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Wisconsin beer and breweries: News and reviews
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The best of the best at the 2014 Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest
Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest 2014
Credit:Robin Shepard

Over 60 breweries brought more than 225 beers to this year's Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest on Saturday. Tickets for this fifth annual festival, held at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, once again sold out in advance.

The fest is like no other because throughout the hall, clusters of brewery booths are interspersed with those of cheesemakers, with the vast majority of each based in Wisconsin. Growing in size every year, an expanded floor plan for the 2014 edition helped reduce the crowded feeling that popular serving lines can create, something that's often a drawback of indoor beer festivals.

While there is always well-known and well-established products from breweries around the state, this year's program featured a large number of first-time brewers and brews making their Madison festival debut. Such an approach greatly appeals to beer enthusiasts who always seem to be looking for that newest brew, one they never tasted before.

Here are a few of favorite finds from this year's Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest.

Best Light Beer
Outboard from Milwaukee Brewing of Milwaukee, Wisconsin
This cream ale is light-bodied, light golden and crisp. The beer is a tribute to Milwaukee inventor Ole Evinrude, who developed the first outboard boat motor in 1909. This new seasonal from Milwaukee Brewing is expected to be found in 12-ounce bottles and on tap in Madison by the time the lakes thaw and boating season arrives.

Buzzed About Beer
Goat Parade Smoked Imperial Stout from Door County Brewing of Bailey's Harbor, Wisconsin
This limited release beer was unveiled to Madison at the fest. Door County Brewing created a lot of buzz with this beer last October with its initial release of just 400 signed, numbered and waxed 22-oz. bomber bottles. This smoked imperial stout is rich in chocolate malt and smoky undertones, similar to what you find in a German rauchbier. It's a strong beer at around 10% ABV. Door County Brewing just started offering beers in 2013 -- its brews are currently made at Sand Creek Brewing in Black River Falls, but their own production brewery is in the works.

Homebrew Best in Show
Monolith IPA from Justin Pribbenow
A homebrewing competition was a new addition to Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest in 2014. Festival attendees during the opening premium hour voted for their favorites among eight local entrants. From the top three vote-getters, a panel of judges that included brewers, beer writers and others in the brewing industry selected the best of the show. As the winner, Pribbenow will get to brew his beer with Peter Gentry and Dan Sherman at One Barrel Brewing in Madison.

Hoppy Favorite
Viking Afternoon from Furthermore Beer of Spring Green, Wisconsin
This beer was developed in collaboration with the Comet Café in Milwaukee. It's a light bodied beer with bright crisp hoppiness, dry finish and a light smoky background from cherry wood smoked malts that go into making it. This was Madison’s first taste of Viking Afternoon. It's expected to be offered to select local tap houses this spring.

Perfect for Winter
Double Stout from Tyranena Brewing of Lake Mills, Wisconsin
Tyranena's new assistant brewer Pat Curry got a chance to get personal feedback about the first start-to-finish beer that he's made for the brewery. A long-time fixture behind the bar at the brewery's tasting room, Curry joined brewmaster and brewery owner Rob Larson in the brewhouse last fall. Curry's stout is big and malty, reminiscent of an imperial stout with its 9% ABV.

Looking Forward to Summer
Midnight Saison from Dave's BrewFarm of Wilson, Wisconsin Saisons are normally light golden or straw colored, but this one from Dave’s BrewFarm was dark, almost black. But it offered great yeasty aroma and dryness that one looks for in a saison. Despite its dark, thick appearance, its taste was like light summer French ale. Dave's BrewFarm beers aren't found too often in Madison, only occasionally turning up in some of Madison's larger craft beer bars like the Old Fashioned. Brewmaster and owner David Anderson was on hand to serve eight of his beers, including this well-made dark saison.

New Brewery to Watch
4 Brothers Blended Beer Company of Waukesha, Wisconsin
This new beer company started releasing its beers this past fall in the Milwaukee area and has its sights set on Madison's craft beer enthusiasts. The company was founded by four brothers: Robin, Tommy, Jimmy and Andy Gohsman. Festival attendees had a chance to sample four different brews made by blending styles: Sibling Rivalry (blonde, brown and red ales), Prodigal Son (IPA and a cream ale), Whipper Snapper (wheat, helles and amber ales) and Relative Madness (blonde ale and porter).

Road Trip Brew
Ski Trip Solstice from Minocqua Brewing Company of Minocqua, Wisconsin
This deep amber-colored ale has hints of vanilla and ginger. Sweet, rich and warm, and inspires thoughts of a weekend ski trip to northern Wisconsin.

Surprising Find
Pine in the Neck from Blue Moon Brewing of Golden, Colorado
Blue Moon Brewing is best known for its Belgian White, a wit that's near ubiquitous on taps around the nation. So much is it known for that single beer, it surprised festival-goers with its Graffiti Collection of big and boldly flavored brews. Pine in the Neck is a double IPA made with juniper berries. Brewery founder, Keith Villa, was this year’s guest brewer at Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest. He was on hand to pour beers and delivered a round-table presentation about brewing at the festival.

Wild and Sour
Black Bretty (Bamalam) Belgian Strong Dark from MobCraft Beer of Madison, Wisconsin
This is a dark Belgian strong ale fermented with Brettanomyces. Deep dark colored malts provide a sweetness, to which the brett then counters with a black cherry sharpness in the background. No over-the-top sourness; rather, it has great blend of malt and fruity-tartness. This was an Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest-only beer, and is not currently part of the brewery's social media-based selection process for determining its releases. Hopefully they'll be making it again for wider release, though.

Beer and Cheese Pairing
Nevermore Chocolate Oatmeal Stout from Rush River Brewing of River Falls paired with Abergele from Harmony Specialty Dairy Foods of Athens, Wisconsin
The smooth sweet chocolate malts of the beer were great with the portabella mushrooms and chives in the cheese.

Beer and Chocolate Pairing
Snow Bunny from Red Eye Brewing Company of Wausau, Wisconsin
A milk stout made with vanilla beans and coca nibs, this was was like candy, and a beer and chocolate pairing all on its own!

Best of the Best Beer
Deep Winter Coffee Stout from Karben4 Brewing of Madison, Wisconsin
Brewmaster Ryan Koga served an early taste of his latest new beer at the festival. This is stout is made without hops, as Koga decided to substitute coffee in their place. With its jet black color it looks like coffee, only with a soft brown head. There's plenty of strong coffee aroma and flavor too. This beer will become a new seasonal brew for Karben4. The brewery is holding a release party for Deep Winter Coffee Stout at the brewery on Friday, Jan. 24.

Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest continues to grow with tickets selling out in advance every year, so plan head for next winter!

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