“The more beer you drink, the better the chances are that the sun will come out,” says the MC onstage on this grey Sunday afternoon in Madison.
He’s attempting to pump up several hundred people gathered for a block party happening today in the shadow of the Wisconsin State Capitol building – a looming dome that dominates the city skyline. A chilly wind blows off of Lake Monona as people dance to the reggae outfit playing Bob Marley covers, and while the sun will not come out today, that won’t stop anyone here from consuming one of the city’s most-beloved – and booming – beverages.
Milwaukee, located 80 miles east, is – as the birthplace of Miller, Pabst and Schlitz – the granddaddy of Wisconsin beer mythology. (The Brewers didn’t get their name for nothing.) But Wisconsin’s longstanding fascination with beer is a statewide phenomenon that took root with the tens of thousands of German immigrants who settled in the state starting in the early nineteenth century, finding the seasons and rural landscapes similar to those of their home country. (A 1910 census reported that 25% of the people living in Wisconsin spoke only German.) With them, these settlers brought their liebe for pilsners, wheats, and bocks.
Beer has since become a way of life in the state, as reinforced by Packer Sundays, long lakeside summer nights and the cold, dark winter months during which there’s often little else to do but belly up to the bar.
Adult Wisconsinites drink an average of 35.5 gallons of beer each year, and it’s not unusual for homes to have a second refrigerator in the garage exclusively for the state’s unofficial drink. (The official beverage of America’s Dairyland is, of course, milk.) Niche breweries exist throughout the Badger State, and in the last several years Madison – long famous as a premier Big 10 college town – has become one of Wisconsin’s new craft beer hotspots.
Today’s tour starts at an unassuming strip mall in the industrial park out by the airport. Through the doors of the unremarkable storefront is one of Madison’s most colorful and buzzed-about local breweries, Karben4.
Founded four years ago by a trio of friends, Karben4 employs eight full time (and two part-time) brewers who commandeer a core selection of seven beers plus rotating seasonals. Our selections today – Tokyo Sauna, Champagne Tortoise, Martian Sunrise and Fantasy Factory (which won first prize at the most recent Best of Madison awards) – are all gold-toned and distinctly hoppy.
Karben4 co-founder Ryan Koga learned to make beer during eight years spent living in Montana, where he was exposed to a barrage of West Coast brews. Upon returning to his home state, he combined the hop-centric craft beer culture of the left coast with facets of traditional Midwest/German brewing to create a signature style that balances hop-influences with a malt-centric philosophy.
“We feel the malt, even if it’s subtle, has a great impact on the experience and must be scrutinized to have hop and malt accentuate one another,” Koga says. “The end result, as we say on our packaging, is, ‘...perfectly balanced malt bombs and hop grenades.’”
And about that packaging. Karben4 is famous for it. Picture a cat wielding a gold-plated desert eagle riding a flame-breathing unicorn and you’ll get the idea. Such whimsy is an extension of Karben4’s focus on playful boundary-pushing.
“We're not going to make gym socks IPA just because it sounds weird and no one has done it yet,” says Koga, “but we will make a S'mores Stout where we roast 30 pounds of marshmallows behind the brewery while toasting glasses of scotch.”
A few miles away in Madison’s lush Atwater neighborhood is One Barrel Brewing, which since opening in 2012 has stayed true to its name by making much of its beer in the back of the bar, one barrel at a time. The space is cozy and inviting – a television flashes images of a fish tank and a vintage bike is affixed to the wall. If you ride yours here on Thursdays, your first beer is a dollar.
One Barrel is the baby of founder Peter Gentry, who developed the One Barrel’s signatures – Commuter Kolsch and Penguin Pale Ale – in his basement before moving the operation to a more legit aboveground location. One Barrel keeps 12 beers on tap – their two classics, four semi-permanent selections, and six seasonals that stay on for a few days or weeks. In the last five years, One Barrel has rotated through roughly 90 beers including today’s selections the Citra Saison and the fruity (and aptly named) Suck It, winter!
“The niche One Barrel fills is kind of that anti-corporate brewery that is still sought out for its authenticity,” Gentry says. “The tiny nano-brewery concept wasn’t new, but ours was the first nano in Madison. And we still brew one barrel at a time and can offer a lot of variety and an actual connection to our customers.”
The scene is defining itself by such community-mindedness, with many bars in town going hyper-local by selling only Madison-made taps. While some might argue this approach stifles the variety available to customers, Gentry thinks it’s a responsible model given that many of the big brands coming to Wisconsin are owned by huge brewing conglomerates. While One Barrel itself is growing – larger batches made at a nearby production facility are now sold statewide at grocery stores and Targets – Gentry is for the time being satisfied with the scope of his corner bar.
“Who knows,” he says, “maybe some day we’ll make it out to California or points east, but for now, I’m happy sticking close to home, sharing beers with my friends and neighbors.”
Back near the Capitol is an icon of Madison brewing, The Great Dane. Opened in 1994, the sprawling brewery, restaurant and pool hall debuted long before the craft beer explosion with the intention of bringing styles from all of the world's brewing traditions to Madison, which at the time was limited in terms of interesting options.
The Dane’s downtown flagship now serves ten year-round beers with seven seasonal specialties on top at any given time. Today our selections include a few classics – Crop Circle Wheat, Black Earth Porter, Emerald Isle Stout – as well as a maibock and tropical IPA, all of which pair well with the Dane’s massive menu. (The peanut stew is a must try.) Every member of the wait staff is required to do beer training with one of the Dane’s brewers.
Still slammed each weekend and gameday, the Dane exemplifies that longevity is driven by quality and consistency rather than fleeting gastro-pub beer trends. The downtown Dane now makes roughly 2,000 barrels, that’s 62,000 gallons, of beer every year. Between the four Madison locations and a fourth in Wausau, Wisconsin, the company will be at about 250,000 gallons in 2017.
Up State Street, a pedestrian mall crowded with bars, restaurants, and shops, is UW Madison, the 43,000 student strong crown jewel of the Wisconsin state school system. Located on Lake Mendota, UW’s Memorial Union is one of the few student unions in the country that serves beer. The drink even serves as extra credit for the students who brew Inaugural Red and S’Wheat Caroline, projects that came out of a UW food science class.
The beerhall themed Der Stiftskeller and adjacent Union Terrace are iconic hangout spots for drinking pitchers after class. Both serve selections from Karben4 and other local spots including Capital Brewery and Ale Asylum.
No Madison-area beer quest would be complete without a roadtrip to New Glarus, located 40 minutes outside of town on country roads surrounded by rolling farmland. (On the way we pass Vintage Brewing Company, which has recently dazzled with a Bouquet Pink IPA made from six types of flowers including meadowsweet, chamomile, rose hips and hibiscus.) New Glarus, home to roughly 2,000, is Swiss-centric Wisco village with mother country-style beer halls populating the main drag. Yes, the waitresses wear lederhosen.
The primary draw is New Glarus Brewing Company, a sprawling complex up on the hill. (You’ll see it.) Since opening in 1993, New Glarus has become famous for its Spotted Cow, a tremendously drinkable farmhouse ale.
New Glarus now makes six year round brews and a variety of seasonals that mirror the natural rhythms of the upper Midwest – the honey-infused Cabin Fever for spring, the malty Snowshoe Ale in the winter, the fruity wheat Bubbler (the regional term for a drinking fountain) in the summer and the nut brown Fat Squirrel for fall.
New Glarus Brewing Company is the only brewery in the country founded by a woman, Deborah Carey, and has taken home a barrage of national and international awards in its 24 year run. It remains available exclusively in Wisconsin.
Madison has long been one of Wisconsin’s liberally-minded progressive centers, and this same forward-thinking ethos informs the city’s beer scene, which has embraced creativity while holding close to the old world traditions that bind the local and statewide beer culture. Here, “roll out the barrel” isn’t just an unofficial state song; it’s an unofficial state lifestyle.