Valkyrie Brewing operates a seasonal taproom at its brewhouse in Dallas.
Randy Lee has been brewing for nearly two decades. His beers have not been readily available in Madison for several years, though. That all changed in January, when his Valkyrie Brewing arrived on shelves in southern Wisconsin.
Lee and his wife, Ann, established their brewery in Dallas, Wisconsin, a small Barron County town of just over 400 people north of Eau Claire. "We wanted to do something together, and we wanted to do something we could do as a family," says Lee.
Lee still makes beer on nearly the same system that he self-fabricated from used dairy equipment in 1994. Until 2011, Lee's operation was named Viking Brewing. That year, he sold the name to a brewery in Iceland that was looking at establishing that brand in Europe and U.S. markets.
Lee briefly changed his brewery's name to Five Star Brewing. However, following delays in federal approval of that name, during which time another brewery trademarked "Five Star" as a beer brand, Lee went with Valkyrie Brewing Company for its name. Throughout all those changes, his beers have been absent in the Madison market, with the exception of a few festival appearances.
"The Viking theme is pretty much second nature for us," says Lee, who is Norwegian. His wife, Ann, is Swedish. In Norse mythology, a Valkyrie is a female who decides who lives and dies during battle. That imagery provides not only inspiration for beer but decor in the brewery. "The taproom is pretty much made up of contemporary Nordic flare," he laughs.
Valkyrie Brewing is located in a century-old building that's almost entirely concrete and brick, so all seasons present heating or cooling challenges, and that dictates Lee's brewing schedule. "Summers are hard because you have to fight the building; in the winter it's too cold to make ales," says Lee. Therefore, Lee focuses on lagers in the winter and ales in the summer.
Not only is brewing seasonal, but so too are the hours for the taproom. (It's best to consult the brewery's Facebook and Twitter accounts before visiting, or subscribe to its email newsletter.) In fact, the taproom is currently closed for the season, but will reopen on Saturday, March 15.
To help overcome some of his building's challenges, last year Lee was awarded a $20,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to replace a refrigeration compressor and to change the building's boiler-based heat from fuel oil to vegetable oil -- which he's able to get from a local restaurant just a couple of doors down the street.
In 2013 the brewery turned out nearly 500 barrels of beer. "About 80% of our production is going to Madison and Milwaukee," says Lee.
Valkyrie currently offers more than a dozen different beers, and many of those are currently available in four-packs and bomber bottles at Madison-area retailers, with other seasonal brews appearing throughout the year. Local beer enthusiasts have been seeking out Valkyrie beers, so bring them to the market here was inevitable. "We have had a lot of people coming up to Dallas for beer, so it'll cut their road trips down," says Lee.
Valkyrie's present best-seller is War Hammer, a full-bodied porter made with coffee from a roaster in Menomonie, Wisconsin. It's available year-round, as is a red lager named Rubee and a steam lager (California Common) dubbed Dragon Blade. Those who remember when the brewery was known as Viking might recognize that War Hammer was then named Whole Stein, and an early version of Rubee was labeled Copperhead. Dragon Blade, meanwhile, is a new beer in the Valkyrie lineup.
One of Valkyrie's most sought-after beers is the winter seasonal Big Swede. Lee describes it as a Swedish Style Imperial Stout, one that finishes at 8.5% ABV. The beer is brewed in the summer and then lagered until release in the dead of winter. The beer was mentioned in the book 1001 Beers You Must Taste Before You Die, and Lee says he's seen lots of visitors traveling to his taproom just for that one beer.
Another of Valkyrie's recognized winter seasonals is Hot Chocolate, a beer that Lee has been bringing to the Isthmus Beer and Cheese Fest for several years. Other late winter brews include Night Wolf, a German Schwarzbier (black lager) that was formerly known as Mørketid, as well as Velvet Green, a dry Irish stout. On the lighter side is Lime Twist, a springtime wheat-based lager that's made with lime. Abby Normal, a Belgian-style Tripel, is released in August.
Among the most unique brews from Valkyrie is Blaze Orange, a brew inspired by Ann Lee's kitchen talents. "Ann is a very good soup cook and this beer is based on that concept," Randy says. Blaze Orange is a light lager that is released around late fall or early winter. It's made with orange extract and spiced with Madagascar and Ceylon cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, galangal and peppercorns. The beer ends up with a strong tea-like flavor.
Among Valkyrie's hoppy brews are Raven Queen and Supernova IPAs. Raven Queen is made with roasted black wheat and black licorice. Part of the lore of Valkyries is that they converse with ravens. This beer is currently found in 22-ounce bombers, but Lee expects it to be offered later this year in four-packs of 12-ounce bottles. Supernova is a more limited beer and therefore harder to find. Originally, the beer got its name because it was made with Galaxy hops from Australia. However, those hops have been difficult for Lee to obtain, so he's been substituting another Australian hop called Stella.
Crimson Wonder is also found in the larger 22-ounce bottle. It's a Wee Heavy (Scotch Ale) brewed with rose hips and oak smoked malts.
Among the special releases from Valkyrie to watch for next fall will be an English barleywine called Berserk. The brewery is also planning to bring back its honey brackett (braggot) called Mjød later in the year. Mjød (Norwegian for mead) was the first brew offered by Lee when he opened his brewery in 1994. The brewery markets it as the first honey brackett brewed in the U.S. It's made with 75% honey compared to 25% malt. Lee says he plans to use local honey to make Mjød.
Valkyrie four-packs generally run around $7, and 22-ounce bombers start at less than $5.
Lee has seen a great many changes in Wisconsin's small brewing scene since he offered his first beers in the mid-1990s. Among the biggest change is who comes looking for his beer.
"When we started, the people who would show up in Dallas was some guy who would drag his wife along, and all she wanted was the lightest thing I had. Now women tend to be much more adventuresome drinkers than the men, they want the darkest, the most odd, wacko stuff we have."