Monday, September 2, 2013

Great Taste 2013 (Madison, WI)

Battle plan, which never works.
For each of my nine times at the Great Taste of the Midwest, I've shown up early to get in line to prepare the battle plan from the program for the fest. My optimism in finding every new brewery to add to my list versus the reality of always failing to conquer the goal is at the heart of why this is a great fest. With brewers often pouring their wares themselves and fighting for attention by bringing their best, failure to taste everything new and sampling amazing beer are both guaranteed. Simply, Great Taste may be the best beer festival, period.  

First, unlike the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), which has more beer, time and the heart of Denver to drink, Great Taste brewers are often pouring their own beers. At GABF, volunteers pour the samples and, as worthy and wonderful as they are, it's not the same as being able to chat with the brewer or staff when getting a sample. Second, it is an incredibly well run festival by the local Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild. All festival organizers need to take notes on getting a line in the door, the fastest anywhere. Over the years, the club doesn't rest on its laurels and even the festival layout changes and improves each year. The entrance has moved to the other side of the fest and the flush toilets are inside the grounds rather than being your last chance in line before being relegated to porta-potties for the rest of the day. Third, Olin-Turville Park's location on the lake across from downtown is unparalleled at any festival I've attended, especially because the ticket cap means a 2 oz sample is rarely far away. And, finally, the selection of beer from the midwest, draft and cask, is simply fantastic. As alluded to above, the unique nature of Great Taste all of the brewers bring their A game for everyone to taste, including fest only beers. In short, Great Taste is the granddaddy that shows everyone how to do it right.
And they are off...not stumbling now. 

For me, the value of Great Taste is finding beers that inspire a visit to a brewery later on. From past festivals, for example, I discovered and traveled to the following breweries: Bluegrass, Flossmoor Station, Lafayette, New Glarus, Three Floyd's, Piece Pizzeria, Dragonmead, Dark Horse among others. In today's booming beer age, tasting to find breweries worth visiting later is even more valuable. Because a single sample can be misleading, I tend to taste several at each brewery to make sure that the range makes the overall impression rather than just one beer. 

2013 was an especially good festival. All of the best of the fest fortuitously arrived in a single year: amazing weather with no rain and low heat; fabulous Great Taste Eve; more (good) vegetarian food than ever; too many new breweries to tackle; random encounters with beery friends before and during the fest; and my wife decided to come along. We've experienced the converse conditions at Great Taste before, including rain, high heat, bad food, pot smokers in the woods and drinkers too immature or unable to handle the demands of an all-you-can-drink festival. In the end, the good outweighs the bad by far. This year had several beer highlights. My wife's favorite was the New Glarus 2012 Cherry Stout: dark maroon with red highlights in the summer sun; awesome dark cherry and caramel nose; Door County cherry floods the tongue like Belgian Red (dancingly light but not thin) but with more depth from the stout character. We each got a couple of samples after the 4:30 tapping, easily the best of the special releases we set up in the morning line up. 
Wedge potatoes from
Smokin' Cantina

Fitger's in Duluth had my highest rated beer of the day, but it was a new release of an old favorite, 1100 Wheatwine: alcohol and wheat spice in the nose with heavy legs on the side of the glass; caramel colored with gold highlights, the big original gravity blends the spice and wheat on the tongue to near perfection; an under-brewed style, this beer is simply amazing and I can't believe I have only ever had samples at festivals. 

The next new brewery to visit from sampling will probably be Toppling Goliath. All three hoppy beers I tried—Golden Nugget IPA, Pseudo Sue and Zeelander—were all very good and worth a future draft. Plus, beer friends recommended Toppling Goliath from their visit, so the combination will get me there at some point. 

A heavily hyped beer from New Holland (cheezy track theme) that didn't quite live up to expectations was New Holland's Smaug's Breath: Dragon's Milk spiced with Chili de Arbois and aged for six months; chili pepper is hot and lingers on the front of the tongue and blends nicely with the barrel aged smoke of Dragon's Milk. While the beer clearly wins the completion of a metaphor award, it isn't as drinkable as, say, Stone's Smoked Porter with chili peppers.
Early dinner of Mango Rundown Tofu w/
Red Beans and Rice to get through fest

Since I haven't been to Great Taste in four years, several recent improvements make it even more fun. First and foremost, the organizers finally switched the brewery order of the program to alphabetical rather than by state. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And thank you. This year was the first time that I used my program effectively to take notes. After a few samples, nothing beyond one level of organization can be negotiated and the old state format was impossible. Second, there is now a dedicated website to the festival with detailed information, including an early release of the program a couple days ahead of time. Invaluable planning information for the true geek in the comfort of your home; in addition, the Eve special gatherings are conveniently listed there as well. And third, there's an app track down beers and take notes, which is very cool; however, a glitch (by Apple, not the fest is my understanding) delayed the download to the point where we gave up and stayed with paper for the day. While very good before, it's vastly improved and the fest has been brought into the modern era for a techno generation of beer geeks. 

Leinie's road warrior trailer--a sign of veterans

I'm not sure how but Great Taste 2001 was the very first festival that my wife and I ever attended. The specifics of the day, which is before I started recording my taste database rankings, is hidden in the fog of memory. However, it inspired beer travel, wide ranging reading and 50+ additional festivals over the years, including seven more Great Tastes within the first decade of my beer journey. This festival nothing short of shaped my understanding of beer.  

In spite of all of this high praise, I'm considering not attending a Great Taste again—or at least not very often. Why? As with Autumn Brew Review and Winterfest at home, the popularity of the event means that others who are just discovering the fest can do and learn as I did. Plus, while the $50 price is more than reasonable for this experience, the five hours to drink means failure to taste all that is new is guaranteed. This may be a critique of American festivals in general (as opposed to the Great British Beer Festival that servers drafts all day). Also, the cost of hotels is Madison is high, so funding a weekend of lodging, food, drink, fest and transportation is considerable. In fact, the weekend was more than a trip to Chicago in June that was roughly twice as long. While an exception beer fest, it does mean a considerable dedication of time and resources to drink. Compounding that fact is that very little surprised me when sampling and I feel that I could be using limited beer resources to learn more elsewhere.
New Holland "raceway" for beer

But, Great Taste is a unique experience that should be done at least once by every beer geek. In spite of having tasted nearly 1000 breweries and visited almost 300 on site since 2000, the 2013 edition of Great Taste has over 50 breweries that I have not had a single drop. Amazing. Plus, with no planning, I ran into so many familiar beer people on the weekend, I felt like Norm walking in Cheers. This is enhanced by our annual stop at Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery at least once every fest to say hi to Hoops, Pete or one of the crew and taste what special something we haven't had at the put yet. Great Taste is simply spectacular and worth being the object of beery worship that draw so many every year.  

Recommendations for an epic Great Taste:
  • Make it a weekend. The Eve of Great Taste is become as legendary as the festival, and easily my favorite part of the weekend now. I've even considered skipping the tickets and just heading down for the Friday night. Going down for the fest is fun but the full experience requires a night of bar hopping in beautiful downtown Madison.
  • In line early. Because of the excellent organization, people in the back of the line no longer wait 45 minutes past the start to get a beer. However, the early bird still gets first choice. Be aware that the organizers move everyone up at about 12:30 pm to stage the fast entrance. An important part of showing up early is proper restraint the night before with all of the great beers available. A significant number of attendees start behind the eight ball with a hangover, some obvious.
  • Build a base. Either get a hotel with a buffet breakfast, find a local restaurant for a big brunch or pick up food to eat in line. Food in the fest has improved, but it takes time from finding samples. Eating at a pub with a bus can be a good route, but arrive early to eat, pay and get on the first bus to the fest to get in line.
    Best view of any festival
  • To Sit or Not to Sit. As alluded in Build a base, time is of the essence. In early years, especially when it was easier to arrange tickets for larger group of friends, we took chairs along. I gave up on creature comforts and focus on getting to samples. 
  • Hydrate. Backpacks are allowed, so I wear at Camelback to have a 3 liter start on the day plus I rinse my glass with most drinks. Add the easily available potable water in the rinse tanks, keeping hydrated, even on a hot day, isn't that hard.
  • Dump those not worthy. I feel dumping a brewer's blood, sweat and tears but the grassy surface allows less then stellar beers to be discarded discreetly without being messy or rude. Drinking the mediocre samples will come at a price later.
  • Beer strap. I find using a beer strap to hold my glass invaluable. With one notable exception, I have come home with every glass from over 50 festivals because of the beer strap. Not sold at Great Taste that I noticed this year, I'm unsure where to get them now. I am holding on tight to my collection, many of which were purchased at early Great Tastes.  
  • Research pays. Succumb to the unavoidable failure of not tasting as much as you want early and prioritize from the pre-released program or the app. By having reasonable expectations and a plan, I've found the fest to be much more enjoyable.
  • Post festival plan. Don't drunkenly argue to stay and fight for one more sample—don't be that guy that endangers the festival. I've noticed that festival time moves at different speeds, generally going fast near the end. Plan ahead and repeat a favorite just before close, savoring it while walking slowly towards the exits (to avoid being hastened by staff). Get on a bus to a pub or take the $1 plus tip cabs to a planned location with food, water and air conditioning.

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