This year I was fortunate enough to experience the Great Taste of the Midwest (GTMW). The GTMW is our great nation’s second longest running beer festival held up in Madison, Wisconsin, right on Lake Monona. In its 27th year, it featured over 100 Midwest Breweries and sells just 6000 tickets to attendees. My role was a tad different than that of a “ticket holder”; I was employed by a brewery to work the festival and I got to see a different side of how things go down at beer festivals.
The GTMW Gods tell breweries to be set up by 11am on the day of. As we walked up to Olin Park at 10:30am, there was already a line of attendees, 2 ½ hours before the gate opens. It was in these early hours that I tried to get myself acclimated to what was actually going on around me. It was beyond overwhelming walking up this hill in the middle of a field and as you reach the top, tents on tents on tents featuring all of your favorite Midwest breweries and all the new ones just waiting to be discovered.
From 11am – 1pm, we poured beers for brewers and their staff, and took turns walking around, tasting the goodies, and having our pick of the freebees before the craziness began. I poured beer for the first half an hour or so and introduced myself to the Surly Brewing Co. folk. They were to the right of us and had a corner booth – that means you’re serious business if you’re on a corner. Surly Brewing Co. is in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, which is just outside of Minneapolis, about 5 ½ hours North of the QCA. They had 12 beers they were pouring with 4 timed, special releases. The guy I met, Kyle, seemed to always be manning the booth when I needed a beer and I just kept saying, “Hoppy!” I tried their Overrated and Furious, both American IPAs and Urine Trouble an American Double/Imperial IPA (delicious but a name I’m not crazy about). A great group of people making great beer.
The real deal breweries were the folks with the stand alone tents – Lakefront Brewing Co. and Goose Island both had massive set ups. Lakefront had a several tents, with timed tastings and a merch set-up as well as a Silent Disco, one of the best parts of the GTMW. The DJ and participants wore headphones while quietly getting down, it was hilarious.
Goose Island had the biggest set up of them all with barrels lining their domain and housing their beers; they also had educational information about barrel-aging beer displayed at their tent and led one of the three of the days lectures. But, deep pockets, yanno?
I was relieved of my pouring duties around noon and began wandering around, trying to figure out how to attack this festival.
I stopped at one of the food vendors and got something to eat, they had several options available throughout the day which I thought was smart. They also had several home brewing supply spots set up selling wares some might not be able to get back home.
One whole tent was firkins with only cask ales; they had 70 different firkins pouring. I’m still fairly inexperienced and uneducated in the ways of real ale, so I choose not to even delve into that tent. It was where ticketholders were the most aggressive that day; it was a numbered system and you had to make your way to the pourers, yell out your number and shove your glass into a volunteers hands. It was too chaotic in there.
As the day went along, I developed a two-part mission; one, to
hit up a couple of spots just to introduce myself to the people working and to be able to spread compliments to breweries that have impressed the hell out of me. And two, to taste some goodness I can’t get back home.
First I visited Ale Asylum, had some Ambergetton, and told them how that brew is the brew I compare every other hopilicious red against. I said hello to Dave and the guys from Urban Chestnut and felt pretty awesome that he remembered QCAlegirl and my visit earlier this year. The Founder’s table was always congested, I never got the chance to stop in and talk, but when I popped in for the Mango Magnifico release I high-fived them all and said, “Thanks for all your awesome work!”
Along the way I discovered some new friends and favorites. Indeed Brewing Co. was my favorite new discovery. Based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and just a year old, they impressed me on all levels; their brews, their dudes, their presentation, it was genuine and smart. I enjoyed their Day Tripper Pale Ale and their Mexican Honey Ale.
The New Albanian crew was super nice too, with a seriously clever table set up and awesome artwork. I enjoyed their Houndmouth American Pale Wheat Ale. I also really liked People’s Brewing Co.’s Amazon Princess IPA. After about an hour of walking around, talking and tasting, I headed back to the booth before the impending chaos descended.
At 1pm, horn blows and the crowd comes in. And it is nonstop for the entire 5 hours. Breweries literally pour beer for 5 hours straight or until kegs blow. What’s fun about it is your brew crew consists of 10 people, but you really only need 2-3 to man the booth. Each staff person takes a shift and you rotate out every half-an-hour or so. So what are the other 7 or 8 people doing then? VIP amazingness, that’s what.
At beer festivals, if you work for a brewery, you get a special VIP sort of status. You get to go into the tents, behind the tables, talk to the brewers and not wait in line. It’s beyond cool. The best part of my day was while visiting with the Dark Horse Brewing Co. guys (who had a cool corner booth set up), one of them asked me to pour for him while he took a smoke break. I poured beer for Dark Horse! AHH! It was awesome. He said, “Come back and pour yourself anything, anytime.”
Street Cred Yo.
Pouring beer to the ticketholders was fun as well. It was a high-volume situation which is energizing for anyone; people are having a great time and – surprisingly enough – no one really got out of control. One guy at the end vomited an impressive amount but that was about it was ridiculousness, from what I saw. Not too bad given how many people were there!
The weather that day was a perfect 80 degrees and sunny, set along a beautiful lake in a woodsy area, you couldn’t have asked for a more perfect location. I could rant and rave about the greatness of the day, and post all 150 pictures I took there, but you’ve really got to experience it for yourself. I hope that I get the chance to attend again one day because it really was one of the best days ever.