The English Barleywine is Alive, and the West Coast IPA is Endangered – Trends Noted at the 2023 Great Taste of the Midwest

The English Barleywine is Alive, and the West Coast IPA is Endangered – Trends Noted at the 2023 Great Taste of the Midwest

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Seeing trends in beer isn’t easy, and more often than not, just plain impossible. Styles merge and diverge, sometimes new things pop out of nowhere. When you live in one place and visit local breweries, you’re really just seeing a slice of what’s out there, even with many breweries doing their best to keep up with the new trends.

By brewing a bunch of fruited smoothie beers, taps are no longer available for an alt bier or a gruit. When three IPAs on tap follow the lead of the New England, then it’s less likely that you’ll also find an ESB or a Northern English Brown ale. It’s rare that you get to see a large enough group of beers that you can pick out styles that seem to be on the rise or styles that are in danger. Of course, there’s always the all-the-rage style, like a New England IPA, that comes on quick and dominates. But even within a style, subtle changes and different wording makes it harder to pick out trends.

Walter and I had the rare opportunity this past weekend to see a group of breweries and beers that was large enough that, with a good deal of walking and tasting, certain trends made themselves know. I’m speaking of the Great Taste of the Midwest, held each August in Olin Park, next to Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin. Right at 200 breweries and north of 1800 beers means that we got to see a pretty good slice of what’s happening in the beer world.

Beer, food, entertainment, space, shade – Great Taste has it all. image credit: Milwaukee Magazine

What’s even more helpful is that many of the breweries at Great Taste change each year. So many breweries want to participate that many have to go into a lottery each year – they have a lottery for rookie breweries, and another lottery for the majority of returning breweries (only the few original participants are allowed to come each year). This ensures that nothing about Great Taste gets stale or repetitive.

A program of breweries and scheduled beers (things do change) are published the week of the event, so if you want to take a look for trend, you do have a narrow opportunity. However, written description or names are often not sufficient for telling you what you’re going to be drinking – especially in the land of the IPA. Styles can be fluid; I actually saw a wine barrel aged, dry hopped light lager – what?

There are keys to attacking a festival as big as Great Taste of the Midwest so that you can maximize your study. First, drink your rinse water at every turn – waiting to get a glass or bottle of water means you will have missed many chances to hydrate. Two, ask for a splash of each beer, not a full pour. BJCP judges tell me that you can learn all you need to know about a beer from a single ounce – make them count – and pour out more beer than you drink. And three, read the entire board at every place you stop; ask questions; learn about the brewery and the people. The more you know, the more informed fan you will become.

Walter and I work as a team at these events. We each try a different beer, and then switch so we both get a taste. We discuss them with the staff if they have time, and we discuss them with each other. Since Walter tends toward the hoppy beers and I like the malty beers better, we end up with a great diversity of experience. At Great Taste, the work begins early and goes late, with our media passes getting us on the grounds at 10:30am, and the event lasting through 6pm, but it helps us to cover the large area and the massive number of choices.

It was a gorgeous day with a gorgeous view. image credit: @fxtech_paul

Like I said, a decent 5000 foot view of the state of brewing can be gleaned at an event the size of Great Taste, and it does tend to help that the fest is in a beautiful park next to the lake – the views and the breeze keep you refreshed. With our plan underway and a gorgeous sky above, we had a great time and learned a lot.

The first thing we noted is that there are still breweries that make beer flavored beer (a recent favorite phrase of mine). There weren’t too many Scottish ales or dortmunder lagers, or English milds, but when you added them all together, the historical and classic styes were well represented. I look hard for the wee heavies and the alt biers, but not so much for the barrel-aged versions of the big malt beers. I do note them as being there, but tasting too many can shorten your day considerably.

I’m happy to report that one of my favorite styles, the English Barleywine, is alive and well. We had no fewer than nine of them during the festival, some barrel-aged, and some merely aged exquisitely from 2-5 years (of special note was the Big Willy Style from Fifth Ward Brewing in Oshkosh). They had been treated so well, picking up some sherry notes over time and giving no hint of oxidation. I also found a very good number of wild ales – the beers made with characterized or uncharacterized yeast/bacteria loads, some foeder-aged, some brewed with a solera method. These are so very different than the fruit sours and kettle sours, and it’s great to have breweries like Perennial, Forager, and Destihl there. Oh, that foeder-aged Flanders from Imperial Oak Brewing….wow!

Harder to find and define are the West Coast IPAs that Walter loves so much. You could just look at the program and count the beers called West Coast IPAs, but it’s not as easy as looking up how many barleywines might be there. Walter asked for several West Coasts that turned out to be hazy (not from moving the keg) and juicy. An “American IPA” can now encompass just about anything that isn’t uber-malty, so you have to find out more than just a style/description. We actually had several beers that pourers described as West Coast hazies or West Coast juicies – that doesn’t compute in the Walter brain.

A Pourer from Mickey Finn’s at GTMW. Of course, he brought two hazy IPAs. image credit: Walter

We found 21 beers that were true West Coast IPAs at the festival, and believe me, we were looking hard. That’s not many for a festival of over 1800 beers. And the paucity of West Coast IPAs wasn’t limited to this festival alone; we found even fewer at the large Michigan Brewers Guild Summerfest in Ypsilanti three weeks ago.

On the other hand, IPAs described as juicy, hazy, or New England were so abundant at the fest – over 200 by my count. That’s more than 11% of all the beers at the festival. That’s not a complaint, I’m glad people love these beers and that Great Taste has many to offer. I just wish there was room for the West Coasts as well – especially since this is a “classic” style that did so much to grow the craft beer.

Yes, you can still get great national West Coast IPAs – Stone IPA, Union Jack, Ruination, etc., and we’re lucky enough to have some great ones here locally, like Nectar of the Gods from Pax Verum Brewing and Rubicon from 18th Street Brewery. There have been some articles (here and here and here) talking about the resurgence of the West Coast, but as far as we can see, it hasn’t taken hold in the greater Midwest.

Finally, Madison’s premier festival showed us the strength of the lagers. The craft beer industry maturation has mirrored the popular idea of the evolution of the individual craft beer fan – from lager to IPA to stout to sour and back to lager. We had great dry hopped lagers, dortmunders, pilsners, helles lagers, dunkels….. a high percentage of the breweries attending had at least one lager on the board. Walter and I are glad to see it for a few reasons: 1) they show that a brewery can make classic beer that you can’t hide behind, 2) they allow for a great variety of styles, 3) and they are often more crushable, so you can go longer and harder with them.

Great Taste of the Midwest was once again a great time, and we highly recommend that you try to get tickets for the 2024 edition. In addition to the actual festival, they have a list of events around town called Great Taste of the Midwest Eve which are fun, and the bottle shares at the nearby hotels are worth it as well. The people are nice, the city is supportive, plus, its run by the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild, a local homebrew club, and they donate at least $30,000 to local charities each year. It all makes you want to keep coming back.

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