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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  A Few Clouds
The Daily
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Sixpoint Brewery's Little Wisco beer lands in Madison
A community of Wisconsinites in New York inspires a rare brew
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Little Wisco has been selling at a rather fast pace at Merchant.
Credit:Kristian Knutsen

Every can of beer produced by the New York-based Sixpoint Brewery is emblazoned with the words "Beer is Culture." A motto with multiple shadings, it's particularly fitting to the ingrained brewing identity claimed by Wisconsin. It's also the spirit behind Little Wisco, a limited release from Sixpoint -- a Brooklyn brewery with Wisconsin roots -- that's named for a cluster of restaurants in Manhattan that share a similar connection to the same home state.

Wisconsin-born Shane Welch is the driving force behind Sixpoint, which he founded in 2004. Growing up in New Berlin in the orbit of Brew City, he made his way to Madison in the late '90s to attend the University of Wisconsin. Not long after arriving, he started homebrewing, which led to a job at the Wine & Hop Shop on Monroe Street.

While working there, Welch met Dean Coffey, a brewmaster who was running the kettles at Angelic Brewing Company, a now-closed brewpub located just off State Street. After Welch won a local homebrewing competition, his friendship with Coffey led to a job at Angelic, where he assisted in making its beer from 2000 to 2003.

"Dean gave me a curiosity about beer, and a willingness to explore new styles," says Welch. "He was such a good incubator. He encouraged me from the very beginning. Eventually he said, 'You've got to branch off and do your own thing.'”

Departing both Angelic and Madison in 2003, Welch traveled the world with little more than a backpack and visited over 100 breweries, where he often volunteered to help out in order to pick up ideas he might put to use in his own operation.

In 2004, Welch launched Sixpoint in Red Hook, a rundown waterfront neighborhood on the western edge of Brooklyn. In the early days, he was mugged and had things stolen from his brewery. Today, the neighborhood is being gentrified, booming with new businesses and apartments. "People say we were visionaries and that we had courage to come here, but what it really was I couldn’t afford anywhere else," laughs Welch.

Shortly after arriving in New York, Welch discovered Kettle of Fish, a bar in the West Village run by the Wauwatosa-born-and-bred Patrick Daley. The tavern boasted a half-century history that stretched back to patrons like Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan during an earlier guise as the Lion's Head. Daley purchased the tavern in 1998 after bartending there for 15 years. It soon earned a reputation as the premiere Packers bar in the city.

Kettle of Fish serves Wisconsin-sourced brats, summer sausage and cheese, as well as a handful of Wisconsin-brewed beers distributed in the city, and its walls and nooks are lined with Packers knick-knacks and other Wisconsin ephemera. Former Wisconsinites gather at the tavern en masse to watch football, and simply soak in their home state's culture.

"It's pretty cozy there, they have Badger and Packer games -- it feels like a Wisconsin tavern," says Welch.

Around the same time Welch was conducting his de facto apprenticeship at Angelic, another UW student, Gabriel Stulman, was a patron of the brewpub. He worked in the Madison nightlife biz, too, bartending at Cafe Montmartre, a wine bar located at the corner of Mifflin and Webster (the space now occupied by Heritage Tavern).

After graduating in 2003, the Virginia-born Stulman made his way to New York. Within a couple of years, he launched the Little Owl, a tiny restaurant and nightspot in the West Village that proved to be a hit. It provided experience he parlayed into what has grown to be a small collection of restaurants known for a smart and of course seasonal-and-sourced approach to their various cuisines, as well as a neighborly welcoming vibe.

Together, they're named Little Wisco. The group currently consists of six restaurants, concentrated on the west side of downtown Manhattan. Joseph Leonard, Jeffrey's Grocery, Fedora, Perla and Chez Sardine are all located near Sheridan Square in the West Village, while the newest and familiarly named Montmartre is up in Chelsea.

Kettle of Fish is also located off Sheridan Square, less than a block down from Joseph Leonard and Jeffrey's Grocery. (It is also just a couple of doors away from the Stonewall Inn, the flashpoint of the 1969 Stonewall riots that served as a spark for the gay rights movement.)

Little Wisco is not only a collection of restaurants, but it is at the center of a Wisconsin expatriate community as well. Stulman is well-known for hiring Wisconsinites at his establishments, and that corner of the West Village is only somewhat jokingly referred to by the same name as the restaurant group. He described the dynamic as "becoming a self-perpetuating machine" in a January 2011 profile in the New York Times, which marked the point when Little Wisco as a concept (and its Madison connections) really started to draw attention.

Brian Bartels, who is responsible for cocktails at the Little Wisco group, is one of these expatriates. He got to know Stulman at Cafe Montmartre, and later moved to New York to develop the restaurateur's drinks menus. (One of his drinks at Montmartre in Chelsea is named "Mifflin Street Moonlight.") "Gabe is one of my dearest oldest friends, and now we get to work together," says Bartels. "It is like the greatest version of extended family at work."

It's this feeling of family, and neighborhood, that makes Little Wisco, and was key to bringing Sixpoint Brewery into the fold.

Stulman and Bartels paired with Daley and started working with Sixpoint on developing a proprietary beer for serving at the Little Wisco restaurants and Kettle of Fish. "We keep it low key by only offering it to Patrick and Gabe in New York," says Welch.

"Some of us remember Shane from Angelic," recalls Bartels. "Sixpoint had an organic, genuine way of getting beers in bars, and working with them was a no-brainer once I found out who was responsible for the brewery. It does kind of remind me of home."

Little Wisco beer debuted in February 2011. Most Sixpoint brews have an assertive hop-forward flavor. Welch admits he likes to use hops, especially Cascade and Centennial, both of which can be found in this tribute to his home state.

It's often categorized as a Kölsch, but Welch resists pinning Little Wisco into a specific beer style. He describes it as similar to crisp cream ale with a bright golden color and body. While it does offer some of those light quaffable qualities, its Welch's bold use of hops in Little Wisco that makes it distinctive and desirable by hoppy beer fans.

"It's very refreshing, very drinkable," says Bartels. "It's this magical beer we all joke about."

Little Wisco beer was regularly served at Kettle of Fish and multiple Stulman restaurants up through last November when Hurricane Sandy hit the New York. The storm devastated Red Hook, and Sixpoint was flooded, its electronic and plumbing infrastructure significantly damaged. It was months before the brewery was up and running again, and with it the flow of liquid Little Wisco to the West Village.

The bonds between Wisconsin and its former residents remain strong. Merchant, a downtown Madison restaurant and cocktail bar that wouldn't be out of place in Little Wisco, showed generosity and support with a fundraiser for Hurricane Sandy relief. Sixpoint appreciated the gesture, and just a few weeks ago sent a limited number of half-barrels of Little Wisco to Merchant. Welch says Stulman and Daley were personally supportive of sending the beer to Madison, and Bartels refers to the restaurant as "good friends of ours."

Little Wisco has been selling at a rather fast pace at Merchant, with only a little more than a single half-barrel remaining. (It will also be briefly on tap at the World of Beer on Brady Street in Milwaukee.) Welch isn't saying if or when he'll send more Little Wisco to the big Wisco, but he does like the idea of returning what he can through beer.

Connections between Little Wisco and Madison continue to grow. Sixpoint entered the market a couple of years ago, and continues to build its presence as one of the few locally distributed East Coast craft breweries. Sixpoint's four-pack cans are found in many Madison-area liquor stores, including its top sellers like Sweet Action, Righteous Ale, Bengali Tiger and The Crisp.

Meanwhile, Dean Coffey, not long after serving as Welch's mentor at Angelic, would partner with Otto and Hathaway Dilba and Chris Riphenburg to launch Ale Asylum on the north side of Madison. The brewery shares a similar hop-forward ethos with Sixpoint as well as a logo based on the six-pointed brewers' star. Together, they teamed up for a joint tasting during last spring's Madison Craft Beer Week.

The Little Wisco crew will be coming to town for the Madison Ouisconsin Pop-Up Dinner on Sunday, Nov. 3. They will be joining with the Underground Food Collective for the one-night only meal, which is the flip-side of Ouisconsin, a series of dinners the collective put on at Joseph Leonard in March 2012. This Madison event consists of two seatings, both of which begin with cocktails at Context Clothing on King Street, followed by dinner at Forequarter. Each is limited to 32 seats. Chefs from Fedora, Jeffrey's Grocery and Joseph Leonard will be responsible for the food, while Bartels is taking care of drinks. Tickets are $125, and can be purchased at Context and Underground Butcher.

Sixpoint is doing very well now, with annual production expected to top 60,000 barrels this year. The brewery offers five standard beers with a variety of special releases and seasonal offerings. Welch plans to introduce more new beers in 2014.

As Sixpoint has grown, Welch hasn't lost sight of where he came from. "Madison has a spirit of doing things differently; it's a little bit eccentric," he says. "But all the time I spent at the university and the people I met there inspired me."

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