Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

July 11, 2007

Beer Diary:

Tailgate To Heaven

Enjoy a Midwestern summer tradition in true Beer Dorks style.
by Nigel Tanner

"It takes beer to make thirst worthwhile."
Contact Nigel»
Tailgaiting. Many of us Beer Dorks are as familiar with this pre-game ritual as we are with church, if not more so (much more so in my case). For us, attending a ballgame does not simply involve purchasing a ticket, parking, and walking inside to catch the action. Here in the Midwest, it involves an entire day of preparation: packing tables, chairs, awnings, grills, coolers, backpacks, and purchasing enough food and beverage to supply a third world country. Arriving at the ballpark three hours prior to game time is standard, and not remembering anything after the third inning or first quarter is quite common. Most people think of tailgate parties as gatherings in which copious quantities of shit beer are indulged, but I?m here to tell you that a true tailgate party can easily incorporate a variety of craft brews in a number of important ways.

I came up with the idea for this article while a friend and I toured the Spring Training ballparks near Phoenix this past March (he drinks malt liquor, therefore disqualifying him from Beer Dorkship). I, as a native Wisconsinite and Brewers fan, and he as a native Chicagoan and White Sox fan, are both experts in the art of tailgaiting. While we were unable to create the deluxe spread that typically marks our trips to the ballpark back home due to the fact that we had a rental car and lacked access to the normal amenities, we nonetheless improvised. This mostly consisted of purchasing some brews at a local grocer and scoring some eats at a local fast-food joint, definitely a far cry from brats, burgers, and hot dogs sizzling on a charcoal grill. Usually arriving at the ballpark an hour or so prior to first pitch (typically Cactus League games begin in the afternoon, around 1 p.m. MST) we pulled into a stall, popped open the hatchback on the PT Cruiser, blasted the iPod, and cracked open some brews while indulging in our In-N-Out Burgers. Not exactly a day at Miller Park or the Cell, but when in Rome ?

So, why did this amateurish attempt at tailgaiting inspire me? Well, we saw games at ballparks in Peoria, Phoenix, Surprise, and Tempe, with games involving the Angels, Brewers, Mariners, Padres, Rangers, Royals, and White Sox, and we witnessed?get this?a grand total of three tailgate parties the entire time. Six days, five games, four ballparks, seven teams, and we noticed only three other tailgate parties, none of which came even close to matching the elaborate setups at Midwestern stadiums. March in the Valley of the Sun is as perfect weather-wise as you will find anywhere, yet nobody knew how to take advantage of it. Fans arrived two hours before game time and actually went into the stadium to watch batting practice. Hello, people ? these games don?t count! You should be at the ballpark to enjoy yourself, not to sit in a small seat, roasting in the sun while watching a bunch of minor leaguers take BP. This experience left no doubt in my mind that a true tailgate party is very unique to the Midwest.

Upon my return home, I made a point to observe in more detail the features of a typical Midwestern tailgate party. Since the start of the current baseball season on April 2, I have been able to attend six games at Miller Park in Milwaukee: five involving the hometown Brewers, and one featuring the Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Angels that was moved to Milwaukee due to an April snowstorm in Cleveland. On top of this, in recent years I?ve been able to attend ballgames at Wrigley Field and US Cellular Field in Chicago, minor league baseball games in Appleton, Wisconsin, college football games at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, a college hockey game (yes, hockey) at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, as well as NFL games at both Lambeau and Qwest Field in Seattle (not exactly the Midwest, I know), and numerous Brewer games at Miller Park. My observations have yielded the following conclusion: most tailgaters, regardless of geography, indulge in the standard shit-beers produced by the Big Three, but there are also a surprising number of people who switch it up and indulge in anything from mixed drinks to good craft beer to wine.

In Wisconsin, the brews of choice clearly are Miller products. Miller Lite, High Life, Milwaukee?s Best, and Pabst dominate, with an unfortunately large group of ?rebels? who bring in A-B swill. In regards to the craft genre, Leinenkugel?s is the clear frontrunner (not sure if that counts, as it?s produced by Miller), with the occasional Capital, Tyranena, Lakefront, and Sprecher brews mixed in on a limited basis. Since cans are far preferable to bottles while tailgaiting, it?s harder to locate craft selections, as most come only in bottle form. Leinenkugel?s produces cans of Berry Weiss, Honey Weiss, and Sunset Wheat, all popular choices on a hot summer day, while Capital cans the popular Wisconsin Amber and Island Wheat selections. While none of these are high on my list of favorites, they are nonetheless far superior to slamming 16-ounce cans of Beast Ice. Outside of Wisconsin, Anheuser-Busch products unfortunately have a slight edge over Miller and Coors, with standard yellow water brews Bud Light and Busch Light dominating.

Don?t get me wrong?I understand that at a baseball game, a nice light brew is preferable, considering you?re usually sitting in the afternoon sun surrounded by roasting vehicles and pavement. As much as Nigel likes his Imperial IPA?s and other ballsy brews, I would never consider this style for summer tailgaiting. This may change during the cooler early spring or late fall baseball games or during football season, when the weather is conducive to any type of brew you may fancy. Hell, an Imperial Stout would likely help you ignore the advancing frostbite should you be dumb enough to sit outside of Lambeau Field in late December.

But, just because lighter is better during the summer months doesn?t mean a plethora of good craft brews can?t be utilized to make for an ultimate Beer Dorks tailgate party. Here are a few suggestions from yours truly:

1. A craft pilsner. Truly, there is something about the pilsner, the standard style of American macro-swill producers, which hits the spot during a tailgate party. However, stay away from the Big Three. Nigel recommends South Shore Brewery?s Honey Pils, New Glarus? Hometown Blonde and Capital?s Special Pilsner. All light and refreshing, but with far more body and flavor than anything produced by the major breweries.

2. Hefeweizen/wheat beers. Possibilities abound here, as nothing beats a nice, light, spicy wheat ale on a warm day. For a detailed look at this style, see Eddie Glick?s recent article on American wheat brews. My suggestions: Bell?s Oberon, Sprecher Hefe Weizen, Sand Creek?s Woody?s Wheat, and Capital?s Klöster Weizen. While tolerable in a pinch, I would not recommend Leinekugel?s Sunset Wheat, Capital?s Island Wheat, or Goose Island?s 312 Urban Wheat Ale.

3. Fruit/honey beer. Again, this is a sweet, light and refreshing style for warm weather. While I?m not personally a fan, Leinenkugel?s Honey Weiss and Berry Weiss are very popular choices in the Midwest. Tyranena?s Three Beaches Honey Ale is decent, and Dark Horse?s Raspberry Ale and Lakefront?s Cherry Lager (if you can find this spring release in the summer months) are good choices. Avoid the thicker fruit beers, like Stouts and Lambics?New Glarus? Raspberry Tart and Wisconsin Belgian Red, and Founder?s Rubaeus are perhaps a bit too strong for this type of event.

4. Kolsch. This unique German style is not as common as hefeweizen, but just as tasty (if not more so) and refreshing on a warm day. My suggestions would be Goose Island?s Summertime Kolsch and New Holland?s Lucid. Smaller, localized microbreweries tend to brew this style as well, so it?s worth a shot to check out your local brewer and perhaps pick up a growler of this tasty style, if available.

5. The Mini-Keg. Regardless of the style or brand you choose to drink, nothing works better for a tailgate party than the mini-keg. My personal favorite is the mini-keg of Bell?s Oberon, though any craft pilsner, lager, hefeweizen, or wheat ale will work just fine here. Pack some plastic cups, bring some ice, and enjoy!

Finally, no article on tailgaiting would be complete without Nigel?s recipe for beer brats, which utilizes a fine craft brew in place of Miller High Life. While many residents of Sheboygan, Wisconsin will likely have a heart attack (since they consider themselves the sole authority on cooking beer brats) Nigel says ya?ll can blow it out your ass ? everyone has their own take on this tailgaiting classic, and I?ll put mine up against yours any day.
Nigel?s Nice-N-Spicy Beer Brats
? 6-pack of Wisconsin bratwurst (I prefer Usinger?s, but Klement?s and Johnsonville will work too)
? 2-3 bottles of South Shore Brewery?s Honey Pils (substitute Capital?s Special Pilsner or New Glarus? Hometown Blonde or Spotted Cow if necessary)
? 1 medium red onion, sliced
? 1 red bell pepper, sliced
? 3-5 fresh jalapeno peppers, sliced
? 2 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
? Add salt , pepper, and other spices as you wish (I prefer a bit of Lawry?s seasoning salt, paprika, and a mix of other green spices?be creative and use whatever fits your taste buds)

Add brats to seal-tight plastic container. Pour beer on top until fully submerged. Add chopped onion and peppers, garlic, and spices. Mix lightly. Add more beer if necessary to make sure all ingredients are fully submerged (note that the beer will soak in while marinating, so be generous with your beer additions). Seal tightly and marinate overnight.

When ready to cook, pull directly from marinade and place on hot charcoal grill (do not cook prior to placing on grill?Nigel is a strong opponent of that technique). Dispose of marinade, as it has been soaking in raw meat and should not be used again (including onions and peppers). Cook thoroughly, place on bun, and add condiments as desired (Nigel recommends raw onion, ketchup, and spicy brown mustard).

Note that this recipe is not for the weak-stomached! Lots of pepper, garlic, and onion make for a spicy but extremely tasty brat that?s sure to be enjoyed by anyone up to the challenge.
So, there you have it. Summertime is a great time for Beer Dorks nationwide to get together and enjoy a ballgame while indulging in quality brews and tasty food. So, get out and enjoy it while you can, as winter will be here sooner than you think.

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