Of all the beers in all the bars in all the world, my personal favorite is the “lawnmower beer.”
Generally marked by low intensity, high drinkability and optimum refreshment, this is a broad and flexible genre that encompass styles like pilsner, lager, kölsch and radler, all waiting to quench your thirst after a hot day of yard work.
But which of Wisconsin’s own lawnmower beers quenches the best? I decided to poll a few people who know best, guys who spend 10 hours a day tending to greenery around town during the few months when there's no snow on the ground.
I reached out to Bill Norman, the owner of Earthlight of Wisconsin. He brought along two of his employees, Mark Gallo and Kurt Maier, to drink and rate a half dozen beers that should, by definition, be perfectly suited to their line of work.
The setup was fairly straightforward. I placed seven cold beers in slim brown paper bags to hide their identity. I numbered each bag to maintain methodical rigor and allow for easy ranking as we went along.
Sitting around a picnic table within earshot of a lawnmower serendipitously working its way around nearby Bowman Field, we took the beers one by one.
First up was RE:FRESH, a radler brewed in collaboration between Verona's Wisconsin Brewing Company and the UW-Madison Fermentation Sciences Program. Weighing in at 3.2 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) it packed the lightest wallop of the bunch, thanks in part to being cut with a grapefruit soda that gives it a citrus-y lift.
“That's delicious!” exclaimed Bill after just a single sip. Everyone liked this one a lot, so much so that I worried leading off with it might have tainted the next couple of beers that followed.
Who wants the added pressure of being up next after a walk-off home run?
Next we sampled Bubbler, a blonde ale with a surprisingly contentious name from Next Door Brewing Company. Marketed as “the craft beer for the light beer drinker” it was dinged by our panel of horticultural judges for being a bit “plain Jane.”
“It's good,” said Mark, “just not a lot of flavor.”
Lake House, the third beer I passed around, earned comparisons to a more familiar backyard beer.
“It's like a saison or something,” Bill said. “Tastes like Spotted Cow.”
Lake House is actually a golden lager, made by Middleton's Capital Brewery, a reliable beer sold both in bottles and cans. We were cruising by the time we got to our fourth beer, Commuter, One Barrel's kölsch-style ale.
“Oh, I like that. I like that a lot,” said Bill. But Mark was unimpressed.
“Tastes the same as the last one,” Mark said. “Just a pilsner or something.”
One could argue that the point of a lawnmower beer is to be basic. You’re not teasing out a hint of guava or a flutter of almond paste. Still, by the fifth bottle I was starting to worry that there wasn't enough dimension in these beers to distinguish them.
Belly Bongos snapped everyone out of whatever rut we might've been settling in to. A seasonal pale ale release from Karben4, Belly Bongos was the most divisive beer we tried. It was also the booziest, at 5.1 percent ABV.
Bill put it at number two on his list behind the radler. Mark said it was his new number one. Kurt didn't care for the hoppiness at all and logged it at the bottom spot of his list, where it remained.
Our sixth beer, Torrent, was a kölsch from the formerly Madison-based startup MobCraft. It was brewed in partnership with the Milwaukee Torrent, a team in the National Premier Soccer League. The team's owner/coach, Andreas Davi, hails from Leverkusen, Germany, north of Cologne where the kölsch style originated.
Kurt enthusiastically put this one at the very top of his list. Bill ranked it a very respectable third place.
Finally, in an attempt to include a “control” group for this sudsy little experiment, I opened up a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. I did my best to keep it hidden behind the paper bag but I think the guys were on to me.
“This is like water that someone poured beer in,” Bill said.
Things took an unexpected turn here, though. The PBR ended up quite sincerely in third place on both Mark and Kurt's lists, prompting Bill to let out a surprised “What?!”. I'm as big a fan of Pabst as the next guy — a couple of tall boys are floating around unironically in my fridge as I type this — but I didn't expect it to do nearly as well as it did.
Once the dust had settled on everyone's rankings, the RE:FRESH Radler from Wisconsin Brewing Co. was the clear winner, with Karben4's Belly Bongos hot on its heels in second place. MobCraft's kölsch managed a third-place finish, just barely beating PBR for its spot on the podium.
There's no real clean cut way to assign the title of “lawnmower beer,” no hard and fast bitterness or alcohol percentages. Beer nerds might use the word “sessionable” to talk about what they're quaffing to cool down.
On that score, every beer in our taste test delivered.