Four Thoughts About the Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Without getting too snarky or sports-focused, Wisconsin is known primarily for two things: beer and cheese. And while the state has its beer fests and its cheese fests, not until this past weekend were the streams fully crossed.

The first annual Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest took place on Saturday at Madison’s Alliant Energy Center Exhibition Hall, bringing together brewing luminaries (with an emphasis on craft brewers such as Capital Brewing and the Grumpy Troll brewpub) and cheese superstars (including at least seven companies with master cheesemakers, two of whom were on site).

In no particular order, here are four thoughts about the event.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

1. We Live on Holy Gastronomic Ground

The variety and quality of the beer and cheese vendors at the event was proof positive that much is happening in the Upper Midwest. Many of those present were starting fresh businesses (such as Scott Buer of Bolzano Artisan Meats, below) of Milwaukee, whose dry-cured guanciale and pancetta have been winning regional attention since his launch last year.

2. Madison Was Ready for This Kind of Event

Hundreds streamed through the exhibition hall, forming enthusiastic lines at many (if not most) of the booths offering samples. Commemorative two-ounce beer glasses offered at the door ran out near the end of the day, indicating that attendance exceeded even the optmistic projections of the organizers.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

3. Value is a Subjective Thing

Advance tickets cost $40. In return for the tickets, visitors got a beer glass and could chat with about 20 brewers and about 20 cheesemakers, most of whom offered little two-ounce pours or cheese-cube-on-a-toothpick samples. Two tasting sessions (beer and chocolate and beer and cheese) were open to a limited number of attendees — essentially the first 75 or so who could grab seats at tables near the center stage. The Cork n’ Bottle String Band provided music.

No matter how hard you drank and how many cubes of cheese you stuffed into your mouth, chipmunk style, you’d be hard pressed to enjoy even $15 of product.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Does the joy of sampling a wide variety, chatting with producers, hearing a peppy and thematically appropriate string band, and potentially nosing your way into a small-tastes pairing discussion make up another $25 of value? It’s a subjective question.

4. Roelli’s Dunbarton Blue Cheese Was a Star of the Show

As it turns out, when cheddar cheese meets blue, wonderful things happen. Dunbarton Blue, a cellar-cured cheese made by Roelli Cheese Haus of Shullsburg, WI, manages to combine some of the tart kick of blue cheese with the gently lingering flavor of mild cheddar. The cheese debuted in late 2008 and is starting to build real buzz as a fast-rising artisanal superstar.

The buzz is well-deserved — it hits the sweet spot of being both mellow and thought-provoking. It’s not yet clear if it’ll be the state’s next Pleasant Ridge Reserve rockstar cheese, but it certainly seems to have that potential.

4b. Pretzel Lanyards

This doesn’t really merit its own bullet point, but, man. Whoever first thought of wearing a necklace of pretzels (above, right) to a beer festival deserves some major props.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.

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4 Comments

  1. Kathy 02/01/2010

    I didn’t go to the fest, but I do live in Madison, and I’ve been to many beer festivals (four times to the Great Taste alone). Those pretzel necklaces are common at most festivals, and sometimes they include the large, sourdough-type pretzels, too — and pretty much any snack one can string.

  2. Sorry to have missed you at the chocolate pairing. God, that was the seat to get though, wasn’t it? My wife and I weren’t even really trying to prioritize it that much, we just wanted a little break. When people started to pile up around us, we knew we’d made the right choice.

    Cedar Grove’s smoked salmon and dill cheddar was surprisingly wonderful.