The event itself is basically four hours of wandering, standing in lines with friends, drinking beer after beer, talking to strangers.
Someone is playing a joke on me.
Three hours into the event, I get the feeling that the assignment to write about the Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest is a veiled rite of passage from the paper's editorial staff, something given to the younger writers to see if they can pull off an article about the annual festival with any sort of coherence by the following morning's deadline.
I get this impression from mental state Saturday afternoon along with a warning I received several days earlier from my editor. Apparently, a previous year's intern attended the festival and sampled enough of its bounty that he fell asleep afterwards. He then woke up at 2 a.m. the next morning, realizing that he had an article to complete by 9 a.m. I scoffed at this story. Surely this wouldn't happen to me.
"It can happen a lot easier than you might think," my editor told me.
I remained unconvinced. I am, after all, from Wisconsin. Beer and cheese is in my blood.
For anyone who has never attended, let me just start by saying that the Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest is like a Renaissance painting come to life, of tables overflowing with an impossible amount of cheese and mead converted into motion picture. It's also a well-behaved tailgate, with pretzel necklaces, cheesehead hats and a t-shirt that says "I'm a drinker, not a fighter." For lovers of beer and the fromage, it's quite simply paradise, a room filled with some of the region's best samples of each.
Receiving my tasting glass at the door and a program for the day's event, I step off to the side when I enter the Alliant Energy Center's Exhibition Hall and try and formulate some sort of plan of attack. Inside the program, all of the regional distributors in attendance are listed in alphabetical order, including the products they've brought with them. Along with the information is an accompanying map detailing each table's location. Spread out before me, the pre-event VIP tasting is almost finished, a few dozen people in what I'd refer to as the "aficionado crowd" are moving effortlessly from table to table, sampling cheeses with fancy names, sniffing and savoring obscure lagers and ales.
"But in fifteen minutes the doors are going to open and then the real show begins," I overhear someone say. So, I devise my first plan: get as many interviews as I can before the herd storms in. In addition, I repeat to myself the overall goal for the day: don't get shit-faced.
I circle the room and begin first at Seymour Dairy Products, to develop a food base in my stomach. Shown a selection of blue cheeses, I choose a type called Blue Crest Danish Style Blue from the display. I don't know anything about cheeses, but for some reason this one in particular is calling out to me (most of my decisions throughout the day will be made according to pure impulse.) An obvious rookie, I'm coached by a woman named Barb Schreffler on the best way to eat it. Demonstrating for me, she takes a toothpick and skewers a dried cherry before capturing the cheese. "It adds just a little layer of sweetness with the creaminess of the cheese," she explains, and after a single bite I'm converted. I want to fall on my knees and pray to the cheese, to write it sonnets and maybe even sing.
"I love blue cheese," says a man who suddenly appears at my side, possibly already a little buzzed. "I love it so much, but if I have some cheese in the fridge and it's got mold on it, I just can't cut it off and eat it. It's so weird."
Admittedly, I don't know enough about molds or the blue cheese process to debate or comment on this point. I just smile and nod my head, sneaking another piece of cheese. "Blue cheese is the bacon of the cheeses," I manage to say, followed by a brief silence and moment of personal ecstasy, although what I mean by this bacon comment I'm not exactly sure. Are blue cheese and bacon similar because they go well with everything? He nods his head as if he understands, and I move on.
Everyone working the event is warm and welcoming, happy to be in attendance and above all extremely knowledgeable about their products. And despite the title of the event, cheese is not the only food on the menu. There's dark cherry chocolate ice cream at the Sassy Cow Creamery, and caramel sprinkled with Sea Salt at Gail Ambrosius. At the Brown Chicken Brown Cow table, I savor marinated cocktail mushrooms with names like "Tasty Toadstools" and "Fiery Fungus." There are also several tables filled with assorted meats that I make note of to visit later. The one thing that all of them have in common is that everything is delicious. And then you turn around and there's another table waiting for you, calling out to you like a dear old friend, beckoning to you with its cheesy beer-stained hands.
Stopping to sample a cheese called Habano Jack at the Wisconsin Cheese Shop table, I'm warned beforehand by a woman working the booth to be careful, that it's got a kick to it. I heed her advice, and am glad moments later: a mild burning sensation forms in my throat.
"You say it's hot, huh?" says my bearded friend Joe in a challenging tone. He moves in front of me and skewers three small pieces of what is basically the cheese equivalent of lava and throws them to the back of his throat. The woman's hands cover her mouth in astonishment. "It doesn't taste so hot to me," Joe says confidently, and then a couple seconds later I swear I can see the moment on his face when his brain catches fire. "Jesus," he says, gulping down the dark beer he's carrying in his hand. "Holy shit!" I hand him a napkin to wipe away tears forming in his eyes.
Then the doors open, and people swarm into the room. Having studied their maps carefully beforehand, several people make a beeline towards the tables of their favorite beer distributors. These are the pros. Sitting at a round table in the center of the room are three UW students attending the event for the first time, huddled around the map and plotting a course. Having recently returned from winter break, they thought the festival sounded like the perfect welcome home to a state they've grown to love.
"You'd never have an event like this where I'm from," says one of the students, who informs me that he and his friends are from states like California and Arizona. "$40 at the door and for four hours you get all the cheese you can eat and all the beer you can drink?" he says in disbelief. "I mean, are you shitting me? This is like robbing a candy store."
After an hour or so, the moment comes where I feel that I must dive into some beer tasting. Lines are starting to form, and I figure a sample here or there won't hurt. How much liquid does my sampling glass hold anyway? I wonder. A quarter of a beer? Maybe half? I try and rationalize drinking a few, and pick a couple tables at random.
The Horny Blonde from Horny Goat Brewing Company is a light-bodied lager that makes my legs warm. This is then followed by Lilja's Hop Nest Monster IPA, an IPA from Pangaea Beer Company that is 7% alcohol. I write their names down in a small notebook I've brought, trying to compile a list of favorites. Yet each time I ask a beer vendor about their personal favorites, they fill my glass to the brim with their choices, insisting that I try everything and tell them what I think. After nine or ten sips, I'm trying to guess how much alcohol I'm pouring into my body, but with all these alchemists and their 7% beers, my plan of semi-sobriety begins to fail quickly.
This is followed by more wandering. The event itself is basically four hours of wandering, standing in lines with friends, drinking beer after beer, talking to strangers. One of the reoccurring comments I overhear is that this year's event benefited from a larger space, that it's easier for people to move around.
In the corner of the exhibition hall, I walk past a well-attended pairing session where people are seated at round tables, various cheeses arranged in front of them while a volunteer walks around with a brown jug of liquid and refills beers. I overhear the following words from the session's speaker and begin to jot them down in my notebook: "...the hop factor is the hardest thing to deal with when it comes to cheese. You need a creamy cheese with a dominant taste to counteract this..."
Before I can write anything else, I'm distracted by a man behind me who says in a disdainful mumble, "Look at all these people." I turn around see the older gentleman dressed in khakis and a tucked-in, blue button-up shirt. He looks at the audience of the pairing session through heavy eyes, a crease of mirth at the corners of his lips. "They're all acting like they're taking a college course or something. As if there's a science to drinking beer and eating cheese." I don't know whether or not he is talking to me, but before I can ask, he waves his hand, but it happens to be the hand holding his beer, which he loses his grip on. His tasting glass shatters on the concrete floor.
He looks at the puddle at his feet, and those nearest to him erupt in a chorus of "Ohhhhh!" The sound spreads throughout the hall like a wave, and with the festival now in its third year, this response seems to have become the party foul custom. Every "Ohhh!" represents a broken glass and a blushing face. As the event nears its end, the eruptions become more frequent. Can people really be that clumsy? Part of me is wondering if people aren't just football spiking their glasses on the floor.
But everyone remains friendly, festival veterans mixing with newcomers. Everyone is smiling and developing an increasing lean to their movement. I try a "Beer Float" at the Whole Foods Market table, a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a plastic cup with Lake Louie Milk Stout and chocolate shavings. One needs to invent an adjective to describe the taste. "It's not an earthly combination," I write in my notebook. And it's at that point that I realize it's becoming harder to read my own handwriting.
I tell myself that this is the sign that I must leave, and begin making my way towards the door. But as I do, I run into some friends from high school who say that I need to have a toast with them before I go. I try a seasonal ale from Shipwrecked Brew Pub called "Spruce Tip Ale." The flavor crackles in my mouth. Somewhere a glass breaks, followed by an "Ohhhh!" I hear someone say, "This blue cheese tastes like it's on crack!" Someone I don't know hands me a beer called "Lust," and it tastes sweet, like candy-covered lips. My thoughts are becoming poetic. I need to get out. I'm being tested. I have an article to write. My stomach hurts. My head feels divine. I wonder what this place smells like to anyone with clear sinuses. I need coffee. I want to dance, to kiss a stranger on the cheek.
Outside the cold air feels good on my face. Waiting for a ride, I sit on the concrete and watch a group of twenty-somethings leave the building and head to a car. From the backseat, one of them pulls out a bottle of what looks like whiskey and they begin handing it around in a circle, each taking pulls. When they're all finished, they put the bottle in the car and then walk back into the building for more cheese and beer. These champions of alcohol and dairy nod at me as they pass by.
My dear Wisconsinites, would you understand me if I told you that in that moment, more than anything else, I felt an inexplicable sense of pride?