Great Taste of the Midwest

Olin-Turville Park
Madison, WI
August 8, 2009

The 23rd annual Great Taste of the Midwest Beer Festival recently took place in one of Chicago’s most beautiful northwest suburbs: Madison, Wisconsin. This year’s event brought together 120 of the Midwest’s finest craft brewers and over 6,000 beer aficionados from 35 states, Puerto Rico, Germany, and the Netherlands eager to sample their liquid wares. Counted among the lucky few were Chicago Bar Project creator Sean Parnell (his GTMW recap) and yours truly. Together, we encountered stifling heat, mild dehydration, men in ill-fitting lederhosen, and some of the best brews found anywhere. What follows are some selected thoughts, notes and anecdotes.

These guys run a tight ship: Though the festival took place on (soggy) land, it was smooth sailing all the way and the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild can be thanked for that. Let this be a lesson for outdoor event planners everywhere: excellent crowd control, well laid-out, free water, plenty of clean port-o-johns, and noticeable but not oppressive security. The next time I’m waiting 20 minutes for the bathroom at a Chicago neighborhood street festival, I’ll think fondly of the GTMW.

Pretzel necklaces: Edible, homemade jewelry was easily the fashion accessory of the day. The tradition dates back to the fest’s early days, before food vendors were incorporated, and involves nothing more than a piece of string and some salted munchies. Portable, practical and tasty, this McGuyver-like drinking innovation should be shared with the world.

The Chicago Connection: Chicago was well represented by a number of brewpubs and craft brewers. Once, you had to look around the globe to find a quality brew. Now, you need only look down the block.

America’s Brewing Co. – A number of fine beers that have won four World Beer Cup gold medals, which are brewed at and served at Walter Payton’s Roundhouse in west suburban Aurora.

Flossmoor Station Brewing Company – Another award-winning brewpub in the south suburbs, easily accessible from downtown Chicago via Metra’s University Park Line. (Chicago Availability: Weegee’s, Sheffield’s)

Goose Island Beer Company – The craft brewer that began Chicago’s beer renaissance. Their numerous beers, such as 312 and Honkers Ale, are available throughout Chicagoland as well as their namesake brewpubs.

Half Acre Beer Company – Another formidable newcomer to the local suds scene. I did not sample these at the fest, but I’ve previously tried their Half Acre Lager and Daisy Cutter Pale Ale and enjoyed both greatly. (Chicago Availability: D4, Red Ivy, Coq d’Or)

Harrison’s Brewing Company (Orland Park) – You’ll have to travel to the south suburbs to taste their complex Black Diamond Stout and other selections.

Metropolitan Brewing – This husband & wife operation is among the newest entrants on the Chicago beer scene. I savored their hoppy and refreshing Dynamo Copper Lager. (Chicago Availability: Fireside, aliveOne, Quenchers)

Two Brothers Brewing Co. (Warrenville) – I was lucky enough to taste their special pouring of their Kriek beer that is cask-aged for 3 years. Flavor notes as complex as any wine, but at this point on a 90�day some of the subtleties were lost on me. (Chicago Availability: Clark Street Ale House, Dunlay’s)

Best in Show? Hell if I know. We gave it the old college try, but with over 500 beers available not even Charles Bukowski and Nelson Algren in their primes could have sampled everything on hand. Not to mention that my palate is not quite at the Big League level, so any comments are strictly the humble opinion of my taste buds. But among those I was fortunate enough to sample, a few memorable beers—not previously mentioned —stand out:

New Holland Brewery (Holland, MI) I’ve long been a fan of this brewers products, which I believe are every bit the equal of better known Michigan brewer, Bells. That we were able to try both the 2007 and 2009 vintages of their special Dragon’s Milk Stout didn’t hurt my opinion one bit. (Chicago Availability: Edgewater Lounge, Bottom Lounge, Raven’s)

New Glarus Brewing Co. (New Glarus, WI) Owing to their local popularity, half the taps were empty by the time I arrived. Their Stone Soup Abbey Style Ale, reminiscent of Chimay, was not to my tastes, but it will probably be to yours if you like Belgian beer. (Not available in Chicago since 2002, but the next time you’re in the dairy state…)

Atwater Block Brewery (Detroit, MI) – Vanilla Java Porter: A flavor absolutely true to its name. They also served plenty of Voodoo Vator Doublebock High-Gravity Lager. The “high-gravity” refers to the beer’s impressive 9.5% alcohol content. Finally, something Detroit can be proud of besides the Red Wings. (Chicago Availability: “coming soon”)

Lakefront Brewery (Milwaukee, WI) – The city that gave us Blatz, PBR and Schlitz has come a long way, baby. (Chicago Availability: Quenchers, Five Star)

Sherwood Brewing Co. (Shelby, MI) Mistress Jade’s Hemp Ale – A crisp, dry American Ale with a noticeable “greenness” that alludes to its memorable name. I did not observe any illicit effects from drinking this beer, though I did suffer a brief craving for Taco Bell. (Chicago Availability: seeking a distributor)

A beer by any other name wouldn’t taste as sweet: Early in the fest, I stopped by Millstream Brewing Company of Amana, Iowa. Though this Amish Country brewer is a four-time gold medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival, tasters were in short supply for their Old Colony Stout and John’s Generations White Ale—the stout was excellent by the way. (Chicago Availability: West Lakeview Liquors; bars n/a)

At the adjacent booth, the Surly Brewing Co. of Minneapolis, with beers named Furious IPA, Bender Brown Ale and Cynic Ale, had lines that were continually 20 deep. Is Surly Beer 20 times better than Millstream? Doubtful, but the long lines precluded me from making a direct comparison at the fest—too many other fine beverages to sample. Since Surly is readily available in Chicago, I will rectify that situation and report back in short order. (Chicago Availability: Handlebar, Local Option, Twisted Spoke, etc.)

So, what’s in a name? Everything.

The Last Sip: For a beer lover, it’s hard to imagine an afternoon better spent, and at $35 for five hours of unlimited sampling, this is the beer drinking equivalent of eating at Charlie Trotter’s and paying for Old Country Buffet. The mantra for many a long-suffering Cubs fan is “wait ’til next year.” But for the 2010 Great Taste of the Midwest, I can’t.