15 Aug Great Taste of the Midwest: A Bucket List Festival and Two Great Reunions with Friends
People have told Walter and me for years that Great Taste of the Midwest was their favorite regional festival. I can see now why they made such bold statements. Walter and I have been to more craft beer festivals that we could count (the last total number of festival glasses we have displayed was somewhere around 150), but Great Taste is an instant classic for us and was one heck of a weekend.
Saturday’s celebration was the 35th iteration of GTMW; any festival that old must have been started by homebrewers – and so it was. The Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild, a group formed, “to aid and educate members in the appreciation and legal production of fermented malt beverages, including those brewed at home and those brewed commercially,” puts on this festival each year. The members of the club volunteer their time and efforts to put on what has become a massive event, and it supports several local charities with the proceeds of the event.
The club is large as well, it would have to be. Putting on a festival is no small task, and one this large (limited to 10,000 attendees each year) brings with it several logistical nightmares. More on this later, but they handled it as the seasoned pros they are. But before talking about the festival proper, we had a great time on the way up to Wisconsin and had dinner with a recently re-located friend, These are worth discussing.
Avoiding Chicago is always a goal of ours when driving north, so we headed over toward Bloomington, IL and then up through Rockford and into Wisconsin. Heading up early allowed us some time for Great Taste of the Midwest Eve Events in Madison, but it also limited the number of places to hit up on the way north because it was early in the day. Nevertheless, we found great places to land – including Lil’Beaver Brewery in Bloomington. Lil’ Beaver was one of the first year breweries featured at A Taproom in Indianapolis, so we had drunk their beer before, but hadn’t visited the brewery.
Lil’ Beaver is a very well designed space, with a patio, large open spaces in the taproom, and even a patio entrance to the bathrooms. The taproom was buzzing on a Friday at 11am, with people doing either lunch with beers or just beers for lunch. We did flights and some chorizo dip and had a nice conversation with the crew. Owner Chad Bevers had already left for Madison, so there wasn’t an opportunity to talk to him or see the brewhouse – but still, a wonderful visit.
We stopped at Tangled Roots Brewing in Ottawa and PigMinds Brewing in Rockford before we hit the Wisconsin line, but then things got serious with a stop at New Glarus Brewing. Experienced craft fans don’t need New Glarus explained to them, but for those new to the game or more Indiana-centric, New Glarus is a fantastic brewery known for it’s lack of distribution outside Wisconsin. The brewery is gorgeous, and they do package sales and tastings in interesting ways. There is a self guided tour, but you have to plan well because they close at 5pm sharp each day, and they haven’t been open on the weekends since reopening after Covid.
We tasted beer, we bought beer, and we explored the grounds and buildings, but our visit had a larger purpose as well. Jack Sramek, late of Bad Dad Brewery in Fairmount, recently took a job at New Glarus Brewing and we wanted to meet up with him and see how he was doing….he’s doing great.
Jack loves the work, loves having set hours, and he has been enjoying the woodsy areas of Wisconsin for great hiking. New Glarus is employee owned, and the majority stockholders (Deb and Dan Carey) are sticklers for making sure that employees have adequate off time. Come 5pm, people go home (except for the split shift brewers, they finish around 7pm) or go off to hobbies or family. Jack smiles big when he says that he’s actually considering some homebrewing again because he isn’t spending so many hours in the brewery, and the different lifestyle has actually sparked the urge to get out into the garage again.
Jack met us after closing for a great German style dinner at Glarner Stube in the picturesque town of New Glarus, and we discussed the beer, the town and brewery, and all things Indiana and Wisconsin beer. It was such a good time, and excellent evidence that Jack made the best choice for himself at this point in his career. Since Great Taste of the Midwest is now going to be a yearly trek for us, we’ll be able to check in with Jack more often and see how things are progressing.
The short trip to Madison from New Glarus was accomplished and we stopped at Funk Factory Geuzeria for the largest of the GTMW Eve events. I tried a few things from around the region, but really wanted to do more versions of one of my favorite beers of all time – Meerts. We did several, and it was a heck party and was a great harbinger of the good time to be had at the festival. We made the short walk back to our hotel and saw more brewery t-shirts than one could imagine – everyone was carrying coolers and starting impromptu bottle shares in nearly every corner.
Late Saturday morning we walked over to Olin Park and checked in at the courtesy gate for our media passes. This is where we started to learn how well this event was put together. Everything was highly organized, and even though the grounds were huge (imagine double the size of Military Park, even if you used every square inch of that Indy location). They take in the beer and deliver it to most of the booths on the morning of the event, no small task and the major thing the first UnTappd Festival bombed. They have literally hundreds of volunteers taking care of every aspect of the event, and all those volunteers were extremely knowledgable and nice. Checking in 10,000 people went smoothly, with a huge corral and everyone got in quickly at 1pm.
There were seven massive tents with 20-30 vendors each, and other vendors spread out in their own canopy tents. The brochure had not only the list of brewers, but also all the beers they were pouring. As we walked around the grounds and talked to the breweries, it was nice to see that they were almost all people from those particular breweries, not volunteers who had no idea what they were pouring (there were some, but not many). I couldn’t possible go through all the people we met and beers/breweries we tried, but suffice it to say that we enjoyed the day immensely and now count it amongst our favorite events.
We saw people we knew, including folks from the seven different Indiana breweries (3 Floyds, Byway, Broad Ripple Brewpub, Mad Anthony, Shoreline, Lafayette, and Sun King) at the fest, and people from around several states that we know from both sides of the pouring table. It was great to run into Alex Decaudin (once of Bier Brewery) – it’s been a while since anyone lifted me off the ground in a hug. Alex is now the third shift supervising brewer at Lagunitas Chicago and he’s loving it. He’s over the moon about the products he’s making, and is happy to be where he is and doing what he’s doing.
As for 2023, I’m going to appeal to some additional breweries in Indiana to make the trek to pour at the event – our beer is too good not to be putting it on display at a festival like this – hey Hog Molly, Dot & Line, 2Toms, Guggman House, Deviate, Switchyard, Blockhead, Elm Street – it would be great to see some or all of you at GTMW next year – we’ll be there for sure.
BTW – we tried four pickle beers on Saturday. None of them were great – one was passable and three were just brine. If you want a pickle beer (and you should), get the hot pickle sour from Rian Umbach at Field Brewing.