I was on this year at Burgers and Brew, man.
Like the Wisconsin Film Festival and Great Taste of the Midwest, one of the best parts of REAP Food Group's Burgers and Brew event is the research, marker or highlighter in hand. Those punch cards are like gold, with three choices to make out of 20 different recipes; you've got to really over-think this one, and mark the shit out of your event menu.
You see things like "bacon-dredged haystack onions," "housemade kimchi," and "pork belly croutons," and you get all hyped up. And you get there early, and hop in line, and geek out with your friends, and all of a sudden you realize just how close you are to the gates. and how -- even with REAP members getting in early -- it's so wide open this year.
You could, like, take your time this year. And maybe it was this zen-like calm that helped me stumble across some of the best value plays of the event. Merchant's Mad-Mills Barn burger, for example, was basically a full-sized burger, with pickles, Muenster, dijonaise, and those pork belly croutons (tender die-sized cubes with a crisped exterior). The bun was toasted just so, and the burger had a little bit of pink in the middle -- which was impressive, as it was a fairly thin patty.
(Merchant's grill was the one closest to where our party chose to sit, and we were all amazed at how much fat was floating through the air, particulate and invisible until it landed on your glasses, face, arms, phone...anything.)
For my second burger, I lost my cool a little, and ended up line-hopping twice. First, the Gates and Brovi burger, topped with a rhubarb and bacon compote, called to me. But the beer options there were a little pedestrian (kind of a widespread problem this year) , so I moved over to Bunky's. The lamb burger with lamb bacon and lamb demiglace sounded pretty decadent, but then I remembered last year's bone fragment issue with Bunky's lamb, and decided to pass.
The Fresco Beercuzzi Cheddar burger was where I settled, having had a fine experience with the stuffed burger last time. A quick dunk in a cheese sauce of Hook's 4-year cheddar was what gave this burger its name, and it was pretty decent but could have been cheesier, honestly. The delicate house pickles were nice, perhaps a benefit of the understatedness of the cheese. This was a little burger, but the patty itself was full of flavor.
(I also realized that I credited the wrong beer with this course on Twitter; it was the Hinterland White Cap IPA, not the 3 Sheeps Really Cool Waterslides IPA.)
I sat on our picnic blanket and refocused my burger energies for the third course, and decided to go off the beaten burger path. No Graze, no Brasserie V (which was at least offering something a little different from the regular V Burger for once), no Alchemy -- no, I went with Dayton Street Grille. And this was, again, the festival speaking to me in the subliminal tones of the universe. Because this El Tejano feller was no mini-burger, and something to both hold and behold.
Another big ol' patty greeted me when I stepped up to the Dayton Street Grille table. Medium rare? Yes! Cactus? Why not? Plenty of heat and spices? Wouldn't have it any other way. The cumin roll in particular was really interesting. But the whole thing was really wrapped together by the fresh cilantro, which surprised me because I don't often feel strongly one way or another about cilantro (as opposed to everyone else, who either loves it or hates it).
In the Bonus Content section of the event, the Bloom Bake Shop lemon curd cupcake was quite nice, both topped and filled with tangy curd. A raspberry-infused version of One Barrel's Commuter Kölsch -- the only rare pour of the day -- was subtly flavored with raspberry, just a pleasant, refreshing summer beer. And thanks to the mysterious ways of birthday girl @KaDootz, an unused punch card dropped in the middle of our crew led to a fourth burger that I really didn't need, but enjoyed well enough: the Metcalfe's Baconator, a 50/50 mix patty of beef and bacon topped with bacon jam, among other things. It was smoky like bacon, indeed, but maybe a little overcooked.
If there's any beef with this event, it remains the garbage bin issue. I get that REAP is trying to reduce waste by giving everyone a cardboard boat to carry burgers in (rather than a new waxed paper one at every table), but there are still napkins and other garbage that need to be tossed. I walked from end to end of the main tent and only saw one bin -- and that one disappeared after about an hour.
I'd like to see more fun beers here, maybe Potosi's Tangerine IPA (which has appeared in previous years) or some other non-bottled varieties. As it was, the event menu was woefully incomplete in listing the total number of beers available at each stand, like not even close.
But even with the seemingly reduced crowd (REAP brought in more seating in the main biergarten area, so maybe that was where everyone was), restaurants still ran out of burgers by the end, taps ran dry, and people (me) left stuffed. Even if you don't have my skills at large-burger-location, it is very unlikely that you will have a bad time at Burgers and Brew.