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!

Beer of the Week: Urban Growler CowBell Cream Ale

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Like Wisconsin’s staple ale, Cowbell offers a refreshing choice for Minnesotans.

by Ryan Urban

A while back, a friend in Minnesota asked me if there are any beers like Spotted Cow available in Minnesota. Spotted Cow is of course the the flagship of “Only Available in Wisconsin” New Glarus Brewing Company.

One came to mind immediately, Urban Growler Company’s Cowbell cream ale.
Urban Growler describes Cowbell as such: “Our cream ale is light gold in color and low in bitterness; the specialty malt and flaked maize add complexity to this smooth thirst quencher. This is a ‘lawnmower beer’ that will leave you wanting more – no worries, just yell “‘I need more CowBell!’”

And New Glarus on Spotted Cow: “Brewed with flaked barley and the finest Wisconsin malts. We even give a nod to our farmers. Naturally cloudy we allow the yeast to remain in the bottle to enhance fullness of flavors, which cannot be duplicated otherwise. Expect this ale to be fun, fruity and satisfying.”

I sense that Cowbell’s similarities to Spotted Cow are quite intentional. The name seems almost a dead giveaway.

Spotted Cow has long been wildly popular. A fact that Urban Growler co-founder Deb Loch—an Appleton, Wisconsin native—is surely well aware of.

An Urban Growler bartender told me recently that their own Cow beer is a top-seller, holding its own with a pair of tasty IPAs and De-Lovely Porter.

The ingredients might not be the same, but both the Wisconsin original and Minnesota spinoff hit the spot as light, hazy, refreshing ales.

Minnesotans accustomed to crossing the border to load up the trunk with Spotted Cow would be wise to grab a growler of Cowbell for a change.

It’s not the original, but it’s pretty dang close.

Try it with a Cubano sandwich at home or in the Urban Growler taproom.

Rating: Glass – GROWLER – Case – Keg

P.S. I have no affiliation with Urban Growler, but I love the name and the beer.

Beer of the Week: Summit Keller Pils

 

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Summit 30th Anniversary Keller Pils.

Oh, the sizzingly dog days of summer. As I write, it is hot, humid with a strong south wind that warns that a thunderstorm is coming. Not good weather for doing much, except perhaps cooling down with a refreshing pilsner.

I’ve found none better this summer than Summit’s 30th Anniversary Keller Pils. It is one of four anniversary beers the St. Paul brewery is releasing this year. Given the brewery’s legacy of producing a variety of flavorful, easy-drinking beers in its regular lineup—like the summer-ready Pilsener—I find this one most appropriate and welcome to my taste buds.

Given the rarity of kellers or zwickelbier on American shelves—a damn shame in my opinion—I can only compare this to the excellent occasionally-released Yokel or Zwickel from New Glarus.

German-style Kellerbier is traditionally akin to classic Pilsners in taste, but differs with its hazy appearance and low effervescence. There is also more of a yeasty character and, overall, is bigger on aroma and flavor–seriously, why are there not more kellers?

This beer’s ingredients are somewhat foreign to me, but produce amazing results. The base malt is a traditional Barke Pilsner, which creates a very full body and flavor in this beer. The noble Tettnang and Hallertau Melon hops produce noticeably spicey, floral notes. Summit brewer Damian McConn explains more here.

For me, Summit’s Keller Pils goes down incredibly easy with a satisfying full, zesty finish left tingling on my tongue with every sip.

The heat has ruined my appetite, except for this sweet, crisp, complex lager. I just have to crack open another can.

Rating: Glass – Growler – Case – KEG

 

Beer of the Week: New Glarus Two Women

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New Glarus Two Women.

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

 

Five must-have Wisconsin Oktoberfest beers

Oktoberfest beer

Drink up the best of Oktoberfestbiers before they’re out of season.

Whether its August or November, there’s no reason to stop drinking those crisp, amber Märzen lagers. There are too many festbiers both foreign and domestic to enjoy to stop downing them in Mid-October. Here’s five must-haves from my home state of rich German heritage. Grab ‘em off the shelves or at a taproom anytime you can.

Stevens Point Oktoberfest

Stevens Point is an old, traditional brewery dating back to 1857. Its Oktoberfest holds true to style. This beer is light and clean with caramel sweetness and a dry finish from its noble hops.

Bull Falls Oktoberfest

If you’re more of a maltster, relatively new and quick-growing Bull Falls offers an Oktoberfest heavier on the rich, sweet malts. Yet, there is some good balance with a floral hop finish.

Tommy A’s Oktoberfest

It’s not really a style, but I consider this a Northwoods Oktoberfestbier. Rich, earthy tones and clean feel all the way down. If you’re looking to make a trip in search of fall colors and a good Oktoberfest, head to Hayward.

Valkyrie Whispering Embers

Fall is as good a time as any to enjoy a beer around a campfire, and if you like a beer that tastes a little like a campfire this is it. After 21 years in business, Ann and Randy Lee are not ones to stick to classic flavor profiles. This beer is as bold as any in the Valkyrie lineup. Whispering embers comes off a little richer than most beers in the style but has a good hop presence, malt balance and a good whiff of smokey flavor from peat additives. If you’re looking for a little more flame in your festbier, Whispering Embers has it.

New Glarus Staghorn

When it comes to classic styles, New Glarus knocks it out of the park every time. Staghorn Oktoberfest is no exception. Aside from sporting a sharp name, this Märzen embodies the style. Copper color and balance in sweetness of the malt and earthy, spicy hops produces an incredibly crisp and flavorful Oktoberfest beer.