Ever wonder what the most sought-after Wisconsin beers might be outside of the state? The fruit beers made by New Glarus Brewing would certainly be high on the list. Its Raspberry Tart and Wisconsin Belgian Red, a cherry brew, are "beer currency" to homebrewers and beer travelers, who pride themselves in making out-of-state beer trades with friends.
I once swapped a wine-bottle-sized Belgian Red for a rare $40 bourbon barrel-aged porter with a brewer from the Flying Dog Brewery. And a few years ago, at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, I watched in amazement as a packed convention floor surged toward the New Glarus booth when word leaked out that Raspberry Tart was being poured, turning a polite line into something more like a mosh pit.
Selective observations? Perhaps, but rankings from beer websites like Beer Advocate put Wisconsin Belgian Red at #1 and Raspberry Tart at #2 in the fruit beer category (followed closely by the brewery's Apple Ale at #6 and Enigma at #7), and the cherry has made the Draft Magazine's annual list of top 25 beers several times.
The raspberry and cherry are are the brewery's most award-winning beers. The Wisconsin Belgian Red won Platinum in 1995 at the Beverage Tasting Institute's World Beer Championships in Dublin, capturing the prize over many Belgian brewers, who gave New Glarus brewmaster Dan Carey the cold shoulder upon winning. "This was the first time we won an award with our beer," says Carey, "the Belgian brewers wouldn't even talk to us at the event."
New Glarus is now preparing to increase production of its cherry and raspberry beers, and Carey has ideas for offering other brews in Belgian Lambic and sour styles. Lambics can be made with a variety of fruits, commonly distinguished by names like frambois (raspberry), kriek (cherry), pêche (peach) and cassis (black currant). They are fermented with wild strains of yeast and sometimes specific types of bacteria, which accentuate the fruit flavors and bring out sourness and tartness. Lambics are often light- to medium-bodied, very bubbly, and with color that reflects the type of fruit. They're wonderful beers to serve in wine flutes as appetizer beers.
Many lambics are sold in large wine or champagne-style bottles; some even have corks. New Glarus' cherry and raspberry brews are capped with a metal crown, after which each bottle is hand-dipped in wax. They usually sell for around $10 each -- at least around Madison.
The cherry and raspberry beers sell equally well, but they make up only about 10% of New Glarus' total production. Spotted Cow is the best seller -- a "cash cow" of sorts that helped the brewery expand in 2007 to its new hilltop location overlooking its namesake town in Green County.
The American Brewers Association recently ranked the New Glarus Brewery among the top 20 craft beer makers nationally, by size. New Glarus made 108,000 barrels of beer in 2011, putting it at number 19 on the list led by well-known beer makers such as Boston Beer (#1), Sierra Nevada Brewing (#2) and New Belgium Brewing (#3). In 2010, New Glarus, was ranked 21st in the same industry report. That's a big jump from 1993, when Dan and wife Deb Carey launched their brewery, and their annual production was just 3,000 barrels.
Wisconsin Belgian Red and Raspberry Tart require more labor intensive production than the other beers. Not only are they hand-sealed in wax, but they require dedicated cellar space at New Glarus' older brewing facility, a couple of miles east of the main brewery. These brews age in large 2,000-gallon oak barrels that Carey purchased in the 1990s from California wineries.
"At that time, we were the first brewery since Prohibition to go out and buy wooden tanks like this for fermenting beer," Carey says. This summer, he purchased three additional large oak barrels, which will allow him expand the brewery's lambic lineup. The majority of New Glarus beers ferment in stainless steel tanks.
Wisconsin Belgian Red is made with Montmorency cherries from Door County. Roughly a pound of cherries goes into every 25-ounce bottle. Raspberry Tart features about three-quarters of a pound of Oregon raspberries. Both beers are made with Wisconsin malted wheat and barley. And, depending upon demand, the beers can be aged up to a year before they are released.
Carey gets a lot of inquiries from other breweries and homebrewers wanting to know about his fruit beer recipes and techniques. While he's usually willing to share information with fellow brewers, he is more secretive about what goes into making his cherry and raspberry brews.
"I worked on the recipe that eventually became the Wisconsin Belgian Red for about six years," explains Carey, "it was the reason we started the brewery."