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Beer Here: Sugar River ESB from the Great Dane
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When the Great Dane in Fitchburg opened, this beer was one of the first brewed there, and it continues to be a mainstay on the taps.
When the Great Dane in Fitchburg opened, this beer was one of the first brewed there, and it continues to be a mainstay on the taps.
Credit:Robin Shepard

In December 2002, The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company opened its Fitchburg brewpub as the second of what is now three Madison-area sites. The Fitchburg Great Dane is in the area known as Hatchery Hill, just off Fish Hatchery Road.

The main bar of the Fitchburg location is a striking horseshoe shape. There are two levels for dining and drinking. Upstairs, the mezzanine offers four Brunswick pool tables. Considering the downtown and Fitchburg facilities together (the third Great Dane site, a restaurant at Hilldale Mall, does not brew), the Great Dane is the largest brewpub in Wisconsin by production volume, and the third largest in the U.S.


What is it? Sugar River ESB from The Great Dane Pub and Brewing Co. in Fitchburg.

Style: The ESB -- extra special bitter -- is a derivation of the British bitter. It's celebrated for its hearty proportions of malty, sweet flavors and bitter hoppiness. The ESB, despite its name, is really not that bitter, and even though you will find some hoppy dryness in the flavor profile, it is not overpowering.

The key to a good ESB is a complex balance of flavors. The color is usually deep copper to bronze; the brew often has low carbonation. Time was that "extra special" was merely a marketing label given to premium bitter beers. The ESB has become, however, a recognized style in its own.

Background: This beer takes its name from Southwestern Dane County's Sugar River. Fitchburg Brewer Pat Keller, along with Eric Brusewitz from the downtown location and Great Dane brewmaster Rob LoBreglio, traveled to England in 2000 to do research on cask-conditioned ales. This beer was the result of a short detour to the Chiswick, England brewery that makes the well-known Fuller's ESB (a reference beer for this style).

When the Great Dane in Fitchburg opened, this beer was one of the first brewed there, and it continues to be a mainstay on the taps. Sugar River ESB features English malts and hops in its recipe, and is available at the Fitchburg Great Dane in pints or in half-gallon growlers to take home.

Tasting notes:

  • Aroma: Light malty.
  • Appearance: Deep ruby red to clear bronze color; with a thick, soft off-white head.
  • Texture: Medium-bodied and round.
  • Taste: Starts with a firm, but light, caramel maltiness, followed by a hoppy background.
  • Finish/Aftertaste: Mildly dry bitterness.

Glassware: The basic Shaker pint glass seems made for the ESB!

Pairs well with: The complex malt and hop flavors are wonderful compliments to ribeye steak or prime rib. The hoppiness will actually cut through the gristly nature of these meats.

Rating: Three bottle openers.

(I am using a one to four bottle opener scale: four is a great beer, distinctive, you'll have this over others; three is a beer you enjoy, reliable, close to its described style; two is problematic, lacks distinction, but worth having again; one is a beer that isn't true to its style, you would not recommend it to a friend.)

The Consensus: Not enough ratings have been given for a score on Beer Advocate and a 65 from Rate Beer.

The Verdict: The Sugar River ESB has great balance in flavor, and its dry, hoppy finish is firm without being overbearing. I also really enjoy the beautiful, deep ruby color of this beer.


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