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Saturday, December 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist
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Sweet Mullets brewpub in Oconomowoc is worth a trip for rarities like Steinbier and gruit
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Sweet Mullets owner and brewmaster Mark Duchow gets ready to make a Steinbier under a blue moon.
Credit:Robin Shepard

"I had a really sweet mullet back in the '80s," says Mark Duchow, when asked how he came up with the name for his brewpub, which started brewing this summer. Located on the western edge of Oconomowoc, Sweet Mullets Brewing Company is a show case for Duchow, who is well known among southern Wisconsin beer enthusiasts as being creative, even adventuresome, in the beers he makes.

Duchow, 46, got his start more than 20 years ago as a keg washer at the Water Street Brewery in Milwaukee, where he ultimately became brewmaster. He eventually went on to work at Gray's Brewing Company in Janesville, then on to Oconomowoc Brewing, with a couple of stints as brewmaster for the Grumpy Troll in Mount Horeb (and its predecessor the Mount Horeb Pub & Brewery). He's also worked for breweries in Illinois, Iowa, North Carolina, and Texas.

Over the years, Duchow racked up a number of awards for his brews, including several World Beer Cup medals. Recently his Wild Buckwheat Red was recognized as "Best of the Fest" at the 2012 Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest. His special batches regularly turn up in a handful of Madison brewpubs and tap houses.

There was a time when it looked like Duchow might be on a new career path. After leaving the Grumpy Troll in October 2010, he spent several months in the South, "snowbirding," as he calls it, and mostly away from brewing. However, he couldn't stay away long after stumbling across a used 15-barrel brewing system being sold by a shuttered business in Fort Worth, Texas. He purchased the equipment and it later became the centerpiece of Sweet Mullets.

In 2011, Duchow and his partner, Barbara Jones, 48, were making plans to return to Wisconsin and set up a brewery in his hometown of Oconomowoc. They opened Sweet Mullets in March and started brewing beer a few months later. Jones is the chief operating officer for Sweet Mullets, and is often seen behind the bar serving patrons or making dishes in the kitchen from scratch. Before managing much of the business end of Sweet Mullets, Jones spent 23 years working for NASA as an aerospace engineer in Florida and Texas before retiring.

Perhaps it's that inspiration that was reflected in the first brew offered at Sweet Mullets last May. Jones named it MECO, an acronym for "main engine cut-off," which occurs when a rocket has achieved a certain trajectory or orbit.

Sweet Mullets typically offers six to eight of its own house beers. MECO is a wheat beer with a hint of ginger. For those looking for a light, flavorful and crisp beer, The Captain is an American Pilsner that pays tribute to Captain Frederick Pabst, a legendary Milwaukee beer baron. Rye Bob has a unique dryness from the use of rye malt, a beer that Duchow created while working at the Grumpy Troll; it's dedicated to the memory of his father, who died in 2009. Sweet Mullets 501 is an American Red Ale that Milwaukee Magazine calls the best of 2012. And the 505 Stout is dark and smooth with a firm roasted backbone. Over the course of a year, Sweet Mullets hopes to offer more than 30 different beers in addition to the standards.

"I don't like having the same thing on tap all of the time," says Duchow. "It's boring for me, and I think it is boring for some of our guests." He also likes to serve beers from other brewers, and so occasionally trades kegs to add even more variety.

The brewpub is located at N58W39800 Industrial Road, Suite D, in Oconomowoc, situated in an industrial park near Highway 16. It's in a building that recently served as an auto body repair shop; however, most patrons who stop by for a beer will have no idea of its past based on what they see today. Inside the tasting room, Duchow has created a pub-like feel with a long bar and windows that look into the brewhouse.

It's eco-friendly. Duchow used recycled wood from former shipping pallets to make the bar top and the tables in the tasting room. He says about 90% of the facility has been up-cycled from something else.

Sweet Mullets' menu focuses on small plates and appetizers made with fresh, local ingredients. The food is also meant to be a companion to beer, not something that overshadows it. Starters range from basic pub favorites like chips and pickled eggs to steamed edamame. Sandwich selections include meatloaf and chicken breast, as well as fish tacos on Fridays. The brewpub also offers a flight of local cheeses paired with current beer offerings.

On Packers game days, the actual brewhouse is opened up in tailgate fashion, with the game projected on a wall just a few feet from fermenters and the brew kettle. These tailgate parties are $15, and include three beers, food, and a chance to win prizes. Because of limited seating, reservations are encouraged.

Duchow enjoys interacting with local homebrewers and occasionally will offer "brew-ins" where they can join him in the brewhouse. Many of his recipes have been developed from his own homebrewing. "My job as a brewer is to introduce people to the nuances of beer, and what you can do with it," he explains.

On the last day of August, Sweet Mullets hosted a beer appreciation gathering, where Duchow invited regular customers to the brewpub's parking lot to watch him make a Steinbeer. He used a brewing approach common in medieval Europe, where brewers didn't have access to metal vessels, and so they heated rocks and dropped them into wooden brew kettles to heat the mash and wort. Steinbier means "stone beer" in German.

More than 80 people -- most with beer in hand -- turned out under the full "blue" moon on Friday, August 31 to watch Duchow brew with hot rocks. He heated large granite stones in an open fire for more than eight hours to get them to over 1,200 F. As he dropped them into the wort one by one, they created a cauldron of steam and smoke as the heat of the rocks flash-caramelized the sugars in the liquid. The process provides a very distinctive roasted, smoky and slight candy-like sweetness to the beer.

Few commercial examples of Steinbier are sold today, and the one Duchow considers the standard is Rauchenfelser Steinbier from Germany. His Steinbier is expected to be available on tap at Sweet Mullets in October.

Duchow is already making plans for a follow-up performance. On November 3, he will make a batch of Steinbier with pumpkins in the mash that he'll call Pumpkinstein.

Steinbier isn't the only special brew to watch for in the coming weeks at Sweet Mullets. Duchow recently teamed up with Scott Manning, brewmaster at Vintage Brewing, who is also known for inventive approaches to reproducing historical beers. The pair used the Sweet Mullets brewhouse to make a centuries-old brew known as gruit. It's a style that emerged before the use of hops became common in beer, and is made with herbs and spices. Duchow and Manning developed a recipe based on the characteristics of a Scottish Ale with additions of mugwort and heather. It's expected to be offered at both Sweet Mullets and Vintage around late October or early November.

Sweet Mullets beers occasionally turn up on guest taps in Madison, including at Vintage and One Barrel Brewing. However, if you really want to experience the range of Duchow's brews, you'll have to make the 45-minute trip to Oconomowoc.

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