I've been to countless beer events, tappings, festivals and dinners over the years, and there's no sign of the scene slowing down. Festivals are getting bigger, beer and food pairings more inventive, and the crowds more diverse.
The GBH x BSSG Concept
So when it came time for the first-ever Good Beer Hunting event (GBH), I had plenty of experience and friends to rely on to create something truly unique. And that's why my first move was to buddy up with my good friend Max Wastler of Buckshot Sonny's Sporting Goods (BSSG) to help shape the whole concept. We had a few things in mind:
Make it intimate. Eliminate the barrier between provider and consumer. No pouring tables, no peddling, no rep volunteers, and most of all, no mindless consumption. We are one tribe and everyone had a role in making it awesome.
- Make it your own. Camp isn't about endless itineraries and following the rules. It's about running wild in the woods, but also being gentlemen about it. We kept things organized, but fluid and flexible.
- Make it last forever. When you get guys like this together, relationships and partnerships form. We chose people based on their relevance, both to what we do and love, but also to each other.
Over the past five years, I've been dedicated to telling the story of beer, one of America's great local craft movements. At the same time, Max was busy working with American craftsmen, making custom clothing, sourcing authentic vintage sporting goods and telling the stories of America's struggling, but resilient craftsmen in a series called Made Right Here.
It's amazing that it took so long for Max and I to meet, but when we did, it was at Camp Wandawega in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. Since then, we've been paling around, taking trips to Journeyman Distillery, Greenbush Brewery and the Sojourn shop in Southwest Michigan, as well as out to Solemn Oath Brewery in Naperville, Illinois for Oath Day. And a couple weeks ago, we teamed up to recreate my great great uncle S. E. Kiser's 100 year-old anti-prohibition speech at the Mash Tun Fest.
So when it occurred to us that we were on to something, you can imagine how quickly it all came together. But really, it has been brewing for years — this event practically invented itself. We would bring the people we loved and admired most, creative and generous spirits all, to camp. But not just any camp — to Wandawega.
Settling in to Camp
About twenty five of our closest friends and collaborators, a mix of brewers, designers, artists, musicians, chefs and photographers found their way up Route 12 through the plains, lakes and forests of Illinois and across the border into Wisconsin to Elkhorn, home of Camp Wandawega.
Campers found their rooms, settled in and met their new mates. Greeting each camper was a small welcome kit: a beer glass with the weekend's logo designed by Kyle Fletcher, and artist and designer in Chicago I've been working with for years, and some fun ephemera made by my wife, Hillary Schuster, a designer and crafter in her own right.
Gathering in the kitchen, the sharing began. New Glarus was the first top pop. Almost every camper had gathered a small treasure on their way across the border.
Rick Muschiana from Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids, Michigan hauled about four cases of beer down to camp, including some of my favorites like Triomphe, Zaison, and their newest special reserve, Escoffier, recently released at a farm dinner with New Belgium Brewing.
Ryan Burk of Virtue Cider sacrificed a number of bottles of Red Streak, the first release on the market from this new outfit in Chicago founded by Greg Hall. We drank it at room temperature, about 60 degrees, and stood in an autumn breeze of rustling oak leaves and a cool lake chill as we awaited the rest of our brethren. The boys from Solemn Oath were on their way.
The Friday Night Tapping of Bonhomme by Solemn Oath
John Barley and Paul Schneider came heavy to camp. Over the past week, they were in Naperville brewing a custom batch of Butterfly Flashmob, their newest Belgian pale. For the GBH x BSSG getaway, they wanted something a little more bracing against the chill, so they spiked the brew with a variety of bittering ingredients, such as elderflower, Gentian root and grains of paradise. With their reputation preceding them, John and Paul now stood surrounded by a group of thirsty campers eagerly awaiting the weekend's first official pour. As that bright straw colored brewed filled our glasses, so did our hearts swell.
Called Bonhomme, this brew was sobering in its sharp bite and desert dryness, just like a Belgian pale should be. But after just a few swigs, the medicinal bitterness of these exotic ingredients came through, leaving a gin-like juniper flavor on the palate that felt right at home in the dark woods. Solemn Oath nailed it. Handshakes and hugs all around.
The night divulged into pool, darts, poker and flaming nun-chucks.
Saturday Morning Reveille
Up and at 'em. Max had the hardest job of the weekend by far, and he rose to the challenge armed with his own Great American pancake mixes and his All Plaid Out coffee label from Bow Truss in Chicago. This man among men stood over four burners for nearly an hour and fed a slowly-rising army with chocolate chip, gingerbread, five grain and cinnamon pancakes as thick as hamburgers, covered in the camp's own private label maple syrup. With some help from camp managers Bill and Joe, we also got some eggs and bacon going that kept the group at bay. Those guys know a potential crisis when they see one.
Bellies full, and dishes done, it was time to set out for the various activities planned for the day. Boating, archery, basketball and a rope swing occupied the energetic campers among us.
For those of us still recovering from the Bonhomme tapping, there were hammocks, bocce and some casual guitar strumming. Phil Kuhl, beer director at Fountainhead in Chicago, and his friend Darren Garvey, a musician, hung out in the tree house and quietly wrote a new tune tentatively titled "Hanging out with beer snobs," which also happen to be the only lyrics penned at this point. I'll let you know when they go into recording.
A Beer Dinner by DryHop Brewers
More food than you've ever seen in your life. The boys from DryHop Brewers, a new brewpub that's breaking ground as I write this, put together a beer dinner that you'd write home about if you weren't in a three-day food coma.
Chef Pete Repak and owner Greg Shuff put together a hearty, rustic menu of dishes that would put hair on the chest of the Brawny Man. Smoked quail, pork cheek, short ribs, green beens, horseradish potatoes, campfire beans, cornbread and chocolate pecan pie. Did you catch all that? We all did, and then we went back for seconds.
Greg also brought a couple dozen growlers from their brewery Brant Dubovick — collaboration beers, including the IPA made with Atlas Brewing, and a Bier de Garde made with Pete Crowley of Haymarket brewery, both in Chicago.
The pork cheeks has an incredible mustard kick that earned some exclamations from the crew, and the short ribs melted like butter on our tongues. The IPA cut right through the fat and the bier de garde made us all heady for desert. I don't think anyone made a peep for about 30 minutes save some low, satisfied sighs. When these guys open early next year, we're going to flashmob the place.
Fire by the Lake
Wandawega has a thing about bonfires. They don't just toss some wood into a firepit and roast marshmallows. In fact, if you tried to make a smores here, your fire fork would probably melt. Starting around 12 feet tall, David (an owner with his wife Tereasa), Bill and Joe set to drying out the 7-day-rain-soaked pile with a propane torch and feeding it with a leave blower to generate a torch you must be able to see for miles. It takes about three hours before you can get less than ten feet from this big, beautiful thing.
As the flames grew higher, Phil Kuhn of Fountainhead put the director in his title of "beer director" as he strolled around with bombers in hand, pouring some of the best beers you can't get your hands on much anymore. Bourbon County Vanilla, aged bottles of Half Acre Sticky Fat, Big Hugs Imperial Coffee Stout, Thunder and Son, and their collaborations She Wolf (Three Floyds) and Plan B (Perennial). He also sourced some uncommon labels out this way, including Cisco's Lady of the Woods and Baggywrinkle Barleywine, Boulevard's Love Child No. 2, and a Jolly Pumpkin and Maui collaboration, Sobre Humano Palena'ole. There were plenty of others, but seriously, who's keeping track at this point. (Me).
As we waited for the fire to settle in for the long haul, Seth Putnam, journalist and editor of The Midwest Style, and Blake Royer chef, writer and photographer, together known as The Overserved Society, set up shop. Each month, these two friends set out to perfect a classic cocktail recipe, conduct tests, get feedback, refine and then host a small gathering to share.
But for the GBH x BSSG weekend, they did something they've never done before — they made their own recipe building on Basil Hayden bourbon, and aptly called it Fire by the Lake. Seth and Blake worked out the final tweaks in the recipe in the bar room on the top level of the old hotel under the gaze of Abraham Lincoln, and with a view out onto sunset over the lake.
"Fire on the Lake"
2 oz Basil Hayden's bourbon whiskey
1/2 oz Luxardo Amaro liqueur
1/4 oz Luxardo maraschino liqueur
1/4 oz Bénédictine liqueur
1/4 oz Quince & Apple Tart Cherry Grenadine
2 dashes Angostura orange bitters
1 Mess Hall bar cherry
Build the wet ingredients over ice and stir. Strain, garnish with the cherry, and serve in a coupe glass.
Crowding around the picnic table on the porch of the tree house 20 yards away from the bonfire, with the gleam of the fire dancing in the glassware, you could feel the heat inside and out.
Up All Night
As the fire turned to cinders and ash, the crew moved inside the lodge for one last night of sport. Games, music and the last of the great beers. But before this could become just another night of indoors adventure, Pete Cuba, an artist and designer in Chicago, showed us how it's really done. He set up Big Buck Hunter using a pico projector against a wall of the lodge, and started taking challengers. I have so far avoided his challenge on three separate occasions and maintain that he'll never beat me.
One Last Dip in the Lake
On our final morning at Wandawega, a few adventurous souls, including Michael Una of Unatronics and Andrew Thiboldeaux of the Philadelphia-based band, Pattern is Movement, faced the frigid October waters in their skivvies, grabbed ahold of the rope swing, and took the plunge. From there, it was a short swim to the dock and one final leap into memory of the most epic camp weekend any of us had witnessed in our adult lives. Well, maybe my second most epic camp weekend after this one.
'Til next year. We love you Wandawega. GBH x BSSG forever.
See other camper's photos:
- Andrew Wright, a Chicago Illustrator took some shots
- Kyle Fletcher, a Chicago artist and designer, got some great night shots on film
- The swelling tide of the #goodbeerbuckshot Instagram pool keeps rolling in