Brewery start-ups and growth made 2012 a great beer year in Wisconsin, and a promise of good things for the future. Every month seemingly brought word of a new microbrewery or expansion plans for an established operation, as the renaissance of beer culture continued to build around the state. At the same time, brewmasters focused on improving their craft, debuting rare styles and working in collaboration to make their offerings more interesting than ever.
This year brought some of the first nanobreweries to the Madison area. At the beginning of the year, Hydro Street Brewing in Columbus opened at the beginning of the year, and by summer, One Barrel Brewing made its debut on Madison's east side. Both offer creative beer from very talented homebrewers, living their dream of starting their own business.
Meanwhile, the region saw dramatic expansions by New Glarus and Ale Asylum, as well as the addition of an outdoor beer garden at Vintage Brewing. Several new breweries also opened, including Port Huron Brewing in Wisconsin Dells and Sweet Mullets Brewing in Oconomowoc.
The year marked a transition for legendary brewmaster Kirby Nelson, who announced he was leaving Capital Brewery to start Wisconsin Brewing in Verona with his former boss Carl Nolen. And, just in time for Christmas, Madison's newest brewery, Karben4, took over the space vacated by Ale Asylum and started making beer.
Here are a few of my best beer memories of 2012.
Something surprising and unexpected
Saison Farmhouse Ale from Hinterland
This beer from Green Bay appeared in Madison in April. It's a style that just isn't done often enough by local brewers, so when you find a great one, it's a special treat. Hinterland's version was inspired by Scott Kissman, who joined the brewery in 2011.
New in 2012
Port Huron Brewing of Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
This new production brewery and taproom opened in Wisconsin Dells over the summer, offering a roster of four standard beers: Honey Blonde Ale, Porter, Hefeweizen, and its Alt Bier. But the demands of tourists and local beer enthusiasts kept those beers off Madison shelves until November. Owner and brewmaster Tanner Brethorst introduced his Oatmeal Stout to the line-up late in the year, and it's his best yet, one to look for in the future. Port Huron Brewing is the first production-only brewery in the Wisconsin Dells since City Brewery closed in 1904.
Radio Free IBA from Lake Louie Brewing
The India Black Ale (IBA) is rapidly catching on among brewers looking for a distinctive twist to the very popular and assertively bitter IPA. In July, Lake Louie released Radio Free IBA, a deep black brew with firm bitterness and a just hint of fruit from the Oregon raspberries added to the fermenter.
Worth the drive
Sweet Mullets Brewing Company in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin
After taking some time away from brewing in 2010-11, former Grumpy Troll brewmaster Mark Duchow returned to southern Wisconsin and his hometown of Oconomowoc, where he and partner Barbara Jones opened Sweet Mullets. A 45-minute drive from Madison's east side, it has great standard offerings and a rotating line of specialties that included its Wild Buckwheat Red, along with a Belgian IPA, jalapeño ale, and even a medieval stein beer.
Toil and Trouble Gruit from Sweet Mullets and Vintage Brewing The gruit is a rather obscure style that dates five centuries back to when beers were made without hops. Historically they were seasoned with various spices and herbs, and were made via eclectic brewing methods practiced in monasteries -- techniques that homebrewers have to love. Toil and Trouble was a collaborative brew made by Mark Duchow of Sweet Mullets and Scott Manning of Vintage Brewing. Both are among Wisconsin's most creative brewers, and love to create what many see as obscure beer offerings.
Biggest beer for flavor
Terminal Gravity from the Great Dane-Downtown
Four months was the length of time this beer was aged before it was released. Boasting an alcohol content of over 12% ABV, its flavors fell somewhere between the sweetness found in a Belgian strong ale and the robust spicy-maltiness of a American-style barley wine, yet stronger than either style. All that taste and alcoholic warmth made it an excellent sipping beer.
Crisp and light yet distinctive
Hometown Blonde from New Glarus Brewing
The Bohemian pilsner is the most popular style of beer in the world. New Glarus brewmaster Dan Carey has been making Hometown Blonde periodically since 2007, and brought it back in late summer. What makes it special is its firm undertone of maltiness, a crisp hoppy background, and a coy and lingering dry finish. The beer also won gold at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival.
Best of the seasonal brews
Spring: Booyah from Milwaukee Brewing
This made my short list of well-done saisons, and was my Brewers-watching beer of choice. It's one of a handful of microbrewery products offered at Miller Park.
Fall: Devil Make Me Do It! from Tyranena Brewing
Great for easing into the cooler days of fall, this robust porter -- actually an imperial oatmeal porter -- is aged with Sumatran and Costa Rican coffee.
Winter: Bourbon Barrel Stout from Central Waters Brewing
Just released in early December, this is one of the brewery's most sought-after products. The beer is aged in oak bourbon barrels that add vanilla, oak and bourbon flavors to the smooth chocolate malts of the stout.
Snug from the House of Brews
Still a newcomer to the Madison brewing scene, House of Brews opened in 2011. This past summer, owner and brewmaster Page Buchanan opened its taproom, where he regularly pours his beers. Snug, a bourbon barrel oatmeal stout, is a limited-release beer that Buchanan hopes to offer in 22-ounce bottles in 2013. With its smooth bourbon tones, it's a wonderful way to end the day.
Reliable old friend
Wisconsin Belgian Red from New Glarus Brewing
I always try to have this cherry-based sour brown ale in the refrigerator. However, it became to fine this fall after New Glarus brewmaster Dan Carey ceased production for the time being. A poor cherry harvest last season in Door County means this beer won't be made until later in 2013. But anticipating that supplies of Wisconsin Belgian Red would dry up, Carey created Serendipity, another sour brown, but in this case made with cherries, apples and cranberries.
I'll have another
Common Thread for Madison Craft Beer Week
Released in early May, this beer was a collaborative creation made at Capital Brewery by several brewmasters, including Kirby Nelson, Rob LoBreglio (Great Dane), Tom Porter (Lake Louie), Scott Manning (Vintage), Page Buchanan (House of Brews), and Mark Knoebl (Grumpy Troll). A steam beer, it was well balanced and sessionable.
Best out-of-town fest
Door County Beer Festival
This inaugural festival was a great opportunity to drink good beer and a great excuse to experience the Door Peninsula. This modest fest takes place in Bailey's Harbor, with the waves from Lake Michigan hitting shore in the background. It returns on June 16, 2013.
Best beer venue of 2012
Ale Asylum in Madison, Wisconsin
Ale Asylum moved into new digs at 2002 Pankratz St. in September. The 45,000-square-foot brewery building represents a potential quadrupling in production for the Madison brewery that's been making beer since 2006. The expansion will mean Ale Asylum brews will be offered statewide. The new building also greatly enlarges the brewery's taproom, with two levels of seating, two outdoor patios, and many more beer taps. Here's what Wisconsin Brewer's Guild president Jeff Hamilton says of Ale Asylum: "They are certainly on fire right now; they're the hottest brewery in the state."
Best beer of 2012: Honorable mention
Anniversary Ale from the Great Dane-Hilldale
The west side Great Dane is celebrating its sixth anniversary with this beer, which just went on tap. The Hilldale brewpub is one of four Great Dane locations in the Madison area (with a fifth in Wausau). Anniversary Ale is an English old ale, sometimes called a stock ale. It offers a velvety smooth caramel maltiness, with hints of dark fruits like plumb and grape, and is mildly accented with an herbal hoppiness. At 6.9% ABV, it's a wonderful beer for winter. The beer is the creation of brewer Nate Zukas, who has worked for the Hilldale brewpub off and on, but was there when it opened in December 2006. Watch for a special tapping in January -- Zukas is holding back a couple of kegs that he plans to disperse through the pub's beer engine.
Best beer of 2012
Grätzer from Vintage Brewing
I really enjoy beers with distinctive flavors -- the more distinctive the better. I also have a taste for brewing history. So when the two come together in a glass, I simply can't pass it up. Vintage's Grätzer is made with smoked wheat malt that lends an assertive aroma and flavor. It's an ale with origins that can be traced back to the 1400s, to the town of Grodzisk (Grätz), which was then part of western Prussia, and now in Poland. Brewmaster Scott Manning had considerable challenges in finding authentic ingredients with which to make this beer. His research into specialty malts led him to the Weyermann Malting Company in Germany for the unique oak-smoked wheat malt he needed. The result: a bright golden brew with the clean crispness of a kölsch and the wheatiness of a hefeweizen, all wrapped in a light smokiness, like one finds in a gently burning campfire at dusk.