Eight months after it opened, life is looking good at Wisconsin Brewing Co.
The Verona brewery has doubled its beer lineup since its November opening, with brewmaster Kirby Nelson adding a maibock, coffee-infused porter, saison and Helles lager to the initial roster of Amber Lager, American IPA, Brown and Robust Porter, and Session IPA.
And Wisconsin Brewing has followed through on what seemed like ambitious talk of rapid expansion, making good on its name by selling throughout the state by April. It launched in the massive Chicago market this May during that city’s craft beer week.
Of greater interest locally, the “backyard” outside the still-gleaming, state-of-the-art brewery opened over Memorial Day weekend. The sweeping lawn beckons with an outdoor bar, fire pit, Wisconsin Brewing-branded beanbag toss sets and a fleet of Adirondack chairs pointed toward the most scenic retention pond I’ve ever seen.
At the brewery’s “Picnic by the Pond” summer solstice party last Saturday, rain had chased all but the hardiest celebrants into the tap room, but still dozens of people were inside at mid-afternoon. Company president Carl Nolen, smiling as usual, was optimistic the dreary weather would break and sun would let the outdoor fun begin. And wouldn’t you know it, within an hour or so it did.
So, yeah, it’s just one day — and it’s just eight months — but things are working out.
And there’s a sense of satisfaction, of hard-earned achievement, that’s coming through in the brewery’s personality — particularly in the names of two of those beers added since November.
The first was the maibock released in April known as Big Sweet Life, a reference to a song of the same name by Austin singer-songwriter Jon Dee Graham. The song isn’t cloying in its sweetness — there’s a hard-earned-wisdom perspective to it — but it does include the lyric, sung in earnest, “Come here, you beautiful everything.”
And Nolen said Zenith, the saison released on the longest day of 2014, alludes astronomically to the season and figuratively to the peak, the apex. It says life is good, yes, but also that everything before this moment has built up to this happiness.
It’s a kind of modern-day, craft beer twist on the old Old Milwaukee line ”It just doesn’t get any better than this.” And while there is surely a lot of work ahead of Wisconsin Brewing, in building both brewery infrastructure and market share, to reach its long-term capacity of 300,000 barrels, I get the sense that the beer coming out of Verona is the product of a brain trust that is indeed living the big sweet life.
So while the sun is still high in the sky, let’s take a look at one of Wisconsin Brewing’s two new summer-in-a-glass beers.
Style: The saison (SAY-zahn) was once a broad category of ales brewed by European farmers with basically whatever ingredients were on hand. Most modern versions have zeroed in a light grain bill and most notably distinctive yeast strains that make the beer citrusy, peppery and sometimes funky.
Brewed by: Wisconsin Brewing Co., 1079 American Way, Verona.
What it’s like: For all the diversity in American craft beer, there is not a plethora of American-made saisons available in Wisconsin. Hinterland has my favorite Wisconsin-made one; Hennepin, from New York brewery Ommegang, is perhaps the national leader. Zenith, however, takes a milder and more laid-back approach to the style than those do.
Where, how much: Zenith is a summer seasonal of Wisconsin Brewing, whose six-packs are widely available in the Madison area and usually around $8 each. Growler fills from the tap room are $15.
The beer: Zenith pours a hazy gold with an aroma resembling a Belgian wit: grains, orange peel and spice. That same palette comes through on the palate, but in a balanced, cohesive package that just simply tastes like a saison, albeit the easiest-drinking one I’ve had. Noteworthy in its absence is the barnyard funk common and not undesirable in a saison. Typical of the style, the beer is medium- to light-bodied, and the finish is exceptionally dry, giving Zenith a crispness that suits warm-weather drinking well.
Booze factor: At 5.5 percent ABV, Zenith is lower than a lot of craft beers but higher than most macros.
The buzz: After Wisconsin Brewing’s debut, it was clear that Kirby Nelson was taking his new brewery in a different direction than his previous gig, a multi-decade, career-defining stint at Capital Brewery. But even after trying his first four beers from the startup, I wasn’t sure what Wisconsin Brewing’s identity would be. I think now that’s because I was searching for a style or a class of styles that would define Wisconsin Brewing, as German-style lagers did for Capital.
I was a bit slow on the uptake, but with the additions of Big Sweet Life, Zenith and #008 — the Munich-style Helles whose proper name will be chosen by the crowd — Nelson’s vision has become clearer: Well-executed versions of a broad range of styles, unified by the balance and smoothness that makes beer easy to drink.
It comes back to Nelson’s beer philosophy, which he’s reminded me of every time I’ve talked with him: “I view beer as an adjunct to the enjoyment of life.” That means, unlike many craft beers that demand to be sipped and paid close attention, Wisconsin Brewing’s beer doesn’t have to be the center of a social gathering as much as an accessory that makes it that much more enjoyable.
Wisconsin Brewing’s beers do have detractors, many of whom say they’re bland. But there’s plenty of room in the cooler for the full spectrum of well-made beer, from challenging and exotic to downright easy. Exhibit A on this point can be found in New Glarus, where you can find both ends of the continuum under one roof. There’s a long way to go before life at Wisconsin Brewing is quite that big and sweet, but it certainly seems to be on its way.
Bottom line: 3½ stars (out of five)