[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 2013.]
There's a moment, after thousands of beer lovers have been soaking in the morning sun for hours, before the line starts to move, when the cheer erupts. It starts at the front of the line, in the throats of those who have waited the longest, although everyone in that line snaking through the soccer field has really been waiting for three months, if not a year, or a decade.
That rallying cry means the waiting for the Great Taste of the Midwest is over. It's time to sample any of more than 1,000 beers from nearly 150 of the region's craft brewers, under the soaring trees of Olin Park with 5,999 friends you either have or haven't made yet.
Gaining entry requires patience, luck or both, as tickets sell out in minutes, three months before the event held the second Saturday every August.
And while getting into the Great Taste is no small accomplishment, you ought to try putting it on.
That task falls to the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild, an association of 300 beer fans that in 27 years has nurtured the event into one of the nation's premier beer festivals. About 70 of the guild's members participate in planning and execution of the Great Taste, and a core group of about a dozen do the real heavy lifting, said the festival's chairman, Mark Garthwaite.
In the months leading up to the festival, MHTG members work with police and the city's Parks Division, make brewery contacts, line up food and other vendors, secure and map out the tents, plan security and traffic management and nail down myriad other details. Dozens of guild members have specialty talents — from app design to insurance — that are tapped for the event.
Not a single one, including Garthwaite, is paid.
That this is a labor of love rather than a job — although several guild members devote job-like hours to Great Taste planning for much of the year — is apparent as you see volunteers sweat the small stuff at the festival. And that's just the part you see that day.
"We obsess about the stupidest details and talk them to death, and it's just exhausting," said Garthwaite, a 41-year-old molecular biologist at UW-Madison. "But in the end, that's what needs to happen in order to make it the event that it is."
By now though, a week before the festival, the plan is pretty much in place. At a meeting Wednesday, the volunteers will run down a final checklist of items, the response to which is almost always a thumbs-up. On Thursday, the rented tents will start to rise, along with fences and other infrastructure.
But the action really gets going on Friday.
Brewers start trickling in in the morning. The Great Taste organizers are proud of the way they treat brewers — Garthwaite cites it as a major factor in the festival's runaway success — and that starts the minute they show up on the festival grounds, with a kind of concierge service. Volunteers known as "keg jockeys" schlep brewers' barrels — some of the bigger breweries bring dozens — off their truck to a refrigerated semitrailer for safekeeping until delivery to the brewer's tent the next morning.
Guild volunteers spend some 15 hours unloading and loading beer on Friday, and by evening beer brewed by guild members or brought as a token of appreciation by the pro brewers is flowing, a potluck meal is taking place and kegs are stacked to the ceiling of the semitrailer.
While some brewers — especially those from Wisconsin or the Chicago area — still arrive on Saturday morning, more are choosing to come early and spend the night in Madison, networking and living it up at the booming Great Taste pre-parties, Garthwaite said. Five years ago, 68 breweries delivered their kegs on Friday, while last year 114 did so.
"You don't have to have a ticket for any of that stuff," he said. "If you do have tickets, you can still enjoy it with your friends who don't have tickets. It's great for the good beer establishments around here. It's like a whole another Craft Beer Week."
While the scarcity and exclusivity of the Great Taste no doubt feeds the event's reputation, that's not why the guild so closely guards tickets.
"It's always been a struggle because we've always wanted to accommodate more people," Garthwaite said, noting the limits to the overall number of tickets sold, the limit of two tickets per person and the mail order lottery. "It wasn't to make it harder to get tickets, it's to make it so the people who really wanted to be there are the ones who can get tickets.
"We have a hard time with that: What are we going to do to get more people in? The bad news is there's no way around it, unless we dramatically change the Great Taste."
The festival is simply maxed out in its physical space, both in the number of guests and brewers it can host.
"Olin Park is such a beautiful place, and it would be really hard to leave it, or not use it in the way that we use it now," he said.
So on Saturday, when each of this year's 1,200 kegs is in the right tent, collectively under more than 25 tons of ice, we won't be thinking about all the loose ends that were tied up before we tripped over them and the fires put out before they burned us. We'll just be thinking about the beer, the scene and the fun, which is how it's supposed to be.
And on Sunday, after the park is picked up and the brewers are long gone, the guild members will sit down at a table and begin obsessing over ways to make next year's Great Taste even better.
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. In the "What's New in '13" box, one of the four breweries hosting the "century" tent was incorrect. The tent is being shared by Goose Island, Great Lakes, Sprecher (Glendale) and Lakefront.]