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.

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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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A six pack of Wisconsin stouts for International Stout Day

Today, Nov. 5, is International Stout Day, a celebration of one of the best loved beer styles in the world. The day is comes as the fields brown, the forests bare their branches and the nights grow longer and darker here in Wisconsin. Thankfully, this state’s breweries understand the yearning for a roasty, chocolaty treat. I drink dark beers all months of the year, but I definitely make a point to stock up on the black beauties for winter. Here’s what I’m reaching for today, tomorrow or in April because these dark ales are delicious.

South Shore Rhoades’ Scholar Stout

South Shore Brewery has served up this Wisconsin stout lover’s favorite for much of the Ashland brewery’s 20-year history. Coming in at 6.1% ABV, this beer carries a velvety mouthfeel and chocolaty sweetness. This is one of the oldest stout brands in Wisconsin, and few rival its flavor even today.

Stone Arch Vanilla Stout

If anything complements the roasty, chocolaty malt of a stout, it’s vanilla. This Appleton brewery uses natural vanilla to produce a 5% ABV oatmeal stout. Many vanilla stouts are too heavy on the vanilla, but this one is just right. The subtle vanilla melds with the caramely, chocolaty nature of this beauty.

Sand Creek Oscar’s Oatmeal Stout

Sand Creek Brewery’s oatmeal stout is true to form with this strong-bodied 4.5% brew. There’s a rich nutty, chocolaty taste and enough hop presence to balance the delightful sweetness. This is easily the best brew you’ll find in this Black River Falls brewery’s homey taproom or your hometown bottle shop.

Lucette Slowhand Stout

Stout is all about the malt. Lucette takes this notion to the next level with Slowhand. There’s little to no flash of hops in this beer. It’s all roasty coffee dryness on a creamy body, packing a modest 5.2% ABV. Like many of this Menomonie brewer’s creations, Slowhand is a distinct beer and a wonderful take on this iconic style.

Milwaukee Brewing Company Polish Moon

We can’t talk about stouts in Wisconsin without mentioning a milk stout. This Milkwaukee brewery makes a fine one. Brewed with a well-portioned dose of milk sugar, this dark, silky beer has extra sweetness yet remains quite drinkable at 4.5% ABV. Like the namesake clock on Milwaukee’s heavily-Polish south side, this stout is a landmark in Milwaukee.

Central Waters Brewers Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout

There isn’t a style of beer that stands up better to the bite residing in the wood of a bourbon barrel. Amherst’s Central Waters harnessed the wonders of barrel aging a decade ago. It’s flagship in this project is this stout aged in oak barrels. At 9.5% ABV, it packs a punch but less of one than similar barrel-aged stouts. While boozy, the oak and vanilla flavors this beer produce a savory treat.