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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Beer Here: Campfire Porter from Hydro Street Brewing

Credit:Robin Shepard

Campfire Porter is a beer that goes with a crisp fall evening, helping its drinkers find warmth that a fire alone doesn't offer. It's made by Hydro Street Brewing, which is located in downtown Columbus, about a 25-minute drive northeast of Madison. This small brewpub has been making a name for itself, both among locals and as a stop for beer fans in search of new pours.

When owner and brewmaster Aaron Adams opened Hydro Street in early 2012, Campfire Porter was one of the first beers he served. Now, its surging popularity among regulars is leading him to embark on a major expansion. Adams just installed a new set of brewing equipment that will allow him to make more of his beers, some of which will soon find their way to Madison in kegs and bomber bottles.

What is it? Campfire Porter from Hydro Street Brewing Company of Columbus, Wisconsin.

Style: The porter style got its name because it was a beer of choice for those working England's shipyards. It became quite popular during the 18th century in the pubs of London, and the style eventually gave rise to the stout. Porters can range in color from brown to deep black because of chocolate and smoked brown malts. Hints of roastedness are quite common, along with a moderate hoppiness. In the U.S., the porter nearly vanished in the years following Prohibition, as light-bodied lagers appealed more to the masses. However, homebrewers and small craft breweries revived the style. Porter beers commonly range in alcohol from 4% to 5.5% ABV. Stronger, hoppier and more roasted versions may be referred to as a "robust porter."

Background: Hydro Street Campfire Porter demonstrates how a good homebrew can provide the basis for a great commercial beer. "I worked on this recipe quite a bit as a homebrewer," says Adams. "I probably made six or seven different versions of porter before I found the right one." Its name came from one night when, he explains, "we sat around the campfire and talked about how to make a better porter. This is what we came up with."

Campfire Porter is lightly hopped with Cascade hops. But this beer is really all about the malt. Five of them go into the brewkettle. Among the most distinctive is smoked two-row barley from Briess of Chilton, which lends a touch of campfire. The beer ends up around 7% ABV. It sells for $4.25/pint over the bar and $16/growler (refill) at the brewpub.

The Hydro Street brewery is among the smallest in Wisconsin. Since opening less than two years ago, Adams has been brewing nearly two times a day, five days a week, on a system that makes beer in one-barrel batches. But that's about to change. Just after Labor Day, a new brewing system arrived at Hydro Street that will allow Adams to make his beer in three-barrel batches. He's hoping that by increasing the volume of beer he makes in a single batch, he'll be able to cut back to brewing once a day. However, Adams adds that he'll still likely need to brew five days a week to keep up with demand.

Hydro Street was able to qualify for more than $120,000 in revolving loan funds from city and county programs to fund its expansion. The new system was made just for Hydro Street by Peterson Custom Stainless of Watertown, a company that has made much bigger equipment for breweries like New Glarus and MillerCoors. The new mash tun, brew kettles and two stainless steel fermenters should allow Hydro Street to more than triple its annual output. With that, Adams says he hopes to start offering some of his best sellers like Campfire Porter, Seven Sisters Scotch Ale, and Twist and Shout Stout in 22-ounce bomber bottles. This additional capacity will also allow Hydro Street to offer a handful of draught beers to select Madison-area bars and restaurants.

The brewpub in Columbus has really caught on. "We have our regulars, but we're also seeing more people who are traveling from Milwaukee and Madison and stopping when they drive by Columbus," says Adams. "Microbreweries are a destination, something you do on a weekend." Hydro Street Brewing was recently awarded the 2012 Tourism Business of the Year Award by the Columbia County Visitors Bureau. "I'm glad we were right in starting this brewery," says Adams. "There is a need, and I'm glad we're so busy."

The new brewing system won't be operational until late September, and Adams isn't saying which brew he'll make first. But over the next few weeks, Adams plans to offer an Oktoberfest. Later in October he'll be releasing a series of fresh hop beers that he's making with hops grown in his own garden.

Tasting notes:

  • Aroma: Light, but firm hints of chocolate malt with a touch of smokiness.
  • Appearance: Hazy-deep brown to black color, with a thick bubbly tan head.
  • Texture: Medium to full bodied, with roundness.
  • Taste: A smooth chocolate maltiness is at its core. The touch of smokiness begins as an accent in the aroma and builds slightly through the finish.
  • Finish/Aftertaste: Smooth malty flavor, some smoky accents, but roasted-burntness never dominates.

Glassware: Hydro Street serves Campfire Porter in a standard bar pint. If you're drinking it at home, the English pint glass offers a touch of tradition.

Pairs well with: Try cheeses that offer a light sweetness, such as an applewood smoked cheddar. It's also a nice beer for grilled burgers and steaks. From the Hydro Street menu, the Lundeen Platter features lightly smoked ham that will complement this beer. However, go easy on entrees with assertive smoky aroma and flavor; the smoke is easy to overdo. This beer's level of smoke is just right the way it is, but the best companion is a cool night and a campfire.

Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)

The Consensus: Hydro Street Campfire Porter has not received enough ratings to be evaluated at Beer Advocate or RateBeer.

The Verdict: Hydro Street has become a beer destination for me. I really enjoy the short drive from Madison to Columbus. The brewpub is located in a building with history and character in a classic small-town Wisconsin setting. All that adds to the experience. At the bar, there are always a few standards alongside unique one-time-only brews that make up the brewpub's 11 taps.

Campfire Porter is often one of those standard tap brews at Hydro Street. With its robust qualities and at 7% ABV, it is more assertive than many porters. That amount of alcohol means it's not a session beer, so one or two pints are enough in a single sitting. The alcoholic warmth seems light, but don't be deceived. Its flavor and body are smooth and inviting, and the subtle roastedness remains where I like it best, in the background, complementing the other malty flavors. There is just enough smoke to add a smooth accent. I've had this beer on several visits to Hydro Street, and it's never quite the same. For some drinkers that's a red flag, but I'm giving Adams some credit, since each time I like it better than before. This current version is remarkably smooth, and the smoke is just right.

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