[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 2016.]
Happy Great Taste Eve, beer fans.
Regular readers of this column know that Saturday at Olin Park is the Great Taste of the Midwest, the region's best beer festival. That means Friday is the day when dozens of bars host tap takeovers and other special events for the thousands of beer geeks and industry people who descend on Madison.
If you're one of those visitors — or a local who finally got the notoriously tough ticket — you might be going to the Great Taste for the first time.
It's a big thing, going to the Great Taste. You've probably been looking forward to it for months. You may have traveled hundreds, or even thousands, of miles.
All of that self-imposed pressure to enjoy the Great Taste often leads to overdoing it, so you have to be careful. After all, we are talking about alcohol here, even if it is wrapped in the seductive skin of a barrel-aged imperial stout.
You're going to be tipsy if not drunk at the end of the fest; that's OK. Just don't be so far gone that the alcohol erases your memories, ruins the day or night and, especially, puts you in harm's way.
So while I have several tips to enjoy your first Great Taste, many of them are about keeping the beer throttle on the right setting and managing all that beer input, even if it is two ounces at a time.
1. Don't pregame
Sharing rare or otherwise fancy beers in lines at beer events is a pretty standard thing, but I'd stay away from it for the Great Taste. This year there are more than 1,200 beers from 191 breweries inside, scores of which, like that cellared bottle you're sharing with friends in line, you can't get anywhere else. Why not have the great beer inside instead? I've also seen people drinking Miller Lite in the Great Taste line, and I have no idea what that is about but just don't do it.
2. Dump the beer
If you get an average or subpar pour, dump it. There is no shame or bad form in that, but do it out of sight of the brewery crew. No need to be a jerk about it.
3. Drink water
Start right now. Drink water when you're not thirsty, especially if you're out getting dehydrated at the Great Taste Eve events. At the fest, after every couple booths, rinse your glass (with water, not kölsch) and drink the wash. Then drink another full glass of water. Every little bit helps.
That should mean breakfast, a light lunch while waiting in the line to get in, and probably at least something from one of the food vendors at the fest. In all instances, greasy is good, as cheeseburgers or pizza help soak up alcohol. Some people go overboard with the pretzel necklaces, but the intent — a little something to munch that also clears the palate between beers — is a very good idea.
OK, enough teetotaling. Here's how to get the most of the experience — and it is an experience, not just 100 tiny beers.
5. Share sips
You're probably going to the Great Taste with at least one other person, if not a whole crew. Everyone should get in line at the same or nearby brewery booths, get different beers and meet back up away from the line to share sips. You get smaller sips, of course, but you might end up doubling, tripling or quadrupling your beer exploration, which is the entire point of a festival like this. If you have a fantastic sip, head back into line and re-up with a full pour.
6. Set priorities
The program is out now; download it or use the Great Taste app to pick two, three, maybe four breweries you don't want to miss. Make those your focus throughout the afternoon, and fill in the day with interesting-looking booths in between or nearby. If you set too many priorities, though, nothing becomes a priority. Time will go much faster than you think, so don't try to do too much. Which leads to...
Sometimes it's worth restating the obvious. You're not going to be able to drink 1,200 beers. But you're also not going to be able to drink even all of the scores of exclusive or super-rare beers. Don't bother. If you want to make a priority out of a few of them, go for it, but don't chase too much. Those timed tappings often attract very long lines, and there's a very, very good chance the brewery two booths over with no line is pouring an outstanding beer you've never had before. So chill, mosey, explore and sit in grass on the edge of the action and take it all in for a while.