Schumacher's new, restaurant-sized fair booth (between the Waffle House and the Ol' South Pancake House, across from the arcade and the WCCO booth, behind the giant slide) is modeled on the New Prague hotel, and has enough space for full-meal "feasts." One breakfast includes a smoked pork chop, scrambled eggs, fried dumplings, a kolache, and coffee for $7. A lunch-or-dinner feast comprises venison Polish sausage, dumplings, gravy, sauerkraut, and a kolache for $6.25. Schumacher's will also serve the sausage sandwiches that made them famous ($4 at breakfast, with scrambled eggs; $3.75 the rest of the day) as well as the addictive Reuben ($4.25). I've never had the elk sandwich ($5.50), chunks of meat braised in a thick herb sauce, or the raspberry bread pudding with honey sauce ($3.75)--but since every time I've been to New Prague I've been delighted with Schumacher's menu, I'm willing to bet these will be good.

Everyone walks into the fair with an internal checklist of must-sees, must-dos, and must-eats. These "musts" are not like other tourist check-offs--Big Ben in London, croissants in Paris--because they're emotional touch-points visited annually; more like Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas windows, Halloween trick-or-treating. These musts mark a personal end of summer; they connect you to your past self and fellow fairgoers. Lynn Gordon's list--despite the scooping nightmare of her youth--includes root-beer floats; John and Brandi Schumacher, who'll serve up two full tons of sausages in the 12 days of the fair, kick off the first day with a couple of someone else's foot-long chili dogs. Just thinking about my own list of musts--a good, long look at the butter heads and the big pig, a trip on the sky-cars and a spin on the Ferris wheel, a French Meadow strawberry-topped scone and a Schumacher feast--I'm getting all choked up again.

What? All right, all right, maybe I'll check in with an allergist. But I bet you won't be so cynical once you're marveling at seed art with a scone in your hand.

TABLEHOPPING

3.2 UNMASKED! So what exactly is the deal with 3.2 beer? (For you newcomers: All fairgrounds beer is legislatively ordained to be "weak," held to a maximum 3.2-percent alcohol level.) I'm sure you've heard all the 3.2 rumors: that it's simply beer with water added; that it's no different from the manufacturer's other beer and the producers just pay a fine in a bureaucratic cat-and-mouse game; that it's a preposterous, patronizing, Prohibition-era holdover maintained by lazy politicians who wouldn't know good beer from possum spit. Oh wait, that last one's not really a rumor... Anyway, I called up John Lindberg, the Master Brewer at the Summit Brewery, to find out how Summit makes its 3.2 Pale Ale, which is available throughout the fair.

To understand 3.2 you have to have a rudimentary knowledge of brewing, so let's condense this masterful, complicated art into five short sentences: Beer is made of water, malted barley (or another cereal), hops, and yeast. The first steps of brewing result in "wort," water full of flavors, sugar, and starches. The way you count how rich the wort is, how much food will be available to the yeast, is in degrees of "gravity." When you add the yeast to the wort it eats the sugar and converts it into alcohol and bubbles. Strain out the solid stuff, and voilà.

"Generally when we formulate the Pale Ale, we shoot for an original gravity of 12," Lindberg explains. "To make the 3.2, we have to have a lower gravity, 10.8." With only four ingredients in beer, fiddling with any of the components clearly would drastically change the taste, so Summit adjusts the other components to make up for the reduction in sugar. "Our goal is to make the product taste the same [as regular 4.9 Summit Pale Ale] with a different formula," Lindberg says. "Given that alcohol is also an important flavor component in the beer, it never will taste exactly the same. But our job as brewers is to try to get it to taste as much the same as possible. It's not as simple as people think."

So now I'm thinking of 3.2 Pale Ale and 4.9 Pale Ale as identical twins separated at birth--the 4.9 raised in sugar-rich luxury, served in frosty steins by people making sensible food-beverage pairings, and the 3.2 underfed, tortured in a world of plastic cups and crazed meals of cotton candy and alligator nuggets, ice cream and gyros. Somehow that makes me feel even more kindly toward my favorite fairground ale. I'm always rooting for the underdog.

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