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© The Chicago Bar Project   Written by Sean Parnell

Great Taste of the Midwest
Olin-Turville Park
Madison, WI
August 8, 2009

The Great Taste of the Midwest (GTMW) is the top beer festival in the Midwest and one of the best in the country. Savvy festival-goers know that they need to buy their tickets right when they go on sale, as they sell out months in advance and is only held for five hours on a single Saturday afternoon. Tickets are very reasonably priced at $35 each and give you all-you-can-drink access to 100 Midwest breweries and brewpubs. Fellow drinker with a writing problem, Randy Kohl (see his recap) and I both experienced our first Great Taste of the Midwest via tickets purchased through the Chicago Beer Society that, for $70 each, included a charter bus ride to and from the fest. The following write-up illustrates our adventure (click on each photo for the full-size version).

After a 2.5 hour bus ride and a viewing of the classic Chicago film, Blues Brothers, we arrived at Olin-Turville Park in Madison around noon. There was already a long line of people waiting to get in, many of whom had their own portable canopies. While waiting for the 1pm opening, we were offered $3 brats and $5 nylon velcro devices that keep a beer held around your neck, the latter of which proved useful for yours truly who would be juggling his beer, notebook, camera, and food over the next five hours. Fortunately, while waiting, wristbands are distributed to ticket-holders by volunteers, thereby expediting the check-in process at the gate.
 

After receiving our commemorative GTMW beer glass from which all samples would be consumed, we made our first stop at a brewery that will remain nameless as the Shandies they had on offer were nasty and a poor start to the fest. We then headed straight to the port-a-potties to relieve ourselves of the fluid built up during the bus ride, and that was even after our resistance of "pre-drinking" especially as there was a continuous line to the can on the charter bus. The first "normal" (i.e. non-Shandy) beers we had were courtesy of the Indianapolis Broad Ripple Brew Pub via their Monona Porter (named for Madison's second largest lake), which was ok but I think I had a bit of smoked porter Shandy still in my glass...
 


 
Perhaps our most intriguing beer that Randy and I both had at the GTMW was Mistress Jade's Hemp Ale from Shelby Township, Michigan's Sherwood Brewing Co. This copper American Ale is made with toasted hemp and dry hopped with Horizon hops. The result is quite good: crisp and dry with hints of "green" (hemp) and with a pleasantly bitter aftertaste. Not bad from Detroit's best brew pub, as voted in 2007.
Our next beer tasting came at Amana, Iowa's Millstream Brewing Co. and I tried their flagship brew, Schild Brau Amber. Meaning "Shield beer" in German, this beer is brewed in the style of a Vienna style lager with a sweet caramelized malt that gives it a reddish, coppery color and a juicy malt character. I found this brew to be very good and similar to two of my favorites, Bell's Amber Ale and Half Acre Lager. In 2008, Millstream's Schild Brau Amber was awarded a medal at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado, making it the fourth year in a row. Randy also like Millstream's oatmeal stout.
 
The Dells Brewing Company had possibly the best vendor stand at GTMW: a log bar with matching tap handles. The Blonde Bock jumped out at me as the beer to try. While blonde ales are good, they've never been my favorite as I gravitate towards the darker end of the beer spectrum. My first thought was that it seemed strange that two very different types of beer should be somehow blended, but curiosity got the better of me. The resulting concoction had the lightness of a blonde and the bitterness of a bock, and not in a good way. With a grimace, I realized that we needed to pace ourselves more appropriately considering that we had four tastings in a half hour, and it was on to the food tents were I found a great brat from Mike Losse Catering. Randy went with a very good falafel sandwich from Peoples Bakery.
 

 
Following our food stop, it was on to Browning's Brewery and Restaurant for their ESB, recommended as their best beer. It was smooth and pleasantly bitter—who knew that these Louisville, Kentuckians knew how to make anything besides bourbon and barbecue?

 
Muskie Capital Brewery's Red Lager called to me next, as I am a sucker for amber ales and was intrigued. The beer was unremarkable as it tasted like a mild lager.

 
Our next stop was Black River Falls, Wisconsin's Sand Creek Brewing Company for their Wild Ride IPA, which was appropriately bitter and good, but unremarkable on the whole.

 
We then mosied on over to the pride of Moline, Illinois since 1997, the Bent River Brewing Co. for their Uncommon Stout, which I found uncommonly bland though you may want to consider how many I samples I had prior to this opinion... Randy had their Trappist Ale, which he felt was similar to Chimay, though he is one of the few beer connoisseurs that I know that dislikes Chimay (except for their White Cap variety, which happens to be a personal favorite of mine).

 
Atwater Block Brewery from Detroit was heavily promoting their Voodoo Vator Dopplebock High Gravity Lager. Like a moth to a flame, I went for it, especially as the name reminded me of my New Orleans favorite, Blackened Voodoo Lager (from the Dixie brewery, a now-defunct victim of Hurricane Katrina). Atwater's "high gravity" version (named because of its 9.5% alcohol level) was surprisingly smooth with hints of both chocolate and vanilla, and without the hard alcohol taste that many barley wines of this alcohol percentage often exhibit.

 
At this point, Randy and I heard the sound of Coldplay's Viva la Vida played on violin. Even more remarkable than this violin being one of the few electric violin's I have seen beyond that used by Thomas Dolby (of She Blinded Me with Science fame), a second violinist came in to accompany the first on the same violin so that both were playing away on the same instrument while facing each other. It was quite a site.

 
The cask-conditioned IPA from Mount Horeb, Wisconsin's Grumpy Troll was next and, like Atwater Block's Voodoo Vator, was surprisingly smooth and tasty for a cask ale produced by a small brewpub.

 
At this point, the beers are starting to take a toll as we stopped by Third Base Bar & Brewery, Cedar Rapid, Iowa's only brewery since Prohibition ended (was originally opened in 1996). For the life of me, I can't remember what beer I had there, though it would have been a difficult choice between Sloppy's Smoked Porter and Bourbon Oak Stout.

 
Enthusiastically recommending Brother Tim's Tripel Belgium (a limited August release), my next beer was from Arena Wisconsin's Lake Louie Brewing Co. It was exactly as they describe: "a spicy nose with a delicate fruity balance of malt, hops and yeast."

 
Though we consciously avoided our favorites because of how well we know their wares—i.e. Bell's, Half Acre, Metropolitan, Goose Island, Great Lakes—we stopped by the New Holland Brewing Company and their well laid-out, tiki-themed booth, in part because of recent trips Randy and I both made to this part southeastern part of Michigan. We were once again impressed by their excellent Dragon's Milk Stout, including both their 2007 and 2009 varieties. Smooth, tasty and not too heavy, you just can't go wrong with Dragon Milk Stout even if you're like lighter beers.

 
We thought we knew of all northern Illinois breweries, but we (almost literally) stumbled upon Harrison's Brewing Company out of Orland Park. One of their "Brew Girls" recommended the IPA, which was good and appropriately bitter for this type of beer.
For my whole life, I have never been able to resist throwing things, so when we saw a girl in a two-piece bathing suit sitting in a dunk tank, I of course was drawn to the spectacle. I splurged for $10 and, with the help of my fellow drunken revelers, we all threw tennis balls at the alluring silver disc that, when hit, deposited the young lass into the water. With a full beer in hand, my first toss was so far off the mark that it managed to bounce off the plastic canopy and hit the disc on a ricochet! After another miss, my aim was true and the lass got wet for a second time. Randy had less luck with his throws but several others had good enough aim to keep the game amusing—at least until our beers were empty...
 

 
Fun with the dunk tank was followed up by a Rauchbier from the Carlyle Brewing Company of Rockford—the best thing to come out of Rockford since Cheap Trick and the now-defunct Time Museum. I'm a sucker for smoked beers and Carlyle's did the trick.

 
A view of Lake Monona and the Madison State Capital Building from GTMW. It was a very hot day at the fest and several revelers were seen dipping their feet in the lake at Olin-Turville's boat landing, just beyond the food tents.

As one of many at GTMW, this roving bad featured a tuba, accordion, squeeze box and snare drum and played some very fun music, earning themselves a $2 tip from yours truly.

Thinking it may have something to do with the ancestral country of the Blues Brothers' John Belushi, we then stopped by the New Albanian Brewing Company (not pictured), though the brewery is instead named for its location in New Albany, Indiana. I had the Thunderfoot Russian Imperial Stout and that's all I can remember about it. Randy tried the Double IPA and found it bitter on the front and sweet on the finish (not bad for an 8.8% alcohol content).
 

As if we found ourselves in a Ricola commercial, we ran across this group of Swiss Alphorn-blowers who allowed people from the crowd to have a blow. We were actually surprised by the resulting volunteers' ability to carry a tune on these curious instruments.

 
Another talented, though somewhat more stationary band at GTMW.

 
Being from Randy's home state, we stopped by Akron's Ohio Brewing Company and I had their Alt-Ernative Amber Ale, a Düsseldorf style of ale—surprisingly bitter, and not in a way you expect (or that I would want) from an amber. Too bad they didn't have their Cardinal Amber, which won a gold medal at the recent World Beer Championships at the Beverage Tasting Institute.

 

It was on to the New Glarus Brewing Co. tent where their flagship Spotted Cow was nowhere to be found, so I tried their Stone Soup amber ale and all I can remember is that it was the second bitter amber ale I had in a row, prompting me to go to with an old standby...

 

Not much is beloved about Cleveland, but Great Lakes Brewing Company has recently become one of my favorite breweries. I love their 2008 gold medal winner, the Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, named after the ship that frequently docked in Cleveland and sunk in Lake Superior on November 10, 1975 and immortalized in the song by Gordon Lightfoot. However, I opted for the Burning River Ale, named after the infamous 1969 burning of the Cuyahoga River that runs through Cleveland due to its incredible level of pollution at the time. This "assertively hopped American Pale Ale with citrusy and piney Cascade hops" went down every bit as good as the Edmund Fitzgerald.
 

 
Though we bypassed the Metropolitan Brewing Company of Chicago because we already love their Flywheel Lager and Dynamo Copper Lager, we had to snap this picture of brewmaster Doug Hurst and Metropolitan's signature tool chest bar.

 
Near to Warrenville, Illinois' Two Brothers stand (another local favorite of ours), was this putting green. The sign next to the tiny inflatable pool says, "Caddies welcome 1:00 to 1:15." Do you remember the movie referenced by this message?

 
We couldn't resist what Two Brothers Brewing Company was pouring so gleefully out of a gigantic beer bottle. It turned out to be a kriek, which was good for its type but we normally avoid this type of brew.

 
I can't remember what, if anything, I sampled from Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewery, but all I know is that they make the best Pumpkin Ale I have ever tasted and I always look forward to its availability around Halloween.

 
Lawton, Michigan's Old Hat brewery had a full-blown M.A.S.H. shtick, complete with army fatigues and a "Hot Lips Contest" at 4pm that we mercifully missed. Their popular Razzmanian Devil Raspberry Bock was sold out so I had something else and can't remember what it tasted like—cut me some slack, it was my 23rd sample...

 
The Zõn from Kansas City, Missouri's Boulevard Brewing Company came next and my only note from tasting this beer was "good"—not bad considering that I normally avoid Belgian Witbier (a fine style of ale, just not my favorite).

 
Randy had the Guten Hopfen IWA from Superior, Wisconsin's Thirsty Pagan, an "India Weiss Ale" made with "good hops." As one would hope, the IWA was sort of like a weiss, sort of like an IPA and the first Weiss that Randy like at GTMW. The taste: kind of a lemony bitter up front and in back, making for a nicely balanced brew.

 
I then came to the Town Hall Brewery from Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I enjoyed their Smoked Porter, which I could barely taste. This of course had nothing to do with the quality of beer but rather that it was almost closing time at GTMW.

 
Reminding us of the Bierleichen at Munich's Oktoberfest, we couldn't help taking a picture of this amateur GTMW attendee who threw in the towel about a half-hour before the festival's closing.

 
Our final stop was at Monroe, Wisconsin's Minhas Craft Brewery. The people behind the very economical Rheinlander and Huber Bock only had two beers on tap at GTMW, and I had the 1846 All Malt Pilsner, which was good and a refreshing end to the fest.

 
Though we didn't stop by their booth, here is a photo of the bus from Tyranena Brewing Company in Lake Mills, Wisconsin.
After the blast we had at GTMW, it was back on the bus followed by an hour-long nap, viewing of Animal House and my successful attempt at holding it in all the way back to the Goose Island Brewpub in Chi-town.

Not Pictured:

  • The sometimes impressive, self-constructed pretzel necklaces worn by GTMW veterans, provide a much-needed "cut" to all the strong beer at the fest, particularly as the complimentary rye bread found at most booths ran out approximately 20 minutes after the fest began.
  • The port-a-potties are surprisingly numerous and line-free—something that the organizers of AleFest need to learn from.

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