By Susan T. Hessel  

Tasters, rev your motors. On March 9, you will have the opportunity to buy your tickets for the April 26-28, 2019, Between the Bluffs Beer, Wine and Cheese Festival, sponsored by the La Crosse County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Why do you need to rev those motors? In 2018, the 4,000 tickets sold out in six hours. 

Jeremiah Burish“People love this event. They love the craft beers, the local wine, the cheeses and meats,” said Jeremiah Burish, the bureau’s director of sports sales and events. “This excellent event gets crazier and crazier every year.” 

Burish expects more than 100 local, regional and national vendors to be present. That includes 60 breweries, 20 to 25 wineries, and 10 to 15 cheese and meat booths. Within the first 24 hours of vendor signup, 25 had registered, including some new ones. Among those who will be there are members of homebrew groups from La Crosse, Winona and Rochester. Their input is important, Burish noted, because some of the local breweries began as homebrewers. 

“This is a chance for the vendors to get their products to potential customers for future purchases,” Burish said. “Vendors do not donate their wine, beer, cheese or meat. We purchase their products from the vendors.”

The fest, which began with a couple of hundred tasters in the parking lot of City Brewery in 2002, now welcomes 4,000 participants and more than 100 vendors spread out in tents on the South Side Oktoberfest Grounds. The main tent is called the City Brewery Brewhouse in honor of the festival’s origins. City Brewery brewmaster Randy Hughes serves on the event’s planning committee.

The La Crosse County Visitors Bureau took it over in 2009. By using the Oktoberfest grounds, the fest could grow its vendors and provide interactive activities, such as the Hammerschlagen game in which participants compete to speed-hammer a nail into wood. 

Pearl Street Brewery has been with the fest since the beginning, according to Tami Plourde, partner and director of marketing and sales. “It’s been fun to watch it grow. As a brewery, we are invited to hundreds of beer festivals a year. It is very hard to accommodate all of them, but Between the Bluffs is at the top of the list of fests that we do. The crowd is really fun. The organization does such a good job with this fest. We love it every year.”

Pearl Street has been in business for 20 years and makes many different beers throughout the year, depending on the season. “The Between the Bluffs Committee does a really good job evolving the fest and making it user-friendly, safe and fun,” Plourde said. “Celebrating craft beer in our home audience is really important to us. It’s an opportunity to drink beers with the fans and have fun with it.”

Why is Between the Bluffs so popular? In part, it is because craft beers and local wines have caught on in a big way. Craft beers are created by small, independent brewers and are experimental by their nature. They include many niche beers, including some created by homebrewers. 

Wineries are no longer found just in France, Italy and California. Wisconsin now has more than 100 wineries, and interest in local wines has grown. Cheese, a natural for the dairy state, is always a welcome part of the festival. And the beef sticks, bacon and beef jerky promoted at the event complement the cheese. 

“We showcase a lot of local, Midwest and national beers and wines,” Burish said. “We showcase much of what Wisconsin has in craft beer, wine and cheese.”

Between the Bluffs is a weekend packed with fun, including live music. A general admission ticket for $55 includes a souvenir sampling glass, beer, wine, cheese and meat sampling; live music Tasters Eve events on April 26; a free shuttle for events to and from host hotels; and a voucher for the La Crosse County Tavern League’s Safe Ride Home program upon request. VIP tickets for $95 include all those options plus a VIP and Brewers Reception on April 26, early entry, a special gift, VIP parking, and a catered meal in a VIP tent. The last day on Sunday, April 28, offers a Bacon Bloody Brunch, which is $15 with a general ticket and $10 with a VIP ticket.

This is such a beloved event that tasters from all walks of life travel from 20 states, with many booked as groups year after year. “They make their hotel reservations for the next year as they check out,” Burish said.

Some people come dressed in German clothing, while other groups have matching shirts for the event so they can easily find each other in the crowd. 

Between the Bluffs is also an opportunity to talk with brewers and winery owners about recipes and the processes they use. In other words, tasters can talk about what they love and get tips about what comes next. “People enjoy trying something new,” Burish said.

Brent Martinson Turtle StackBrent Martinson, brewer and owner of Turtle Stack Brewery, said he enjoys the crowd appreciation for its Toasted Coconut Baltic Porter beer. “It pours so quickly, and there is so much demand, that it runs out. It is such a popular beer that people ask for it all the rest of the time of the event. I have to tell them there just isn’t any more.”

Martinson said the festival is a chance to try different  beers than the ones people might usually buy. “Homebrewers ask about technique and recipes,” he said. “Some people are just there to drink and try different beers. They get in line to get a beer and then get into another line.” 

As one local festgoer wrote in a review of the fest, “If you are looking for a way to try new beer, wine or cheese without having to buy a whole bunch of bottles or cans and throw out what you don’t like, this is it! Come and sample hundreds of beers and wine from around the area and the country. National and local brews and wines with some of the best cheese around.”

Another wrote, “Solid fest, great people, the volunteers who helped were awesome, and they had a huge variety of beer, wine and cheese! Can’t wait to go back.”

Another said it even more simply. “Best beer festival we have ever attended.”

Burish believes another reason for the success of the festival is that it comes at a time when participants have had it with winter and cabin fever. “They’ve been pent up for the majority of winter. They are itching to get outside and experience all the great things we have here,” he said.

Burish, of course, hopes those who come to the fest will stay an extra day or two and maybe come back to La Crosse with the family. “We offer a lot here,” he said. 

There is one thing that Burish can’t guarantee at the 17th annual Between the Bluffs Beer, Wine and Cheese Festival. At least one proposal has occurred at the event. Amid a big crowd in a tent, a man got down on one knee and asked the woman with him to
marry him. 

“Hundreds of people applauded. It was pretty neat,” Burish said. 

So, what can’t he promise? “I can’t guarantee they will say yes.”

For more information about the festival, visit beerwinecheese.explorelacrosse.com.