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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Great Taste of the Midwest Brings Craft Brewers, Beer Lovers Together

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Rumor has it that members of the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild (MHTG) working this year's Great Taste of the Midwest will wear kilts. The very idea makes club member and homebrewer Fred Swanson laugh.

"I think you'll see a number of members in kilts," says Swanson, the Great Taste's brewery coordinator and a teacher at Madison's West High School who does community outreach for students with disabilities. "Look for at least a few guys in official shirts with blindingly white legs."

Ogling homebrewers' legs is not the main draw for the MHTG-sponsored Great Taste, the Midwest's largest and most comprehensive beer festival. Approximately 115 brewers offering in excess of 500 different beers will convene Aug. 8 in Madison's Olin-Turville Park for the five-hour event. The very idea is enough to make even the most experienced quaffer swoon.

The Great Taste, held the second Saturday of each August, will celebrate its 23rd year of bringing beer geeks and craft brewers together in a collision of malt, hops and the hot summer sun. It's considered one of the country's premier beer events because there's a strong emphasis on putting the brewer, rather than a sales rep, behind the pull-tap. In many cases, aficionados can talk about brewing techniques with the people who make the beer, gaining valuable insights while sampling unusual brews.

"It's a requirement that the brewers themselves be present," Swanson says of the festival, which this year has attracted craft brewers from as far away as Louisville, Ky., and Omaha, Neb. "They're passionate about their beer and they love to talk about it. That's what sets us apart from other festivals."

In addition, whatever funds are raised from the $35-per-entrant fee beyond what's needed to pay for the beer, tent rental, security and other operating costs are donated to WORT-FM, Madison's community radio station, and other small local charities, sometimes with a beer connection, Swanson says.

"One year we donated funds to a firm that was taking brewing waste, refining it and turning it into powdered baby formula for use in developing countries," he said. "We're a nonprofit organization and it's not our goal to make money."

The goal of the Great Taste, rather, is to further beer education and appreciation, something the brewers themselves appreciate, says Russ Klisch, president of Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewery.

"This is the granddaddy and the Rose Bowl of all Midwest beer festivals," Klisch says. "All the brewers try and outdo each other, which is something I haven't seen at other festivals."

Craig Burge, brewmaster for Sprecher Brewing Co. in Glendale, Wis., agrees, citing participation by the brewers themselves as being the critical difference-maker in putting the Great Taste ahead of its competition.

"The Great Taste has always been my favorite event," Burge says. "I find that a real beer drinker would prefer to speak to a brewmaster, rather than just another brewery rep, to discuss the details of a particular beer."

At this year's Great Taste, Burge plans to pour Sprecher's Imperial IPA2, Abbey Triple Belgian ale and Hefe Weiss, along with its new cherry cola for the designated drivers in the crowd. At the Lakefront tent, Klisch will be pulling the tap on the brewery's new Wheat Monkey Ale, as well as the seasonal Pumpkin Lager, Bridge Burner Strong Ale and Rosie, Lakefront's new Belgian-style cherry sour beer.

This year's event will expand offerings at the education tent, which last year consistently overflowed its small space. There also is a cask ale tent in which participating brewers will pour a variety of unfiltered, unpasteurized beers that have experienced their secondary fermentation in the cask and without the addition of nitrogen or carbon dioxide pressure. Each entry fee comes with an etched tasting glass, and food and Great Taste souvenirs are available for purchase.

Despite all that good news, there is some bad news. The 6,000 tickets for this year's Great Tasteup from 5,000 last yearsold out on May 3, within 30 minutes of being offered. MHTG limits the crowd size to avoid long waiting lines for the beer. The 2010 Great Taste of the Midwest is scheduled for Aug. 14 at Olin-Turville Park. Mark your calendar and keep visiting www.mhtg.org for details on ticket sales.

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