My dad and wingman for the 2019 Great Taste of the Midwest has two beer rules: Don’t put fruit in your beer, and don’t put fruit in your beer.
His real second rule, I was reminded early in our second trip together to the Olin Park festival lovingly referred to as “Beer Christmas,” is don’t bother handing me a sour beer.
And what turned out to be Dad’s favorite beer of the day was proof that rules are meant to be broken: Pulpit Rock Brewing’s Sealed With a Kiss, a “pastry sour” -- usually meaning brewed with vanilla and lactose -- packed what must have been an exorbitant amount of raspberries. It was so berry-forward you almost felt like you’d be picking seeds out of your teeth after finishing the glass.
That rules must be broken is perhaps the only rule for brewers bringing beers to the Taste, and boundary-pushing resulted in a lot of my standout beers this year.
You shouldn’t put beer in absinthe barrels? Check with buzzy Taste newcomer Hop Butcher for the World about that. The Chicagoland brewer, best known for its excellent New England IPAs, wowed with a monstrous imperial stout aged in barrels emptied of Letherbee absinthe. The intense anise and botanical notes brought a side-eye after the first sip, but as the chocolatey notes advanced, by the end of the small pour I was fully on board.
A brown ale is a simple little beer? Might want to run that past another Taste rookie, Cincinnati’s Listermann Brewing, which brought three barrel-aged variants of its 14.3% ABV Imperial Chickow! hazelnut brown ale. I had the version aged in peach brandy barrels, a beer of astonishing depth, character and complexity entirely worthy of the exclamation point in its name.
The Great Taste is all about big, barrel-aged stouts and sours? Not if you ask New Oberpfalz Brewing, a 2018 rookie from Indiana’s slice of metro Chicago that stood out with its fantastic versions of traditional styles. A simple, perfectly executed helles lager and crisp German pilsner was a welcome break from all the bells and whistles.
Some other personal highlights from Great Taste 2019:
Le Jus, a New England IPA from Alarmist Brewing in Chicago. I drank a lot of hazy IPAs on Saturday, and this was the pick of that litter, with Hop Butcher’s Unwind Your Mind a close second.
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El Zacatón, Hubbard’s Cave’s big imperial stout with cacao, ancho and guajillo peppers and almond flour fermented with cinnamon, vanilla, habanero peppers and toasted oak spirals. (Whew.) I stopped by Une Année/Hubbard’s Cave (Chicagoland) to try this one at the urging of a friend of a friend, and I’m glad I did: a rich, just-spicy-enough take on the Mexican hot chocolate stout. Ocelot, a barrel-aged Mexican chocolate take from 3 Sheeps in Sheboygan, was also very well met.
Brett Guava Belgian Prairie, a Belgian tripel from Madison’s own Great Dane aged in toasted oak barrels with guava and Brettanomyces “wild” yeast. This twist on the Dane’s tripel was aged for more than a year and a half (!!) to bring all kinds of interesting funk to the glass -- not just from the Brett but the earthy, pulpy fruit, too.
The Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild. Putting on a beer festival of this magnitude this well, year in and year out, is an achievement that deserves to be recognized every year. Kudos to MHTG and its army of volunteers.
As every year, I have some regrets about beers or booths I missed - some I heard about after the fest, some that I intended to hit that I missed in the wash of the festival.
Iowa Brewing: I singled out the Hawkeye State’s brewers as crushing the Great Taste last year, and this 2019 rookie upped Iowa’s standing even further this year with a deep list of barrel-aged and other Taste-worthy beers. Buzz was highest about OREOja, a Baltic porter aged on Oreos.
Revolution Strawberry Jacket: I was curious to try this fruit variant of Rev’s impeccable Strait Jacket barrel-aged barleywine, and many Great Tasters took to social media to sing its praises afterward. I’ll be looking for this one at a bottle share in the next several months.
Third Space-Working Draft kviek IPAs: Two of my favorite breweries teamed up to experiment with kviek yeasts -- Nordic strains that ferment at very high temperatures (a la saison yeast) and kicks out intense fruity flavors. The product was a deconstructionist’s dream: three beers, each with a different hop bills and strain of kviek yeast.
Radicle Effect Brewerks Roasted Garlic Stout: I’m generally not down with savory flavors in beer, but if I had noticed this in the program I’d definitely have tried a pour. One Twitter user told me drinking it “morphed into a grilled steak.” Sign me up next year!
Cruz Blanca Lozano: This Chicago brewery-taqueria hybrid (what else in the world could anyone possibly need?) drew high marks overall, but this Flemish red wild ale with cherries aged in red wine barrels was the clear standout in post-Taste chatter.