For the 6,000 people who were lucky enough to get a ticket to the 28th annual Great Taste of the Midwest on August 9, it was a spectacular Saturday. Perched on the shores of Lake Monona, Olin Park once again provided an ideal setting for a celebration that draws beer enthusiasts to Madison from across the country. For many, it's the best day of the year.
The Great Taste features well more than 1,000 different beers from over 160 breweries. Navigating all the beer choices is a challenge. As there are so many beers to try, the most serious tasters come with a plan in mind, while many others simply come to soak up the sun and enjoy beers with friends in a beautiful setting.
Here are a few of my memories of this year's Great Taste of the Midwest.
Best Pre-Great Taste Parties
The outdoor festival is the culmination of a week-long series of pre-parties that build up to the big day, and the scale and scope of this phenomenon continues to grow every year. Of the scores of celebrations held around the city, most on the Friday known as Great Taste Eve, two stood out.
- Come Back Inn, Essen Haus, and Up North Pub: Four breweries from three states created a festive atmosphere at three adjoining establishments. Sprecher Brewing of Glendale, Wisconsin and Tyranena Brewing of Lake Mills, Wisconsin were joined by Revolution Brewing of Chicago, Illinois and Summit Brewing of St. Paul, Minnesota for a mostly outdoor party in the parking lot behind the three hosting venues. Held under beer garden tents and set to polka music, it was a taste of the upcoming Oktoberfest season.
- The Malt House: This east-side beer bar always throws a big party the night before the Taste. This year's celebration showcased the sour beers made by O'so Brewing of Plover. Brewery owner Marc Buttera and brewer Steve Buszka were on hand to pour beers and talk about their latest creations. And, for those who started the night without tickets to the Great Taste, Malt House owner Bill Rogers rewarded a few lucky winners with passes to the big event.
Tastes from the Great Taste
Biggest Beer with Flavor, Not Just Strength
Svart Vinter Imperial Porter from Door County Brewing of Bailey's Harbor, Wisconsin: At 8% ABV, this beer offered a solid malty background with a compliment of Belgian qualities thanks to additions of coriander and orange peel. It also had a touch of pepper heat in the finish. It's a nice intro to the Madison beer scene.
- Czar Brew from Sprecher Brewery of Glendale, Wisconsin: A full bodied and strong Russian imperial stout, this creation spends six months in Heaven Hill Distilleries bourbon barrels before its release.
- Bourbon barrel-aged Kremlin Russian Imperial Stout from House of Brews of Madison, Wisconsin: This is a rich, full-bodied imperial stout even before it's aged in bourbon barrels.
Bitter and Hoppy with Balance
- Rye You 'Lil Punk from Rock Bridge Brewing of Columbia, Missouri: A sharp and dry IPA, this offered solid bitterness at around 60 IBUs.
- Space Cowboy IPA from People's Brewing Company of Lafayette, Indiana: This double IPA was distinctive for its nine different hops!
Nearly Over the Top Bitterness
Kitchen Sink from Two Brothers Brewing of Warrenville, Illinois: Everything including the kitchen sink seemed to make up the hop bill for this brew.
Bold and Robust Character
- Grand Cuvee from the Great Dane of Madison, Wisconsin: The brewpub's Heavy Head Imperial Pilsner and its Old Scratch Barleywine were blended to create this big brew.
- Kronos American Imperial IPA from Barley John's Brewpub of New Brighton, Minnesota: This small brewpub located north of downtown Minneapolis has been a Twin Cities beer mecca for years. Get ready to see it in Wisconsin soon, as it's opening a production brewery in New Richmond this fall.
- Josephine American Porter from Wisconsin Brewing Company of Verona, Wisconsin: This brew is dark, smooth and rich in maltiness.
- Smoke & Dagger of Madison, Wisconsin: Dark with roasted bitterness, this black IPA also offered hints of coffee.
- Golden Nugget IPA from Toppling Goliath Brewing of Decorah, Iowa: This cask version of a popular mainstay from the brewery is more rounded, yet it still offers assertive citrus and evergreen hopiness
Rookie to Watch
Public Craft Brewing Company of Kenosha, Wisconsin: This brewery brought a half-dozen beers to the Great Taste, and its Bone Dry Stout served on a nitrogen tap line stood out as smooth and rich in maltiness. This a brewery to watch in upcoming festivals.
Best Beer and Food Combo
Best Beer Promotion
Wild One from Bells Brewery of Kalamazoo, Michigan: Building on the craze surrounding the Sharknado movies, Bells served its beer through a giant shark mouth and handed out shark teeth with samples of its beers. Wild One, a sour brown, was pretty tasty and lived up to the hype.
Best Summertime Brew
Hibiscus Gose from Boulevard Brewing of Kansas City, Missouri: A combination of light, salty and sweet floral hibiscus flavors made this beer interesting and refreshing.
Dark and Hoppy
Asator Viking IPA from Surly Brewing of Minneapolis, Minnesota: Well-known for aggressive brews, Surly nevertheless made a statement with this American black ale. Moreover, brewery owner Omar Ansari wore a Greg Jennings jersey -- a Minnesota Vikings one that is -- to drive home the point he's not afraid to make waves in Packerland.
Most Unusual Brews
- Candy for Breakfast from MobCraft Beer of Madison, Wisconsin: A porter brewed to showcase flavors of coffee, chocolate and peanut butter, this was enticing enough to bring me back for a second sample. It's not just a breakfast drink!
- Gingerbread Ale from Pigeon River Brewing of Marion, Wisconsin: This was a dessert beer that few could match.
A Brew That Just Didn't Work For Me
Get Weird Imperial Stout from Lakefront Brewery of Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Despite a 15-minute line -- that many people waiting must mean something good, right? -- this beer made with absinthe tasted like cough syrup with alcohol burn.
Best Non-Beer Find
Morning Mary from Bell's Brewery of Kalamazoo, Michigan: Whatever it was called, this drink was really more of a Bloody Mary with a "splash" of beer. Still, it was one of the most talked-about beers among brewery staff as they set up their booths and tap lines even before ticket holders were allowed into the festival.
Oktoberfest from Capital Brewery of Madison, Wisconsin: There isn't anything quite like that first late summer taste of a märzen in terms of building anticipation for seasonal beers yet to come. This Oktoberfest is always yard to beat.
- Reliable Lager from Wisconsin Brewing Company of Verona, Wisconsin: Offered in the brewery's taproom for much of this summer, this golden Munich helles lager is slated to be released in bottles come fall. Brewmaster Kirby Nelson built his name on this and other German styles of beer, and fans are excited to see it on shelves.
- Hollywood Nights from Greenview Brewing of Madison, Wisconsin: Specializing in gluten-free beers, brewmaster Trevor Easton has been working on a recipe for an American IPA. Finishing at 40 IBUs and 7.7% ABV, this one has a very nice hoppy aroma and enough bitterness to challenge skeptics of gluten-free brews.
- Oktoberfest from Port Huron Brewing of Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin: This brewery offered an early sample of its new märzen, which will be released in bottles come late September.
Toppling Goliath Brewing of Decorah, Iowa: This brewery has become a darling among beer enthusiasts thanks to its hoppy brews like Pseudo Sue and Zeelander, and has received no small amount of attention given this interest. However, during the Great Taste, the constant lines at its booth were so long that one could have driven to Iowa and back before getting served a sample. It didn't take long before staff from adjacent breweries started walking the lines of waiting festival-goers with pitchers of their own beers.
- SOB OMG! and BrewFarm Funk IV from Dave's BrewFarm of Wilson, Wisconsin: This brewery really blew folks away (okay, it's a wind-powered operation) with these two beers. The SOB OMG! stood out with its sour orange basil flavor, and the BrewFarm Funk IV impressed with its layers of spice and pepper.
- Beorn from Sweet Mullets Brewing of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin: This was a very nicely done Flanders Oud Bruin.
- O'so Brewing of Plover, Wisconsin: The brewery brought more than a half-dozen sour and funky beers to the Great Taste. If you like sours, O'so is one to watch.
On a day in which Breaking Bad-themed Heisenberg T-shirts competed with brewery logos in terms of sheer ubiquity, the most memorable fashion statement may have been the simplest. This shirt gamely stated, "Bucket List: Just add ice and 6-pack."
The Great Taste of the Midwest is here and gone again, and now the countdown begins for next year. The 2015 edition of the festival, its 29th annual installment, will be held on Saturday, August 8. Tickets go on sale on Sunday, May 3, so save the date!