Beer culture and building sustainable communities

Great Taste offers all of us a good lesson in what it looks like to grow a community around shared cultural interest.

I spent many, many years too intimidated by the Great Taste of the Midwest to actually attend. The tickets seemed unattainable, the lines seemed too long, the people seemed too highly beer-credentialed, and in general the whole affair seemed out of reach for reasons that now seem silly. The reality of Great Taste, which I finally got around to attending earlier this month, challenged every one of my assumptions, from the ease of tracking down tickets to the organization and friendliness of all the people there for a day of delicious beer tasting. Moreover, the festival offers some exceptional lessons in what a well-planned, -executed and -designed major event can do to stimulate and cultivate local culture and community around, in this case, beer, but more broadly, any community looking for examples of how to rally around a common interest and then stick together throughout the year. Wisconsin Film Festival, would-be game jam organizers, and other stewards of festival-esque events, take note.

Culture is at its lowest risk when it is all-you-can-eat.
Beer in point: Hop Haus Pocket Rocket Beer Float.

My average score for beers on Untappd is somewhere around 4 out of 5, largely because I have a tendency to self-select for beer styles I like and breweries about which I’ve heard good things. A beer festival with unlimited tasting pours is a great opportunity to throw out that bias and go into the weird, the unknown, and the presumably hated. Did I love the vanilla stout float handed to me by the folks at Verona's Hop Haus Brewing? Nah. But since their creamy, beer-y treat was part of the bulk beer purchase that is a Great Taste ticket, I wasn’t afraid to give it a shot.

A festival is an opportunity for a cultural smorgasbord, and should be used to lower the boundaries to trying something new. You try Hop Haus because you’re in the area for Central Waters. Sometimes you take a chance on a weird experimental film to kill time before the big action movie crowd pleasers (unless ticketed screenings keep you from branching out). You’re never going to find all the hidden gems, but worst case, that cross-pollination gives you fodder for conversation in the weeks and months following the event.

Fuck monoculture.
Beer in point: Off Color Brewing/Miller High Life bottle conditioned with Champagne yeast (yes, really)

There’s a strong temptation to spend the whole day of Great Taste chasing rare, timed beer tappings that you can’t get anywhere else. Some people dedicate their day to questing after these barrel-aged rarities, and that’s fine, but acting like they’re the definitive list of beverages to imbibe is a big mistake. Not only will the high ABV of these beers shorten your vertical capabilities for the day drastically, there’s just too much happening for everyone to be waiting in line for a single beer on the hour.

Off Color Brewing, which was tapping limited varieties of its Dino S’Mores stout throughout the day, had the good humor to parody rare-beer hunting with a sign proudly announcing a timed tapping of their collaboration with Miller at their booth at 4 p.m. Despite the prodding of a few hunters, no, really, it was just Miller Lite. (CORRECTION: Turns out it was Miller High Life bottled conditioned with Champagne yeast. The point about rare beer hunting remains arguably valid).

Sometimes it’s just a beer. Chasing the crowd can be fun to a point, but no one should be on the outside looking in for missing out on The Big Screening or The Most Important Beer.

Something can be special just to you, but be sure you share it anyway.
Beer in point: Begyle Brewing/Galway Bay Brewing Goodbye Blue Monday IPA

Sometimes you have to chase after something because it appeals uniquely to you. This IPA is a collaboration between my wife and I’s favorite neighborhood Chicago brewer and a brewer we discovered during our honeymoon in Ireland. We recommended it to all not just because it’s a smooth, drinkable IPA, but because we felt a unique connection to where it came from.

When it comes to other types of arts and culture, the same rules apply—there will be niche screenings, small exhibitions, and other experiences that seemingly jump out only to you. Never discount something that speaks your language just because it’s not trending highly in the community.

You can be boring on your own time. Be bold.
Beer in point: Furthermore Black Cloud

My biggest regret from my first Great Taste was trending too hard toward breweries I already love. For all my proselytizing about branching out, I wish I’d pushed out of my comfort zone to explore styles I enjoy under breweries I’ve never encountered or recipes I hadn’t imagined.

Furthermore Beer is a personal favorite of mine. Its Thermo Refur was one of the first beers I ever reviewed for publication, and Proper showed up on our wedding tap list. When I saw that Sand Creek’s booth would feature two Furthermore offerings, I became obsessed with getting to their tent; Black Cloud, while a great Belgian wit with deep, smokey, rich malty flavor, is nothing so special you couldn’t find it at Star Liquor on the weekend of the festival. I let my fanboyism get the better of me.

I think of this same problem when it comes to events that offer safe, highly-consumable cultural offerings—often out of fear that stranger offerings won’t draw a crowd. Arcade takeover nights with Pac-Man and Tetris. Screenings of popcorn-popper movies devoid of a compelling unifying theme. There’s a place for familiar cultural experiences, but sustainable communities around film, games, and food requires taking risks, and big festivals like Great Taste offer the chance to do so that you just can’t pass on.

Sharing new discoveries and finding places to talk about them—even unofficial ones—is important.
Beer in point: Dangerous Man Blutpakt or Righteous Babe

A big open-air beer festival has the inherent advantage of plenty of space to bump into fellow festival goers making their way between tents, camping out near small musical troupes, all the while permanently answering the question “Whatcha drinking?” Great Taste primes for these moments to happen both officially and unofficially, whether during the lengthy list of pre-party tap takeovers at which you can home in on specific breweries while dining all over Madison (we knocked out nearly all of Surly’s greatest hits over dinner at the Tipsy Cow), while wandering the grounds between tents, or mingling around the fringes where encampments of chairs feature pop-up venues for conversation and debate over the relative merits of cask-aging.

The bottom line is that everyone has favorites, and it pays to talk about them. Creating opportunities for that to happen is critical, whether officially via parties and events as well or unofficially by clustering festival events in a place convenient for festival goers to self-organize and reflect on what they’re seeing and experiencing. This detail in planning is key to generating cultural stickiness that can help people make the jump from strangers to arguing about top 10 arcade cabinets, regional brewers or filmmakers on Twitter.

Recognize the makers of great things.
Beer in point: Wisconsin Brewing Company Depth Charge

My last beer of the day came from a vaguely familiar hand, but my friend had to shout “HOLY SHIT, YOU’RE KIRBY!” to confirm my suspicion that the WBC brewmaster himself was handing me a generous pour of their scotch ale. Meeting brewers pouring their own work is one of the best parts of Great Taste, and we gladly took advantage of the opportunity to shower praise on his work.

“We are not worthy” accolades aren’t necessary, but when a cultural event gives an opportunity to thank an artist or creator of something you love, take it. It sounds sappy, but it matters that we remember that books, films, beers and video games come from people who work hard on them.