Brewed awakenings: An artisan brewing era

Small-batch-artisan breweries in the Madison...
Brewed awakenings: An artisan brewing era
Local brews like Ale Asylum's MadTown NutBrown, Vintage Brewing Co.'s Weiss-Blau and Karben4's Fantasy Factory are part of the rapidly growing craft beer movement in Madison.

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–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.

“What I find unique in craft brewing is the camaraderie,” says Dilba of Ale Asylum, where über-popular craft staples like Hopalicious and Ambergeddon have cemented the brewery’s status on the scene. “I can’t think of another industry where that’s the case.”

To some local brewmasters, it’s a craft beer thing. Wisconsin Brewing’s Nolen thinks it’s also a Madison thing: “In Madison, the players are just truly good friends.”

And of course, friendship has its benefits, for them and for us. Perhaps the strongest example of local craft brew collegiality is the Common Thread beer, an annual collaborative effort brewed up by more than ten local craft brewmasters from southern Wisconsin for release during Madison Craft Beer Week, an event that has ballooned in popularity and takes place May 2-11 this year. Participating brewers work together to choose the beer style–this year it’s a Bohemian pilsner–and create a recipe. The ensuing brew day, which took place at Wisconsin Brewing back in March this year, is a party on its own, with six-packs and growlers from assorted breweries scattered throughout the space to be shared with compatriots.

It wasn’t always this collegial among Madison’s craft brewers. Deb Carey, who, with husband Dan has positioned New Glarus Brewing Company and its fleet of delicious beers as one of the titans of the local (and international) beer scene, remembers a point not that long ago–okay, it was the mid-’90s–when beer festivals and tastings were marred by mistrust, rumors and sniping gossip among local craft brewers. The Wisconsin Brewers Guild helped focus everyone on the same page–growing the craft beer presence in Wisconsin and, by natural extension, Madison. After all, it’s a lot more productive taking on Goliath than beating on a ton of fellow Davids.

“Why would you go against the guy who has three percent?” asks the Great Dane’s LoBreglio. “It makes much more sense to go after the big guys. Our competition and ability to grow isn’t based on what other brewers are doing. It’s only by working together that we have a chance to remain strong.”

Henry Schwartz of MobCraft sees it as a dichotomy between the idea of beer as a brand versus beer as a craft. “The market share we can gain collectively is so much greater,” he says. “We can inform people that there’s great craft beer here.’

Carey notes the ways that sentiment dovetails with our fair state’s innovation in education–we were the first state to have a kindergarten, after all–and our parochial buying habits. “We like to buy in-state,” she says. “And besides, no matter whose craft beer you’re drinking, there’s always a good story to go with it.”

Stories like Ryan Koga, the head brewmaster at Karben4, one of Madison’s more recent additions to the craft beer scene, who saw Madison as an underserved craft beer market. That’s what drew him back home from Montana, a state that was just starting to see the ripples from the beer scenes in bigger cities like Denver and Portland. Like others, he’s noticed both the collaborative nature and the way Madison’s beer drinkers have embraced craft beer.

“The change now isn’t just beer culture–it’s good beer culture,” Koga says. “Our customers are discerning and intelligent. Given the option of a quality local product, they’ll take it.”

Zabel of Dexter’s certainly sees it in his customers’ beer-buying habits. “For the first time in a long time, people are treating beer like wine,” he says. “People have gotten to the point where they’ll pay ten dollars for a beer–and enjoy it.”

You see the same kind of behavior in the explosion of beer pairing events. Some of the city’s most beloved restaurants–from gastropubs like to neighborhood eateries like to upscale spots like and –have initiated beer dinners, matching craft brews with everything from artisan cheeses to braised pork shoulder to chocolate cake.

“The status of beer is definitely on the rise,” says chef Tory Miller of Graze and L’Etoile. Similar to Zabel’s take on the shrinking divide between beer and wine, Miller says he increasingly sees beer as competition for wine, even in fine dining. When planning a beer dinner, which he does frequently for Graze, Miller loves picking up on the subtleties and the nuances, noting ingredients like coriander and clove and orange in each sip.

And the choice between showcasing Madison-area brews versus craft beers from other regions? “Our local guys are killing it,” he says. “[They] are real artists.”

If it seems like the craft beer phenomenon has come into its own these past few years, well, as always, a little perspective is useful. It was actually only two years ago that the number of breweries in America, craft or otherwise, finally reached pre-Prohibition numbers. The countrywide brewery count dipped as low as eighty-nine–eighty-nine!–in the late 1970s. It’s just above 2,500 now.

Of that 2,500, a whopping ninety-seven percent are craft breweries. Yet compared to the beer bigwigs–Miller, Anheuser-Busch, Pabst–craft breweries still represent a tiny (but growing) portion of the overall beer market. Craft beer sales accounted for just 7.8 percent of total beer volume in 2013, up from 6.5 percent in 2012. According to Brewers Association economist Bart Watson, craft beer has now averaged almost eleven percent growth over the last decade.

And locally? Surely a state such as Wisconsin, with its strong beer tradition and growing demand for artisan products, bears stronger craft beer numbers. Yet in America’s Dairyland, craft beers account for only–hang onto your jaws for a moment–between five and 7.5 percent of the beer consumed annually, depending on who you ask. “Which is funny, because the perception is that it’s thirty to fifty percent,” says WBC’s Nolen. Things look better in Dane County, where Nolen pegs the percentage north of twenty. It’s tough to pinpoint an exact number, he says. Breweries keep their data close.

Compare Madison to a city like Portland, widely considered one of the several Pacific Northwest cities that served as ground zero for the craft beer explosion, and you can see a potential trajectory. Portland’s just short of three times the size of Madison and sports an impressive fifty-two breweries in its downtown area alone (Madison’s at eight, but notches up to double digits when you include nearby communities). Several of the traits that fueled the legendary craft beer boom in Portland are also evident here–things like a strong agricultural and Germanic tradition and a strong sense of local. Several of Madison’s craft brewers are hopeful Wisconsin will emulate Oregon in another way: capitalizing on the craft beer phenomenon to promote beer tourism.

While the future looks bright, there are potential pitfalls. Some brewers, like Lake Louie’s Tom Porter, are concerned that competition from larger-scale breweries, the ones marketing their own faux-craft beers to capitalize on the trend (think brews like Blue Moon, Shock Top and Goose Island), could begin to fracture the local fellowship, forcing people to fight among themselves for market share.

“How does that culture of bohemian brewing–the ‘We don’t care who gets the tapline as long as it’s one of us’–last?” he asks. “As we grow out of this, it could turn into ‘I got mine, you stay off.'”

Changes in state legislation could also hamper the scene’s continued growth. While Wisconsin craft brewers still enjoy self-distribution rights in the Badger State–a benefit brewers in Illinois don’t–newer Wisconsin laws make it illegal for small breweries to band together and form distribution systems of their own.

WBC’s Nelson is a little more optimistic about the craft beer scene’s potential to continue booming. “Can it sustain itself? Why not?” he asks. Like New Glarus’s Carey, he thinks Wisconsin and Madison are middle-of-the-pack places in terms of brewery and brewpub density, nowhere near saturation.

No matter what happens, one thing’s clear: We’re happy to enjoy the malt and hoppy ride. As Ale Asylum brewmaster Dean Coffey is fond of saying: “Good beer always wins.” As beer drinkers in Madison, at least for the foreseeable future, so do we.

Local Beers you’ve gotta try

Beer drinkers in Madtown are, by their nature, obsessed with what’s new. Kirby Nelson likes to joke that Wisconsin Brewing Company had been open a mere twenty-one days before he got his first “So what are you doing next?” question. The good news is that there’s no shortage whatsoever of new and exciting things to try between now and the end of 2014. Here’s a short list of the suds that should soon be gracing your beer glass.

Not overly bitter or boozy, this IPA rivals the best Europe has to offer

Ninjas are supposed to be stealthy, but there’s not a lot that’s unobtrusive about this brew–it’s an amber double Witbier with a pumped-up ginger kick. Brewmaster Scott Manning’s had a batch aging in Cabernet wine barrels for more than a year and plans to break it out during Madison Craft Beer Week this month.

Lake Louie
Lake Louie owner Tom Porter loves the taste of maple, and that’s what drives this American Brown Ale, sort of like a nut brown without the nutty flavor.

Fans know almost nothing’s off the table in the MobCraft recipe book. This sour little number combines ginger with raspberries for a unique but satisfying flavor. The beer style, West Coast Sour, hasn’t had much exposure in Wisconsin yet.

Great Dane
Brewmaster Rob LoBreglio’s been itching to put his signature spin on this eccentric Belgian-style ale for years. It’s traditionally considered a thirst-quenching farmer’s beer, which makes it perfect for an agrarian summer in Wisconsin.

Ale Asylum
Ale Asylum’s first new beer in four years fills the brewery’s missing light ale niche. With hints of banana and cloves and an alcohol content of 5.5 percent, this hefeweizen isn’t just a thirst-quencher; it’s a thirst-kicker.

Wisconsin Brewing Co.
Named after a Jon Dee Graham tune brewmaster Kirby Nelson’s especially fond of, this sweet malty brew will become WBC’s fifth signature beer.

House of Brews
Taprooms in Cologne would be proud to serve this light, crisp ale, the one Page Buchanan calls “his baby.” The brew combines a peppery note from the rye with a fruitiness from the yeast.

Fans of Tyranena’s Brewers Gone Wild series will remember The Devil Made Me Do It, an absolutely delicious imperial oatmeal coffee porter. Now imagine that beer, aged for six months in a bourbon barrel. Stop drooling, already.

Grace Edquist, former associate/web editor of Madison Magazine, contributed to this story.

Editor’s Note: Since the publication of this article, MobCraft has relocated to Milwaukee.