Throughout the summer we'll be making some beer related day-trip suggestions for you. There are some great breweries, brewpubs, museums, and beerfests to love out there. We'll try to focus on the non-obvious - no one needs to tell you to go to the Great Taste of the Midwest in Madison (sold out) or the Wisconsin Microbrewers Beer Fest in Chilton (sold out).
What do you have going on June 14th? Nothing? Didn't think so. It's the end of school, the beginning of summer, no one's really figured out what to do yet. The weekend is free.
So, head on up to Eagle River and go to the Great Northern Beer Festival and start your summer in the Northwoods a mere 18 miles from the Upper Peninsula border. From Madison, it is a 225 mile drive (about $30 in gas); from Milwaukee it is 269 miles (about $35); from La Crosse, it is 245 miles (about $32).
Tickets are $20 if you order ahead of time, $25 at the gate. You can camp at the beerfest grounds.
I talked with Bill Summers, one of the founding committee members of the beer festival running in its second year.
MBR: How long has this festival been running?
Mr. Summers: This is actually the second year for the Great Northern Beer Festival. There was a previous beer fest committee in Eagle River that had disbanded and reformed to create this event.
MBR: What prompted its beginnings?
S: My wife and I had gone to a number of beer festivals and thought it would be a great event to add to the long list of Eagle River events. We mentioned it to some other people that had similar interests and got the ball rolling. The only thing we didn't think of is that we would be raising money in the process. Last year we were able to give 7 different local organizations $1000 each.
MBR: What breweries were initially involved?
S: Berghoff, Capital, Falls, Gluek, Leinenkugel's, Log Jam, Muskie Capital, New Glarus, Nicolet, Stevens Point, Red Hook, Sand Creek, South Shore and Sprecher. (Log Jam, Nicolet and most recently Falls are no longer in operation). We have added a number of other breweries since. The line-up changes a little every year.
MBR: What breweries are involved this year?
S: Angry Minnow Brewery, August Schell, Bull Falls, Capital, Central Waters, Goose Island, JT Whitneys, Keweenaw, Leinie's, Minocqua, Muskie Capital, New Glarus, O'So, Red Hook, Sand Creek, South Shore, Sprecher, Stevens Point, Summit, Tyranena
MBR: Do you see this mostly as a showcase for the North Woods breweries?
S: We feel that our event is more a celebration & appreciation of beer and it's breweries. Locals get a chance to try beers from all over the midwest, and vacationers who are from all over the midwest get to try our locally brewed beers. It's a great fit.
MBR: Do you try to focus on any one type of brewery?
S: Well, we try to keep our event as genuine as possible. What I mean by that is we prefer to feature craft breweries, microbreweries and brew pubs. We also prefer to have the the breweries represent themselves versus a volunteer or distributor pouring the beer. That way you get to talk to brewery reps and sometimes even the brewers themselves.
MBR: Do you ask the breweries to bring any special kind of beers?
S: Since our event is near the start of the Summer season most breweries will bring their "Summer Seasonal" beers. We are very appreciative that the breweries have donated their time to come up here (especially with the current gas prices) and hope they bring the beers that they feel best represent their brewery.
MBR: Where do your customers come from? North woods? Wisconsin? Minnesota? Michigan? Further away?
S: We get people from all over the midwest and beyond. Quite a few come from the Twin Cities, the greater Milwaukee area, Chicago and Madison.
MBR: What's the deal with the Homebrewer's Exhibition?
S: The Homebrewer's Exhibition started with a guy who knew a guy who knew another guy who homebrewed. They got together and decided to show off their brewing talents by giving away samples of their brews. Some have won national awards from the AHA so there are some pretty good homebrews at our event. They have now formed a local homebrew club (Northwoods Lush Inc.- Lazy Unmotivated Society of Homebrewers, Indecisive Non Committal) and will be representing their club at this year's event.
MBR: Is there a competition associated with the festival?
S: No, there isn't a competition at this time, although the subject has been brought up; maybe in the future.
MBR: Any music or bands?
S: We have had bagpipers walking around the festival grounds which always makes for some great photo ops...gotta love those kilts.
Last year, Hi-Pines Campground hired a local band to play background music, kind of an instrumental jam, during the event. We prefer not to have music inside the tents to allow for conversations between brewers and those who attend. The band then sticks around for a post event session. It's a great way to unwind after the festival.
MBR: What percentage of people camp?
S: I'm not sure what percentage camp but the campground is pretty full as of today. There may be a few open sites, but not many. The campground fills up fast ... Once word got out that our event was going to be at a campground we were overwhelmed by the amount of emails and calls telling us it was the best location we could possibly have.
MBR: What's the over-night environment like? Partying and genial conviviality? Quiet solitude?
S: Contrary to popular belief, the campground is quite passive as evening sets in. This is one of the virtues of a majority beer festival attendees ... they are here for the beer but are mostly responsible beer drinkers. Quite a departure from the average bar crowd.
MBR: Any particularly interesting stories of the past couple of years?
S: Haha! Check out www.greatnorthernbeerfestival.com and click on the "slideshow" bottlecap on the left. You'll see all kinds of stories. I will tell you this, there is a group of people that come every year, I think they are all cousins, and it's kind of a family reunion weekend for them. They make up matching shirts every year. Great people, lots of fun. We expect them back again this year; can't wait to see their shirts!
MBR: Anything I missed that you want to make sure gets mentioned?
S: The local Jaycees organization does a great job selling food items, including pretzel necklaces and walking tacos. They keep 100% of the money they raise; we are happy to have them there.
Our event has gone to great lengths to make sure everyone has a good time. Besides campers being able to stay virtually on the festival grounds, we also organize a "Beer Bus Shuttle" that is free to anyone that is staying at any of the participating hotels in Eagle River. They get picked up at their hotel and dropped off after the festival. We also allow designated drivers in free. I don't know of any other beer festival anywhere that offers camping, hotel shuttles and free admission for DDs.
Thanks for your interest...I hope I was able to answer your questions!