Wisconsin is beautiful. It’s been quite some time since I read Little House in the Big Woods, and I can’t remember the motivation, but there must have been a seriously good reason for old Charles and Carolyn Ingalls to leave. I just don’t get it. This would be a great place to live.
I saw very few cops, none in the countryside we drove to visit out-of-the-way breweries. And what for? This doesn’t look like the place for crime. Where I live, it’s easy to drive down any given road and see decayed barns and farmhouses. But here, there’s a constant pastoral view in any direction, pocked with well-kept homes and barns. Is it a larger number of trees, lakes and and rollicking hills that negate the use of 16-row planters, and therein corporate farming hell driving all but a smattering of people from the land?
It’s beautiful in Wisconsin. The land, yes, but the elements contributed by people, as well. I saw none of the apathy so prevalent in other rural areas of this country. But our destination was Madison, the capital. A city. What about it? It was beautiful–the setting for the festival was amazing with the lake and a gorgeous downtown cityscape in view. In truth, I saw some homeless folks bedding down for the night on our walk back to our car. And I saw a couple of drunks waiting (with me) for the liquor store to open at 9am. But they were nice drunks. And they were up and at ’em at a decent hour, unlike so many lushes. They were there early for their cheap liquor, and I was there early for my expensive beer. We had much in common. Well, mostly just the thirst part, but with different motivations.
Just like in camping, half the fun is in the planning. I spent a lot of time researching priority destinations, eateries, beer stores and accommodations. A good six pages of maps. A fat lot of places to visit, beers to seek out.
About a week before our departure, we learned that our B&B reservation would have to be canceled. The innkeeper’s daughter-in-law had suddenly died of aggressive cancer, and they had a funeral and a houseful of family converging. With a little luck, we managed to find a room. It served its purpose in providing us a clean place to sleep and shower, along with the bonus of spare cash for more beer!
We departed on Friday morning with two pre-Madison visits planned: New Glarus Brewing Company and The Grumpy Troll Brewpub. New Glarus is a world-class brewery nestled in a town of around 2000. They were prepared for the influx of Taste-related Grail Chasers, and had two tour options. One was a self-guided audio tour ($3.50), which ended in a tasting room with five beers to sample. The other was a Dan Carey-led tour ($10) of the newly expanded facility down the road. Time and hunger being issues to consider, we took the audio tour which was kinda lame. It would have been cool to hear Dan Carey speak, and to see the new facility, but with beer drinking and a few other watering holes on our agenda, we elected not to wait over an hour for the latter tour choice. No matter, the samples were excellent, and we got to keep the tasting glass. And we bought lotsa beer at gift shop.
After a quick trip into the town of New Glarus to redeem our free beer, we trudged forth to Mt. Horeb and The Grumpy Troll. I’d been looking forward to trying their Flanders Ned because a) I like Flanders reds and b) my son Tom is a huge Simpsons fan. No luck. Michelle had their bourbon barrel-aged Spetsnaz stout and if I remember correctly, I had the Amnesia Baltic porter. Both great, as were the atmosphere and food.
The road beckoned, and we finished our trip into Madison to check into our room so we could hit a couple of spots in Madison, starting with Ale Asylum. We sampled their Scotch ale, porter, oatmeal stout and abbey ale, and enjoyed soaking in the atmosphere. Their branding appeals to me, and clearly they’re dropping some cash on graphics. Everything here just looks phenomenal. The beers were good, not great. That would have been a crucial element of the Total Package.
Next up: Maduro. A cigar bar with the Tasty Libations, we heard this was a good spot to hit. It was packed and spilling out into the street with people like ourselves enjoying Bell’s pre-Taste warm-up party, which featured a whopping 18 Bell’s beers on tap. Michelle hit the cherry stout while I did the doppelbock. I don’t know why, but I don’t groove on Bell’s, to the chagrin of many a Bell’s lover, I’m sure. Their Expedition Stout blew me away a couple of years ago, but I’ve felt let down almost entirely since. Michelle’s stout was very cherry, but not in the New Glarus Wisconsin Red way; sweetish and just not melding right in that beer. My Consecrator was earthy to the point of barnyard as it warmed, and it became unpleasant.
In an effort to feel rested and healthy for the Taste, we found a cup of coffee and some water before working our way back to our room for a little shut-eye.
The Big Day
We awoke feeling great, with the exception of a stiff neck from the drive and crappy pillows. Breakfast. Then we worked our way down for Michelle to hit her planned yoga class at Jewel in the Lotus. I dropped her off and sought out my beer shopping plan at Riley’s. As her class was earlier than I thought, I dozed in the parking lot waiting for the beer store to open. I made my selections as quickly as anyone could demand, and returned to retrieve Michelle.
Our next objective was lunch at The Great Dane, where we’d also catch a shuttle to the festival. Against our better judgment, we ordered beers. Michelle tried Ned’s Red (another Simpsons attempt that didn’t meet expectations) and I had the Publican on cask, which really hit the spot. Has anyone ever expounded on cask ale as the best version of a hair of the dog hangover cure? I wasn’t hung over, though my body could sense my day-before samples. My problem was my bad back and easily aggravated neck. This tension melted away with an 11 o’clock cask pulled remedy. I’m just sure it’s good for hangovers.
Noon arrived, and so did the shuttle. We big people loaded up in a schoolbus and were ushered to the festival in some brand of style. Remember sitting three-to-a-seat as a kid? No more. We don’t fit like that these days. We arrived at the park and formed a well-organized long snake of a line and awaited our day of sipping in a peaceful fashion. The festival organizers, Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild did a great job putting this event together. Tickets were exchanged for armbands while we waited, so that when the line began moving, it was a speedy march to the fun. Lotsa room to move about, food, friendly folks and an impressive collection of Midwestern breweries and more than a few incredible beers.
The beers. I do not know where to start. There were many highlights. While they weren’t truly the first and last beers I had, I’d say that Flossmoor’s Organic Woody and Sarge (both special tappings) provided incredible bookends to the day’s drinking. Viking’s Hot Chocolate was the best chili beer I can imagine; in fact, the only way it should be done. Further art, experimentation and creativity be damned. Kuhnhenn’s Tenacious Desist (I think that’s what it was called) met my expectations for this brewery’s coolness. Three Floyds’ Dark Lord didn’t disappoint. Nor did Founders’ Breakfast Stout (though I disappointed myself by missing the special tapping of Kentucky Breakfast). Many more. We targeted a lot of bourbon barreled stuff. I do not know where to stop. So I just will.
I only had a couple of beers that I thought were lame, but no sense in dwelling on that. I did, however, notice a common theme in a few Midwestern Belgian beers. In at least three or four beers I had, I noticed a common yeast character that I didn’t really enjoy. If these were my first exposure to Belgian styles, I may not like Belgians the way I do. Scary thought. I wasn’t taking notes, and the quantity of flavors that passed over my tongue cloud my memory. Ale Asylum’s Happy Ending was one of these beers. I had several others that I’m convinced used the same yeast at the festival, but I’d be speculating wildly to toss out specific examples (having tried a lot of beers from a lot of [in some cases unfamiliar] breweries). Any body know what’s pestering me?
In addition to the organization, execution, beers and setting, the people where great. It was a mellow, positive crowd. Too often, it’s the drunken brawl in the bleacher seats that gets the media spotlight. Such a shame. Five thousand affable people waited for an hour in line, drank a lot of beer and waited again to board a shuttle bus, and nary a brawl did I spy. That’s Good Beer People for you. And then you’ve got those precious people who make the beer. Brewers are good. I met many, and they’re always pointing you toward so-and-so’s saison or porter or whatever. I was pleased especially to hook up with Matt and Andrew, from Flossmoor. And Jonathan and Robin from The Beer Mapping Project. Good people.
When it was all said and done, we shuttled it back to downtown for a bite to eat at The Casbah, next door to Maduro. Been craving something Middle Eastern since moving to the Middle West. Then with a full belly and undaunted sobriety intact, we tracked down some glassware for Kyle, ran into Jonathan and Robin, and found our way back to our room. Conked out while watching the Olympics.
Momma, I’m Coming Home
Did I mention that my mom was visiting me this weekend? I don’t mean to sound like a bad son, but I already had my tickets for this tough-to-get-tickets-for event. And a room. Why the heck she didn’t call me before buying a plane ticket is beyond me! Anyway, it worked out like this. She arrived Thursday night. I left Friday morning. I arrive Sunday evening. She departs Monday. The good news is this afforded an excellent opportunity for Grandma-type stuff.
Michelle and I ventured out for a little take-home cheese, and stopped for a beer at Bricktown Brewery in Dubuque, but otherwise worked our way pretty much straight home. Bricktown was a bit of a letdown, as they only had two beers on tap, due to some sort of renovation or cleaning project taking place in the cold room downstairs. I had question marks floating around in my head as the bartender explained, and I’ll leave it at that. Pretty much. The Willie’s Scottish Ale we had tasted like when you lick malt extract off your finger. With giant macro fluorescents in the windows, the potential of this sweet historic building wasn’t being met, and I’d guess that it must be owned by someone more interested in the bandwagon than the beer.
We quaffed and exited toward the homestead.
Satisfied and beer-soaked, we returned safe and sound, which in addition to the good time and good beer had by all, was the best part. Uff-Da Bock and burgers on the grill with my boys and my mom, and a brewvana weekend was complete.