By Aaron R. Conklin
It's one of the first things you notice when you sidle up to the bar at Dexter's Pub—and why wouldn't it be? It's what you're here for, after all. More than a third of your twenty-four tap beer choices are local craft brews. If you're a local beer lover, you can tick 'em off like the days of the week—there's New Glarus and there's Capital. And there's Lake Louie, Tyranena and Vintage. Uh-huh.
Dexter's owner, Nick Zabel, a self-described craft beer nut, always wanted to run a craft beer bar. The local piece of it, he says, has just fallen into place.
"It's quality product first," says Zabel, who's also given tap space to other locals, like Ale Asylum and Karben4, in his east-side establishment. "And the bottom line is that these guys are brewing awesome beer."
The man's got an indisputable point. The local craft beer movement, a trend that's been, um, brewing and gaining steady steam for the last few decades, has sailed well past critical mass in our fair city over the last five years, doing a lot of growing up along the way. While trailblazing stalwarts like Middleton's Capital Brewery and the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company continue to thrive, the scene's now augmented by new and intriguing populist strains, with new startups cropping up, almost literally, everywhere. There are now close to ten craft breweries and brewpubs plying their trade within Madison city limits, and more than twenty in Dane and its surrounding counties.
We're talking up-and-comers like MobCraft, where customers get a say in what gets brewed, a process that has yielded eclectic, only briefly available batches of beer like chocolate banana stout and carrot cake ale. The crowdsourcing gig's not only winning awards—MobCraft was recently named the best new brewery in Wisconsin by the beer enthusiast website ratebeer.com—but it’s also working like wildfire. According to Henry Schwartz, one of MobCraft's trio of founders, they'll soon be moving out from under the auspices of Page Buchanan's House of Brews, which operates as a community supported brewery by offering subscriptions much like community supported agriculture offers shares, and into their own location. Meanwhile, in the Atwood neighborhood, a pair of breweries, nano-brewer One Barrel Brewing and brewpub Next Door Brewing, are succeeding within a four-block throw of each other.
But the Madison craft beer scene has become more than the sum of its parts. Taken collectively, these breweries are elevating what beer can be. Hardly a week goes by without a beer pairing dinner at a Madison restaurant—an event previously reserved for wine—showing craft beer’s rising profile in chefs' quality- and flavor-focused eyes. Local festivals like Great Taste of the Midwest and Madison Craft Beer Week are quickly drawing attention from beer enthusiasts in the region and across the country. And the culture of collaboration among area breweries has become one of its finest, and most distinguishing, features. Sure, sharing a pint is still a fun and casual social occasion. But beer's stature has grown beyond that here, increasingly becoming one of the most prominent facets of the local, artisanal food movement.
It's enough to surprise even the guys brewing the beer.
"Madison has never led in anything," says Carl Nolen, the affable president of Wisconsin Brewing Company in Verona, noting that the Fox Valley has historically been the state's beer-industry trendsetter. "Now, with craft beer, it's completely the other way around. Madison is leading the explosion."
As beer drinkers, it's hard to argue with the notion that we're living in a golden era of craft beer here in Madison. Heck, there are even people who are moving here in part to enjoy the robust beer scene. Some of it's understandable. There are, of course, the usual familiar touchstones about Madison—as a university and government town, we’re a highly educated lot with sophisticated palates. Plus, there's that whole longstanding love affair Wisconsin has with beer and other agricultural products.
But in Madison, it goes much deeper than that. In a different city with a different beer scene, the established haves, everything from Capital to Ale Asylum, might easily have staked their own market share and turned a blind eye to would-be brewmasters emerging from their basements and garages to start their own businesses. Instead, they've embraced the newcomers, helping to fuel the craft boom with a little ingredient called collaboration.
Consider the evidence. When state laws briefly barred the Great Dane from selling its own beers at its new Hilldale location in the mid-2000s, they didn't slap Budweiser on the tap as a stopgap; they turned instead to Tom Porter's Lake Louie Brewing and other local suds—creating "a brewer's dream menu," the Dane's brewmaster Rob LoBreglio says. On his days off, Porter hangs out with Otto Dilba and the gang at Ale Asylum. Wisconsin Brewing Company brewmaster Kirby Nelson test-drives his brews with LoBreglio and Scott Manning of Vintage to avoid mistakes at his own shop. During more than half the interviews for this piece, the brewmaster in question was either working with someone from another brewery or making preparations to do so within the next few days. It's common to see brewers who run out of key ingredients turning to competitors for help—and happily receiving it.