Saturday, January 18, 2014

Day 251 - The Isthmus Beer and Cheese Festival

I have never been to the Isthmus Beer and Cheese Festival. This annual event hosted by a local Madison publication is something I have heard about since it began five years ago, but I never set aside time to experience the festival firsthand. That remained the case despite the fact the event was one of the largest beer festivals in the state that focused almost exclusively on products made in Wisconsin, which appealed directly to my roots in this state. As a result, early in my “I have never...” year I started throwing around the idea of attending the Beer and Cheese Festival this winter. At first, I figured the event could serve as a good back-up in case I need it, but my experience at the Isthmus Food and Wine Festival earlier this year left me thinking the Beer and Cheese Festival was an event I shouldn’t miss.

As a result, I decided to move the Beer and Cheese festival up on my list of “I have never...” priorities, and I started keeping my eyes peeled for notices about tickets sales. When news came my way tickets had gone on sale, I was quick to pick up a pair for Rachael and I, which locked in the event as one of my 365 new experiences over the course of my “I have never...” year. With that, all that was left to do was to wait for the day of the big event and to hope I would have a high enough metabolism to make it through a half-day marathon of beer and cheese.

The wait begins...

With today came the day of the Isthmus Beer and Cheese Festival. In anticipation of the event, Rachael and I got ourselves ready and headed to a nearby free shuttle pick up location one and half hours before the festival’s scheduled start time. When we arrived we found a line of people wrapping around the corner of a block, which made it apparent we would be waiting some time to make our trip to the festival. Doing our best to stay warm, Rachael and I talked with some of our fellow festivalgoers as we waited for the one van serving our location to pick up small groups of people and drive them to the location. With some 30 minutes between pickups, our wait dragged into the afternoon and beyond the scheduled start time of the festival to the point we began pursuing any alternatives we could think of outside of driving ourselves to the event. Unfortunately, no one was available to give us a ride and no cab service was capable of serving our location in a timely manner, which meant our option was to continue to wait.

This continued until after more than two hours of waiting we were finally able to board the last shuttle bus stopping at our location. Frigid to the bone, we did our best to warm up as we traveled along the Isthmus and toward the Alliant Energy Center, which served as the space for the day’s event. Upon arriving at the location, we were met with another line to get into the facility, which then led to two lines for coat check and entrance. Frustrated by the amount of time wasted up to that point, Rachael and I decided we would simply enter the event space and carry our coats, which wasn’t ideal but it was better than missing more of the event.

The crowd...

Our decision made, Rachael and I found our way to the back of the entrance line and slowly made progress toward the festival entrance. Although the first segments of the experience left plenty to be desired, I felt my excitement and anticipation build with each step we took toward the event space. By the time we neared the front of the line we could see a massive space lined with over 100 booths and packed with people happily nibbling away at cheese and sipping on beer. In that moment all of my doubts about the event being worth the time we already invested dissipated. Regardless of the time wasted and our cold toes, we were going to make the most of our time at the Beer and Cheese Festival.


Eventually working our way to the front of the entrance line, Rachael and I promptly grabbed our complimentary tote bags and our sampling glasses. We were quick to stuff our coats into the tote bags as we walked out of the line and entered the sprawling exhibition space. With little plan, we pressed into the crowd and made a path toward the closest beer booth where we almost immediately ran into our friends Megan and Amanda who arrived just moments before us. Happy to be linked up with some more company, Rachael and I quickly caught up with the pair as we grabbed our first beer and developed a rough plan of attack for the rest of the day. In a matter of moments we were all in agreement. The plan was simple and obvious; drink as many beers as possible and fill up with cheese to the greatest extent possible before the festival drew to a close.

Nearing the end...

Over the next several hours our group carved a path around the exhibition hall as we did our best to hit every booth that appealed to our interests. Although there were plenty of lines at booths throughout the festival, we were happy to wait as we shared some laughs, sipped on our beer samples, and ate some incredible cheeses from around the state. Eventually, our route through the building caused us to come across some other friends and acquaintances, which ultimately caused our group to swell to a tour de force of beer and cheese samplers roving around the festival. By the time the event drew to a close we had burned a path that covered nearly every booth of note in the building, shared plenty of ridiculous moments, and made some great memories. As evening fell we were some of the last people left in the exhibition space, which made it clear none of us were quite ready to bring our experience with the Isthmus Beer and Cheese festival, and all the fun that came with it, to a close.

We're going to start a band.

Despite that desire, we were eventually corralled by festival staff and moved toward the doors of the exhibition hall. After taking a little time to bundle up for the cold weather and recalibrate in the lobby, we said a few goodbyes to some of our group and found our way back home for the evening. Exhausted from the day’s events, Megan, Amanda, Rachael, and I recuperated over a few slices of pizza and talked about the day’s events. From our comments it was clear to see we collectively agreed the Beer and Cheese festival was a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon, even if it required a lot of waiting before the event began. As a result, I can easily conclude I would attend the Isthmus Beer and Cheese Festival again, but next time I’ll get an earlier start to avoid the lines for lines to get in.

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