Another year, another Great Taste in the books. 2010 marked my 5th consecutive year attending the granddaddy of regional beer festivals. With my Wooden Anniversary has come a new perspective on the fest as well as a different plan-of-attack, or more accurately - lack-thereof.
After a few years of arriving in-line early enough to be among the first few dozens of entrants, allowing for plenty of time to scour the program and plot a course and schedule special releases, recent years have devolved into more of a wander until something catches your eye or your beer is empty and you spot the nearest vacant booth strategy. In my advanced age (I'm 26 - yeah, I know - shut up already, kid) I just can't be bothered to join the crush and wait 15 minutes in the cattle line for another sample of Dark Lord or its ilk. I've had it, it's great, but there are hundreds of other beers that I haven't tried and likely never will if not at this fest.
Trying to carouse with and/or guide a growing list of friends, beer acquaintances and roommates also made it tough to stick to any coherent route or schedule. Sure, I missed a lot of fun and rare special releases from the heavy-hitters like Surly, Founders, Three Floyd's and the like, but I also stumbled upon some hidden gems from lesser-known breweries that I had yet to discover and at this point in my Great Taste career, frankly, that's just more appealing. Anyhow, on to my impressions from this 24th iteration of the Great Taste of the Midwest:
Sour grains - Every brewer and their brother brought a sour beer or 3 to this years fest. Certainly, the modern beer nerd's palate has grown much more accommodating to the funkier side of brewing in recent years. I've made it a point to head straight for the Real Ale tent when I enter the fest the past couple of years as some of the more interesting recent offerings have poured from these gravity-fed, softly-carbonated, slightly-warmer vessels. My first beer of the fest this year was a cask gueze from Kuhnhenn Brewing out of Warren, MI. It fell a bit flat, both in tongue-twisting funk and carbonation, but it was fun to see American craft brewers tackle this challenging Belgian farmhouse lambic style (unfortunately, I missed New Glarus' R&D Gueuze, which seemed to be a resounding success). Plenty of buzz surrounded Brugge Brasserie's sour offerings, especially Pooka, their boysenberry sour (which I regrettably missed) and their secret, by-request-only Spider, which rivaled New Belgium's La Folie in the masochistic acetic acid tongue-torture quotient.
Smoke in the water - Another modern trend in craft brewing has brought rauchbier into the relative mainstream. Once a German niche, smoked beers are more and more prevalent every season and its a movement I fully endorse. Minneapolis' Town Hall Brewery brought a Smoked Hefeweizen this year that struck a nice balance between rich, meaty smoke and the light body and fruity esters you expect from a German-style weizen. I also managed to stumble upon Blind Tiger Brewery in Topeka, KS, who brought its GABF Gold Medal-winning Smokey the Beer. Smokey didn't disappoint with a light, crisp body billowing with smoky goodness. One of my overall favorites from the fest and perhaps only my second sample at the Real Ale tent after crashing the gates was Fat Heads Brewery's (Ohio) Smoke and Burn Porter - a version of their Up in Smoke Porter aged in bourbon barrels with chipotle peppers. Smoke and heat in one beer? SOLD.
Honey/Crisp - Meads and Ciders have long had a presence at the taste with standout examples from Wisconsin's own White Winter Winery and AEppelTreow Winery often being some of the more memorable and palate-soothing samples I enjoy. Michigan's B. Nektar Meadery has added to the stand-out mead presence in recent years as well. This year, Kentucky's Cumberland Brewery brought a refreshing Huckleberry Meade and I know I tipped a few other passable meads from other enterprising breweries this past weekend.
- Fat Heads Cask Smoke and Burn Bourbon Barrel Chipotle Porter
- O'so Spike's Maple Sap - brewed with 100% maple sap instead of water and aged on maple chips. Like drinking maple butterscotch, but in a good way
- Titletown India Ink - super roasty black IPA doesn't hold back with the schwaarzbier-esque malt profile and a nice piney hop character
- Central Waters Brewhouse Coffee Stout - if you haven't had this yet, FIX THAT. Purest coffee flavor in a beer I've ever experienced. I ended my taste with a full 8oz pour to facilitate the post-fest wake-up process.
- Ill-conceived sour beers - just because you can throw some wild yeast in a tank doesn't mean you should. These beers are intricate and finnicky and take years of practice and honed technique to get right. We don't need every Brewpub 'N Steakhaus inflicting their infected experiments on us. Use them in your house salad vinaigrette and leave these to the experts until you're ready. /endrant
- Peanut butter beers - more of them every year, still yet to try one that wasn't either 'meh' or 'blech!'
- Giant tasting glasses - It's an attractive little mini-stein that I will be happy to use for personal tastings and sharing big beers, but it's just too damn big for a beer fest of this nature. Too many generous 7oz pours that I had to dump on the ground for my own health. As soon as I saw it I knew it was going to be trouble.