House of Brews
Craft brewing is on the rise. The small-volume startups once called microbreweries (it seems that term has gone out of fashion) are filling tap lines at an increasing number of bars and restaurants. But those seeking beer direct from the source head to the taproom. In Madison, there's a boom of these brewery-operated drinking establishments.
2001 Atwood Ave., 608-630-9286
The current tap list is focused on light, crisp beers and full-bodied brews with more pronounced malt - no stouts and porters as of my recent visit, though a One Barrel coffee stout is available exclusively at the new Alterra on the Square. Food, meanwhile, is limited to easily prepared offerings from neighboring restaurants, including Stalzy's and Tex Tubb's.
My favorite One Barrel beer is the #2 Strong Ale, a style known for rich, sweet flavors and a high alcohol content. The #2 Strong is sneaky with its booziness, and toffee-sweet. If this one's too much for you, try the Debut du Monde Wisconsin Tripel, a Belgian style with lighter caramel and raisin flavors. I wasn't as crazy about the Penguin American Pale Ale, which gave off a strong, buttery diacetyl flavor. If you like that sort of thing, you might find it pleasant and warming.
Fraboni's frozen pizzas are a good choice at One Barrel; my table was greatly pleased with the giardiniera and sausage version. A selection of cheeses and Underground cured meats pairs nicely with the Proletariat Farmhouse Ale. The hot little piragi buns from Stalzy's, on the other hand, would pair well with a little more meat filling; they were disappointingly skimpy. But for a fun crowd and great bar atmosphere with excellent beer offerings, I have no complaints with One Barrel.
4539 Helgesen Dr., 608-347-7243
Page Buchanan's taproom off Stoughton Road lacks in location everything that One Barrel has. Oh, and it offers no food. And no sampler flights. And the beers are served, bizarrely, in plastic cups. But almost in spite of itself, the House of Brews taproom succeeds and draws a massive beer-geek crowd for one simple reason: The beer is great.
Take the Rickhouse Stout. Made from Snug Oatmeal Stout, it is a bourbon-barrel-aged beauty. The coconutty warmth of bourbon dominates both nose and taste buds, though very little boozy heat intrudes. It's a great beer, worth every penny of its shorter, more expensive pour.
But there's also a fine Russian Imperial Stout called Kremlin, with roasty grain and a hop presence that pleasantly undermines the usual stonefruit sweetness of the style. The highly sessionable (as in, you could drink a bunch of 'em) Bungalow Rye ESB is a beautiful caramel-colored beer with a delicate balance of hop and rye bite. If you want to chill, drink beers with a lot of flavor and complexity, and talk about brewing nerdery until closing time, House of Brews is your place.
3698 Kinsman Blvd., 608-241-4811
If you want to be loud and boisterous and have a little elbow room, then get yourself to the cavernous Karben4, which was until very recently the home of Ale Asylum. Karben4 has teamed up with the Underground Food Collective to offer a modest but fun little food menu - indeed, more developed than I expected - and is currently serving up some of the buzziest beers in town.
Silk Scorpion is a black IPA that has been getting well-deserved props since its release. If you want in on the experience, move fast - it's a seasonal that will soon be replaced. (The new beer, an excellent Citra hops-heavy IPA whose name co-owner Ryan Koga wouldn't reveal, will be released during the upcoming Madison Craft Beer Week.) It has a smoky peatiness that adds depth to the hop bitterness.
Other Karben4 beers are a little lighter. The UnderCover Session Ale is sweet and thin like apple juice, while the Lady Luck Irish Red adds a whisper of smokiness to the same flavor profile. SamuRyePA, saddled with an awkward name, has a strong hop nose with candylike sweetness. (A small batch aged in a Few Spirits gin barrel took on a heavy botanical character that worked well to broaden the beer.)
Underground provides all the meats, but the menu was designed in-house. The grilled cheese Force is strong here, with versions featuring either cucumber and tomato or tomato jam and onions. A Polish sausage sandwich is stuffed with meat, served on a sturdy pretzel roll. A summer sausage sandwich (which was ordered but not delivered on one occasion) appears dainty, but is a dwarf star of a sandwich; the ample summer sausage sizzles.
[Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that House of Brews' Rickhouse Stout is the bourbon barrel-aged version of Snug Oatmeal Stout.]