Milwaukee's Summerfest and the "Big Gig"

Milwaukee’s Summerfest claims to be the biggest music festival in the world. While that may be technically true, it’s hard to see it as more than an oversized Chicago neighborhood festival. And before you take that as a criticism, let me explain. 

Summerfest is remarkably approachable and local. The food, beer and music are all recognizably Milwaukee-based (aside from a number of headliners). And that feeling pervades the casual, hang-out nature of the fest during the day. There’s endless little spots for small groups to hide away in — small music tents, picnic areas and tons of pristine Milwaukee lakeshore. 

Immediately necessary was a visit to Lakefront’s brew tent. Walking past innumerable Miller Lite and Leinenkugel outposts, one could easily get discouraged. But this only makes the sight of Lakefront shine that much more in such an enormous festival typically overrun with sponsors. 

Tucked under the sky ride, Lakefront offered most of their well-known portfolio, including Riverwest Stein, which has easily become one of my favorite beers. A smooth and malty lager with just a touch of bitterness to keep you paying attention, Riverwest Stein stands out far ahead of the rest such as Wheat Monkey. They could really quit making that beer any time now.

Then it was time for sustenance. And what better than Saz’s for some fish and fries? These guys recently supplied a food truck for a friend’s wedding rehearsal dinner at Best Place and provided some incredible fare. They upped the ante once again with fried cheese curds and a special seasoning on the fries akin to sour cream and onion. 

Saz’s left us thirsty, so it was off to Water Street brewpub’s setup. A bit less renowned than the many other Milwaukee brewers, Water Street produces a small set of decidedly average beers akin to a chain (they are part of a larger system of restaurants and bars in the Milwaukee area). After enjoying the first few sips of the overly-fruity Bavarian Weiss Beer, it was clear that there was simply no staying power here.

The service, however, was a particular flavor of Midwestern charm, and the rooftop was a fantastic vantage-point for people-watching. 

The next day, I stumbled on a nice little surprise. Tenth and Blake Beer Co., MillerCoors’ craft brew label that also produces Blue Moon, Leinenkugel’s, Pilsner Urquell, Peroni, Killian’s, and many others, was offering a special Summerfest IPA called Big Gig. While the company seems like a combination of an internal start-up for MillerCoors, and a dumping ground for tired imports, Big Gig was a solid IPA that took a bite out of the super-salty spinach pie I was enjoying. 

Noticeably absent this year was Sprecher. It would have been lovely to knock back a couple Special Ambers while listening to Styx wail on Come Sail Away. But alas, they lost their lease at Summerfest this year, so it was back to the not-much-of-a-compromise Lakefront tent again.

Not a single Leinie’s Summer Shandy was had that day. Riverwest Stein forever. 

@mpkiser@goodbeerhunting

Michael Kiser