With Memorial Day nearly upon us, the arrival of summer beers can't be too far off. So get ready for the hefeweizens, seasonal pilsners and fruit-laden lighter beers.
This is the time of year when wheat beers really shine. The change of season signals a dramatic shift in the Madison beer scene from the heavier, sweeter beers of winter to the lighter, effervescent summertime brews. As you "pour" over the summer selections, here are a few hints and expectations for the months ahead.
The hefeweizen is the icon of the summer brews. Characteristically cloudy-golden in color and light-bodied, it is commonly served with a slice of lemon to accentuate the crispness of the beer. A hefeweizen is made with more than 50% wheat malt as opposed to all barley. While a handful are available year-round, many more of these beautiful beers will soon grace the bars and beer coolers of your favorite establishment.
Among the best is the Hatha-weizen at Ale Asylum, which is named after brewery co-owner Otto Dilba's wife Hathaway. This German wheat is crisp with solid yeasty tones and will not disappoint you.
Tyranena Brewing Company of Lake Mills just bottled a batch of Fargo Brothers Hefeweizen, and it will be on the shelves by the time you read this. Keep in mind, brewery owner and brewmaster Rob Larson doesn't make much of this beer, and it never seems to stay around long enough.
Another solid area favorite is Dancing Man Wheat from New Glarus Brewing, which will appear later in summer. And among the hefeweizens you find year round is Crop Circle Wheat from the Great Dane Pub and Brewing Company. Crop Circle gets high marks for color and flavor typical of the style, and it's found at all three Great Dane locations.
A similar style, the Kölsch, is lighter in color and body, with a little more emphasis on hops amidst the backdrop of grainy flavors. Kölsch takes its name from Köln, Germany, where it originated. JT Whitney's Pub and Brewery on Madison's west side plans to release its annual rendition around the Fourth of July. The downtown Great Dane will likewise release one later in the season.
The American wheat ale, by comparison to the German Hefeweizen, places a little more emphasis on the hoppy and dry flavors. American wheats are found both filtered and unfiltered, but more often they are served with some degree of filtering to clarify and brighten their appearance.
Leinenkugel's Honey Weiss is one of the most popular versions of this style. While I'm personally not a fan, Leinie's takes summer brew a step further with its lemonade flavored wheat beer called Summer Shandy. It'll definitely put some crispness in your warm summer day.
If you are looking for a local, hometown version of the American wheat, you cannot overlook Capital Brewery of Middleton and Kirby Nelson's Island Wheat, which is available year round. Island Wheat is made with wheat that is grown on Door County's Washington Island.
A lesser known, and tasty, offering is currently being served at JT Whitney's, where Rich Becker has made a light copper-colored Honey Weiss that offers a strong fruity flavor. Fred Gray, owner and brewmaster at Gray's Tied House has just put Wisco Wheat on tap in Verona. This beer is made with about 40% red wheat, for a little darker color, yet still the light body one expects with a wheat beer.
Gray is also making a summer stout that will appear around the beginning of June. The stout isn't normally a beer that one thinks about in summer, but this one is intended to be dark with some roasted dryness common to stouts, only lighter in body.
Elsewhere, New Glarus Brewing makes Edel Pils, a copper colored lager with firm flavor that is great for the warmer days of summer. Brewmaster Dan Carey is also making up a special batch of Berliner Weiss that is fermented in oak tanks with additions of Rhine grapes. Deb Carey, company president and wife of the brewmaster, calls this beer a wonderful marriage of wine and beer, one that offers a spritzy and tart character.
There is a great deal of anticipation in Mount Horeb, where Mark Duchow of the Grumpy Troll Restaurant and Brewery is working on his summer creation. Duchow has plans for a cranberry lambic that should be on tap at the brewpub next month. It is sure to offer some strong fruity tones.
Another brew worth looking for this summer is the downtown Great Dane's Wheatwine, still a couple of weeks from being released. Head Brewer Eric Brusewitz used 40% wheat malt in his recipe and then allowed the beer to condition for over two-months. The expected result will be a hazy orange-copper color, with a slight sweetness to the taste, but a unique hopping scheme leaves a "grape fruity" finish.
Capital's Kirby Nelson is drawing up another small batch brew, this time a Belgian (blonde) Ale. Capital is also about to start canning its US Pale Ale. With the state Capitol on the label of a sleek silver can, this is one silver bullet, that as Kirby says, "will offer some hoppy kick!"
Looking back at the length of last winter makes me hope our summer won't be cut short. After all, there's never enough summer in Wisconsin. Maybe if we take our time tasting our way through all the brews of the season, we'll appreciate what time we have.