[Editor's Note: As we march toward the 2017 Great Taste of the Midwest beer festival on Saturday at Olin Park, the Wisconsin State Journal is bringing back the Beer Baron's previous stories profiling this remarkable event. This story was first published in 2014.]
There's a common misconception that needs to be cleared up about the Great Taste of the Midwest: that it's a beer festival.
Yes, the 6,000 people who line up to drink the 1,000-plus beers pouring at the event in Madison's Olin Park every year certainly think of it as a beer festival, and one of the premier ones in the entire country at that.
But its organizers — the all-volunteer, all-amateur Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild — say the key to its runaway success over the past 28 years has been to keep the focus on the brewers, which will number about 160 this year, up from 153 in 2013.
"It's a brewers' festival, and that's a little bit different than a beer festival," said Mark Garthwaite, who is a week from wrapping up his third Great Taste as chairman. "You're actually talking to the people who make beer. Not all events are like that. This is what we hope is a showcase event for them. It's not just the value of going to the festival and having a good time, it's being with the people who actually made the beer and are proud to show you who they are and what they do."
It's worth noting here that beer festivals, as fun as they are for those in attendance, can be a bit of a slog for brewers. They have so proliferated that many breweries, even small ones, go to one just about every weekend in summer. That means hauling kegs, tap equipment and, of course, staff — if a brewer has one — around the state.
Garthwaite said some festivals don't pay brewers for the beer they bring, forcing them to rely on the more abstract marketing value of such events to make it a profitable proposition.
It's why the Great Taste organizers pull out all the stops to make it "the easiest event that they do," Garthwaite said.
They unload and cold-store the beer for the brewers at the festival grounds. They handle parking . They make sure they breweries' crews — most usually bring at least six people to pour beer and run errands — know about the many social events for them going on around town during the weekend.
Every year there's Great Taste swag gifted to the brewmaster of each brewery: last year a 12-pack cooler and in 2012 a pair of custom-sized rubber brewers' boots, all emblazoned with the festival logo.
"We do everything we can to treat them like the rock stars they are," he said. "We want them to feel like they have the greatest job in the world."
Industry groups take notice of so many brewers making the trip to Madison every year and hold social or professional events. The Master Brewers Association of the Americas is holding a technical conference in Madison on Friday, and Garthwaite said international brewery supplier Country Malt Group rented out the Madison Children's Museum last year for an invite-only event to schmooze brewers the day before Great Taste.
The tap takeovers, samplings and other beer events held that day — Great Taste Eve, as beer aficionados in Madison and around the Midwest know it — are the primary third-party adjuncts to the festival's weekend.
They began springing up years ago, but only recently have guild members begun helping out-of-state brewers who otherwise don't sell in Wisconsin with the licensing and relationship-building that such events require.
They're also the best way to experience a slice of the Great Taste — fantastic beer shared with strangers who want to talk about it, and, often, a chance to talk about it with the actual brewers — without securing the notoriously hard-to-get and increasingly expensive ticket.
This year the guild increased the Great Taste ticket price from $50 to $60, largely the result of "things we've been asked to do" — primarily professional security and traffic management — by the city to ensure patron safety, Garthwaite said, adding that the requests were all sensible and the guild has a good relationship with officials. More breweries every year means more beer to purchase, too.
The cost of putting on the event increases every year, he said, but the guild aims to hold the line on the price as long as possible, then do a more significant price increase.
Another constraint is the venue and, therefore, the number of patrons, Garthwaite said. The festival has maxed out the lakeside at Olin Park, with no place to put more brewery tents — or festivalgoers, and the extra ticket proceeds they would bring.
"If we were able to sell more tickets, we'd definitely do it. That cannot currently happen," he said, adding that the guild will not move the event out of Olin Park or add other Great Taste events.
"We think about the experience value. Do it right so you make it a good experience," he said. "The consequence of that is a $10 increase. But we're really certain that there won't be an increase next year, or for the foreseeable future."
A large majority of Great Taste revenue is used to pay the festival bills, with a portion donated to charity — the amount varies based on T-shirt sales and the like but is usually around $25,000 — and the remainder used by the guild "for facilitating homebrewing education, competitions and other homebrew club events," Garthwaite said.
The guild didn't hear a lot of complaints about the price increase, he said, although my story on the ticket changes this spring had a comment by user GaryRobbins suggesting that the cost could be held down by limiting the brewery count to about 100 and that the increase is "getting close" to pricing people out.
I pay for my press ticket like any other Great Taste-goer, and it's tough to make a case that the event isn't worth $60 — not to mention waiting in line for hours the day of the event and the morning the tickets are sold. For many beer geeks it's the best day of the year, a chance to immerse themselves in the craft beer culture that's a huge part of their life.
And that, Garthwaite said, starts with the guild's focus on the brewers: "If they think this is a great event for them, it cannot possibly be anything but a great event for the patrons."