gtotmFor those of you not in the know, today is the day that you need to get your check and self-addressed stamped envelope into the mail (must be post-marked on May 5th!) to enter the lottery for the Great Taste of the Midwest.  Anyone that has talked to me about this festival has probably heard ad nauseum how I think this is probably the greatest beer event in the country.

What makes it so special?  One, the location.  It’s set along beautiful Lake Monona overlooking downtown Madison. Two, while it gets busy, it never feels overly crowded.  The Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild sells a limited number of tickets to this festival and therefore keeps it a bit more intimate (at least as intimate as a beer festival can be.)  The third reason to head up to Madison for this weekend is the pre-parties that take place on Friday night, just stacks upon stacks of parties leading up to the festival the day before.

And lastly, it’s so special because all of the breweries that are invited to the festival bring their A-game.  Everyone is looking to one-up each other and bring some awesome beers. You will be shocked at how much great beer is at this festival, it’s almost overwhelming.

This will be my 7th year attending this festival and if it’s up to me, I’ll never miss another one.  So, that being said I’m putting together some pro tips for those of you who may have never attended the festival.  Why am I putting these tips together 3 months before the festival?  You’ll soon see why.

1) Enter the lottery today!
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s difficult to go to the festival if you don’t enter the lottery.  There is no guarantee you’ll get tickets, but you can’t win if you don’t play.

2) Arrive in Madison on Thursday.
“This festival takes place on Saturday, why am I going up on a Thursday?” Take it from me, that six hour trip from St. Louis to Madison can really take it out of you.  Even if you leave at 6AM, you’re not arriving in Madison until 12PM. The first parties usually begin around Noon and don’t end until the wee hours of the morning.

You don’t want to be rushing around on Friday trying to hit all of these parties after driving for six hours and being up since 6AM. Come up on Thursday, wake up at a reasonable hour on Friday morning. Have some awesome breakfast at Marigold Kitchen and then plan a trip out to New Glarus Brewing.  NG usually releases something special this weekend and even if not, their brewery is friggin’ beautiful.  You’ll be well rested and ready for fun.

3) Book a hotel now.
“Wait, I’m booking a hotel for a festival I may not even get tickets to?”  Yes.  Rooms around the square fill up quickly and all of the fun events take place around the square. You’ll probably still find a room leading up the festival, but stay downtown, it’ll make for a more enjoyable weekend.  There is a hotel right by the festival, but in my opinion it’s a waste of time and you’ll end up wishing you were closer to the downtown square.

4) Don’t fret if you don’t win the lottery.
You’ve booked your room, you’ve taken some days off of work and you just found out you didn’t win the lottery. In the words of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: DON’T PANIC.  Once we get closer to the festival more and more spare tickets start popping up. Everyone over-orders tickets (including me) and there are usually more than enough to go around (at face value, no less.)  While there are never any guarantees in life, I’m pretty confident you’ll find tickets.

5) Remember, this weekend is a marathon, not a sprint.
I can’t tell you the number of people that go into this weekend with the best intentions and then fail to make it to the festival.  Those parties on Friday nights are A LOT of fun, but they’re just a lead up to the best festival you may ever attend. Just be certain to pace yourself this weekend.  Eat lots of food, drink lots of water.

6) Have a game plan for the festival, but keep it loose.
The number of beers and breweries at Great Taste is overwhelming.  They are estimating over 1000 different beers at the festival. So it’s good to go in with at least a small game plan of breweries/beers you want to hit.  But don’t feel so caught up in following that plan that you miss out on hidden gems along the way. (Oh, but don’t miss out on the Real Ale tent, it’s usually insane.)

7) Have a game plan for the weekend, but keep it loose.
Being the nerd I am, I made a list of places where I wanted to eat, drink, and visit last year before the trip.  But I wasn’t so beholden to the list that we didn’t visit cool places that weren’t on the list.  It’s good to have a plan, but feel free to throw it out the window if you’re just having a lot of fun.

Places to Eat
Marigold Kitchen
The Old Fashioned
Brasserie V
Greenbush Tavern
Cooper’s Tavern
Graze
DLUX
Harvest
Brickhouse BBQ
The Tipsy Cow
Osteria Papavero

Places to Drink
Capital Brewery
Ale Asylum
One Barrel Brewing Co
Next Door Brewing Company
Karben4
The Malt House
Jordan’s Big Ten Pub
The Great Dane

I’m sure I’m going to add some more stuff as time goes on, but this gives you a good start for what is my favorite weekend of the year.