Monday, August 15, 2011

Another year on (OK, near) Lake Monona

The Great Taste of the Midwest Beer Festival came off once again without a hitch. Roughly 125 brewers, each with 4 or 5 beers ranging from the lightest wheat beer to the 10% plus ABV of some dark ales and winter warmers were available for sampling. This was the silver anniversary of the event and, as usual, the 6,000 tickets sold out in about 2 hours and a few of the lucky folks that applied by mail for the lottery tickets were successful as well. The weather was superb until the rain squall at the very end but by that time no one really cared all that much. We set up our lawn chair enclave under a live oak about two first downs from the Real Ale tent. My dark little secret is that I only sampled one beer that was not a real ale in the entire 5 hours, a fact that horrified my companions when I informed them.

How could I ignore five beer tents, each with two dozen brewers and probably 120 beers each? Because a lot of those brewers took the trouble to brew and rack a real ale for the event, which meant over 60 cask conditioned real ales to sample. Real ale is a traditional English beer style where the beer is fermented again in a secondary operation to carbonate it naturally in its 10.8 gallon key or firkin. It is not filtered or carbonated with CO2 which results in lots of flavor components being left intact as well as healthful live yeast in the beer. A smoother, much more complex and flavorful, a significantly less fizzy beer, and a nice tight head of foam is the result. Most of the other beers I can track down in the area. It is the Great Taste of the Midwest after all. At this point in the Twin Cities exactly 4 places have cask ale on tap and usually only one, maybe two. My local bar, Grumpys NE, has firkin Friday and always taps an interesting brew but the real ale scene in MSP is minute. Hence my single minded focus on these excellent beers.

Did I get through all five dozen beers? Nah, but I gave it my best shot. I actually managed to maintain some sort of drinking discipline, working my way from the wheats and the bitters up through the pale ales and IPA's, then on to the brown ales, stouts, and porters. Then at the end I circled back to my favorite bitters and used the time tested, "Hey, I'm going to sit down and take a break, do you think I could get a little extra pour this time? Inevitably I would be handed a full glass. What were my favorites? The parochial beer drinker in me had a soft spot for the two Surly products, the tea bagged (dry hopped) Best Bitter and Furious. New Albion's Becks Best Bitter and the Great Dane's hoppy pale ale were also outstanding. I will admit going to the well more than once on all four of these gems.

After five solid hours of research our intrepid crew took the bus back to the Great Dane brewpub then walked to State Street and Parthenon Gyros to regain our strength. I noticed that no one ordered a beer. Other than a pub crawl to England a few years back, where we used the CAMRA guidebook to steer us around the island, this is by far the most real ale that I will encounter over the course of the year. Were it only breweries serving 'pushed' beer I might have had to put the festival on the bi annual schedule list, but that ever expanding tent of real ale keeps me coming back every August.

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