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Wisconsin beer and breweries: News and reviews
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Beer Here: Outboard Cream Ale from Milwaukee Brewing Company

Credit:Robin Shepard

For some, spring starts when the robins arrive or the first tulips push up through the ground. But my spring begins with Opening Day and the cry of "Beer here!" Over the years, I've made a point of being with the Brew Crew as they begin their annual pennant pursuit. I've even gone so far as to pick seats at Miller Park based on where the best beer vendors are to be found.

As the number of rookie microbreweries has grown over the past couple of seasons, so too have beer options at Brewers games, and Miller Park is not just about its namesake anymore. Among this season's newest players in the ballpark's beer cooler lineup are 16-ounce cans of Outboard from Milwaukee Brewing Company, the brewery affiliated with the popular Milwaukee Ale House brewpub.

What is it? Outboard Cream Ale from Milwaukee Brewing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Style: The American-style cream ale is a mild, pale golden beer with a smooth yet light maltiness and low hop bitterness. Traditionally, cream ales are made with corn, along with malted barley to lighten the beer's body. The style emerged prior to Prohibition as brewers looked for a beer to compete with the emerging popularity of the American light lager. While commonly referred to as a cream ale, these beers can be either an ale or a lager, depending upon the brewer's preferred yeast and fermentation temperatures. They range in alcohol from 4.2% to 5.6% ABV. Cream ales are found regularly at American brewpubs, because they are a light beer that looks like a popular big-brewery lager. It's possible to make a crisp, clean, golden cream ale without the temperature control challenges or equipment needed for making lagers.

Background: Outboard has evolved over the 17 years the Milwaukee Ale House has been in existence. Located in the Third Ward, the brewpub was founded by Jim McCabe in 1997. It's production facility, named Milwaukee Brewing Company, opened in 2007. Head brewer Robert Morton says Outboard was created about 14 years ago as a lighter summertime seasonal beer for the Ale House by then head brewer Jim Olen. It has since been tweaked to its current recipe.

"We wanted to develop a very simple summer beer," says Morton "The 'bolder-the-better' has become the standard, but this beer is an alternative because you can sit down after work and have a couple." He imagines that it's similar to what the 1960s version of Schlitz tasted like "when it came out of the brewery back in the day," he adds.

"Historically cream ales are interesting because they are a true American style of beer," explains Morton.

Outboard is a very straightforward golden ale. It showcases the light citrusy and herbal qualities of German Herbrucker hops. It also has a light amount of American grown Columbus hops for a touch more bittering. Just like traditional American cream ales, Outboard is made with corn, for about 20% of the total grist. "We really wanted to make an authentic turn-of-the-20th-century cream ale," says Morton.

First introduced in bottles as a summer seasonal in 2012, Outboard has become so popular that it's now replaced Love Rock (an amber lager) in Milwaukee Brewing's year-round line-up. A nitrogen-pushed version of this cream ale will occasionally turn up on tap at the Ale House. An even more limited summertime take on this beer is Orange Blossom Cream Ale, made with Wisconsin honey.

The name Outboard is a tribute to Milwaukee inventor Ole Evinrude, who in 1907 built a gasoline-powered outboard motor and went on to found the Evinrude Motor Company.

Outboard debuted in 16-ounce cans at Opening Day in Miller Park and was the second-most sold beer behind Miller Lite for the game. "That made us all grin and blush a little bit," says Morton. "We didn't expect that. It was pretty fun."

Outboard finishes at 5% ABV and an estimated 13 IBUs. In southern Wisconsin, it sells in six-packs of 12-ounce bottles for $7-$9. Later this summer, it will be one of the beers packaged in the brewery's "Pot Luck" variety 12-packs of bottles.

Milwaukee Brewing Company's overall production grew nearly 50% in 2013 to more than 8,000 barrels, a figure that's expected to top 10,000 barrels this year. The brewery has been distributing in Illinois since 2012, and just last month ventured into Minnesota by sending its beer to the Twin Cities. In February, Drink Me Magazine named Milwaukee Brewing its Brewery of the Year on its 2014 Elite 150 list of most exciting and memorable beers, wines and spirits.

Milwaukee Brewing plans to continue expanding its lineup. This summer, the brewery will release its first sour, a Berliner Weisse that has a distinctive Wisconsin twist: gooseberries. It's named Increased Wheat, after Increase Lapham, a Milwaukee naturalist who is credited with establishing gooseberries in Wisconsin. This beer will appear first on draft at the Milwaukee Ale House in May, with a bottle release in six-packs following in summer.

The brewery is also working to step up its 750 mL bomber bottle offerings, with plans to release a half-dozen brews over the next year. The first one up is Doppel Vision, a bourbon-barrel-aged doppelbock that may hit shelves later this spring.

Tasting notes:

  • Aroma: A light floral and herbal-hoppiness.
  • Appearance: Clear golden with a medium-to-thick soft, light-tan, head.
  • Texture: Light- to medium-bodied and bubbly.
  • Taste: A smooth sweet, grainy start. Then a mild, yet firm, spicy background that sharp and crisp at cold serving temperatures.
  • Finish/Aftertaste: That crispness continues, leaving a clean finish.

Glassware: The pilsner glass with its tall slender appearance will highlight Outboard's golden color, while the flared lip supports its soft head.

Pairs well with: Cream ales are especially nice with lighter foods, lunch fare and summer sandwiches like BLTs and clubs. They're well suited for ballpark food like brats and burgers.

Rating: Three Bottle Openers (out of four)

The Consensus: 76 (okay) at BeerAdvocate and 47/86 (overall/style) at RateBeer.

The Verdict: Outboard is a very nice cream ale. It's a style I don't naturally gravitate to, and it seems to be underappreciated by many beer enthusiasts. That's too bad, because when done well, these beers are balanced, crisp and clean.

Outboard is making me a fan of cream ales -- try it cold, at refrigerator temps, and you'll be pleasantly surprised. I really like the spicy and herbal accent of the German Hersbrucker hops. It doesn't offer much hop bitterness, but a sharp and spicy crispness comes out more when the beer is served extremely cold. It gains balance with a hint of grain-like sweetness from the corn in the grist. This is a beer that goes with a wide range of summer activities, from backyard grill-outs to ballpark excursions.

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