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A Zwanze Day Recap from Elkader, Iowa

Josh Augustine, September 25, 2014 -   

As we mentioned last week, Cantillon's Zwanze Day occurred this past Saturday, September 20th. I had never been to a Zwanze Day before this time around, and quite honestly I'd never heard of it before this time around, having only really gotten seriously interested in gueuzes and lambics within the last year or so. When the details of Zwanze were announced by Cantillon a few months ago, there were a couple of related events within what I consider to be a reasonable proximity to my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, and pending full details being announced for each venue, it didn't seem unreasonable to think I could make it to one of the events.

The events closest to me were at the wonderful Bier Station in Kansas City, Missouri, about a two and a half hour drive from home, or at Schera's Restaurant in Elkader, Iowa, an establishment I'd never heard of in a town I'd never heard of which is a five hour drive from home. Initial reports from Bier Station indicated that their event would be first-come, first-served, which to me sounded like a free-for-all madhouse (they did end up changing it to a ticketed event, but my plans had already been made at that point).

Schera's announced that their event would be ticketed, with guaranteed pours for ticket holders. For this reason, I opted to attend the event in Elkader, despite it being a longer trip. It also didn't hurt that Elkader is a short drive from Decorah, Iowa, which made a post-event trip to Toppling Goliath a given.

Tickets went on sale around three weeks beforehand. I bought one the day they went on sale, although the event didn't end up selling out until a few days before the event. I was somewhat surprised by this, as there were only 150 tickets available, and despite Elkader being a town of around only 1200 people, it is within reasonable proximity to places such as Minneapolis, MN, Madison, WI, and Des Moines, IA. Schera's also announced that they would have a limited number of Cantillon bottles available for purchase, and each ticket holder would be entered into a raffle for the opportunity to purchase a single bottle of a selection of beers that were not specified until the day of the event.

I got in touch with a few other gentlemen who were also traveleing from Omaha for the event and we arranged a carpool. Our party left Omaha around 6 AM on the morning of the 20th. Google estimated about a five hour drive from Omaha, but over half of said drive is on non-interstate highways, and we wanted to make sure to account for any pit stops/traffic/road construction/navigation/etc. Because the event was ticketed, and all Cantillon pours were guaranteed, and bottle sales wouldn't happen until 3 PM, there was no urgency to arrive early. This was definitely a luxury.

We arrived in Elkader right around noon. Schera's is in Elkader's gorgeous downtown area, which was bustling with locals spending a Saturday afternoon about town visiting other area shops and restaurants. There was no line or waiting to get into Schera's. We showed identification at the door, and were given our ticket packs and souvenier glasses (which turned out to be a rather nice 12-oz snifter glasses, rather than the usual souvenier tasting-size glasses).

Ticket packs contained one ticket each for a Zwanze pour, Mamouche pour, St. Gilloise pour, Classic Gueuze pour, a four year aged Jolly Pumpkin Oro De Calabeza pour, a meal (which turned out to be a delicious slow-roasted harissa lamb with a few sides), and a surprise ticket: a guaranteed opportunity to purchase a 375mL bottles of each of the Classic Gueuze and Rose De Gambrinus.

They had enough of these that everyone could buy one of each (they were charging $35 total for the pair), and any left unpurchased by 5 PM would be made available to anyone who wanted to purchase more. The crowd that had assembled so far was calm and polite and would prove to remain dispositioned as such throughout the afternoon. Seating was ample, and staff were efficient and affable.

The taplist at Schera's, apparently always chock full of great stuff, was no different on Zwanze day. Aside from the Cantillon taps, and among a number of other high-quality selections, there were taps featuring the Hill Farmstead/Blaugies La Vermontoise collaboration, Mikkeller and Three Floyds' Blå Spøgelse, Prairie's Cherry Funk, DeStihl's St. Dekkera 95lb Pear, and what was a personal highlight, De Struise's Cuvee Delphine, a Russian Imperial Stout aged in Four Roses Bourbon Barrels.

All were available in four or eight ounce pours for $3-4 or $6-7, respectively. Our strategy was to first work our way through the other taps which we found most interesting, since those could run out at any time, and then move on to the guaranteed Cantillon pours. Lunch was available at attendees' leisure, and people gradually filtered through the serving station as hunger and opportunity coincided.

The Zwanze keg was tapped promptly at 2 PM, in sync with the time it was tapped worldwide. Due to a fortuitous bit of right-place-at-right-time-itude, I managed to get the first pour off the keg. The rest of the crowd followed suit, patiently waiting their respective turns at getting a taste of the delicious nectar.

One hour thereafter the clock struck three and the bottle-sale raffle was conducted in a swift and efficient fashion. There were 36 total bottles available, in some combination of Fou' Foune, Iris, Mamouche, and St. Gilloise, and each raffle winner was allowed to purchase one of these to go along with their already guaranteed Rose De Gambrinus and Gueuze bottles.

Nobody in my group of co-adventurers had their name pulled, and we departed Schera's shortly upon the completion thereof, having tasted everything that we had hoped to taste and more, and having further decided that it was time to move from the sours of Cantillon to the hops of Toppling Goliath.

There was a lot of speculation on certain internet forums leading up to this event that Schera's had no idea what they were in for with this event, that they would be in way over their heads dealing with a big-city caliber crowd. Those doubts couldn't have been wiped away more cleanly, as this event was nothing but completely well-managed, and thoroughly satisfying to all who attended. The organizers at Schera's made certain that all who attended went home pleased and eliminated the possibility that people might travel long distances only to get shut out of the main event.

I look forward to visiting Schera's again in the future, be it for another Zwanze Day or other special event, or if I just happen to be in the area with room in my stomach for a meal and a beer (seriously, the lamb was incredible).

Were you able to make it to a Zwanze event? What was your impression? Let us know in the comments!

Josh Augustine will occasionally make you feel uncomfortable via posts on Twitter, and will soon be writing love letters to Founders Breakfast Stout on untappd.

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