Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

August 6, 2012

Beer Diary:

What It’s All About

The true value of craft beer is about the people who brew it.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
Contact Eddie»
Any beer dork worth his or her salt knows that ground zero for the beer world—at least in the Midwest—will be in Madison, Wisconsin this Saturday. That’s when and where the Great Taste of the Midwest takes place. And any serious beer dork won’t be piling into Madison Saturday morning, either, but instead Friday afternoon, to experience the best part of the Great Taste, even better than the event itself: pre-parties.

These are bars and restaurants throughout Madison hosting tap-takeovers for a bunch of breweries making the trip to the fest. The Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild—the folks responsible for the Great Taste—usually keeps a log of the wheres and whens and whats, so I’d suggest checking out their site often, if you plan on attending. But two places that probably won’t make the list are absolute must-visits if you get to Madison this weekend—or any other time—and I’ll tell you why.

I happened to be in Madison a few weeks ago, searching in vain for spare parts for the Gremlin (which, sadly, is on its last legs). I, of course, used the visit as an excuse to check out one of Madison’s newest breweries, House of Brews. While they’ve been brewing and distributing kegs of beer in the Madison area for a while now, they just opened their taproom a little over a month ago. I say “they,” but I really mean “he,” since the whole operation is pretty much one guy, Page Buchanan. And when I popped in on a Friday night, there he was behind the “bar” (if you want to call it a bar, it’s the shortest one in the state of Wisconsin) pouring handmade beers for the small group of patrons in the, let’s call it “cozy,” taproom. I ordered up a glass of barrel-aged stout—smooth, strong, and damn tasty—settled into a chair at one of the makeshift tables, and soaked up the ambience of a fledgling brewery.

This is exactly what I’ve been ranting about at for the last five years or so.
After a few minutes, while things were in a bit of a lull, Page came out from behind the “bar” and chatted with the handful of patrons, asking how they liked the beer. He stopped by my table and we talked beer for a little bit, then, with very little prodding from me—honest!—he gave me a private, impromptu tour of the brewery. He showed me his new, high-tech growler filler (that still hadn’t been officially used, due to a growler labeling snafu), the giant, stainless steel sink that needed to be installed (to satisfy some pointless food handling safety code, since beer is food), and the brewing remnants of his latest specialty beer, a malty ESB (and by remnants, I mean a six-gallon glass carboy, so basically, it was very well made home brew).

This is exactly what I’ve been ranting about at for the last five years or so. Drinking great beer is one thing, but to experience firsthand the passion for and the dedication to great beer elevates it to a greater sum than simply malt, yeast, hops, and water. I felt like I was a part of something much larger, a tiny part of a cultural shift toward bigger and better things. And does beer taste better when you drink it with the person that brewed it? Fuck yeah.

I figured it’d be a long time before I topped that experience, but the next day gave it a run for its money.

Having struck out in my attempts at getting a heart donor for the Gremlin, I decided to soothe my sorrows by checking out Madison’s newest—and only, for that matter—nano brewery, One Barrel. Unlike House of Brews, which brews mostly for keg distribution instead of the taproom, One Barrel only sells its beers on premises, and they are brewed in extremely small batches. One barrel at a time, to be precise, on what is basically a very sophisticated home brewing system. It was Saturday afternoon when I visited, and the place was crowded but not mobbed. I grabbed the last seat at the bar (I’m lucky that way) and scanned the beer menu. The selection of their beers was short—The Commuter, a session ale, and #2, a 10 percent ABV beast—since they had just opened, but they had a very nice list of local craft brews to choose from (including a couple from the aforementioned House of Brews).

In response, the ever-eloquent me said, “Huh?”
Not ready for the strong ale, I asked for The Commuter. The bartender set it down on a homemade coaster: a square-cut piece of corrugated cardboard, with the brewery’s penguin logo stamped on it in bold black ink. I thought it was pretty cool, and picked it up to give it a closer look. An older couple sitting next to me noticed my interest, and the man asked if I liked the coasters.

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s kind of neat.”

“Glad you like them,” he said. “I made them.”

The ever-eloquent me: “Huh?”

The woman pointed to the back of the room, at the far end of the bar, where you can see the brewery setup behind a glass door. There was a guy in there—the owner and brewer, 32-year-old Peter Gentry—cleaning a stainless steel, miniature conical fermenter. “That’s our son,” she said.

So here I was, sitting at a random bar stool, talking to the parents of the dude who brewed the nice little beer I was drinking. I chatted with them for only a few minutes—they were just leaving—and discovered that Peter’s dad built the gorgeous wood bar circling the room, and his mom, well, cleaned the bathrooms (which, a woman a stool or two over pointed out, was the most important thing about running a bar, and I might have to agree).

This is what craft beer is: people and passion. It isn’t about ad budgets or debt consolidation or market share, or even IBUs. The soul of beer comes from those who brew it and their dedication to its quality. And you can’t buy that with money. Support places like One Barrel and House of Brews as if the future of good beer depends on them. Because it does.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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