Pour one out for 2016, fill a glass for 2017

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.

cropped-beerfridge.jpg

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!

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Beer of the Week: Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale

Third Coast

Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale

Perception of a beer is experiential, beyond just appearance, smell and taste. Time, place, state of mind make all the difference between what one perceives as a good or great beer.

The classic example is heavy stouts for cold, snow nights. Bell’s Brewery is Southwestern Michigan makes amazing stouts like nobody’s business. Yet, this winter I have found myself craving its Third Coast Old Ale more than any other beer.  

This is a cold-weather beer all the way at 10.2% ABV with a mountain of malt character. As I write this, it is a gloomy, chilly, misty March night in Northern Wisconsin. I had a long day at work and braved the chill and drizzle for an hour on the road bike afterward. That is a great formula for a relaxed, treat-yourself mood. And this beer is a treat.

My bottle shows a 10/08/14 packaging date. Smell is all caramel, cherry and booze. It is utterly rich on the tongue. Bell’s describes this old ale having burnt caramel and dark fruit notes, which is on point. But I pick up a little extra something with every sip of this deep amber-colored beer: vanilla, wood, molasses. Bottom line is that this beer has deep malt complexity. There’s a lasting bitterness too, but the finish is delightfully smooth.

This should make for a nice sipper for preparing a casserole with hearty meat and root vegetables, or simply with a soft brie or camembert while watching rain or snow drift down under the pale glow of street lights. Let yourself be alone with those melancholy thoughts, imagining all the streams meandering to the Great Lakes of the Third Coast.  

Rating: Glass – Growler – Case – KEG