What better way to spend a cold January afternoon than at the Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest? This fourth annual celebration of Wisconsin tradition served up more than 200 beers from 46 different brewers alongside some 120 cheeses from 24 different cheesemakers. More than 2,000 people attended, with tickets selling out days in advance.
For those familiar with the typical beer or food festival, this event is unique for its side-by-side pairing of breweries with creameries. Indeed, many brewmasters and cheesemakers could be found at their booths, ready to speak with festival-goers sampling their creations.
Over the course of the day, attendees could vote their choice for the best brewery and cheesemaker of the fest. The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company of Chippewa Falls was tapped top brewery, and Otter Creek Organic Farm was selected as best cheesemaker. Leinie's served several of its most popular brews like Honeyweiss and Lemon Berry Shandy, and also offered the first taste its new Canoe Paddler, a German Kölsch-style beer that will soon be released in 12-ounce bottles. Fans of Otter Creek again voted the Black Earth chessemaker as their favorite, marking its second win in a row. This year, its seasonal cheddars were a big hit, but my favorite remains the Pesto Cheddar.
Here are a few of my memorable beers and cheeses from the fest.
Best Dark Beer
Nevermore Chocolate Oatmeal Stout from Rush River Brewing of River Falls, Wisconsin
This beer created one of the longest lines of the day. Rich and smooth, this oatmeal stout is dark, full bodied and warm at 8% ABV.
Best Light Beer
Inland Sea Pilsner from South Shore Brewery of Ashland, Wisconsin
Brilliant golden color, this brew was bubbly and crisp with a firm hoppiness.
Silk Scorpion Black IPA from Karben4 Brewing of Madison, Wisconsin
With lots of citrus hoppiness and deep dark malty flavor, this brew it lives up to the name with a silky-smooth mouth feel and very dark black color. This is worth a trip to the new Madison brewery for another taste.
Squashbug Pale Ale from Hydro Street Brewing of Columbus, Wisconsin
Here's a beer made with a blend of hops and butternut squash from a fairly new brewpub in the region. Opinions ranged from love to hate, but either way it generated quite the buzz!
Best Beer Name
Pudgy Possum Porter from Minocqua Brewing of Minocqua, Wisconsin
The flavor of this dark ale showed off rich chocolate malts with lots of body, and saying the name just made me smile. A close second was another Minocqua beer called Road Kill Red Ale.
Hard Root Beer from Sprecher Brewing of Glendale, Wisconsin
Sprecher just unveiled a new product, a Hard Root Beer that comes in at 5% ABV. The brewery has been making sodas since it opened in the mid-1980s and its traditional old-fashioned style of root beer is one of the best around. The "hard" version offers that same distinctive sweetness with the light warmth of alcohol in the finish. Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest was the first time this brew was offered in Madison. However, it should be found soon in four-packs of 12-ounce bottles.
A Perfect Summer Beer for January
Biere de Garde Saint Sylvestre Grand Cru from Brewery Creek of Mineral Point, Wisconsin
Saint Sylvestre had a hazy golden color, and an earthy maltiness with light fruitiness in the background. However, its light body and mouth feel was quite deceiving. It came off on the palate like a crisp summer brew, but with winter-friendly warmth at over 7.5% ABV.
I'll Have Another
Zizani Ale from Titletown Brewing of Green Bay, Wisconsin
Often at beer festivals, it's difficult to justify returning for a second sample, especially while pacing yourself in order to maximize the number of beers you can sample during the day (and then remember tasting them). But Titletown offered a wild rice brown ale called ZizaniAle that had a distinctive sweetness and lots of malty and roasted nuttiness. It was so unique that the initial small sample just wasn't enough.
Inspiration for a Road Trip
Lazy Monk Brewing of Eau Claire, Wisconsin
Lazy Monk owner and brewmaster Leos Frank served up his pilsner, Bohemian dark lager, and smoked bock at the festival. All three were well-done beers, and inspired the thought that they could be part of a great weekend of beer touring in western Wisconsin.
Beer and Food Pairing
Cirque de Wit Wheat Ale from 3 Sheeps Brewing of Sheboygan with Njod's Trout Taco from Valhalla Tacos of Stoughton, Wisconsin
I matched a crisp witbier with a trout taco topped by rutabaga slaw. This just seemed appropriate at this beer fest, because in Norse mythology, Valhalla refers to an enormous hall where Vikings go when killed in battle. There, with the gods, they enjoy a never ending festival of feasting and libations.
Beer and Chocolate Pairing
Dedication Belgian Dubbel from Vintage Brewing with sweet curry truffles from Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier, both of Madison, Wisconsin
The dark fruit tones of the malts in Dedication married up with the fig and grape-like tones of the Hawaiian dark chocolate truffle.
Beer and Cheese Pairing
Tragically Hopped Double IPA from Red Eye Brewing of Wausau with Habanero Jack from Maple Leaf Cheese of Monroe, Wisconsin
This double IPA with lots of bitter strength and warmth from 9% ABV was a flavorful sensation that nearly went over the top when paired with the Habanero Jack from Maple Leaf. The Jack alone seemed more habanero than cheese. Together with the intense hoppiness from the beer, it was all good!
Best of the Best Cheese
Artisan Blue from Castle Rock Organic Farms of Osseo, Wisconsin
The rich, even pungent, blue cheese flavor just seems well suited for beers with lots of hops. While certainly a nice blue on its own, both Hinterland IPA and the Grumpy Troll's Hop Farm Pale Ale made excellent companions.
Best of the Best Beer
Wee Bevy Scotch Ale from Potosi Brewing of Potosi, Wisconsin
This brew had firm caramel tones with a beachwood smoked malt undertone. That maltiness and a light hint of roasted-smokiness added to a smooth and creamy flavor profile that left me wishing for a full pint. Potosi is considering releasing a few of its special creations in four-packs this year. The brewery hasn't decided yet on which beers will be included, but I certainly hope this will be one of them.
Isthmus Beer & Cheese Festival continues to grow every year, so plan head for next winter!