Another year has passed, and looking back at the beers released by breweries around Madison and further afield in Wisconsin can't help but encourage a smile.
The 2009 lineup of local beers is already looking big, too, with early buzz building around several brews, including a new IPA named Ballistic to be released soon by Ale Asylum, the keg-only beet-based concoction named Thermo Refur from Furthermore that's about to debut, and a crack at the biggest all-malt beer ever, a creation of Rob LoBreglio of the Great Dane and Kirby Nelson of Capital Brewery that's currently fermented and is not expected to be ready until early summer or later.
There are lots of "top year end lists" out there, but here are a few of the memories that made the past year "beery" good for the beer enthusiast.
Most surprising beer
Alt from New Glarus Brewing Company
Owners Deb and Dan Carey asked their fans last winter to vote for what they would like to see in 2008 and this style was their choice. As a thank you the Carey's obliged. New Glarus Alt offers distinctive caramel and toffee flavors with body and warmth.
Biggest beer with flavor, not just high alcohol
Makeweight from Furthermore Beer
This Belgian IPA is actually an amalgamation of three pale ale recipes in what Furthermore Beer co-owner Aran Madden says was an evolution in his beermaking creativity. Makeweight features the fruitiness of Belgian yeast and lots of malt that create some warmth at over 9% alcohol by volume.
Local hopheads' unexpected treat
Imperial IPA from the Great Dane Pub and Brewing Company - Hilldale
This unique brew from Madison's growing brew pub powerhouse is found only at its Hilldale location. This Imperial, or Double IPA, has assertive bitter hoppiness with a firm caramel malty background. Hilldale brewer Don Vasa trys to keep this beer on tap all the time.
Nearby and well worth the drive
Amnesia Baltic Porter from the Grumpy Troll Restaurant and Brewery in Mount Horeb
The brew won a gold in the 2008 World Beer Championships, and a Bronze Medal at the 2007 Great American Beer Festival. This year, RateBeer ranked Brewmaster Mark Duchow and the Grumpy Troll #40 out of the 50 best brewpubs in the world. Amnesia Baltic Porter is full-bodied, rich in chocolate malt and dark color.
Best of the seasonal brews
Winter: Winter Warmer from Moosejaw Pizza and Brewing Company in the Wisconsin Dells
It's simply a great beer for a blizzard. Actually, I found this beer prior to a big February snow storm that hit south central Wisconsin. It lived up to its name after the snows of 2008 never seemed to let up. This beer had a robust maltiness, lots of body and a mild smoked peatiness.
Spring: Hatha-weizen from Ale Asylum
Named after co-owner Otto Dilba's wife Hathaway, this German wheat is crisp and refreshing. This beer brings a smile as I think about spring time and a brilliant cloudy, yellow-gold hefeweizen. Ale Asylum makes this beer available more than just in springtime; however, it's a great way to embrace the arrival of warm weather and get a jump on the summer wheats.
Summer: Prairie Gold from Capital Brewery
This new beer was unveiled last summer by Capital. The Belgian blonde ale is made with Belgian candi sugar, which boosts its alcohol content to over 6.5% ABV. Its name pays tribute to the golden rays of twilight across the Midwest prairie.
Fall: Louie's Reserve Scotch Ale from Lake Louie Brewing
What better way to take the chill off a damp fall day than with the assertive maltiness of a Scotch ale? Tapped a year ago as my Beer of the Year for 2007, this continues to be a seasonal favorite to watch for every November, and to stock for the impending cold of Wisconsin winter. Lots of caramel maltiness, full-bodied and lingering warmth.
Best beer to finish a meal/nightcap
Oscura from Furthermore Beer
Introduced last July by Futhermore, Oscura is made with 100% fair trade coffee from the La FEM Grower's Cooperative of Nicaragua and roasted by Just Coffee of Madison. A wonderful after dinner drink, the beer has an assertive coffee aroma and lingering roastedness in its flavor profile.
A reliable favorite that didn't disappoint in 2008
Black Bavarian from Sprecher Brewery
There are some beers that just shouldn't be messed with. Sprecher's Black Bavarian is one of these, a solid and reliable friend that needs a place in every beer fanatic's refrigerator. A Schwarzbeir, or dark German lager, this beer looks thick and heavy, but is medium to light bodied with a smooth caramel and chocolate maltiness that is clean and kept in balance. A versatile meal beer or just a great drinking beer.
One I'm still trying to forget months later
Lazy Mutt Farmhouse Ale from Minhas Craft Brewery
Not much good to say about this beer because it just didn't work for me. It obviously has a following that keeps this on local store shelves but I'm not among those. Maybe it's the thought of a deal seeing this in an eight-pack container yet competitively prices with the six-packs?
Best new beer venue of 2008
The Malt House at 2609 East Washington Avenue
With a beer menu of over 175 bottles and tap selections combined, and served over what is likely to be the oldest wooden bar in the city, The Malt House opened in June in the former Union House Tavern. Owner Bill Rogers has created a wonderful beer sanctuary where the focus is on the brews and good conversations among friends. This is a place where you won't find TVs, video games or distractions.
Beer to ring in 2009
Spank Me Baby! Barley Wine-Style Ale from Tyranena Brewing Company
This is a great beer to pour into champagne glasses and toast the new year. Currently on tap in the Lake Mills brewery's tasting room, owner and brewmaster Rob Larson has a version of this barley wine that was fermented in bourbon barrels that give it an additional sweetness.
Best beer of 2008: Honorable mention
Dirty Old Man from Tyranena Brewing Company
An imperial rye porter with full-body, chocolate maltiness and a dry finish, this is a big meal beer that deserves an entrée with lots of flavor to compete with its robust character. The name and label design of this beer were scrutinized by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and thus its release was delayed for several months. The attention pushed it onto the top 25 most buzzed about beers in 2008 by Beer Advocate.
Best beer of 2008
Mercy Grand Cru from Ale Asylum
Co-owner and brewmaster Dean Coffey leaves an indelible mark on the local beer making scene with his Belgian beers. This, however, is his best yet, with lots of Belgian yeasty qualities, sweetness and a light fruitiness. Mercy is a beer for a big holiday-style meal, in a goblet in front of a fire with a good book, or even better sharing a glass across the Ale Asylum bar with friends. Released in November in four-packs, it is the first seasonal beer to be bottled by Ale Asylum. Local beer aficionados hope it'll be the start of a long line of other special seasonal brews to follow from Coffey's brew kettles.