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Beer Baron: Engaging podcast shines light on a brewing titan

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Spotted Cow

Spotted Cow became the surprise, unintended flagship beverage for New Glarus Brewing Co.

Being a beer columnist comes with a lot of privileges, and probably foremost among them is talking shop with brewers around the state.

Over the past dozen years, I’ve learned so much from so many people in all areas of the beer business, from yeast flocculation to dry-hop techniques to sales strategies.

And this fall, I began to feel a little less special.

That’s because New Glarus Brewing’s podcast can give any old person a direct line into one of the best brewers in the country, even if you don’t have his number in your phone.

The straightforwardly named “New Glarus Brewing Podcast W/ Dan Carey” offers an unusual (for you) glimpse into the inner workings of the famously “Only in Wisconsin” brewery. The nine episodes so far have dealt with just about everything from Deb and Dan Carey’s personal history and their creation of the brewery to new equipment being installed in the near future.

I have always appreciated Dan Carey’s ability to clearly and engagingly communicate about beer, whether it’s minute details like the protein content of a certain malt bill or global issues like climate change and how they affect the liquid in our glasses. Direct, confident and occasionally cantankerous, Carey is the unquestioned star of this show.

His co-host is brewery employee Scott May, who in the past several weeks has found his footing as a facilitator to Carey’s perspective. As you should expect from an interviewer on the same team as the subject, May is not exactly bringing hardball questions, but with New Glarus and Carey, batting practice with softballs is plenty entertaining and enlightening.

Here are four of the most interesting things you might not have known about the brewery that’s covered in the podcast:

The real beer that made New Glarus

Spotted Cow is far and away New Glarus’ flagship today, but it wasn’t the beer that convinced the Careys to take the plunge and build a brewery of their own. That was actually Belgian Red, the cherry-packed sour beer that remains a fixture in the lineup today.

In last week’s Episode 9 — the best to date, for my money — Carey describes how he was inspired by the sweet, fruit-infused Belgian lambics made by Lindemans and a visit to the brewery in Vlezenbeek. Already an accomplished brewer at breweries large and small, he began home-brewing versions of a spontaneous-fermentation cherry beer. “I had beer fermenting in the attic, I had beer fermenting in the garage, in the basement,” he recalls.

After six years of refinement, he thought he had it figured out, and Deb liked it: “That’s really why we built New Glarus Brewing Co., because Deb said, ‘You know, I think there’s a market for this type of beer. We should build you a brewery and you can make this beer.’”

Belgian Red was not the first beer out of the chute at the new New Glarus Brewing in 1993; that would be Edel Pils and Uff-Da bock. But Belgian Red, imagined as the flagship at the time, was the third.

The origin of Spotted Cow

That flagship status, of course, would fall to Spotted Cow not long after its introduction in 1997. At the time, nobody was expecting it to be the smash hit it became. To Carey’s eyes, it was just another of many beers they’d made by that point.

“It was not loved nor imagined to be anything special more than any of the other beers, with no expectations,” he says in Episode 7. “But people gravitated toward it, so when that row in the warehouse went empty, we made more. And it just caught on with people, they liked it.”

He tells of the inspiration for the beer in a way that suggests he’s doing so for the thousandth time: On a visit to Old World Wisconsin, a living museum of homesteads as they would have been in the 1850s, the German house had a root cellar with a stock pot of fermenting beer. He imagined what might have been in that pot: a simple ale, brewed with necessarily local grains like wheat, corn and some malted barley, perhaps a splurge on some Czech hops that were gaining fashion at the time, fermented at moderate temperatures, with no filtering.

In a great example of how Carey can veer from well-worn stories to a deep-dive geek-out, the conversation quickly turns to the complicated details of how and why he phased corn out of Spotted Cow’s malt bill in recent years.

Getting cranky about beer styles

Back in 2016, when New Glarus rolled out Spotted Cow Grand Cru, Carey and I talked at length about the original beer and his perceptions of people’s perceptions of New Glarus’ flagship. It was my first glimpse at Carey’s pique (polite as it was to the interviewer) about the beer world’s need to categorize beers that by design defy style guidelines.

Carey has not mellowed this take in the ensuing six years, and he seemed eager to get cantankerous about “the beer police” later in Episode 7 when talking about Spotted Cow’s reception.

“The pedantics, the haters, were like, ‘Well, it’s not a saison.’ I never said it was a saison. ‘Well, it’s not a cream ale.’ I never said it was a cream ale. ‘Well, what kind of beer is it?’ Well, I don’t know, it’s our beer. It’s New Glarus.”

(For what it’s worth, New Glarus considers it a farmhouse ale.)

When describing the reception to Moon Man, Carey’s — well, now I’m gunshy … pale ale? Session IPA? Little hoppy beer? — he recounts teeth-gnashing by “the beer police” over its 5% ABV. That’s higher than is generally considered acceptable with a “session” label, though New Glarus has never used it on Moon Man. “You guys need to chill out,” he recalls.

So much globe-trotting

Carey is a great storyteller, and, boy, he has a lot of them. Several anecdotes unfold throughout the first several episodes, many of them in Europe and some with his young family before the brewery begins.

It’s fun stuff, too: He’s tapping a keg at Oktoberfest in Munich. He’s talking with legendary brewers of lambic beers in Belgium — and casually mentions the challenges of visiting Pilsner Urquell, the Czech brewery regarded as the creche of the style, “under Communist rule.” He’s talking about checking out this year’s hop crop in Germany and Czechia.

Carey is a plain talker, and, to me at least, these tales of far-flung travels do not come across as self-aggrandizing. Instead, he seems eager to give credit to those who helped him develop his talents, and to drive home how seriously he and his team take their efforts to brew high-quality beer.

That last part has the potential to be a boring half-hour commercial for a brewery, but May and Carey make it so much more — insight from a master of the craft and into one of the most fascinating breweries in the country.

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