A few weeks ago, I led a group of Chicagoans on a tour of some of the best eating and drinking the north and near-east sides of Madison have to offer. Though it could have been old classmates or visiting relatives, this particular group happened to include the hosts of Strange Brews, a podcast produced by WBEZ public radio. They were recording their second of three stops in Wisconsin for a series of local beer scene episodes.
When you have visitors who want to experience our city's beer scene, you as the host have a fine line to walk. Unlike music, or art, or even food, beer is a resource that hits a fairly early point of diminishing returns. A person can only appreciate so much alcohol in a day or two or three. You have to pick your poisons, and pick them carefully.
The first step is to deploy your familiarity with Madison purposefully, to weed out the bad ideas. I once had some out-of-town folks ask for recommendations on the craft beer scene here, and the one place they'd heard of was Le Tigre. Fun and legendary, it is -- but it is decidedly not a craft beer bar. You just have to gently steer people away from hearsay ideas like that. Looking for a bar with great beer? How about the Malt House or Blue Moon?
Though you might be showing off Madison's beer, it's wise to consider a bite or two in the midst of all that drinking. It should go without saying that we're in good shape to do just that. Brasserie V, Roast, Alchemy, and of course Capitol Square hot spots like the Old Fashioned and the Coopers Tavern all offer excellent tap lists and equally delicious food. If your host duties begin on a Friday, consider fish fry; Dexter's is the king of that particular mountain as far as I'm concerned.
Tap lists are one thing, but Madison has a burgeoning brewery scene that's only going to draw more and more visitors. Ale Asylum has Chicago distribution now, and House of Brews will soon self-distribute south of the border as well. Mobcraft has gotten some great national recognition, and of course there are the really big guys -- Dan and Deb Carey of New Glarus, and Kirby Nelson at Wisconsin Brewing Company. They've done more than most to make Wisconsin beer what it is today, and their names and brews are the lingua franca for outsiders coming to check our chops.
You could make a near-east cannonball run, starting at the Capitol and hitting One Barrel, Next Door, then peeling off for either Karben4, House of Brews, or Ale Asylum a little farther out. You could stick to the west side and tip back a few pints at Great Dane's Hilldale location, Vintage on Whitney Way, and Capital Brewery in Middleton (including its biergarten, assuming it warms up someday). Keep an eye on the calendar; if it happens to be Madison Craft Beer Week (coming up May 2-11), there may be limited-availability events at these spots and elsewhere.
Many of these suggestions come from my own experience leading Tim Akimoff, Alison Cuddy, Andrew Gill (and his wife, Meghan), and sound maestro Joe DeCeault around for the podcast. Ale Asylum and Karben4 seemed a natural pairing given the lineage of Ale Asylum's old space becoming Karben4's; it gives a sense of the chronology of brewing in Madison. Vintage taking over in JT Whitney's old brewery would offer a similar experience.
It was Friday, and we hit Dexter's for its fish fry -- a first exposure to this Wisconsin classic for some of my guests. We drank off-mic at the Malt House, as people were starting to run out of words for the night, as Andrew put it.
Listen to the episode.
And then, as all good things must, the weekend comes to an end.
Brunch never sounds so enticing as it does after a weekend of drinking, and places like Sardine, Eldorado Grill, and jacs provide excellent hair-of-the-dog service. My own party alighted upon Daisy Cafe, before the WBEZ crew left town.
Madison was the second stop on a three-leg tour through Wisconsin for Strange Brews. Its first stop was in Milwaukee for a episode based on a Lakefront Brewery tour. After Madison, the Chicagoans made a pilgrimage to Green County for an episode from New Glarus.
It won't always be recorded for posterity, but for Madison area beer fans, the frequency of requests for a tour of the scene will only continue to grow, from friends, family, and even total strangers. Given the depth, breadth, and warmth of our town's brewing industry, though, no one's a stranger for long.