significantly since its inception in 2010. The festival now occupies the entire Alliant Energy Center Exhibition Hall, adopting the same kind of two-sided row structure that Great American Beer Festival uses to success. (Booths at previous Isthmus Beer and Cheese Fests were organized in amorphous, slightly randomly grouped pods of four.) Beer and cheese vendors are interspersed, but do not always alternate, given the more limited number of the latter. I think it would improve the attendee experience if there was some kind of color-coding on the booth signs, to help differentiate beer from cheese from a distance.
That distance visibility is important, because IBCF gets crowded. Really crowded. Even with the full 100,000 square feet of the Exhibition Hall, 5,000 people get pretty cozy where the tail ends of lines meet in the middle of an aisle. Compare that to roughly 12,000 people per general admission session at the Great American Beer Festival (in three times as much space), and you see the curve trends a bit towards IBCF being more packed. The Premium session, expanded to two hours for this year's festival, is a pretty spacious and relaxed way to experience the fun, though not inexpensive for that luxuriousness.
Value is the final proposition, and this is where IBCF stumbles a bit, in my opinion. (It's worth noting here, if you care, that I am a freelance contributor to Isthmus, not an employee.) General admission tickets are $50, while Premium tickets are $85, though the latter are not without merit, given how pleasant those two hours of VIP time are. Plus, you get a bundle of freebies including a T-shirt. To compare, Denver's Great American Beer Festival general admission tickets are $80. The real issue is price versus the beers being served. Too few brewers bring anything fest-exclusive to IBCF, using the event more as a brand showcase than a venue for spinning their guns on their fingers. Compare that to Chicago's Festival of Barrel Aged Beers ($55 for general admission), which is basically all gun-spinning. Isthmus has addressed this slightly by bringing in out-of-state brewers for the first time this year, but if the event stayed all-Wisconsin and the brewers brought some more oddball creations, it'd be an even better festival, and sticker shock would drop significantly.
Une Année of Chicago and Solemn Oath Brewery of Naperville, Ill., definitely poured a couple of my favorites of the festival -- Esquisse Wild Ale and Sybil's Revenge Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Black Saison, respectively. So too, did a couple of Madison breweries. Vintage Brewing served its InAbsinthia Absinthe Barrel-Aged Barley Wine, and MobCraft Beer brought its Trixie's Kiss Mint Stout, a beer that made very few draft appearances and is long gone in 22-oz. bottles. Whether in- or out-state, brewers who tap something wacky tend to get more buzz, if not also more praise.
There is, of course, the cheese. Wisconsin's agricultural and culinary pride and joy makes a fine showing at this festival, and brings a lot of value to the ticket price. I could only find one other beer and cheese festival nationwide that comes even a little close to matching the scale of IBCF -- it's in Boston, and features 20 brewers compared to 78 for the Wisconsin-based festival -- so it's fair to say that this is perhaps the biggest differentiating factor to draw people in.
IBCF might be a more relaxing festival if there were actually a few fewer tickets sold, but when the event essentially sells out every year, that seems unlikely. There's no more space to add, and few if any glaring omissions in terms of attendance by Wisconsin breweries. That's not the case for cheesemakers, though; no Hook's, no Bleu Mont, no Chalet limburger!
I think the most room for improvement comes from the brewers bringing more "festival beers," the weirdos that aren't retail-marketable, but will get people to line up for in an exhibition setting. If that happens, I think Isthmus Beer and Cheese Fest goes from being a fun mid-winter party to a top-tier beer festival.
Editor's note: Due to an editing error, square footage of the Great American Beer Festival was originally attributed to the Great Taste of the Midwest.