Every year, on the second weekend in August, 6,000 beer enthusiasts gather in Madison, WI, to partake in the Great Taste of the Midwest Brewing Festival (fondly referred to as GTMW). With close to 200 breweries represented, and over 1,200 beers available to taste, GTMW is one of the premier craft brewing festivals in the country, and for the last ten years, I’ve been lucky enough to attend.
What brings me back year after year? It’s the opportunity to be among others who share my deep passion for this product—both creating and consuming. And every year, I get a peek at the emerging trends in craft brewing, trends that are often mirrored in the greater marketplace.
What notable trends were on tap this year?
- Low ABV beers make a resurgence. After years of craft breweries competing to provide the highest alcohol content per glass, this year’s fest provided a refreshing range of low-alcohol or “session” beers to a somewhat relieved audience. Light and refreshing pilsners and pale ales harken back to the Midwestern roots of craft brewing, when breweries like Pabst and Coors, now enormous national brands, delivered easy-drinking but full flavored beers to the local populace.
- Wild flavors tantalize and delight. With an audience increasingly open to palate-challenging flavors (witness the increasing popularity of fermented drinks like kombucha and tangy condiments like kimchi) this year’s fest was rife with wild and sour ales, whose pungent, distinctive and downright funky flavors are starting to challenge prestige favorites like IPAs and barrel-aged stouts in sheer numbers.
- Boutique brands lend authenticity to their corporate parents. Although GTMW started as a celebration of home brewing, there were a striking number of breweries that have been purchased in recent years by multinational conglomerates. These well-considered craft breweries have continued to turn out creative beers under the umbrella of much larger corporations. But in an industry that values individuality, there is a perceptible tension to the question of which companies belong in the craft category. However, the long lines at the Goose Island booth (purchased in 2011 by Anheuser-Busch InBev) seem to indicate that consumers will, in general, continue to enjoy familiar local brands even after they’ve been acquired by larger entities, echoing movement in the larger market.
The creativity, growth, and surprises to be found at GTMW every year make me confident that I can look forward to many more years of learning, exploring, and of course, tasting! Cheers!