The World's Largest Brat Fest is growing. Celebrated every Memorial Day weekend in Madison since 1983, this four-day festival is putting on girth, its grounds expanding beyond the strict confines of Willow Island at the Alliant Energy Center. It's the latest bid in the fest's perennial attempt to top its own world record, which last year reached a staggering total of 209,376 brats served over the course of 41 hours.
Brats are an easy sell in Madison and around Wisconsin. However, the festival was swept up into the political maelstrom that followed Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to strip the rights of state public employee unions, alongside a host of other immoderate policy goals, inspiring hundreds of thousands of people to demonstrate at the Capitol over many weeks.
As this fervor grew into a political movement, activists initiated boycotts of the governor's major campaign benefactors, including the CEO of Johnsonville, the festival's presenting sponsor and sole provider of its bratwursts. Rumbling about avoiding Brat Fest followed, and a trio of new bratwurst-themed festivals were swiftly organized for this weekend to serve as alternative or additional options.
The original Brat Fest is without a doubt still the World's Largest, though, by orders of magnitude, and it continues to expand its offerings. Brats, veggie brats, and hot dogs, served for years, have been joined by roasted corn-on-the-cob, added by festival organizers in response to a clamor for non-meat menu items. The live music schedule has expanded, to four stages with well over 100 performances. The carnival has grown in size too, to more than two dozen rides and games, and has consequently moved to the lawn directly north of Willow Island.
This layout is far superior to previous years, providing many more seating options, shade opportunities, and space in an area in which thick crowds can kick up clouds of dirt on hot early summer days.
One element that seems to have dwindled this year, perhaps due to the political dispute, is the number of elected officials appearing as celebrity cashiers. Though fewer politicians typically participate during odd-numbered political off years, there is usually a very healthy contingent of Madison alders, Dane County supervisors, and state legislators in attendance. That's not the case this year, but there are still plenty of local TV news personalities and a variety of community figures behind the registers. Meanwhile, the National Mustard Museum is not present at the fest this year either.
Nevertheless, Brat Fest is Brat Fest, and it maintains the same carnival atmosphere it acquired in 2005 upon moving to Willow Island from its original home in the Metcalfe's parking lot. The single brat tent remains in the same location, flanked on either side by condiment tents. The main stage likewise returns to the west side of the island, its speakers facing the heart of the festival. There are still a pair of Chocolate Shoppe stands serving Blue Moon and various other flavors of ice cream, alongside other vendors proffering funnel cakes, French fries, and other fatty treats.
The festival started strong this morning with its "Take Your Brat To Work Day" kick-off, selling some 15,400 brats over a three-hour window, topping last year's record by a couple hundred. Lines were long over lunchtime, and by early afternoon sales maintained a record pace with the total reaching about 34,100. Come mid-afternoon, crowds were light and lines short to non-existent, but that's typical for this period of the fest, at least compared to a few years back. By the end of the day, the fest issued a preliminary total of 53,832 brats served on Friday. Though this number may change, it's significantly lower than the 62,880 brats reported sold over opening day last year. The festival also reported sales of more than 6,300 ears of corn today.
Another number cited by Brat Fest over the course of the day was $1 million, its total charitable giving since the festival's founding.
It's difficult in Wisconsin for something as simple and surefire as a bratwurst-eating feast to be derailed by political division. The World's Largest Brat Fest is in it for the long haul, and looks like it is positioned to continue serving many tens of thousands of bratwursts for years, even should any of the upstarts return next summer or beyond. After all, the more brats the better.