On Saturday, Aug. 11, more than 5,000 beer pilgrims will make their annual trek to Olin-Turville Park, on the shores of Lake Monona, for the Great Taste of the Midwest. The five-hour event, the largest of its kind in the Midwest, will feature more than 100 brewers and 600-plus beers.
If you're just learning about the festival, sorry - tickets sold out in an hour and a half way back in May, according to Bill Rogers of the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild, which organizes the Great Taste. "Every year tickets are more difficult to get," he says. "If you want them, you camp out in front of places like Star Liquor."
But if you didn't score tickets, many of the city's local breweries and brewpubs offer special beers to mark the occasion. So the coming days will be the perfect time to make the rounds and experience firsthand the great brewing renaissance taking place in southern Wisconsin.
Brewing has deep roots in southern Wisconsin. Indeed, beer was made here before Wisconsin was even a state: In neighboring Iowa County, the John Phillips Brewery in Mineral Point opened in 1835 and is recognized as Wisconsin's first commercial brewery. As for Madison, its first beer operation started up in 1848, when Adam Sprecher built his brewery just north of where Monona Terrace sits today on the lakeshore.
What is it about Wisconsin and beer? The story has much to do with immigration, notes Jerry Apps in Breweries of Wisconsin. Settlers from Germany, Ireland and England descended upon Wisconsin in the mid-1800s. Beer was important in those countries, and the newcomers brought that love with them.
Then there was our productive soil, perfect for growing barley and hops. Our abundant forests provided wood for barrels and for firing the brew kettles. And our lakes, streams and natural springs provided the most essential ingredient: water. Before refrigeration they also offered winter ice, which helped early brewers in the lagering process.
In Milwaukee, beer production soared after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, when the Windy City's breweries were wiped out, and after Prohibition, consolidation made breweries like Pabst and Miller even bigger. Sadly, small-town breweries died under the competitive pressures. In 1966, Fauerbach Brewery on Williamson Street closed, ending over a century of brewing on Madison's isthmus.
In the 1980s, though, small craft brewing staged a comeback, thanks to changes in federal law and to more discerning public tastes. Locally, Capital Brewery of Middleton brought back the neighborhood aroma of simmering malt and hops in 1986. By the mid-1990s, the brewpub craze had taken a firm hold in Wisconsin, and the Great Dane Pub and Restaurant began operation in downtown Madison's former Fess Hotel, just a few blocks from where Adam Sprecher started it all.
Today, the metropolitan area is home to more than a dozen beer operations. Their offerings - described below - rival any big city's and remind us that, in the words of Dean Coffey, brewmaster at the Ale Asylum, "We have a great thirst for good beer here."
Ale Asylum, 3698 Kinsman Blvd., 663-3926
What's brewing:10 standard taps; you'll find four in bottles.
Noteworthy: Lovers of Belgian beer can choose from three Belgian-style brews on tap.
Madison's newest brewery, Ale Asylum opened a little more than a year ago on the northern edge of the Madison Area Technical College Truax Campus. "The demand for our beer is way beyond where we thought we'd be after just a year in business," says brewmaster Dean Coffey. He came to Ale Asylum from Angelic Brewing Co., as did general manager Otto Dilba and head brewer Chris Riphenburg.
Capital Brewery, 7734 Terrace Ave., Middleton, 836-7100
What's brewing: Eight annual beers, four seasonals and four limited-release beers. Capital is also test marketing its U.S. Pale Ale.
Noteworthy: When the beer garden is filled to capacity, the place has the happy vibe of a community festival. But don't overlook the brewery's tasting room with its 100-year-old back bar, a relic rescued from Chicago's Lincoln Hotel.
As the trailblazer microbrewer in the market, Capital has had its share of ups and downs. But brewmaster Kirby Nelson's infectious love of beer has made this brewery the mainstay of the Madison-area beer scene.
Nelson is famous for his high jinks at the brewery's late-winter Bock Fest, which marks the annual release of the highly sought-after Blonde Doppelbock. Every February, in freezing temperatures, the gray-ponytailed Nelson dons lederhosen, stands atop the brewery's roof and throws frozen chubs to the crowd. Some of the fish contain prize pins; all seem to explode into the hands of anyone attempting to catch them.
Granite City Food and Brewery,72 West Towne Mall, 829-0700
What's brewing: Four standard taps plus seasonal offerings.
Noteworthy: The mid-August seasonal beer is a Belgian Wit. For $20, you can purchase a lifetime mug club membership, good at any Granite City location.
This recent entry to the Madison beer scene opened last December. Part of a Midwest brewpub chain established in 1999 in St. Cloud, Minn., Granite City boasts 19 stores in nine states, with plans for a dozen more
Technically, Granite City isn't a brewery. The company makes its wort - the liquid drained from mash - at a brewing facility in Ellsworth, Iowa, then ships it to each restaurant for fermentation. "Fermentus interruptus" is what Madison manager Shawn Sutton laughingly calls the process. He spent two years at the Davenport Granite City before moving here last month.
Gray's Tied House, 915 Kimball Lane, Verona, 845-2337
What's brewing: Eight to 10 taps, plus contract brews (Hausmann, Fauerbach) and Gray's sodas. Holy Gray Ale, an India pale ale and the Tied House's first beer brewed onsite, just made it to the taps.
Noteworthy: As Fred Gray gets to know his new brewing system, watch for his oak-aged beers.
Gray's Brewing Co. of Janesville dates to 1856. It is the nation's oldest brewery operated continuously by the same family. The latest chapter in the family's history opened last year in Verona, with Gray's Tied House. "I wanted to do something marking our 150th anniversary," says brewmaster Fred Gray. He is a fifth-generation descendant of Joshua Gray, who started it all.
Tied houses take their name from pre-Prohibition breweries that owned - or were tied to - saloons that only served company beers. Although the Tied House opened last fall, brewing only started a few weeks ago.
"This is where I want to experiment," says Gray. "You'll find beers here we won't be making at the Janesville brewery." Among them: more aggressive India pale ales and Scotch ales.
The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co.
123 E. Doty St., 284-0000
2980 Cahill Main, Fitchburg, 442-9000
357 Price Place, Hilldale Mall, 661-9400
What's brewing: Up to 14 taps and (usually) two cask-conditioned ales. The Hilldale site, though, only sells microbrews.
Noteworthy:Coming soon to Fitchburg is Hop Scotch, a hoppy Scottish ale. Downtown, look for a new Belgian pale ale. And at Hilldale, Great Dane's own beers may finally be offered this fall.
The Great Dane was Madison's first brewpub. In 1994, it opened in the 149-year-old former Fess Hotel. There now are three locations, but they don't all sell Great Dane beer because an archaic state law prohibits brewpubs above a certain size from selling their beer at more than two restaurant sites.
The largest brewpub in Wisconsin (by production volume) and the third largest in the U.S., the Great Dane is the brainchild of Vassar college friends Rob LoBreglio and Eliot Butler.
The two hatched the idea for the Great Dane while LoBreglio was working at Triple Rock Brewery and Alehouse in Berkeley, Calif. They decided to open their brewpub in a college city that had a thriving downtown and locals who appreciated good beer.
"We were fortunate to find the old Fess Hotel with a beer garden that is like nothing else in town," LoBreglio says.
The Fitchburg Great Dane opened in 2002 and Hilldale's last fall. The Great Dane also lends its name to a concession at the Dane County Regional Airport, which means there's a very good reason to show up early for a flight.
The Grumpy Troll Restaurant and Brewery,105 S. 2nd St., Mount Horeb, 437-2739
What's brewing: 10 to 12 tap beers and one cask-conditioned beer.
Noteworthy: The signature beer is the Captain Fred, an American-style lager named for Frederick Pabst, of Pabst brewing. Brewmaster Mark Duchow plans on introducing his own line of beers within the next year.
Mount Horeb's Grumpy Troll occupies an old 1916 creamery. Its predecessor, the Mount Horeb Pub and Brewery, opened in 1998. In 2000, new owners changed the name to the Grumpy Troll, in keeping with Mount Horeb's troll theme. In the past year, ownership changed again, but the commitment to beer remains.
Brewmaster Mark Duchow is back for a second tour of duty after detours to brewing opportunities in Iowa and Texas. Duchow was in Houston when a friend called and offered him a ticket to the 2006 Great Taste. In the midst of sampling, Duchow met new Grumpy Troll owner Doug Welshinger, who offered him his old job back.
J.T. Whitney's, 674 South Whitney Way, 274-1776
What's brewing: 13 to 15 taps, plus two cask-conditioned beers.
Noteworthy: Look for an Old English mild and an American pale ale offered on cask.
J.T. Whitney's brewmaster Richard Becker comes from a celebrated brewing family that dates to 1590 and the opening of the Mahrs Brau Brewing Co. in Bamburg, Germany. Today, that brewery is owned by his uncle. Another uncle works at a competing brewery, also in Bamburg.
Established in 1995 on Madison's west side, J.T. Whitney's offers a rotating selection of beers, with great seasonal treats like the amber ale Frozen Tundra. The Badger Red, Black Diamond Porter, Golden Shine and Heartland Weiss are mainstays.
Lake Louie Brewing , 7556 Pine Road, Arena, 753-2675
What's brewing: Five standard beers, with a half-dozen seasonals.
Noteworthy: Summertime brings Lake Louie's Prairie Moon, a light golden Belgian ale. Brother Tim's Tripel, a Belgian-style beer, is due soon after. One of the brewery's most popular beers is the limited-release Scotch ale Louie's Reserve, due out around Halloween.
The humble beginnings of Lake Louie Brewing date to the 1990s, when brewmaster and owner Tom Porter brewed with friends in his rural farmstead driveway. The 20-acre farm with a tiny pond was once owned by Tom's uncle Louie - hence, Lake Louie. In 2000, Porter cashed in his retirement account and left his day job to transform his garage into a brewery.
Originally Lake Louie beers were sold only in half-gallon growler jugs, which were tough to distribute. "We had more than 40,000 of those glass jars in service, washing each by hand when they were returned to the brewery to be filled," says Porter.
Seven years later and after two major brewery expansions, Porter's Lake Louie beers are found in more than 50 taverns and in six-packs at select liquor stores.
New Glarus Brewing Co., County Trunk W & Hwy. 69, New Glarus, 527-5850
What's brewing: Up to 20 different beers a year. Spotted Cow and Fat Squirrel sell best. The distinctive wax-sealed bottles of Wisconsin Belgian Red and Raspberry Tart are international award winners. Just out are Bourbon Barrel Bock and an unfiltered Bavarian hefeweizen called Dancing Man Wheat.
Noteworthy: The brewery will distribute its first organic beer, American Pale Ale, in the near future.
Owners Deb and Dan Carey are among the best known of Wisconsin's microbrewers. They've also been making shrewd business decisions lately, especially in discontinuing out-of-state distribution to focus on the 50 miles around Madison.
In the past year, the Careys have embarked on a multimillion-dollar expansion, which will nearly triple the brewery's square footage. "This expansion will allow us to make more beer, and different beers," says Deb Carey.
"We are a local product, made in a pretty place among rolling hills and dairy farms," she adds. Little wonder that the brewery's best-seller is called Spotted Cow.
Deb Carey is the first woman to found an American brewery. Husband Dan is brewmaster, and he has earned plaudits that include the Association of Brewers' Small Brewer of the Year (2003) and Midsize Brewer of the Year (2005 and 2006).
Tyranena Brewing Co., 1025 Owen St., Lake Mills, 920-648-8699
Beers: Seven regular taps and two seasonals, plus root beer. Most are available in bottles.
Noteworthy: Live music on Friday and Saturday nights in the beer garden until Labor Day, then Saturdays only inside. A batch of Oktoberfest is fermenting. Once released, it won't last long.
The Tyranena Brewing Co. was founded in 1998 by Rob Larson, a Watertown native. Tyranena is said to be an Aztec word meaning sparkling water, a reference to nearby Rock Lake. Many of Larson's beers bear names related to local legends, like Chief Black Hawk Porter and Rocky's Revenge, a brown ale named after the serpent believed to haunt the deep waters of Rock Lake.
Larson also brews limited-release beers, which are full flavored and with lots of alcohol. Sold locally in four-bottle packs, they make up his "Brewers Gone Wild" series, which he named after watching a little too much late-night television. The current brew in the series, "Stickin' It to the Man" is an Imperial IPA - the perfect metaphor for and accent to a long day.