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.