It is 9:17 am on Saturday, August 27th and Jason Thalman looks like a test monkey injected with some form of psychotic energy serum. He rocks back and forth with a sense of excited and nervous trepidation that is almost tangible. Around us a swarm of people in neon green volunteer shirts scatter and scamper like leaf-cutter ants building a refuge. In a sense they are really, they are building a one day refuge for craft beer purveyors and connoisseurs from all across the Midwest. “Calm down man,” I implore him. But Jason just lets out a string of expletives and mumbles a faintly audible prayer to the beer gods for success and luck.
The scene around us began 10 months previously when Jason was approached by Dale Lewis (owner of Finnegan's Irish Pub) about a vision to throw a craft beer festival in Plainfield. The goal was to gather as many brewers as possible to culminate in an August beer festival to raise money for the Plainfield Riverfront Foundation. They envisioned a craft beer extravaganza where like minded beer lovers could sip under the summer sun for charity. But on that cold October day, August (and any chance of success) seemed like light years away.
Jason and I prowl the grounds looking for any project we can help out with. We walk some heavy boxes, toward the entrance gate, that contain the day’s programs. Behind the gate is the VIP lounge where guests who paid extra can try some exclusive and amazing rare beers and munch down on awesome beer food. Beyond the VIP tent lays a food area where non-VIP’s can buy pizza, bbq, sausages or sample some delectable chocolate covered bacon (donated by Whole Foods). The center of the grounds contains three adjacent tents which will house over 50 breweries from all over the country including New York and California.
The grounds are awesome. Jason walks down to the music stage where bands will be playing all day including local favorites and headliners, The Jack Pines. What catches my eye is the amount of space. There is ample shade, both natural and manmade. There are porta potties every 50 feet and even a smoking area/ cigar shop. It is now ten 10 am and things seem to be going smoothly… maybe too smoothly.
We help a duo from Green Bush brewing out of Sawyer, Michigan unload some kegs before wandering to the last beer tent. At the final tent Jason and I chat up the guys from Wild Onion Brewery, a local establishment. We discuss the advantages of bottles versus cans and banter about the intricacies of a tasty pumpkin beers. We are less than an hour away and everything is going awesome… until the cops kick me out.
Since I was not an official volunteer (no bright green shirt) I was told I had to be outside the festival grounds until the official opening at noon. You can tell the cops are nervous about this event and think this is going to be a raucous and debauchery laden drunk fest. It appears they have confused craft beer drinkers with Budweiser drinkers. While I get my wristband and beer tickets I run into a fellow beer blogger.
Tom from theperfectlyhappyman.com came over and introduced himself. Tom was all smiles and extremely amiable. We discussed and then finalized a beer trade and plotted out which brews we wanted as we scanned the (amazingly detailed and elaborate) program.
By noon a 100 early birds were already in line waiting for the fest to open, which it did, right on time. I made a b-line for the Wild Onion tent and started the day with a pumpkin ale. The sun was shinning, the river was rambling behind me and life was good. Tom, his lovely girlfriend and I all exchange pleasantries and enjoyed our first tasting of the day. They snuck off to the VIP tent and I made a trip over to try some Stone 15th Anniversary Black IPA. This was the first beer of the day that the knocked my socks off! 15th anniversary was dark and peppery. The spicy bite was amazingly original and unlike any beer I have ever tried.
“I cannot believe we actually pulled this off!” I hear Jason yell from behind me as he jogs up over my shoulder. He had just got done introducing the first band of the day. Looking down the grounds toward the entrance we glimpse a steady stream of people coming through the gates. After patting Jason on the back and thanking him for the ticket we grabbed some food and pulled up a seat in a shaded area under a tent.
After a few minutes fellow TGBOAT crewmember Rafael shows up and cracks some jokes and engages in some beerversation. Jason begins to tell me just how much planning, pleading, begging, swearing and organizing went into this event. Jason’s friend Shannon, who works at Oskar Blues, shows up and gave us some sweet swag. Everyone is smiling, happy and rightly so. I have already met more awesome people in two hours than most folks met in a month..
By about 2:30 I was ready to really get my tasting on. I had an hour before I was going over with Jason to work the Beer 101 booth. There was a “buzz” building (bad pun intended) about B. Nectar a mead maker from Detroit. I sampled Orange Blossom Mead which was made with honey from Florida bees that pollinate a citrus orchard. It was freaking delicious with a natural orange flavoring. I also had a very tasty copper ale from Shipwrecked brewing out of Egg Harbor, Wisconsin.
By 3:30 I walked myself and my buzz over to work the Craft Beer 101 booth, little did I know how awesome the day was about to get. Working the booth was a blast! People in the craft beer world are all so damn friendly. I answered questions ranging from the common and honest to the strange and even tackled some that were downright freaking absurd with my favorite being, “should I be worried about making people go blind with my homebrew?” Around this time Lance Martin, a recent craft beer lover we meet on Facebook showed up. The man, the myth, the legend, Dave Tex Richards (whom we spoke with earlier) sung by the tent. Then Suds Savant and The Chicago Beer Geeks showed up and all fun broke loose.
Jason and I were finally able to meet a few dudes who we had only previously met in cyberspace. It was like meeting some long lost brothers and only took about five minutes before we were chatting like lifelong friends. These next few hours ended up being some of the most fun I had had in months. Jason ran off to MC the toast and lead the crowd in a surprise rendition of happy birthday directed toward fellow co-founder Dale Lewis. I wandered off with Suds and Nik from Chicago Beer geeks to finish the last two hours in style.
We “sampled” a ton of great beers over the next two hours. I enjoyed beers from Clown Shoes, New Holland, Limestone, Goose Island, Stone, Dogfish Head, Flossmoor Station, Destihl, Big Muddy, 5 Rabbits, Brickstone, Argus, Two Brothers, Half Acre, Revolution, and New Belgium. I also found Matthias from Haymarket which is an IIPA that defies description. The two hours I spent with Suds and Nik were amazing and hilarious. The comradery that the three of us shared is really what craft beer is all about.
Everyone I talked to was really positive about the festival as a whole. Many were shocked that this was the inauguration of the event. Whether it was the homebrew tent, the awesome glass blowing display, the stellar local live music or the light-hearted conversation, this festival had something to offer everyone. I won’t pretend the fest was perfect, parking seemed to be an issue as well as a 15 minute premature cut-off time, however; this was one hell of a first attempt.
I think everyone involved in the Midwest Brewers Fest has something to be proud of from the organizers who labored away, the volunteers who gave up time and the brewers, many of which donated beer. The people of Plainfield should be proud of themselves as well. Everyone was well behaved, clean and courteous. I spent over 12 hours on the festival grounds and was never bored or disappointed once. In the end The Midwest Brewers Fest was everything it was dreamed up to be: A great time, at an awesome location with amazing beer, friendly and passionate people and a sense of community that raised money for a great cause. I truly believe that the Midwest Brewers Fest is a testament to exactly what craft beer and craft beer drinkers stand for.