Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

February 8, 2007

Beer Diary:

Beertown Of The Midwest

Madison, Wisconsin is quickly becoming the premier destination for Midwest craft beer.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
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Anyone who’s spent so much as a day in Portland, Oregon understands why the city recently dubbed itself “Beertown, USA.” It’s long been hailed as the place where the nascent American craft brewing movement came into its own. And, with its population of just over half a million making it smaller than both Milwaukee and Columbus, the city has 29 breweries and brewpubs. The place is just dripping with beer culture. Around half of the beer sold in Portland is craft beer—compared with the average American city’s five or six percent. It seems like every bar you step into brews its own beer. Even the strip clubs (of which there are a lot) have at least a couple of local craft brews. Wanna see a movie? Many theatres serve craft beer alongside the popcorn.

Madison, Wisconsin has a lot in common with Portland, even when you don’t consider the beer. They’re both progressive cities with a relatively young but highly educated population. Admittedly, Madison can’t hold a candle to Portland’s nearly all-encompassing beer culture, but keep in mind that Wisconsin’s capital is less than half the size of Portland. And its beer scene is nothing to sneeze at. Immediately outside Madison you have the excellent Tyranena Brewing Company in Lake Mills, Gray’s Tied House in Verona, the Grumpy Troll Restaurant and Brewery in Mt. Horeb, and what would be Madison’s crown jewel, if it were actually in Madison, Capital Brewery. (It’s in Middleton, which is so close to Madison that, to be honest, I really can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.) And that’s just to name a few places within an hour’s drive of Beertown of the Midwest.

But when you’re done tooling around the purlieus and actually make it into Madison, the first thing you want to do is hit a good beer store and snag some of the local brews to take back and stash in your beer fridge. This being Beertown of the Midwest, ordinary grocery stores like Copp’s and Woodman’s will have a massive beer list. But if you really like your beer, the place to head to is Steve’s Liquor & More out on Mineral Point Road. Not only do they have a highly informed selection of local and Midwest craft beers, but for those of you who insist on going European (and I don’t mean bare-ass naked on the beach), there’s a walk-in cooler with virtually every Belgian, English and German brew you’ve ever heard of … and more than a few that you haven’t. Plus, the folks working there, from the higher ups to the lowly cash register jockeys, know their stuff. Oh, yeah, and they also sell this thing called “wine.” Don’t ask me, never had the stuff before.

And if you’re a home brewer (and if you aren’t, why the hell not?), the Wine and Hop Shop is also a must-visit. Ask the brewing-savvy staff about their plethora of outstanding kits. They can get on the pricey side, but they have a rep for using the best malts and super-fresh ingredients, which every home brewer knows is one of the keys to home brewed bliss.

OK, now that we’ve got our shopping done, it’s time to get a beer. And the first place you want to head to is what may very well be the best brewpub in America, the Great Dane in downtown Madison. Most brewpubs will have, what, six beers on tap? Four or five regulars and one or two seasonal/specialties, right? Well, when I was at the Great Dane, they had 17 of their beers on tap. That wasn’t a typo. From their Landmark Lite—the brewpub’s all-malt take on the macro light beer—to their fantastic—and, not to mention, big-ass—Texas Speedbump IPA, they’ve got just about every taste in between covered.

From there, hike up to the square ringing the Capitol and duck into the Old Fashioned. Nominally, the place is a restaurant, but who has time for food? Just saunter up to the long bar in back and take a gander at their tap list devoted exclusively to Wisconsin craft brews. Beer from as far away as Ashland’s South Shore to Madison’s own Ale Asylum are represented. Their bottle list is also extraordinarily local-centric, with over 30 Wisconsin craft brews, with an emphasis on the brand-spanking-new Furthermore and Arena’s tiny-but-growing Lake Louie. They even have an import list consisting of two beers: Bud and Bud Light. Nice touch. I tried a tap of Furthermore’s Knot Stock, which the bartender described as a “nice APA.” And he wasn’t lying. A great hop aroma, medium body, and a faint, hard-to-place tweak at the very end, which I later learned was cracked pepper. Funky.

After that you can head out east and visit Madison’s sole distributing brewer, Ale Asylum. (Madison’s other brewery, BluCreek Brewing, has its offices in Madison, but its beers are contract brewed in the Black River Falls area.) Headed up by former Angelic brewer Dean Coffey, the brewery offers a short but eclectic mix of house brews. I’d strongly suggest their Hopalicious (an IPA), Tripel Nova (Belgian golden ale) and, my favorite at the moment, Ambergeddon, a malty alt with a nice, firm hop profile. It’s sort of a tough place to find, but a great joint to hang out at, with dark, polished wood, leather chairs and a stainless steel bar. Just make your way toward the airport and look for the blazing neon sign.

But what if you don’t wanna head east? Then head west and check out the Great Dane’s newest outpost outside Hilldale Mall. Due to an antiquated, post-prohibition law, the Great Dane can’t brew and serve its own beer at this new location (until the law gets repealed, which might happen as early as Spring 2007), but they do feature a very smart list of craft and foreign brews, with an emphasis on local stuff. When I first walked in I stopped in my tracks: they had two of my favorite European beers, Aventinus and Gouden Carolus, on tap. It took some willpower, some chanting “think Midwest, think Midwest” and some strange looks from the staff and patrons for me to turn those two stellar offerings down, but boy-howdy was I glad I did. This was where I got me my first taste of the aforementioned Ale Asylum’s Big Slick Stout. This is an oatmeal number with an emphasis on BIG. Children, listen to me: This thing is a monster. Giant, almost overwhelmingly roasted coffee body; massive, thick tan head; loaded with oily sweetness. Guh. If you order one of these babies, be sure to bring your appetite.

And the good beer selection isn’t just limited to specialty places. Wanna watch the game with your brews? Check out Jordan’s Big Ten Pub, a bar on the outskirts of the UW campus that captured my heart when the waiter introduced the beer menu by saying, “Let me get the shit beers out of the way first: Bud and Bud Light.” Even if you duck into a random dive bar you’ll find something to drink. The Le Tigre Lounge, set in a decaying strip mall off the Beltline (Highways 12 and 18 that ring the southern and western parts of the city) is basically frozen somewhere between 1961 and 1974, with faux tiger skin lined booths and a juke box packed with Elvis, Patsy and Frank. I bellied up to the bar and asked the bartender—an older gentleman wearing a pressed white shirt and black tie, I’m not kidding—what he had that was good to drink. “How about a Capital Wisconsin Amber?” Giddyup.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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