Out of Here: Midwest Beer Journey

Giant Jones Brewing

A week ago we were sipping tasty beers in the sultry heat of the upper Midwest. (BART gets you to both SFO and OAK, after all.) The region delivers the heat that summer nights in San Francisco nearly always lack. Sandals and sunscreen by day. Cicada songs surging like electrical currents in the warm evening trees after dark. So we set out to take a break from our chilly August evenings and slip into the Wisconsin and Minnesota summer, and another craft brewing world.   

We were delighted that the proprietors of the new Giant Jones Brewing Co. in Madison, Wisconsin, hosted us at one of the finest American craft beer festivals, the Great Taste of the Midwest.  We met the Joneses in SF about a decade ago, around the time of our first visit to the Great Taste back in 2009. Erika and Jessica (formerly known as Eric) have built a tidy, comfortable brewery and taproom featuring giant beers. The tagline at Giant Jones is “Big beers for everyone.” 

While this bigness intention was a head-scratcher at first – since everybody wants to sell a happy customer a second glass or two – in practice, sipping a modest pour glass of Barleywine with a glass of water on the side turned out to be a summertime treat. Giant Jones beers work because they are skillfully fermented by Jessica Jones, with no hot alcoholic impression and no cloying degree of residual sweetness. Smooth and relatively dry, in other words. A treat.

Jessica Jones of Giant Jones
Jessica Jones and Co. get ready to pour at the Great Taste

The most exciting beer at Giant Jones?  For me, among the treats on their beer list, it was the smallest beer, at 7.3% ABV, a Pale Weizenbock. This beer is slated to be pulled from the taplist in favor of a related Dark Weizenbock for winter. I confess that I kind of hope the customers rise up and rescue it, but Erika and Jessica Jones have a plan. It’s cool to see breweries give their original vision a shot as-is before adjusting to the marketplace.  And maybe the Pale drinkers will embrace the related Dark Weizenbock yet to come. It’s not so illogical, after all. Now matter which beer sells best, many people will be rooting for this new brewery.

Great Taste of the Midwest, outdoors
Gates open at The Great Taste of the Midwest

The Great Taste of the Midwest is an excellent festival. The setting in a lakeside park, with ample room for people to line up, stand in the shade of trees and otherwise enjoy themselves without being elbow to elbow may have been the secret sauce. There were many very good beers, of course, living up to the reputation of this noteworthy festival. 

Is there still a difference between midwest and west coast brewing? Many beers seemed sweet by my standards, but were clearly enjoyed by all concerned. Perhaps this is not the old sweeter brewing tendency but the new lactose “milkshake” direction taking hold. Different regions, different cravings. Happily, we found also breweries such as Surly, for example, that tend to like making more attenuated beers. 

A few breweries were pouring Brut IPAs. the newest innovation out of San Francisco, credited to Kim Sturdavant. Some were a bit weird, but many were good. We had an amazing version from Cruz Blanco, for example, visiting the fest from Chicago. With this kind of adoption, it’s going to be a legit style soon, you have to think.

In addition, while in the Midwest, we visited Rahr Malting Company, which was an eye-opening contrast with the micro-maltsters we’ve toured in the last two years, including Riverbend, Blumenau and Admiral Maltings, in Alameda, California, (just a ferry or city bus away from a BART station). More about the malty side of our adventures in future stories. 

One of the massive structures where malt is made at Rahr

Explore Beer By BART: Use our list of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places with detailed transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.


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