What brewery wouldn't love to have its product sold in Madison? A thirsty college town with lots of savvy beer snobs, a burg where even casual beer drinkers are apt to choose Spotted Cow over a Miller Genuine Draft.
Madison is a very important market for many state brewers. Paul Graham, co-owner of Central Waters Brewing of Amherst, Wis., says it's vital to his brewery's growth: "Madison gets about 23% of our beer." In recent months, a number of Wisconsin breweries debuted or increased their presence in local coolers.
"We sent our first shipment of bottled beer to Madison last February, and it's really started picking up," says Dan Chang, co-owner of Rush River Brewing in River Falls. Before this year, Rush River could be found only sporadically on tap accounts in Madison. "When we started out, I would drive a keg or two to Madison, and that's a four-hour drive for us." Rush River was founded in 2004 and expanded bottling two years ago with a new building, enabling the brewery to pick up a distributor for Madison.
Pearl Street Brewery of La Crosse is also trying to break into Madison's beer market. "Everything we do is grassroots," says the brewery's marketing administrator, Tami Plourde. "We put our beer in a van and come down once a week." Everyone from the brewmaster on down pitches in to conduct tastings where their beer is sold.
Pearl Street opened in 1999, when Wisconsin native Joe Katchever returned from making beer in Colorado to open his own brewery in the basement of a La Crosse bar called the Bodega. Two years ago, Katchever and his father-partner expanded their bottling operations, and they started selling beer here this summer. The large number of craft beer lovers here makes Madison their kind of town, says Katchever.
Jan Earnest knows Wisconsin brews - so much so that her Madison customers call her the "Baroness of Beer" for her savvy malt beverage selections at Steve's Liquor. Over the past year, "there has been substantial growth in the number of Wisconsin beers that my customers have to choose from," Earnest notes. She sees the increased choices leading to sophisticated buying.
With shelf space at a premium, brewers do more than just drop off beer at the doorstep. Even Earnest was recently surprised. "Pearl Street brought in not only their own beer, ice and serving bins, but they came with cheese curds and sausage from their town - and even musicians. They brought a band."
It's quality, though, that determines which new beers will stay around. Earnest says local beer lovers are quite discerning and can now create a frenzy merely by twittering the release of a new brew. "It's a very specific culture. They talk a lot, and they gossip a lot. They are well educated, curious and always looking for something new, unique and rare."
New brews to look for
Central Waters Brewing Company, Amherst: Maker of about 20 beers, including Glacial Trail IPA, Mud Puppy Porter, Ouisconsing Red Ale, Satin Solstice Imperial Stout and the recently released Hop Harvest with local hops hand-picked by the brewery's staff. Watch for: Shine On, a new beer commemorating the brewery's solar collection system that heats all the water in the brewery.
Milwaukee Brewing Company, Milwaukee: Maker of Pull Chain Pale Ale, Flaming Damsel Real Blonde and Louie's Demise. Bottles many of the popular Milwaukee Ale House beers. Watch for: Monkey Paw, an American IPA that makes select appearances on Madison tap accounts.
O'so Brewing Company, Plover: Maker of about 20 beers, including The Big O, Hopdinger, Rusty Red, Night Train and Picnic Ants. Watch for: Lupulin Maximus, an Imperial IPA that has a real hop flower in every bottle harvested from vines growing in brewery owner Marc Buttera's backyard.
Pearl Street Brewery, La Crosse: Maker of Pearl Street Pale Ale, D.T.B. Brown Ale, el hefe Bavarian Hefeweizen and That's What I'm Talkin' 'bout Organic Rolled Oat Stout. Watch for: Dankenstein, a Double IPA that brewer Joe Katchever describes as throwing everything into the pot, stirring it up and ending up with a Frankenstein beer.
Rush River Brewing Company, River Falls: Maker of BubbleJack IPA, Unforgiven Amber Ale, Lost Arrow Porter and Small Axe Golden. Watch for: Winter Warmer, a robust, smooth malty Scotch Ale.
Sand Creek Brewing Company, Black River Falls: Maker of about 15 beers under its Sand Creek and Pioneer Beer labels, with another 35-plus beers under contract for beer companies such as Furthermore and Blue Creek. Watch for: Sand Creek's One Planet Ale, made with all-Wisconsin ingredients, including local honey, which will be in bottles by January.