I have to admit that it is really difficult to write a review of this year's Great Taste of the Midwest. Why? I can't really put my finger on it, but it doesn't seem to me that there was a whole lot to review about it; it's sort of like trying to explain why something didn't happen (like additional terrorist attacks in the wake of 9/11).
But I'll take a crack anyway.
One of the things that most stood out to me was the complete lack of any blockbuster "big beers" or trends this years. There was nothing that I heard "buzzed" about; no "you gotta try this" or "holy crap that was amazing". In previous years Vanilla Dark Lord or Cask Furious or whatever were all the rage. This year? Nothing really stood head and shoulders about the rest.
I think this says a lot about Midwestern beer actually. I think it says: a) many breweries are "catching up" to the big boys - we aren't just dominated by 3 Floyds, New Glarus, Bells, Great Lakes, Founders, etc. most every brewery is making good to great beer that can sit side-by-side with the best; b) the beer tends to be fairly homogeneous - (not homogenized) in other words, few breweries really stand out with niche production of a specialized type (see, e.g., Jolly Pumpkin) - every brewery has an IPA, a Belgian of some sort, maybe a lager, something that makes a passing attempt a sour (more on this in a minute).
So, to try to "make up" some form of differentiation ended up as this year's biggest "fail" - putting weird shit in beer. Last year, of course, had the all-time winner in this category with a "peanut butter stout", but I saw a lot of breweries putting weird shit - and by "weird shit" I mean things like blueberries, hyacinth, elderberries, raspberries, orange blossoms, tangerine, jalapenos, etc. (fruit and flower adjuncts) - into otherwise perfectly fine pale ales, golden ales, porters, stouts, etc. Indeed Dark Horse Brewing from Marshall, MI even managed to use Cinnamon Red Hots in a beer for the weekend's biggest WTF moment.
It wasn't all terrible - some breweries make a living doing this very, very well - Dave's BrewFarm and Shorts among them. But for many, it was simply not particularly good, or questionable and boring at best.
Thankfully most breweries have dialed down the sour beer with all but the best continuing their sour production. Breweries like Brugge Brasserie (Indianapolis, IN) and De Stihl (Normal, IL) and Jolly Pumpkin (Dexter, MI) and Goose Island (Chicago/Belgium/Brazil) had some of the best.
Indeed, this year's "Winning" beer (imho, of course), Saison De Ruisseau, came from De Stihl. The Saison was full-flavored and complex with a distinct but not overpowering sour tuck to it. I enjoyed every sip of it.
Speaking of enjoying every sip. I will close with the biggest frustration of the day and something that the event organizers need to address for a variety of reasons: pour sizes. I had breweries (Goose Island, I'm looking at you! They were merely the most egregious - almost every brewery was guilty) that poured me nearly a full f-ing glass of beer. I dumped most of it on the ground. It was fine beer, it's not like it was bad, but I don't want or need that much beer. It's called the Great TASTE of the Midwest. 3-4oz pours tops. It's not only a complete waste of beer, but it prevents people from enjoying all of the beer available and it's a huge waste of my entry fee*.
The event organizers need to stress to the breweries to pour tastes not full (or even half-full) glasses. When designing a glass put a marker on the glass for the breweries to use when filling.
*Prices for the Great Taste have gone up because the event needs to pay for all of the beer that the breweries bring. If a brewery pours 5 kegs of something, the event pays for all 5 kegs. If the brewery is pouring too much and you're throwing 3/4 of the beer on the ground, they (the brewery) could have poured properly and only brought 2 kegs and eliminated the waste. Then the event would only pay for 2 kegs and your ticket prices wouldn't have to go up every year.
Vintage Brewing Co. definitely took the day with the Best Booth - a full Vintage bar with 2 complete sets of tap lines (over 25 total taps), couches, tables, chairs, and fish bowls. I love it when breweries recognize the value of the Great Taste and take advantage of the marketing opportunity presented to them.
The GTMW iOS and Android app was a solid success. I didn't use it because I don't have a need for it, but those that did found it very useful for their purposes. Some things to think about for next year: reminders for beers that are on a schedule and more use of q-codes either in the guide or, preferably, at the booths.
Finally, there needs to be more thought/advertising/information about the education tent - it was quite the poor state this year with attendees barely paying attention and those that were unable to hear or understand anything being said.