When I heard this spring that Berghoff Brewing was doing a top-to-bottom overhaul of its beer lineup, I had one thought – one I’m guessing is shared by quite a few of you: “Oh, I used to really like that beer.”
It had probably been nearly 10 years since my last one, and while that decade is a mere blip in the 126-year-old brand’s history, it’s been a period of massive change in the beer industry.
Berghoff was a Wisconsin-brewed craft beer when there just weren’t a whole lot of them widely available, with a Germanic focus that suited the state well. But in the late 1990s and 21st century, the beer world evolved – significantly for the better. Berghoff didn’t, and it was left behind.
“We were always considered, before, a craft beer, and we fit in that section,” said Berghoff’s owner, Madison native Ben Minkoff. “But all these different beers were coming out, and we didn’t evolve with the rest of them. We kept with our traditional beers and we kind of got lost in the mix.”
Minkoff – who’s 25, more than a century younger than the brand he’s remaking – has a clear vision of what it takes to make Berghoff a relevant craft beer again: Brew beer that he wants to drink.
While Minkoff likes the IPAs, stouts and other “big beers” favored by many of today’s craft drinkers, that’s not what Berghoff is about. So he enlisted Chicago beer expert Randy Mosher, who founded the boundary-pushing 5 Rabbit Cerveceria, and John Hannfan as consultants to bring the Berghoff portfolio into the contemporary craft beer world.
“We’re sticking with the history and tradition of the brand, but we’re going to be truer to the styles than we ever have before,” Minkoff said.
One of the catalysts in this change will be controversial in southern Wisconsin: Berghoff is breaking what’s left of a decades-long tie to Monroe. Berghoff beer had been brewed at the onetime Huber brewery since the 1960s, even after Minkoff’s family sold the 145-year-old facility to Ravinder Minhas in 2006.
Minkoff said the key selling point of Berghoff’s new arrangement – brewing under contract at Stevens Point Brewery in central Wisconsin – is the ability to brew smaller batches, 100 barrels at a time vs. 300 to 500 barrels at Minhas. That means fresher beer, greater flexibility and, Minkoff emphasized, greater quality control.
To say that Berghoff’s beers could use some updating is an understatement. The old recipes had strayed significantly from style, with the core beers – a pale lager, an amber ale, a dark lager and, oddly, a Belgian-style witbier – all suffering from a cloying malt sweetness that threw off their balance and impeded refreshment.
Aside from bringing the Berghoff beers back in line with what the beers are supposed to be, the most prominent adjustment in the reformulations appears to be significantly more hops. The Reppin Red has become a hop-forward, American-style amber ale; the new Dortwunder lager is brought into balance and cleaned up with spicy hops; the Sir Dunkle dark lager, previously nearly indistinguishable from the old Reppin Red, drinks almost like a Germanic porter now; and Solstice Wit, previously a bizarre, shandylike brew, is now a legit wit, with a nice twist from the addition of the Asian citrus fruit calamansi. (Click the link at left for more complete tasting notes of the new and old Berghoff beers.) Solstice will become a seasonal, joining Oktoberfest – which should be available around Aug. 1 – and a new Winter Ale.
Berghoff also is introducing two new beers in its rebirth: Straight Up Hefeweizen, which is crisper, and with a little more clove and less banana notes than a straight-up hefeweizen, and this week’s beer, the first release in the Uberbier series, a showcase for the new direction of Berghoff.
“We’re going to bring back some of the older styles of German beer and do our American twist on them,” Minkoff said.
Germaniac Pale Ale
Style: Kotbusser, an obscure hopped-up golden ale from northern Germany that faded out of production in the late 1800s.
Brewed by: Berghoff Brewery Inc. at Stevens Point Brewery.
What it’s like: I’ve never had a beer like this, but a rough approximation is a hoppy German pilsner like the Great Dane Verruckte Stadt brewed instead with a softer, fruitier ale yeast.
Where, how much: Berghoff’s new quality doesn’t come for free, so those expecting the $5 six-packs to continue will be disappointed. (Berghoff slashed its prices to “value brand” territory in 2006 after selling the brewery to Minhas, Minkoff said.) Six-packs of the core and seasonal beers will be around $8, while Germaniac and Reppin Red will be about $9.
The revamped beers arrived in the Madison market at the end of June. Berghoff’s connection to Fitchburg-based General Beer Distributors – Minkoff’s extended family has owned General for generations – should keep stocks of the new Berghoff plentiful and ensure that bottles of the old stuff aren’t floating around at the new, higher prices. But I’d still check the left side of the label for the small “Stevens Point” endorsement.
The beer: Germaniac’s deep golden color is lighter than expected, if you’re thinking of it as a pale ale. Its aroma is crisp but muted, all spicy hops and mild ale yeast. The pale malts are balanced by those spicy hops at the first assertively dry quaff. Germaniac’s honey and molasses impart subtle nutty and earthy notes. This beer’s building, lingering hop bitterness will be familiar to pale ale fans. But the hops here are not the citrusy, resinous hops found in American pale ales but more in the vein of the herbal-floral-spicy hop profile typically seen in a German pilsner.
Booze factor: At 6.3 percent ABV, Germaniac is the strongest brew in the new Berghoff lineup so far.
The buzz: I was one of those who had left Berghoff behind. I drank it often in my early 20s, in the mid-’90s, as an affordable step up from the macro beer that was nearly everybody’s usual tipple back then. But while the other choices simply got better, I’m still excited to see new life being breathed into what Minkoff described as “still a strong, recognizable brand.” I agree.
“It’s a grandpa brand,” he said. “Those are kind of cool, and there aren’t many of those left.”
These are things worth holding onto, as long as the beer is worth holding onto, too. A month ago, it wasn’t; now it is.
“It’s not going to be easy to get the confidence of the consumer again,” Minkoff said. “But we have a recognizable name and now we know that we have a good direction for the brand. We’re confident in what we’re doing.”
Bottom line: 3 stars (out of four)