[Editor's Note: As we march toward the 2017 Great Taste of the Midwest beer festival on Saturday at Olin Park, the Wisconsin State Journal is bringing back the Beer Baron's previous stories profiling this remarkable event. This story was first published in 2015.]
If you're at the Great Taste of the Midwest on Saturday and look carefully at the crowd all around you, you'll see them.
They're usually smiling, just like most everyone else, blending in among the beer geeks on cloud nine but for the color of their wristband and perhaps just a little too much apparel from a single brewery.
They're brewers, the people who actually develop recipes, make the beer you drink and drop the bottles in the six-pack cartons.
Their presence is one of the defining characteristics of the Midwest's premier beer festival. Even if the near constant parade of summer beer events around the region could match the Great Taste in venue (Olin Park), execution (a regimented, dedicated group of veteran volunteers) and beer (more than 1,200 beers from around 187 breweries) they'd still lack the Great Taste's appeal to brewers. Festival chairman Mark Garthwaite, who organizes the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild members putting on their 29th Great Taste, is fond of saying it's not a beer festival but a brewers festival.
The Great Taste is a highlight of my year, a chance to celebrate a passion for hops, malt and yeast with thousands of like-minded beer fans from across the country. (If you don't already have a $60 ticket to the sold-out event, mark your calendar for the first Sunday in May, when they go on sale for next year.)
The 6,000 paying patrons aren't alone in their excitement. Brewers like it for many of the same reasons everyone else does — the great beer, the breezy lake and city view, the musicians scattered around the grounds, the lack of glitches. But for them, it also becomes something like an enormous happy hour after a professional conference.
"It's a fun time. It's like a work-vacation kind of thing," said Jace Marti, assistant brewmaster at August Schell Brewing and organizer of the New Ulm, Minnesota, brewery's Great Taste delegation this year. "You get to see a lot of your brewer friends while you're there."
Of course, breweries are here for business, and festivals — particularly Great Taste, with its extremely engaged audience — are invaluable marketing tools.
"Beer festivals are huge," said David Berg, August Schell brewmaster, whose first Great Taste was in the late '90s with the now-closed Water Tower brewpub in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. "You're definitely going to run into people who have probably never heard of you, even in Madison, and even for a brewery that's been around for 150 years. You can't buy that kind of publicity, to reach that many consumers who might never have heard of you."
And the learning goes both ways, Marti said: "We usually debut beers there, so you get that instant feedback."
Those benefits, though, come with some serious sweat equity. August Schell is deploying a four-person team to Madison this week, including Marti, the brewery's sales manager and its Wisconsin sales rep. Marti will pack the brewery's cargo van to the gills with kegs, cases of bottles, tents, a tap box and other items for the five-hour ride to Madison on Thursday.
The beer won't just supply the festival but also events on "Great Taste Eve," a string of open-to-the-public events at bars and restaurants across the city, mostly on Friday. On Friday night, August Schell will host a tap takeover at Buck and Badger, 115 State St., and join Minnesota Nice, a Friday night gathering with several other Minnesota breweries at the Plaza Tavern.
On Great Taste Eve, as at the festival, the brewery staff get out and mingle soon after their duties are complete. Inside the festival, Marti's team will rotate shifts, giving everyone the chance to wander around, sample beers and meet colleagues at other breweries.
The elbow-rubbing is friendly but also competitive, Marti said, as breweries showcase their best and most adventurous beers at the Great Taste.
August Schell's representation of that A-game is its Noble Star series of sour, wood-aged beers based on the Berliner weisse style. Sours represent four of the seven beers Marti's team will pour Saturday, a relatively new feather in the cap of a legacy brewer perhaps best known these days as the brewer of the awesome but macro-esque Minnesota icon Grain Belt Premium.
The Noble Star beers are the kind of attraction that can capture the attention of the "what have you done for me lately" beer geeks who dominate the Great Taste. For many of them, 10 years makes an old brewery, let alone one founded in 1860 like August Schell. Changing that notion is one aim of the brewery's mission at Great Taste.
"New and shiny is very popular," Berg said. "I think for an established brewery it's almost more important to be there."
Noble Star wasn't intended as beer geek bait for the Great Taste, but it serves that purpose nicely, Berg said: "It's something you do to say, 'Look, we're still here.' "