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Saturday, December 27, 2014  |   Madison, WI: 36.0° F  
Wisconsin beer and breweries: News and reviews
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The best Wisconsin beers and breweries of 2013
Oaktober Ale from Karben4 Brewing

The pace of craft brewery start-ups and expansions continued to accelerate through 2013 -- obviously there is still a lot of energy and potential for more when it comes to Wisconsin beer. From the launch of a major brewery with vast ambitions to the excited reception for neighborhood-scaled brewpubs, interest in good beer is only getting stronger.

The biggest new debut of the year was in Verona, where Wisconsin Brewing Company opened with a quartet of new beers and plans to conquer the state (and beyond). Just down the highway, New Glarus Brewing celebrated its 20th anniversary and embarked on expansion plans that position it to double its capacity. Capital Brewery announced plans to open a new brewing facility in Sauk City that would triple its capacity. And then there is the upstart Karben4 Brewing, which swiftly made a mark with its creative approach to both hoppy and malty beers.

On the brewpub front, Next Door Brewing opened on Madison's east side, and rapidly encountered so great a demand that expansion plans were put in place almost immediately. Only blocks away, One Barrel Brewing continued to grow beyond its nanobrewery roots, hiring an additional brewer and making plans to open up a satellite tavern, the Star Bar, in an adjoining neighborhood. Vintage Brewing also expanded this year, and opened its own spinoff with the Woodshed Ale House in Sauk City.

Contract brewing continued to grow as well, providing a means for even more new beer businesses to get started. Among the new startups that appeared on the scene were Pecatonica Beer (launched in late summer and brewed at Minhas in Monroe), MobCraft Beer (a crowdsourced approach brewed at House of Brews in Madison), and Door County Brewing (launched in autumn and brewed at Sand Creek in Black River Falls). Also, as forecast, the number of beers packaged in large 22-ounce bomber bottles grew dramatically over the year, with Capital Brewery, House of Brews, the Great Dane, New Glarus Brewing, Geneva Lakes Brewing, and MobCraft, among many others, getting into this market.

As for the tasty memories of the beers themselves, here are a few of my 2013 favorites, with an emphasis on Madison and the surrounding region.

Karben4 Brewing of Madison, Wisconsin
Brewmaster Ryan Koga coupled his love of rye malts with a creative approach to barrel aging to create beers like Silk Scorpion Black IPA, SamuRyePA, and Oaktober Ale. Even though its beers are only available on draft at the north-side brewery and in a handful of Madison bars, business has been so good that Karben4 added additional fermenters in August to keep up with demand. The brewery has bottling equipment and hopes to have it running in 2014. Put simply, Karben4 has not made a bad beer since opening a year ago. And, its taproom has an ambiance like no other with large canvas murals painted by artist Tom Kowalke.

Hophead's Delight
Furious River IPA from the Great Dane-Downtown
Brewer Michael Fay used whole leaf hops for assertive citrus bitterness, with strong orange and grapefruit tones. This IPA was sharp and crisp, not over the top in bitterness, simply a solid hoppiness that was memorable.

Silk Scorpion Black IPA from Karben4 Brewing
Black India Ales were more than a trend around Madison in 2013. It seemed like every brewery was getting into the act with this dark and hoppy style. Silk Scorpion stood out among the crowd for its bitterness, yet with a malty backbone and smooth mouth feel. Originally released last winter, it just came back on tap at the brewery.

Worth the Drive
Geneva Lakes Brewing Company in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
This brewery launched in 2012, but this year it started sending its beers to Madison in 22-ounce bomber bottles. You should be able to find Cedar Point Amber Ale, No Wake IPA and Black Point Oatmeal Stout on local shelves. It you go, Geneva Lakes is only about 50 minutes from Madison. The brewery's tasting room is small, but there's a good chance that other seasonals that don't get bottled will be on tap. Plus, it's likely that owner Pat McIntosh will be on hand to pour you a beer.

Barrel-aged Favorite
Shaggin' in the Wood Bourbon Barrel-Aged Scotch Ale from Tyranena Brewing
This barrel-aged beer most recently appeared at the end of last winter. But Tyranena brewmaster Rob Larson held a little back to age even more, and it turned up a few weeks ago on draught in the brewery's tasting room, reminding visitors just how good a bold and boozy winter warmer can be. It's a bourbon barrel aged version of the brewery's Sheep Shagger Scotch Ale.

Bomber Bottle Blast
Unleashed Fire Pit Winter Warmer Ale from the Great Dane Pub and Brewery
This barleywine was just released, and shows off its dark bronze color with a rich malty body. It's truly a beer with some inner warmth that's perfect for the season and well-suited to its name. It's also worth aging a few bottles for next winter.

Tripel Play
Ride the Dragon Tripel from the Great Dane-Fitchburg
When I find a good Belgian Tripel, the game of beer hunting ends for the evening. It's a style I always look for and must try once I find one. And since tripels can be quite strong, the search for beer stops there. Brewer Pat Keller makes Ride the Dragon periodically and without warning. It's a brilliant golden ale with a thick soft white head. This version is rather bold for the style, with bigger and rounder texture that one expects. However, I just enjoy this beer's effervescence along with a combination of maltiness and yeastiness that ends up being spicy and sweet. It's a beer that one wants to slowly sip all night. Look for the Dragon to return in early 2014.

Farm to Kettle
The small batches of fresh hop beers from One Barrel Brewing
Brewery owner Peter Gentry and brewer Dan Sherman traveled to the farm of Rich Joseph, located north of Oconomowoc, to pick hops and within a few hours had them in the brew kettle. With this harvest, they made several fresh hop beers that appeared in a late September mini-festival at the east side nanobrewery.

Boreas Imperial Stout from the Grumpy Troll Restaurant and Brewery
This rich full-bodied imperial stout is made with 13 varieties of barley malt, which make for lots of flavor and warmth at 9% ABV.

Memorable Old Friend
Point Special Lager from Stevens Point Brewery
Few beers offer the memories than a "blue bullet" can. It's a classic example of an American lager with a long Wisconsin history, and one that many beer drinkers have their own history with.

Best of the seasonal brews
Spring: Unshadowed from Ale Asylum
This beer got a new name in 2013. Originally known as Hatha-Weizen, it's name was a tribute to brewery co-owner Hathaway Dilba. This hefeweizen remains as one of the best local examples of an unfiltered wheat beer.

Summer: Prom Date Cherry Saison from Tyranena Brewing
Brewmaster Rob Larson really found a nice compliment to the crisp dryness of the Saison style by accenting it with sweetness from Oregon cherries. This was a close runner-up for my very favorite brew of 2013.

Fall: Miner's Dopplebock from Potosi Brewing
Normally doppelbocks are released in late winter, but Potosi brewmaster Steve Buszka bucked tradition and proved that when a doppelbock is made well, it's just as enjoyable in autumn. The smooth maltiness and lots of caramel and chocolate flavors were even more seductive as the beer slowly warmed. Ideal for a crisp cool fall day.

Winter: Jacked Maibock from Capital Brewery
This beer was released in 22-ounce bottles by Capital last winter. The Middleton-based brewer increased the number of limited bomber-packaged beers in 2013. This one, a jacked-up maibock, was aged in oak barrels.

One-off Batch Gone Too Quickly
The 2nd Sister from Hydro Street Brewing Company
This rich and full-bodied malty brew is made with the first runnings of wort from the brewpub's signature Scotch ale named Seven Sisters. The 2nd Sister is loaded with caramel sweetness and alcoholic warmth. It barely lasted through a single mug club night tapping.

Rare Find
Gin Barrel Aged SamuRyePA from Karben4 Brewing
This very limited beer made festival appearances during Madison Craft Beer Week and the Great Taste of the Midwest. It also turned up briefly in early fall in the brewery's taproom. The beer was fermented in gin barrels used by Few Spirits of Chicago. The resulting beer had hints of rye malt from the SamuRyePA with a twinge of piney gin aroma and flavor. This is a beer to watch the brewery's Facebook page for a possible return in 2014.

Surprising and Unexpected
Ulfberht from Vintage Brewing Company
This Baltic porter was among my top picks of 2013 because it was so flavorful. It was layered in European specialty malts that gave it rich chocolate tones and touch of roasted-smoke. Brewmaster Scott Manning never disappoints with the amount of research that goes into making some of his limited releases. There's often a little history lesson in a glass. The name comes from from the legendary Viking-era Ulfberht sword. Manning was inspired by the PBS program Secrets of the Viking Sword, which featured blacksmith Richard Furrer from Door County Forgeworks in Sturgeon Bay.

Best New Beer Venue
Next Door Brewing of Madison, Wisconsin
Keith Symonds opened this small brewpub in the Atwood neighborhood in time for Labor Day weekend. It has become a local hangout out with its large communal tables that encourage conversation over a wide-ranging beer list that featured nearly 30 different brews in just three months. Symonds also hired experienced chef Kevin Rikli, whose has developed a sharp menu featuring veggie tostadas, fish fritters and other treats. Next Door is continuing to build its capacity, and watch for Symonds to turn out something special for his one-year anniversary.

Best Beer of 2013: Honorable Mention
Berliner Weiss from New Glarus Brewing
Berliner Weiss isn't for everyone, thanks to its edgy sour-tartness. But that's exactly why it deserves attention. Brewmaster Dan Carey makes this light-bodied and bubbly beer with Wisconsin White Wheat, along with four strains of brewer's yeast and one strain of Lactobacillus (similar to what is used by bakers in making sourdough bread). He also adds Riesling grapes for a touch of fruitiness. These beers are customarily served in Germany in a bowl-like glass with a straw and a shot of flavored syrup (most often raspberry or woodruff). There are only a handful of American-made examples of the Berliner Weiss, and even fewer that are made well. Early in his career, Dan Carey spent time learning brewing techniques in Germany, so it's not surprising this beer is every bit as good as what one finds in Berlin. During a trip to Germany in the fall, I made tasting Berliner Weisse a priority, which gave me even more appreciation for the New Glarus take on the style. Dan Carey's beer thoroughly lives up to the standard of what Napoleon called "The Champagne of the North."

Best Beer of 2013
Oaktober Ale from Karben4 Brewing
Oaktober Ale is an example of why there was so much buzz about Karben4 in 2013. Ryan Koga is one of the exciting young brewmasters making a big mark on Wisconsin's beer scene, and this brew really showed off his skill and creativity. It was modeled after traditional Oktoberfest lagers, a style that is almost a rite of passage for Wisconsin brewers. However, Koga crafted his own take on the venerable beer, brewing it as an ale with German Vienna and Bohemian Pilsner malts and lightly hopping it with Sterling and Goldings. His signature use of oak chips in the fermenter made Oaktober Ale smooth and woody, quite distinct from beers made with bourbon barrels that often leave a boozy sweetness. The result was smooth caramel and toffee flavors like an Oktoberfest lager, along with a pleasant background of dry vanilla and oak from the wood chips. Koga only made 15 barrels of Oaktober Ale in 2013, but it's a beer that sure to return next fall. Let's make a New Year's wish for even more of it in 2014.

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