by Ryan Urban
The year 2016 won’t go down as a favorite in my book, but it did have some redeeming qualities—one being in beer.
Where to begin? I figure: Close to home.
In the craft beer desert of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, we finally have a place to get a decent beer. Opening in June was the White Stag, which also has awesome food and allows me to live my dream of playing trivia master once a month. In the vast world of beer, this is the biggest to me.
One needs a local watering hole, a place everybody knows your name–if you will. Every time I walk in, I see friends and also meet new people. After 6 years in a small city, this was well over due.
Soon, hopefully, local options will grow. Another taproom is nearing completion and, though setback-laden, there are plans to open a brewery in Rice Lake.
Elsewhere, the word uttered more and more is saturation. America now has more than 5,000 breweries, finally surpassing the number open prior to prohibition. But signs of an apex are showing.
A Wausau brewer noted it recently. The owners of Minneapolis brewery Harriet also used the term in explaining a decision to close. I just happened to stop at Harriet shortly before the announcement. Super chill atmosphere, live music and very good beer—I was surprised.
But in a market of many great breweries, some are bound to fall. I have an almost constant desire to make the 2-hour drive to the Twin Cities and hit a taproom or two. Many expansions in the metro give me hope that more may distribute here. Some that really caught my attention in 2016 were Urban Growler, Fair State, Sisyphus, Bauhaus… But there are so many I have yet to visit… sigh.
But I would be remise not to mention the great things happening in the Chippewa Valley. In Eau Claire, though Northwoods Brew Pub went south to Osseo, Lazy Monk opened a fantastic taproom and the Brewing Projekt finally appears to be on track to a major expansion. Brewster Brothers became neighbors with Leinie’s in Chippewa Falls. Even Cornell has brewery now. New distribution into northern Wisconsin from great brewers like Bent Paddle was also a big plus.
Looking at Wisconsin as a whole, the big action is taking place in Milwaukee. There’s a beer renaissance happening there big enough to attract the North American Guild of Beer Writers to hold its annual conference there in 2017, which I’m really looking forward to.
Mobcraft hopped ship from Madison, where the opening of Lone Girl and Rockhound brewpubs still produced a net increase in options in the Capital.
But back to Milwaukee—I enjoyed visits to Brenner, Urban Harvest and Good City in 2016. Good City appears to be well on its way, already distributing its Motto Mosaic-hopped pale ale. Breweries like 3rd Space, Westallion, City Lights, Broken Bat, Big Head, Like Minds and others give me much to look forward to in 2017.
All the same, it’s the veterans of the industry that I keep going back to. Lakefront’s My Turn series was a highlight at my local liquor store all year, with Evan Mexican Lager, Howard Helles and Latif double chocolate stout. Summit had a phenomenal 30th Anniversary lineup, including the Keller Pils, English Barleywine, Us & Them threads and Unchained Dark Infusion. The old standbys from Lakefront, Summit, Bell’s, New Glarus, Sierra Nevada and other craft beer pioneers are still among my favorites and constantly in my fridge.
Nationwide, big mergers caught headlines as InBev bought up SAB Miller, a couple craft brewers and homebrew mainstay Northern Brewer. Craft brewers Cigar City and Oskar Blues; and Victory and Southern Tier formed new ties.
Hop bombs, sours and barrel-aged beers—and combinations therein–remain ever popular, but more traditional styles like the Pilsner seem to be regaining respect as more new breweries release their own renditions. The year gave rise to the crowler as another awesome way to get beer from the brewery to the fridge.
I’m out of analysis and prognostications. Simply stated: What a great year for beer! The glass is full for 2017, and I’m just going to try and enjoy it. Cheers!
We had such a great interview with Ryan Verdon of Real Deal Brewing that we couldn’t bear to cut the show down to a half hour. We talk about this Menomonie (WI) nanobrewery’s sessionable English-style beers, as opposed to “Barrel-aged barleywines of death.” Plus, Carl and I review a Porter all the way from Green Man Brewing in Asheville, North Carolina and look back at some classic beer commercials. “It works every time”
Sour beers, IPAs, session IPAs, barrel-aged, pumpkin beers—America has seen a variety of trends in the craft beer boom.
It makes me wonder: What’s next?
If I had it my way: lagers. Full, flavorful, easy-drinking lagers like New Glarus’ Two Women.
By in large, American lagers are still trying to shake off the legacy of the macrobrewers and their wet air they pass off as lager beer.
It’s time craft brewers leave their mark on this broad style. If as much attention was put into lagers as fruit-infused IPAs or chocolate/marshmallow/chili stouts, an enormous class of popular, tasty beers could emerge.
I’m not advocating for gimmicky adjuncts, of course, but rather flavorful, classic lagers that could show beer nerds the wonders of bottom-fermenting beers and divert Joe Sixpack away from all the bright red, white and blue packaging.
A blueprint for such lagers is Two Women–the name a nod to times past when most beer was made by women in their homes. This beer might pass as a red lager, Vienna lager or German Pilsner. New Glarus calls it a “Classic Country Lager brewed with Weyermann’s floor malted Bohemian malt and Hallertau Mittelfrueh hops.”
The brewery, which strictly distributes in Wisconsin, is known best course for its refreshing, easy-drinking fruit beers. But its year-round, seasonal and every-once-in-while offerings carry all the same characteristics: consistent, refreshing, go-to quality beers.
Two Women is a testament to the skill of brewmaster Dan Carey, who simply does not miss with classic styles. Carey apprenticed in Germany, a fact that shows particularly in this beer and other German-style lagers like Yokel, Totally Naked and Hometown Blonde. The Staghorn Oktoberfest is the best Märzen I’ve ever had. One of my favorite beer memories was during a visit to New Glarus when Dan himself served me the first pour of Staghorn from a wooden keg in the biergarten. He took great care to manage the foaminess and give me a full pour. Best beer I’ve ever had.
Anyway, I can’t get a fresh pour from Dan every day, so thankfully I can rely on finding Two Women in stores year-round. Two Women has smooth, bready maltiness paired perfectly with bright, earthy hops that leave a lasting tingle on the tongue. There’s distinct German character and a full body that is satisfying any time of year.
Makes me want to throw a couple bratwurst on the grill with fresh asparagus. Maybe some lemon cake for dessert.
Rating: Glass – Growler – Case – KEG
Leinenkugel’s Red Lager
I’m starting the Beer of the Week feature primarily to give some props to some old favorites that always have a special place in my heart… and fridge. I’m going to start with one that, sadly, won’t remain an option much longer.
Leinie’s Red has been a 23-year standard in the brewery’s lineup of easy-drinking lagers, wheat beers and, of course, shandy. Leinenkugels, a subsidiary of Miller since 1988, held out longer than just about anyone in getting swept up in the wave of hoppy beers that dominate shelves and tap lines today.
But the 149-year-old brewery has slowly produced some more hop-forward beers in the last few years, a helles lager, an India pale lager and finally the Wisconsin Red Pale Ale in February 2016. The Red Pale Ale is replacing the Red Lager, which had its last run on Feb. 29, according to the Chippewa Herald newspaper. Interestingly, Leinie’s is taking a page out of the New Glarus playbook and offering the Wisconsin Red Pale Ale only in Wisconsin.
The new red is, in fact, a pretty good beer, but I’m sad to see the Red Lager go. Part of it is certainly for nostalgic reasons. It was a beer my dad would order if he wanted to class it up when eating out—or if the place didn’t have Labatt’s. He has since discovered Fat Tire.
I also appreciate the style of this beer—Vienna style lager. For my money, Vienna lager is the most balanced style in the book. Leinie’s version isn’t really top of its class—though it did win a gold medal in the World Beer Cup in 2002—but where I live in rural Wisconsin it’s a welcome option in small-town taverns with little more than macros on tap.
Specs on it are 4.95% ABV, 20 IBU, pale and caramel malts, and Cluster and Mt. Hood hops, according to Leinie.com. The result is a clean, bready malt balanced with tingle of spicy hops.
I’d pair it with a bowling alley pizza or have it with cheddar and pretzels from the comfort of a recliner during the Packer game—if I can find any left this fall.
Rating: Glass – Growler – CASE – Keg
Episode 3 is up! On this run: Drinking beers in the name of science, beers for Dooms Day bunkers and an interview with Leoš Frank of Lazy Monk Brewing. Listen at beerrunpodcast.com.
The Upper Midwest is not short on diverse, fun beer scenes, whether it’s Madison, Chicago or the Twin Cities. But lesser-known gems shine in the outlying areas too. The beer enthusiast will be hard-pressed to find a better example of a diverse, fun selection of taprooms than those in Northwest Wisconsin.
This article offers a guide to the trendy and timeless taprooms of Northwest Wisconsin in the form of a 4-day tour. Hitting every single one in 4 days is, admittedly, a tall order. In fact, I’d recommend taking a little time away from the taprooms to enjoy Wisconsin’s great outdoors. Hit the brewpubs you missed on a second trip. With dozens charming small towns and miles of beautiful countryside, deep forests and shimmering waters, Wisconsin’s Northwest should be a destination for any beer enthusiast.
Start off at the man cave of a taproom at Oliphant Brewing, where a classic movie from the glory days of VHS will be playing on a TV the size of a baby pachyderm. Twelve beers on tap are as colorful as the lizardy mural outside this otherwise-unassuming building in Somerset. The often-rotating selections may include Milkman Manbaby Milk Stout, Mothra vs. Mothra Citra Lager, Eventacles Wee Heavy and other beers flamboyant in both name and flavor.
For dinner, head south to Pitchfork Brewing, where patrons can order in from Patty Ryan’s Irish Pub next-door. The building, located off I-94 Exit 4 west of Hudson is bland brick and mortar from the outside, but the Pitchfork taproom features American gothic charm and eight beers on tap, including a firkin. Beer styles are generally more down-to-Earth, well-made classics. Look for Cast Iron Oatmeal Stout, Barn Door Brown Ale and German Straw Pilsner.
Okay, it’s decision time. There’s two more breweries in this area, but four breweries in one night is perhaps overly-ambitious. Luckily, both distribute bottles (Rush River) or cans (Barley Johns). Pick one for a visit, pick a six-pack for the road from the other.
Rush River’s taproom is set alongside shiny tanks in the brewery itself. There’s 15 taps featuring a rock-solid regular lineup and some more limited offerings. Look for twists on Rush River favorites like Lost Arrow Porter with Raspberry, Boürbon Über Altbier or Nevermore Oatment Stout on Ancho Chili and Cinnamon.
Frustrated with growth-stifling brewpub laws, Barley John’s Brewpub hopped the border from Minnesota to Wisconsin last year. The 15-year-old brand is bigger and better than ever, offering a unique array of brews and canning many for distribution. Try favorites like Old Eight Porter, Amber’s Amber or Wild Brunette Brown Ale.
Oliphant Brewing – 350 Main St, Ste 2, Somerset, WI
Pitchfork Brewing – 709 Rodeo Drive, Hudson, WI
Rush River Brewing – 990 Antler Ct, River Falls, WI
Barley John’s Brewing Company – 1280 Madison St., New Richmond, WI
Friday, do lunch in Menomonie. The Raw Deal has small plates and desserts, Lucette has pizza. Eat at one brewery. Drink at two.
Raw Deal is a coffee shop that happens to brew a few beers too—a Scotch Ale, Raw Rye and Organic Pale Ale, to name a few.
Lucette, named for Paul Bunyan’s wife, is the biggest in town and known for its Farmer’s Daughter Blonde Ale, Ride Again Pale Ale, Hips Don’t Lie Hefeweizen and Slow Hand Stout.
Try not to get carried away in Menomonie. More great beers await in Eau Claire.
Start with a full half-liter of Czech Pilsner, Wheat Pivo or Baltic Porter at the Lazy Monk, which opened a new bier hall in January 2016. As the name implies, Lazy Monk offers a laid back atmosphere and well-made, easy-drinking beers like Czech Pilsner, Pivo Wheat and Baltic Porter served in 0.5-liter glasses. Among 14 taps, there’s a few guest taps from other Northwest Wisconsin breweries. Lazy Monk’s spacious taproom has the authentic flavor of Central European bier hall, complete with a brewmaster from the former Czechoslovakia. Leoš Frank moved from a country of cheap, delicious beer to the light adjunct lager-dominated beer scene of 1980s America. The beer sucked, so he didn’t drink any for 10 years. Lucky for him—and us—he discovered homebrewing. He went pro with his skills in 2010 and the rest is history. I think we can all drink to that.
If Lazy Monk is on one end of the brewery spectrum, The Brewing Projekt is on the other. While Lazy Monk does classic Old World styles, the Brewing Projekt embodies the modern American craft beer attitude of pushing the boundaries. Consider Gunpowder IPA with green tea and citra hops, Stolen Mile with lemon zest and basil, or East Meet West Tripel with candied ginger crystalized ginger and ginger root. Speaking of no boundaries, only rope separates this taproom from the shiny brewing tanks, creating an open, energetic atmosphere. This is a place to treat your taste buds.
Raw Deal –
Lucette Brewing Company – 910 Hudson Rd, Menomonie, WI
Das Bierhaus – 120 6th Ave W, Menomonie, WI
Lazy Monk Brewing – 97 W Madison St, Eau Claire, WI
The Brewing Projekt – BLDG 3, 2000 N Oxford Ave, Eau Claire, WI
Jacob Leinenkugel Brewery is, of course, king in Northwest Wisconsin. Leinie’s has some a solid lineup of classic award-winners like Honey Weiss, Sunset Wheat and Creamy Dark and some higher-ABV Big Eddy creations. But a modern craft beer drinker might find these offerings a little tame—surely one reason the brewery recently began offering hoppier options like India Pale Lager and Pale Ale. Leinie’s has been owned by Miller since 1988, but you wouldn’t know by visiting the brewery. The historical character of Leinenkugels, founded in 1867, is on full display during a $5 tour, which comes with four 4-ounce samples—you keep the glass. But you can’t keep drinking, as it is not a full-service taproom. It’s worth a visit, but optional on this tour. There are many more small town-town, big-character breweries down the road.
Twenty miles up Hwy. 53 is a quaint town called Bloomer, which has its own historic brewery. The Bloomer Brewery history goes back to the 1870s. The original brewery shuttered long ago. But the building remains and owner Dan Stolt has re-kindled life in it with some old-school beers. Beers are made with basic malts, hops and corn as an adjunct, producing some smooth, mellow classics like Cow-Bell Cream Ale, Weathered Brick White IPA and Rut Bock. The taproom is in fact several rooms, adorned with rustic features and old Bloomer breweriana. True to its rural Wisconsin roots, there’s even a room with about three dozen head mounts of whitetail bucks. For a strong taste of rural Wisconsin culture and old-school beer, Bloomer is where it’s at.
Speaking of old-school, your next must-stop is Valkyrie Brewery in Dallas. Founded as Viking Brewery 21 years ago, the brewery has survived in little Dallas, population 395 and surrounded by some of the prettiest farm country you’ll ever see. The Viking naming rights were sold to an Icelandic brewery 5 years ago, but fun and flavor never left this taproom. Owners Ann and Randy Lee picked the spot based on the quality of the water. The Lees are some of the nicest, most down-to-Earth folks you’ll ever meet. The beers, on the other hand, are also nice but sky high in unique flavor. There’s Raven Queen, a black wheat IPA with licorice, or Blaze Orange, a light lager with orange peel and spices, or Whispering Embers, a smoked Oktoberfest. Less-weird, but also big on flavor are the War Hammer Milk Coffee Porter, Night Wolf Schwarzbier, Big Swede Swedish Imperial Stout and many more. For $1 per 8 ounces, the prices in this Norse-themed taproom—complete with medieval weaponry–can’t be beat. The only bad time to visit is in the 2 months after Christmas, as the taproom is closed. The best time to visit is the first Saturday in October for Dallas Oktoberfest, highlighted by the 100-plus-foot Colossal Brat!
Save some time for a drive deep into the Northwoods and visit the Angry Minnow in Hayward. This brewpub has excellent “Up North cuisine,” making it a great pick for dinner. Wash down that steak or fish fry with a Vienna Lager, Charlie’s Rye IPA or McStuckie’s Scotch Ale. The best time to visit may be in late February when thousands of Nordic skiers attempt the 30-plus mile Birkebeiner race from Cable to downtown Hayward, made all the more grueling by “Bitch Hill” late in the race. For those who don’t like to suffer for fun, just drink the Bitch Hill Belgian instead.
Jacob Leinenkugel Brewery– 1 Jefferson Ave, Chippewa Falls, WI
Bloomer Brewing Company – 1526 Martin Rd, Bloomer, WI
Valkyrie Brewery – 234 Dallas St, Dallas, WI
Angry Minnow Brewing Company – 10440 Florida Ave, Hayward, WI
The last two stops on this tour are in the northern extreme of Wisconsin on the shore of the Greatest Lake. Ashland’s South Shore Brewery offers two restaurants—The Alley and Deep Water Grille—for lunch or dinner. The Alley has pizza and the Grille has sandwiches, appetizers, entrées and more. With either option, diners can enjoy a brew from one the oldest brewpubs in the state, started in 1995. South Shore recently opened a second tasting room a few miles north in Washburn. At either location, visitors will find an excellent, low-ABV lineup with favorites like Nut Brown, Inland Sea Pilsner and Rhoades’ Scholar Stout. South Shore is no doubt one of the classic brewpubs in the state, and well-worth the drive up to Lake Superior.
Well, we’ve saved perhaps the best for last with Thirsty Pagan in Superior. Come hungry. With several sandwich and deep dish pizza options on the menu, you won’t leave that way. Beverage options are plentiful in this taproom brimming with charm of old-school breweriana. Highlights of seven year-round offerings include the Burntwood Black Ale, Velo Saison and Trouble-Maker Tripel. Thirsty Pagan also specializes in sour beers, keeping at least two on tap. But wait: there’s more! You’ll also find a handful of seasonal specialties like the Pinta Colada Coconut Stout, Mustache Wax Doppelbock or Bourbon Barrel Aged Barleywine. With live music every night, there’s no bad time to bring your appetite and your thirst.
Wisconsin’s Great Northwest is dotted with one-of-a-kind breweries, both old and new. The beers are just as distinct and enjoyable as the settings. Many have great amenities in food and entertainment. Plus, proximity to some of the most beautiful recreational lands in the country make this corner of the state well-worth a visit for any beer drinker. See for yourself.
South Shore Brewery – 808 Main St W, Ashland, WI
Thirst Pagan Brewing – 1623 Broadway St, Superior, WI
Region-wide activities: Road Biking, Mountain Biking, Paddling, Boating, Fishing, Hiking, Camping, Golfing, Disc Golfing, Snowmobiling, ATV riding, Geocaching, Downhill skiing, Cross Country Skiing, Snowshoeing