26 August 2010

The Beer Geeks Take Madison: Madison and Great Taste of the Midwest

I went to Madison looking for hookers and meth.

The brewers kept the hookers busy all weekend, so that was a no go.

And I found something worse than meth:

Cheese curds.

Given that I was in Madison for the Great Taste of the Midwest beer festival, you would think I would have gotten sick on the massive consumption of beer that I was destined to participate in. On the contrary, it was the massive amount of cheese that I consumed on Friday that left me in pain Friday night. I warn you, if you plan on making a trip to Madison, beware the squeaky cheese.

(For the record, the best deep fried cheese curds that I had were at the Old Fashioned bar and restaurant. Add some Sriracha sauce on top of them, and you will have a flavor explosion in your mouth.)

If you are able to control your consumption of cheese, the next thing you should be warned of is the massive amount of quality beer that you have available for you. And I’m not just talking about the Great Taste. Our drinking explorations consisted of downtown Madison and the stretch of State Street that connects to the University of Wisconsin.

Every establishment in that area has good beer. EVERY ESTABLISHMENT. You don’t have to search out good beer; good beer finds you. Good beer is the Chuck Norris of Madison.

Breakfast at Marigold Kitchen? Good beer was there!

Late night at a hole in the wall dive bar called Paradise? Good beer was there!

Wasting time in the hotel bar? GOOD BEER WAS THERE!

You would have to look hard in Madison to find a bar that serves nothing but the swill you find at most bars in Indianapolis and the rest of Indiana. To me, that is just impressive.

And many places have beer menus that are longer than their wine lists, which is a nice change. The Old Fashioned, aside from making great old fashioneds, has dozens of taps of Wisconsin beers plus a hundred or more bottled beers. The Coopers Tavern, aside from having an excellent gastropub food menu, also has plenty of beers for your enjoyment. And the Great Dane makes some stellar English-style ales for their four locations.

Madison can definitely be enjoyed on non-Great Taste weekends.

But if you are up for Great Taste, make sure you go out and enjoy the Friday night brewery events. These mini-beer festivals give you the opportunity to try different breweries and the variety of beers they bring. Drinking the bourbon barrel beers from Central Waters and the Key Lime Pie beer from Short's stands out in my mind.

There is a lot to enjoy in and around Madison and I would recommend it to everyone. Even if you don’t have Great Taste tickets, going up that weekend would be entertaining with the pre- and post-festival parties.

Plus, you might find an old Englishman selling tickets right outside the festival gate.

I've been looking forward to the Great Taste for so long. I've tried for three years before this year to get tickets in the online ticket lottery, but I never had any luck. I was just so focused on the beer fest, and I didn't expect anything from the city of Madison. That was a huge mistake on my part.

The city of Madison has such a great vibe. We stayed right on the square overlooking the beautiful state capital building. My first experience was at the Great Dane pub just off of downtown. I've never seen another brewpub brew so many beers. I think they had somewhere near 12-15 of their own beers on tap! I tend to gravitate toward English style ales if I am drinking with friends, and the Great Dane's brews fit the bill perfectly. I loved that they served their beer in 20 oz. pints, they were all 5 bucks, and they were all served at cellar temperature. I probably had four of the Black Earth porters while I was there over two days. It was rich and robust with plenty of roasted malt and a gentle smokiness.

I had a chance to walk around the farmers market on Saturday morning as well. The farmers market completely wrapped around all four sides of the town square. The market just had an amazing feel of community. The prices were fantastic and I was able to grab a cup of coffee and a freshly baked blueberry scone and just wander around for over an hour. I wish I had been able to load up on all that fresh veg, but the car was already packed with beer. We have our priorities straight here at HBG.

The beer fest itself was also a really great experience. As Gina already stated, the feel of the people coming to the festival was something I've never really been able to encounter before. Most patrons of the fest really had a great knowledge of craft beer and styles, and they knew what they wanted. I was floored at all the intelligent questions I was getting when I was pouring for Brugge. I kept waiting for someone to walk up and ask me which beer had the most alcohol content, and then they wanted two of those. It never happened.

My personal highlights of the day:

Short's: S'mores Stout. I don't know how they do it, but I'll be damned if this beer didn't taste like a s'more. It wasn't cloying or overly sweet, but was really nice.

Short's: Black Cherry Porter. I like my porters and this one was a little smoky with a cherry sweetness.

New Glarus: Gueuze. It was fantastic and one of the best American examples of the style I've ever tasted. I would have guessed it came from Belgium if I didn't know it was from New Glarus.

Brugge: Pooka. It was so freaking hot under the tents pouring beer. The acidity was really what I needed while pouring. It was as refreshing as lemonade on a hot day, but with booze and boysenberries.

Revolution: Gomorrah. This was the small beer runoff of a bigger Russian imperial stout collaboration with Three Floyds. This beer was only 3.4% abv, but had a ton of roasted grain and an earthy hoppiness that I enjoyed.

I just had a fantastic time, and I honestly could go back to Madison without the beer fest and be very happy, but I hope I get to make it back again next year for Madison and the Great Taste.


  1. LOL...I forgot about the last picture. Good find Mike.

  2. I was highly impressed with Surly Two (and Four for that matter). The cranberries gave it a nice complex twist. Kuhnhenn had a Reese's Pieces beer that was pretty interesting. The O'so Bourbon Barrel Night Train was one of my favorites of the festival. Mikkeller / 3Floyds Ruggoop was also pretty great (stumbled upon that one early).

    One of my favorite things about this festival is the sheer volume of great beer. Try as hard as you want, you aren't going to be able to sample all the rare, aged or limited edition stuff, and that's part of what is great about it. It's like a beer scavenger hunt and everyone wins.