Listen, I know it’s hard to go to the Great Taste of the Midwest.
For people outside the beer industry, walking through the gates of Saturday’s beer festival requires some combination of luck and determination or foresight — usually waiting in line overnight to get tickets months in advance or winning a lottery of mail entries.
So, not a lot of people can go.
It’s a shame, because the Great Taste is a premier beer event. That’s a function of the timing (the waning days of summer), the location (pastoral, lakeside Olin Park), the beer (some 1,400 different ones expected this year), the breweries (195 this year, including 25 first-timers) and certainly not least, the organizers (the intrepid Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild).
Great Taste Eve — the row of tap takeovers that includes many breweries that don’t usually sell their beer in Wisconsin — the day before the event is a great way to experience the adventurous sampling and sometimes even interaction with brewery staff of the Great Taste without a ticket.
Before I go any further, a confession: I was going to present what follows — a few beers from a few breweries that are reliable stops at the Great Taste but also sell packaged beer in Wisconsin — as a viable alternative to actually going to Olin Park on Saturday. While I hope what follows is a useful guide to a few interesting, new-to-you beers in trending (and therefore Great Taste-representative) styles, I cannot in good faith say it will approximate even a faint fraction of what the festival is. There, I said it. This is a ruse. But, onward! Grab your Great Taste tasting glass and let’s do some small pours. (Note: While I think it’s likely that these breweries will be pouring these beers Saturday, the beer list was still secret when this was being written. That’s not really the point anyway.)
Saison de Lis
Perennial Artisan Ales—St. Louis—saison—5% ABV
It often gets hot on the afternoon of the second Saturday of August, so saisons are often well-met at the Great Taste. My favorite beer last year was a mixed-fermentation (sour, basically) saison from Chicago’s Revolution Brewing.
This one, from a longtime Great Taste favorite, is a “clean” take on the style, straw-yellow, light and effervescent, with a dollop of creamy foam that exudes a delicate, floral aroma. A sip lets those bubbles dance pleasantly across the palate along with a lightly grainy flavor, more flowers — Saison de Lis is brewed with chamomile flowers, a light accent, far from dominating the beer — and a touch of barnyard grassiness and light spiciness. This beer, long in 750-milliliter bottles, is new to four-packs of cans.
Fair State Brewing Cooperative—Minneapolis—Mixed-fermentation ale—5.2% ABV
Fair State — not to be confused with longtime Great Taster Free State Brewing of Kansas — is making its Great Taste debut this year, and Lactobäc is a prefect example of why the Minnesota outfit will be right at home in Olin Park. Fair State began selling cans and kegs in Wisconsin early this year, with well-made classic styles and a handful of sours.
One of them is Lactobäc, which in a cool flourish is paired in a mixed four-pack (two cans each) with BFDP, a mixed-fermentation saison. They’re both gorgeous beers, but Lactobäc is an absolutely perfect Great Taste pour: bright golden, with a delicate sweet-sour aroma and a perfect combination of gently spicy ginger, citric lemony-lemongrass note and just the right amount of tartness. Everything’s in just the right proportion. I remember liking quite a few lemongrass beers at Great Taste the last few years, and Lactobäc perfectly illustrates why. Light, refreshing and delicious, it’s a perfect break from the big-stout/big-hops Great Taste routine — or from whatever your fridge beer routine is.
Tangerine Space Machine
New Holland Brewing—Holland, Michigan—New England IPA—6.8% ABV
Breweries with nearly national distribution networks like New Holland are in the New England IPA game now, but they usually don’t go to the Orange Julius-like haze extremes where smaller breweries dabble. Often, as in this case, that’s to their credit.
Golden and hazy but not insanely so, Tangerine Space Machine features a pulpy citrus aroma — belying its namesake fruit in there, but there are plenty of those pithier grapefruit and blood orange notes, too. The citrus character runs the flavor, too, with enough bitterness to keep it balanced and drinkable. The mouthfeel is full, but far more moderately so than will be found in the more extreme versions of the style that will surely be poured a couple ounces at a time on Saturday.
N eapolitan Milk Stout
Saugatuck Brewing—Douglas, Michigan—milk stout—6% ABV
These days, no Great Taste afternoon is complete without a stout loaded with weird stuff, or one that approximates a non-beer dessert. So this beer checks two boxes, and while Saugatuck, which made its Great Taste debut in 2016, trades in over-the-top sweet stouts (I see you, Blueberry Maple Stout), this beer isn’t actually as one-note as it might sound.
It’s sweet, sure, with aromas of chocolatey malt and vanilla, but the strawberry is more subtle than some of Saugatuck’s other adjunct stouts — a hint of Strawberry Quik in the aroma and a flourish in the middle of the sip. Neapolitan Milk Stout has a full, coating mouthfeel but finishes relatively dry, with more balance than I expected from a beer with this much apparent sweetness.
Snaggletooth Pocket Square
Solemn Oath Brewery—Naperville, Illinois—session IPA—4.6% ABV
What, a session IPA? These days? Yeah, it’s a little outside the box, but Solemn Oath’s diminutive riff on its flagship IPA, Snaggletooth Bandana, shows why we should not dispense with the style just yet.
This is a hop bomb that’s crazy-drinkable — which of course is much easier to recognize in 16 ounces than two. Pocket Square has a modest, pale ale level of bitterness, with a light body and it’s amply dry. Both the flavor and aroma are driven by hops of the clean and tropical, gently citrusy variety, and just a touch floral. It’s a study in delicacy — an unusual characteristic in an IPA, even a session one, and frankly something better discerned at home rather than among the palate-crushing pours at the Great Taste.