The day the NCAA tournament bracket is announced has nothing on Great Taste program day. Workplaces across the country discovered about 60 pages missing from their printers on Wednesday afternoon, highlighters suspiciously low on fluid, and employees leaving with a mysterious bundle of paper under their arms.
The official program for the Great Taste of the Midwest is a beast, only 60 pages long if office beer fans graciously printed it two-sided. It takes a good bit of time to skim through the whole thing, and then the app comes out and you've got to do it all over again to mark favorites breweries and to-drink beers, and check for additions.
I'm happy to do some of that work for you, so here's my list of the beers you should probably try if you're at Olin Park this Saturday.
Sours and tarts and puckering whatnots
When I went through and winnowed out my highlighted beers, it was no surprise that this category was still near the top of the list, and I didn't even include a quarter of all the Berliner weisses and goses in vogue this year. Schell's Star of the North series comes correct, and Leinenkugel's experimental Tenth and Blake Bubblelicious Weisse is a perennial favorite. Milwaukee Brewing's Increase Wheat, a gooseberrified Berliner, just came out -- but it won't be distributed to Madison (thanks, distributor), so GTMW is Madison's best shot at it. Similarly, New Glarus' Wild Peach is on the schedule for Saturday, if you aren't able to make it to the brewery for the bottle release. Maybe the weirdest sour? MobCraft's Batshit Sour, a lacto version of Batshit Crazy coffee brown ale. Excellent stuff, perfect for a festival pour.
Caffeinated black ales
Coffee stouts and porters are great, but on a hot summer day, a ligher-bodied black ale (black IPA, Cascadian IPA, etc.) is ideal. Minnesota's Bent Paddle Cold Press Black is its standard and very tasty black ale with a coffee addition. Also from the Great White North -- our side of the border, though -- is Thirsty Pagan's Coffee Vanilla Burntwood Black; the Pagan has opened up its house black ale and infused it with coffee and vanilla, a natural direction for the roasty, stout-like flavors of the black ale to take.
A beer fest is the weird variant's natural stomping grounds. Take Indeed's Arnold Palmer Shenanigans. This summery wheat beer from the brewery's regular lineup has been amplified with lime, pineapple, and mint. (This actually seems more like a mojito than an Arnold Palmer, but whatevs.) Temperance Greenwood Beach Blonde with Pineapple has an obvious addition, and one that should highlight a trend in beer modification. Right Brain's Thai Peanut is actually a regular recipe brown ale, but it's just weird enough to be included here.
Okay, so an IPA or double IPA that blows out your palate might not be the smartest call for a tasting festival, but you gotta do what you gotta do. Dog-themed Black Husky's E-Howler is the Equinox hops version of its typical Simcoe Howler, and was pretty hard to find in bottles. A couple Chicago breweries pit humans versus creatures on a couple pales: Dryhop Shark Meets Hipster Galaxy-hopped wheat, and Pipeworks' Ninja Vs. Unicorn double IPA. And then there's Haymarket's Mathias, a Citra-hopped imperial IPA named not after a monster but a police officer from Chicago's history books.
Avoid anything that comes in a test tube from Bell's; last year's experimental chile beer was a palate wrecker of the cruelest order. Instead, try Sweet Mullets Jorge, a truly delicious jalapeño beer from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. If your tongue can handle it, ZwanzigZ's Imperial Stout on Ghost Pepper was a spicy wonder from last year's Taste.
This year's Great Taste logo is a strongman carrying two barrels, so why not honor the branding with a few sips of the Midwest's best barrel-aged stouts? Of course there's Three Floyds' Dark Lord, but also Perennial's Barrel-Aged Abraxas and Great Lakes' Barrel-Aged Blackout Stout -- two beers that don't come around here otherwise. Same with Chicago's own Goose Island's Proprietor's Bourbon County Stout and Off Color's Barrel-Aged DinoS'mores vanilla/chocolate/graham cracker stout, also adorably known in this hibernated version as Dinosnores. Toppling Goliath Mornin' Delight makes a return visit; bottles of this guy don't often leave Iowa. And closest to home, Milwaukee's Lakefront 25th Anniversary Vol. 1 Imperial Stout has been rum barrel-aged, which should be pretty interesting.
Or, if this is all too much, maybe just sidle up with a pour of New Albanian's Turbo Hog malt liquor. Maybe they'll repeat last year's novelty act and serve it out of a Ghostbusters proton pack-esque mobile dispenser. Is the Great Taste great, or what?