MADISON, Wis. — It began like any Michigan beer festival: With a line of thousands of thirsty people waiting to be let into a park, where brewery representatives and volunteers lurked under large tents to pour sweet, sweet suds into sampling glass after sampling glass.
But while Michigan’s oldest continuously hosted beer fest is a mere 15 years old, the annual Great Taste of the Midwest — the latest edition of which was this past Saturday — has been going on since 1986. And as a regional festival, it plays host to a much larger number of breweries: A record-breaking 142 this year.
Twelve Michigan establishments joined breweries from eight other states, ranging from Ohio to Nebraska and Minnesota to Missouri, to offer a truly mind-blowing number of beers. Those establishments included Arcadia, Atwater, Bell’s, Dark Horse, Dragonmead, Founders, Jolly Pumpkin, Kuhnhenn, New Holland, Short’s, The Livery and meadery B. Nektar. Due to the popularity of the event, there is often a long waiting list of breweries that want to participate.
Many, though far from all, breweries developed themes. Bell’s handed out branded superhero capes (a brilliant gimmick as plenty of festgoers put them on). The “Kuhnhenn Dynasty” offered all Asian-themed beers, including Mandarin Orange Wit, Fire Dragon Ginger-Cinnamon IPA, Asian Pear-suasion Golden Ale, Chai-tea-weizen and General Tso’s Ginseng Wheat Ale.
New Holland rocked a “Prom of the Undead” theme complete with dancing zombies, a mummified Elvis and “Beervangelist” Fred Bueltmann dressed as a ghoul. The brewery brought a 2006 Pilgrim’s Dole Wheat Wine, a 2009 Blue Sunday Sour Ale and “Blend of the Undead,” which mixed Rye Hatter and Black Hatter with barrel-aged Golden Cap Saison and The Poet Stout and floating whole-leaf Cascade hops.
With ticket sales limited to 6,000, lines at the Great Taste were usually quite reasonable, though the popularity of breweries like Short’s (which had its own standalone tent) and Founders was still apparent. Short’s was typical Short’s, bringing regulars like Huma Lupa Licious and Nicie Spicie, as well as such creative or rare offerings as Black Chai India Cream Ale, Richard in the Dirt Belgian Tripel, Bourbon Black Cherry Porter, Van Dammage Belgian IPA and Grasshoppah IPA — brewed with chocolate mint.
Founders served staples such as All Day IPA, Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale, Centennial IPA and Red’s Rye PA to throngs of eager Midwesterners, but the lines really surged during timed tappings of Breakfast Stout, Frangelic Mountain Brown, Curmudgeon’s Better Half Barrel Aged Strong Ale, Devil Dancer Triple IPA and KBS Bourbon Barrel Aged Breakfast Stout.
All told, there were five huge tents of beer, along with a sixth tent dedicated to nothing but cask ales. Many of these beers unfortunately poured muddy and opaque, meaning the casks had been jostled about, stirring up the live yeast, but the ones that weren’t yielded some of the tastiest beers of the day. Sometimes the tried-and-true is the best, as a glass of Bell’s Two Hearted Ale reminded me how Michigan’s oldest brewery really “gets” how to serve beer in this traditional fashion.
Lest anyone think I traveled all the way to Madison to try only Michigan beers, let me say that other standouts included Cross of Gold, a blonde (ish) ale from Chicago’s Revolution Brewing on cask; Two Women Country Lager, a refreshing and flavorful collaboration between Wisconsin’s New Glarus Brewing and Weyermann Malting; and Krankshaft Kolsch from another Chicago brewery, Metropolitan. Vintage and Great Dane, two local Madison breweries, also had some tasty brews including Tippy Toboggan Roggenbier and Old Glory American Pale Ale, respectively.
Two things I really liked about Great Taste as compared to Michigan’s beer festivals: Glasses made of actual glass (which you take home as a keepsake) and no tokens. You just walk up, tell someone you want beer, and they pour it. Crazy. Actually, a third thing: the rinsing/drinking water stations were really nice; they trickled streams of water into a basin and made it super easy and quick to step up and rinse the schmutz out of your glass and fill it up to stay hydrated.
If you’re lucky enough to get tickets (it’s notoriously difficult), then a trek to Madison for Great Taste of the Midwest should be on your beer bucket list, if only to see with your own eyes and tastebuds just how well Michigan beers stack up against those of our neighboring states and beyond.