Monday, August 8, 2011

A Vision of The Future of The Great Taste of the Midwest

I will start this by saying that I am an active member of the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild ("MHTG"), the group that puts on the Great Taste of the Midwest ("GTMW") each and every year. Indeed, I often volunteer for the GTMW and I am involved with the MHTG's education committee. I am not, however, involved in the running of MHTG or GTMW; I do not sit on any board of either organization, I am not a czar of anything. I have no special insight, nor do I have any particular influence. This post is purely a musing about what I would personally like to see out of the GTMW and is not a comment on the management of the GTMW. [ed note: Bill Rogers, President of the GTMW for the past few years, is a co-organizer of Madison Craft Beer Week with MBR]

It seems inevitable to me, though, that GTMW become, formally, a multi-day event. All of the cool kids are doing it; see, for examples, the Great American Beer Fest in Denver (3 days, 4 sessions) and the Oregon Brewers Festival (4 days, Thurs-Sun). Even the un-cool kids are doing it; see, for example, Cleveland International Beer Fest (2 days, 3 sessions). Informally, of course, GTMW is already at least 2 days with Friday night dedicated to parties by some, but not all (or even many), of the breweries that participate in the festival itself. Related events are even bleeding into Thursday night and over into Sunday morning.

There are problems with being a multi-day festival.

First, it would involve even more planning than what already goes on. This is played out by some inherent requirements of a multi-day festival: increased security to guard beer overnight; increased coordination with breweries; increased coordination for even more volunteers.

Second, it would be difficult, though not impossible, to hold the event outdoors. While Portland hosts the Oregon Brewers Festival outdoors over multiple days, it seems like this would be fairly inefficient both for security purposes and for weather contingencies. While people are willing to put up with crappy, hot, humid, rainy, muggy, bug-ridden weather for one afternoon (a problem, for the most part, that doesn't exist in sunny Portland), being outside in the Madison summer for 2 or 3 days is not only uncomfortable for the attendees, but downright tortuous to the brewery reps and volunteers that would have to participate in all of the sessions.

Finally, Madison simply doesn't, in my opinion, have the infrastructure to support something too much bigger than what we already have. Public transport for venues that could even accommodate such a festival is laughable at best. None of the potential places that such an event could be held would be downtown proper; this means that participants either have to walk (from where?), ride a bike (all 30,000 of them? Denver gets 75,000 to GABF), or drive (a really bad idea). Without reasonable public transport (reliable bus service or light-rail service) capable of transporting large numbers of people, having an event of this size is almost impossible. Not to mention the dearth of hotels in Madison. Indeed, lack of infrastructure is the single biggest barrier to expanding GTMW.

The benefits of expanding GTMW are huge.

The economic benefit that GTMW brings to Madison is huge. For the first time, this year MHTG is going to survey the exact economic impact of GTMW. I am part of the team that will measure exactly how much money this event brings to the Madison area in hotel and spending dollars. If I were to guess, I'd put the number at millions. Doubling, tripling, or even quadrupling the size of the GTMW would bring many more millions of dollars to Madison; just as a note - GTMW currently hosts approximately 6,000 people and quadrupling it would only be 24,000 people, or approximately 1/3-1/4 the size of GABF.

But the economic impact is only the most immediate and publicly beneficial reason. Increasing the size and scope of GTMW would increase the stature of Midwestern beer and breweries, and Madison itself, as a home to great beer. Already recognized as good, solid, beer; the Midwest is often dismissed as the "red-headed step-child" of the beer industry - good, occasionally great, but often boring. A festival on the scale of GABF and OBF would bring respect and demonstrate the world that not only are there a whole host of great breweries here, but reveal that the ugliest secret of the brewing industry is that our "boring" beer is far better, on average, than the "boring" beer made by every brewery in the known universe (Green Flash,  Stone, Brooklyn, et al don't want you to know that their best-selling beers by volume, by far, are "boring" beers that don't make the A+ grades on BeerAdvocate and RateBeer).  This would attract more breweries and spur more growth in this nascent industry. Breweries are small businesses that drive plenty of job and tax dollars: brewery, distribution, and retail employees; excise taxes; business taxes; and community support are just a few of the ways that small breweries help their communities.

And last, but certainly not least: the biggest advantage of expanding the scope of GTMW is this: I'd get to go to a multi-day festival and not have to fly all the way to freaking Denver to do it.


  1. I've had the same thoughts as you--this is essentially a two-day fest now, so why not make it official? You bring up some excellent logistical points.

    Michigan's Brewers' Guild does one-day summer and winter beer fests. Not that this would be a snap logistically, but I wonder if the idea would have merit here?

  2. What about the brewers? Two days would be a huge commitment. GTMW does a great job of getting actual brewers and owners at the festival. Most of the brewers attending are small breweries. Asking them to give up two plus days of time, labor, and travel is a lot to ask.

  3. I think expanding the Great Taste is a wonderful idea but you seem to shoot yourself in the foot here. The Madison metro area is about - what? - 350,000 people? Yet you say that we don't have a public transportation system equivalent to metro areas of 2 million people. Of course we don't. Stop complaining that Madison is 2-3+ times smaller than Portland and Denver. You come across like you're mad that you can't run before you've even learned to walk. Just because Madison cannot handle 75,000 beer fest attendees doesn't mean there's no room for the GT to expand. We somehow handle tens of thousands of football fans on Saturdays during the fall so there is certainly room for the GT to grow. (And Madison Metro modifies its service on gamedays to boot.)

    Do you think that the only way to promote Midwestern brews is via a very large festival? If so, then perhaps the GT needs to move to Milwaukee.

    The Oregon Brewers Fest website - - - says that it will generate:

    "an economic impact of approximately $1.5 million for the city of Portland."

    I'm a bit confused by the site so I'm not sure if that's 2009 or 2011. Still, in light of this, I fail to see how the GT has a multi-million dollar impact here.

    I think it's good that the MHTG is attempting to get some specific numbers on the economic impact. Local businesses already know how it affect them but with more general numbers you can go to the Visitors and Convention Bureau, various business groups, and the city looking for help expanding. Then again, if the MHTG is not willing to grow incrementally and will accept nothing less than a festival on par with the GABF, then the endeavor is a fool's errand.

    I like the idea of a summer and winter fest. For one, standing around drinking Russian Imperial stouts, barleywines, and other big beers in 80+ degree sun is not appealing to me. I'll drink those brews in the winter. But also spreading things out could be added to the list of reasons why our infrastructure should be expanded.

  4. I disagree part of the appeal I know for a lot of people that travel from all over the US and some internationally is the size and quality of the fest. They come knowing that they can expect to be attending an awesome extremely well run festival that is not in the middle of a bustling huge city or way out in the suburbs of one. The other reason I tend to disagree is that if you turn it into a mini GABF all it does is turn it into a frat boy drunk fest like ¾ sessions @ GABF. And to turn into something like the Portland festival would require you to completely change the format of the festival and I know I don’t want that and I am guessing most others don’t as well. This is not to say that I wouldn’t mind a fest like that but I would not want the great taste to turn into any of these and lose its own uniqueness. The GTMW garners a tremendous amount of respect right now I would hate to jeopardize that just for the sake of growing. This is not to say that the fest should never change but all changes need to be considered to a great extent before anything should be done. I also understand that this is your opinion and it may not be what is actually happening. I just want to emphasize that you need to be careful when messing with greatness.

  5. A two-day event would be an excellent idea. The Great Lakes Brewfest in Racine is now a two day event. Granted it's more distributors than breweries but there are quite a few brewers that do make the trip there. While it's not on the same level of the Great Taste (nothing is), they've been able to expand that fest and bring more revenue into the city.

    Couldn't they thing about changing the venue to better accommodate a two-day event? The fest could stay in Madison. Moving it indoors wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. It's pretty darned muggy out in August. I remember two years ago it rained all morning and it was very muddy too.

  6. The GTMW is pretty much perfect as is. Why mess with perfection? The friday night pre-events is a great extension.

    I like the Winter Fest idea too.

  7. "The Oregon Brewers Fest website - - - says that it will generate:

    'an economic impact of approximately $1.5 million for the city of Portland.'

    I'm a bit confused by the site so I'm not sure if that's 2009 or 2011. Still, in light of this, I fail to see how the GT has a multi-million dollar impact here."

    No way that number is correct; it'd mean that each of the 70,000 attendees they claim only drops $20 in the city.

  8. The Great Taste did try a 2-dayer many years ago, I remember this because they used our Brewery's warehouse for the event. And if memory serves me correct they were still doing a silly ass popularity contest and I believe a beer named Erin something (somebody help me out here). And the second day was not as well attended as the first, but "craft" beers were not as popular back then and the Great Taste was attended by hundreds, not thousands. And there wasn't an "Imperialized" anything. Imagine that.

  9. I edited out that the contest was won by Erin. And now that I'm thinking about it I believe the beer was from Ohio, perhaps contract brewed.

  10. "No way that number is correct; it'd mean that each of the 70,000 attendees they claim only drops $20 in the city."

    Yeah, but you're assuming that all 70,000 are from out of town. I'm sure a lot of locals attend as well and they don't have to get a hotel room and don't have to eat at a restaurant 3 squares a day.

    Here's the lowdown on this year's festival:

    Note that 80,000 people attended yet the estimated impact was $2 million.


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