Whenever New Glarus Brewing is mentioned, my mind quickly skips over the spotted cows and fat squirrels to cherries -- specifically, the tart cherry flavor of Wisconsin Belgian Red. This is the beer that introduced me to the brewery and the range of flavors one gets from Dan Carey's fruit beers. Wisconsin Belgian Red is the recipient of accolades throughout the brewing world, and it is definitely at the top of my list.
What is it? Wisconsin Belgian Red from New Glarus Brewing of New Glarus, Wisconsin.
Style: Dan Carey says Wisconsin Belgian Red was inspired by his travels in Belgium and his enjoyment of lambics and sour beers. Its base beer is a sour brown ale to which Door County Montmorency cherries are added. The sour brown is an amber to copper reddish beer, bottle conditioned, and often cloudy or hazy when served. It has very little hoppiness, even a low degree of malty sweetness. The flavor can be sour, acidic, or fruity, even before fruit is added. They commonly range in strength from 4.5% to 6.5% ABV.
Background: New Glarus owners Dan and Deb Carey credit Wisconsin Belgian Red as the reason they started their brewery. Dan was working as an apprentice at a brewery in Bavaria in the mid-1980s when he and Deb took a trip to Belgium that included stops in Bastogne and Brussels. That's where they got to know, and became inspired by, the fruity flavors of lambics and sour browns. Carey says he returned from that trip to begin experimenting using a small brewing system that he had fabricated himself. Over a six-year period, he perfected the recipe and process for what is today's Wisconsin Belgian Red. It was at that point that Dan said to Deb: "I should quit my job and we should start a brewery because this is a really good beer." It was the third beer style released by the Careys after they opened New Glarus Brewing in 1993.
This beer gets its assertive fruitiness from resting in 2,000-gallon oak tanks on a bed of Door County Montmorency cherries. It's a process that can take from a few months to a year. Roughly one pound of cherries goes into every 750 mL bottle of beer. Each one of those large champagne-type bottles is hand dipped in red wax for a distinctive look on store shelves.
New Glarus uses oak tanks, or fuders, that were formerly used in California by wine makers. Carey is planning to increase production of fruit, sour brown, and lambic-style brews in 2013, and has recently purchased three more tanks that will be installed in the cellar of his riverside brewery location. Carey says the wood in the tanks is ideal for harboring microorganisms that combine with other bacteria to enhance the tartness of the cherries. That's what gives Wisconsin Belgian Red a distinctive sourness. The beer is also made with Wisconsin wheat and barley, along with Belgian barley. It's lightly hopped with German Hallertau hops that add a hint of spicy-complexity to the overall sour and tartness.
Carey says given this beer's required ingredient of Door County cherries, he is concerned because of this year's poor growing conditions in northeast Wisconsin. The cherry trees started blooming very early in the warm spring, but were struck later by colder temperatures, which may reduce the amount of cherries that local growers have to sell. "I'm a little afraid of what I'm going to hear when I call," Carey says. He actually contracts for the cherries he needs months ahead of schedule -- so any shortage won't be felt until late fall, he adds.
New Glarus Wisconsin Belgian Red finishes around 4% ABV. It's sold in 750 mL champagne-style bottles for $10-$11.
- Aroma: Assertive fresh cherry.
- Appearance: A slightly hazy, yet vivid ruby-amber color, topped by a pink-tan bubbly head.
- Texture: Medium bodied, bubbly. There is a sharpness that goes with the strong cherry flavor.
- Taste: Strong sweet cherry flavor throughout. The fruitiness is tart with hints of earthy-spiciness.
- Finish/Aftertaste: Nothing over the top; just a firm sharp, tart, cherry flavor that lingers.
Glassware: The champagne flute is a great glass for enjoying the reddish-amber color and effervescence of the Wisconsin Belgian Red. The beer's sweetness tempts one to drink it like a soft drink; the wine glass encourages sipping, so you appreciate its complex blend of cherry and beer flavors.
Pairs well with: Try it with sweet, soft Mascarpone cheese on a wafer cracker. Mascarpone is a great cheese for enjoying with fruit, so it blends well with the assertive cherry tones of the Wisconsin Belgian Red.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Consensus: 95 (world class) at BeerAdvocate and 100/100 (overall/style) at RateBeer. Additionally, Wisconsin Belgian Red is ranked #1 in the fruit beer category at BeerAdvocate, and #2 at RateBeer.
The Verdict: Wisconsin Belgian Red delivers on the crisp expectation of a lambic-style beer with the distinctive tart fruitiness of the sour brown ale. Calling it just a fruit beer really isn't fair to this Belgian-esque brew that combines the sweetness of a Kriek (cherry lambic) with the tartness a barrel-aged sour brown. It is assertive, complex, with a blend of cherry sweetness and sour flavors from being wood-aged and fermented with Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus.
But why is this brew so special? Because it challenges common thinking on how a beer should taste, yet doesn't ever stray from being a beer. Wisconsin Belgian Red has a unique flavor that excites craft beer aficionados. It appeals to a broad range of beer drinkers who enjoy a fruit beer that still tastes like beer. And, because of the surprising fruitiness that is edgy and tart like a wine, even some non-beer drinkers will enjoy it. For me, it's Dan Carey's signature brew.