The owners of Pecatonica Brewing Co. sound like the cast of a pretty good joke.
“Two chemists, a dairy farmer, a collegiate rowing coach, a rancher and a construction company worker walk into a bar…” Pecatonica has 10 owners in all, but unfortunately there’s no priest among them to provide the punch line.
“We’re just a bunch of guys who like beer and wanted to do something fun, but nobody’s ready to quit their day job just yet,” said David Mann, one of the 10 and a chemist who lives in Madison. “If it goes there, it goes there.”
The “something fun” is southwestern Wisconsin’s newest brewery, a venture based in Gratiot, about 20 miles west of Monroe and a few miles north of the Illinois border. It takes its name from the river that meanders through the area’s farmland before joining up with the Rock River in Illinois.
It’s the homeland for most of the brewery’s owners, including the brain trust, twin brothers Tim and Tom Quinn. Tim is a biochemist by training who has been homebrewing for more than 20 years and now serves as brewmaster, overseeing production of Pecatonica’s beer at Minhas Craft Brewery.
It’s a nice twist on the story that some of Wisconsin’s newest beer is being made in a brewery that’s older than the state itself.
But fans of good beer love to prejudge almost as much as they judge. So this spring when the label for Pecatonica’s first beer surfaced, the “proudly brewed at Pecatonica Brewing Co., Monroe, WI” sparked speculation that Minhas was rolling out another brand to join its line of pseudo-craft beer.
I’ve found that a lot of the beer produced by Minhas has a Corn Pops-type flavor that doesn’t necessarily corrupt a cheapo American lager (of which Minhas makes a LOT) but is way off the mark in an IPA or stout, both of which Minhas produces under the also-cheap Rhinelander label.
Mann and the other owners of Pecatonica know their arrangement with Minhas is an obstacle to some of their potential customers, and quality control is their No. 1 concern.
“They have that reputation, right?” Mann said. “The reason we’re working with them is because Tim lives literally a five-minute walk from Minhas. He can walk right over there, and he does on a daily basis to check on things and make sure things are going well.”
If something doesn’t go well, it will be dumped, not shipped, Mann said.
Pecatonica shopped around for a contract brewer, including at Stevens Point Brewery and Sand Creek Brewing, but Mann said none could offer the combination of batch size and hands-on control afforded by the hometown Minhas.
“So far they’ve been very good to us,” Mann said, adding that Pecatonica could be an opportunity for Minhas to get back in the good graces of beer geeks. “If you can produce quality products with us, that’s only going to build your reputation in a positive way and help restore them to back to what they once were.”
But obviously Pecatonica is looking to make a name for itself first. To do that, it’ll eventually offer Alphorn, a Swiss-style pale ale that debuted this month, and an as yet unnamed amber that should premiere late this year, in addition to a seasonal Oktoberfest that hit shelves in early September. But the brewery believes its first release, Nightfall Lager, puts its best face forward.
“It was very important for us to come out and make an impression right away,” Mann said. “We wanted to go into a slightly different direction.”
A dark lager is certainly slightly different. Let’s take a closer look.
What it’s like: Stylewise, the comparison that jumps to mind is Sprecher’s Black Bavarian, but this is sweeter and drinks almost like a sweet stout in the vein of Tallgrass Buffalo Sweat.
Where, how much: Pecatonica’s beer is sold in most of Wisconsin as well as northern Illinois and southeastern Minnesota. I had to stop at a few Madison bottle shops before finally finding my six-pack at Riley’s Wines of the World for $9. Eventually you’ll be able to try it at a tap house under construction in Warren, Ill., a small burg just over the state line from Gratiot.
The beer: The chestnut-brown Nightfall bursts with a sweet mocha aroma, though there is a touch of the lager yeast that makes its way to the nose as well. Chocolate-caramel malts dominate the flavor, with the roasty coffee note from the aroma fading into the background. A modest amount of Cascade, Centennial and Hallertau hops — some of them grown on Tom Quinn’s dairy farm outside Gratiot — serve only to balance the malts, barely. Nightfall is exceptionally soft, velvety and quite drinkable.
Booze factor: 5.9 percent ABV.
The buzz: First impressions can be deceiving, and I’m glad that was the case with Pecatonica. My first thought was it was a new Minhas imprint, and my second thought was it would be bad. That’s probably not fair to Minhas — past performance does not guarantee future returns, as mutual funds say — but I’m still glad Pecatonica is its own entity with an interesting story behind it.
And while a dark lager typically isn’t the first style I reach for these days, Nightfall puts an interesting American twist on the German-born style. I’m looking forward to trying Pecatonica’s other beers, which Mann said will also be malt-forward. In particular Alphorn, the pale ale reflecting the Swiss heritage in southwestern Wisconsin, is definitely one I’ll looking out for.
Bottom line: (out of four)