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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 17.0° F  Fair
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Beer Here: Point Special Lager from Stevens Point Brewery

We all have a beer that conjures up memories about the first time we had it, and even where we were when we took that first sip. For me, that beer is Point Special. It was in the early days of the modern craft brewery movement that I discovered a certain fondness for the beer in the mostly blue can, over the course of a fishing trip around the Fourth of July.

Point Special soon came along with me on other adventures. There was the time I wrapped a case of the "blue bullets" in my waders to protect them as they were shipped to Colorado in advance of a fly fishing excursion. The next year, I did the same for a trip to the Atchafalaya. This Independence Day, I'll pop the top of a blue can or two as I celebrate and remember old times with Stevens Point Brewery.

What is it? Point Special Lager from the Stevens Point Brewery of Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

Style: Point Special is a classic American pilsner, a style based on European pilsners and especially the techniques of German brewers who brought the style to the United States. The style pre-dates Prohibition. Following repeal, it fell out of favor as large breweries turned to similar but distinctive styles such as the standard and premium American lagers, both made with higher percentages of corn and rice. The classic American pilsner is light- to medium-bodied with a yellow- to deep-gold color that is bright and clear. There's a moderate to high maltiness to the flavor. Its hoppiness can be moderate to modestly crisp and pronounced. The classic American pilsner will range from 4.5% to 6% ABV.

Background: The red, white but mostly blue Point Special can, which was introduced by the brewery in 1954, will add to the festive atmosphere of the upcoming Fourth of July holiday. But there's another subtle tribute in the nickname of this beer. Many Wisconsinites know it as the "blue bullet," an nickname it acquired in the 1960s and '70s as a favorite of National Guard soldiers taking part in training maneuvers at Fort McCoy near Sparta. The joke around camp was that someone was always going for more "blue bullets," and so the nickname just stuck.

Stevens Point brewmaster John Zappa will be celebrating his 36th anniversary with the brewery this September. He's seen a lot of change in the Wisconsin beer industry. "The dynasty in Milwaukee with Blatz, Schlitz, Miller and Pabst has all changed so much," he says. "Who would have thought Pabst would be a virtual brewery, that Schlitz would be gone, that Miller would be taken over by SAB [South African Breweries], and all the other mergers involving international companies?"

Zappa has been responsible for maintaining the consistency of Point Special for over three decades, but it's a beer that goes back well before him. German immigrants Frank Wahle and George Ruder founded the brewery in 1857, and its beer was supplied to Union soldiers in the American Civil War.

"As far as we can tell the original brewery owners made this beer in the beginning," says Zappa. "We've kept it around forever."

In 1973 Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko declared that Point Special was the number one American beer. After the article, Point's sales almost doubled. Royko received a great number of reader letters on the column, in part because he insinuated that most other big American brewery beers tasted like they had been run through a horse. Eventually, Royko penned an apology -- to the horse.

Point Special has won numerous awards, especially over the past 15 years. Among notable achievements, it was given silver in the 2012 US Open Beer Competition, silver in the World Beer Championships in 2011, and gold at the 2003 Great American Beer Festival.

"Over the years it may have evolved a bit, but the basis of Point Special is in its German heritage," says Zappa. The beer is made with two-row and six-row barley, along with Yakima hops. It finishes at 4.7% ABV and 9 IBUs.

Point Special is the flagship for the brewery, amounting for nearly 50% of the sales among the brewery's proprietary brands. It sells in stores in 12-ounce bottles for $5.50-$7.50/six-packs, and in 12 packs of cans for $8-$10. It's also available in 16-ounce cans the brewery calls the "Big Charlie 16." Stevens Point beers are distributed in 22 states, and Point Special is sold in most of those.

In other beer news from Stevens Point, the brewery just completed its fourth major expansion in four years. The most recent is a $2 million project will allow the brewery to increase its annual production by 25% to nearly 150,000 barrels. The brewery is continuing to expand its Whole Hog series of big-bodied, flavorful, high-alcohol beers. That line of limited-release four-packs will add a Scotch Ale this summer and in fall a bourbon barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout. In six-packs, a new beer named Beyond the Pale IPA is just out. It's made with Galaxy, Simcoe and Calypso hops, and it ends up at 64 IBUs and 5.5% ABV. Last October the brewery also ventured into ciders under the Ciderboys label.

Tasting notes:

  • Aroma: A light hoppy nose.
  • Appearance: Clear, golden and bubbly. A long-lasting soft white head.
  • Texture: Medium-bodied, some smooth-roundness to the mouthfeel. Effervescent.
  • Taste: There is a moderate maltiness to the main flavor. Overall, it's a very clean beer with a light hoppiness to the background.
  • Finish/Aftertaste: Clean and bubbly.

Glassware: With respect for the tradition of the style, Point Special looks good in a standard tavern beer glass or a more traditional but short pilsner. But, with a nod to Independence Day, enjoying a "blue bullet" in the backyard directly from the can seems good enough.

Pairs well with: This really is a palate-cleansing beer, with crispness that can be thirst quenching on a hot day. It's pretty good for washing down a range of food from the backyard barbecue or just enjoying the fireworks.

Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)

The Consensus: 73 (okay) at BeerAdvocate and 14/89 (overall/style) at RateBeer.

The Verdict: I'm declaring a little beer-style "independence" this Fourth of July. My take on Point Special may be considered rebellious to the most passionate beer geeks and big-brewery bashers. But bring on the fireworks -- I like Point Special! Why? Because it's a great example of the classic American pilsner. It offers a firm maltiness with body, and its flavor remains clean, making it easy drinking. Plus, it's a beer that pretty much goes with any food. It's also been around a long time (156 years) without much change, and that deserves respect.

Okay, I might be giving Point Special a little extra credit because of my many memories of enjoying the blue bullet. But that's part of the experience every time I have one. And, I don't think I'm alone in my enjoyment of this beer. There's a certain bond displayed in the camaraderie of one-upsmanship that seems to come out when sharing stories with others about why Point Special is -- well, special.

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