Here’s a seemingly obvious trivia question to throw out the next time you’re at a bar: What farm animal inspired New Glarus Spotted Cow beer?
The answer is, of course ... sheep.
New Glarus owners Deb and Dan Carey were in England in 1997 to accept an award for one of their other beers. And Deb couldn’t get over how many woolly creatures she saw in the countryside.
“There were sheep everywhere, more sheep than I had ever seen in my life,” Deb Carey said. “I was constantly commenting on this, and then it occurred to me: I bet people come to Wisconsin and think the same thing about the cows. ‘Look at all these cows! What’s up with all the spotted cows?’
“For some reason it just made me laugh. That’s a great beer name.”
Although it took some time to convince her distributors, Carey turned out to be right. New Glarus now brews 45,000 barrels of Spotted Cow annually, almost half of all the beer New Glarus makes. (By comparison, Capital Brewery makes 25,000 barrels of all its beers combined.) That breaks down to 616,500 cases of Spotted Cow every year, or 14,796,000 bottles. No wonder that the welcome sign on Highway 69 as you drive into New Glarus reads “Home of Spotted Cow.”
Which means that many craft beer drinkers have at some point had the experience of walking into an unpromising bar in Wisconsin, looking at the taps and relievedly thinking this phrase: “Whew. At least they have Spotted Cow.”
“It is definitely the best-known beer from Wisconsin without a doubt,” said David Sanborn, beer buyer and manager of Barriques in Fitchburg. “It is everywhere. It’s very difficult to find any establishment serving beer in Wisconsin that doesn’t have it, especially in southern Wisconsin.”
And Spotted Cow has done all that without selling outside the Badger State. Although New Glarus could sell beer outside Wisconsin, so far the Careys have chosen to keep it in-state — which drives fans from out of state absolutely crazy.
But what’s even more impressive about Spotted Cow is that most everybody, from beer snobs to macro beer drinkers taking a walk on the wild side, seems to like it. Are you going to a dinner party where you don’t know the people all that well? Bring a six-pack of Spotted Cow and you know you can’t go wrong.
“It is that gateway beer because it’s easy to drink,” Sanborn said. “But it has enough character that beer geeks like me can still enjoy it. It’s got some depth of flavor and complexity and yet is very approachable, and goes with all kinds of situations and all kinds of food.”
Spotted Cow came about as a bit of serendipity between Deb Carey and her husband, Dan, who serves as brewmaster. As she was hitting upon the name, Dan was working on a new idea for a beer.
“He really liked the idea of a pre-Prohibition ale that’s rather approachable, and using local ingredients,” Deb Carey said. “Unfiltered, bottle-conditioned — people weren’t really doing a lot of that then. He had been thinking of this beer idea, and I had been saying this name, and I just thought it came together really well.”
Carey drew the label, with its spotted bovine leaping over an outline of the Badger State, as she does all the beer labels at New Glarus.
Initially, the response from wholesalers responsible for stocking the beer in bars and stores was not good. Some thought the whole concept was just too goofy, and that a beer with a name like Spotted Cow couldn’t hold its own next to heavy hitters like Budweiser.
“My wholesalers were not happy with me,” Carey said. “They were trying so hard to talk me out of it. People I really respected were taking me aside and saying, ‘Deb, can you really see a big college guy in Madison walking into a bar and ordering a Spotted Cow?’ And I was like ‘Yeah, actually, I can.’200A>”
And yeah, actually, they did. Carey said the demand from customers was strong enough that stores were asking reluctant wholesalers to put Spotted Cow on their order sheets. And the brand grew and grew.
“By 2001 and 2002, Spotted Cow was almost literally on every tap in the state,” said Jeff Glazer, who created the Madison Beer Review (madisonbeerreview.com) website. “That says a lot about the beer that they produce, and that also says a lot about their marketing, and how they’ve been able to attract people to the beer.
“They definitely ring the Wisconsin bell — ‘We’re in Wisconsin, for Wisconsin.’ People have that sense of home and community and they can show that just by drinking a beer.”
Carey said customers have expressed their love for Spotted Cow in unusual ways. They’ve emailed her photos of themselves holding the beer at national landmarks around the country, and they’ve even shown their support in more permanent ways, like one man who posted a photo on the brewery’s Facebook page.
“I don’t want to say anything sexist, but he’s in really nice shape,” Carey said. “He’s got a Spotted Cow tattoo on the side of his abdomen. We get lots of stories of people using it at their weddings. And we have a long list of people who come up here and get engaged over the beer. I find that really touching.”
Even though the beer is not officially licensed for sale outside the state of Wisconsin, Spotted Cow has fans around the country. In a 2008 profile of the band Wilco, a Rolling Stone writer noted that the band had a keg of “New Glarus” (presumably he meant Spotted Cow) backstage at a Chicago show, having fallen for it while playing in Milwaukee.
In 2009, a New York City bar was raided for illegally selling Spotted Cow, and a Facebook group was started to bring Spotted Cow nationwide.
For Wisconsinites who end up moving out of the state, Spotted Cow can become a liquid connection back home. Comedian Nathan Craig, who grew up in Madison and now lives in Los Angeles, said his mother has gone so far as to put bottles of Spotted Cow in the Easter baskets she sends him.
He said that while Angelenos might scoff at a beer with such an overtly Midwestern name, they usually come around once they try it.
“That’s the beer I’m bringing to a barbecue, no doubt,” Craig said. “Everybody else is showing up with Sapporo and some other beer that somebody somewhere told them was good. I show up with Spotted Cow, the beer of choice from God’s country.”
So how is it?
When he first moved to Wisconsin from Chicago, Madison Beer Review’s Glazer said he wasn’t impressed with Spotted Cow.
“I didn’t like the overt corniness of it,” he said. “I wasn’t a fan of the super soft body. I thought it was a little filling and grainy.”
But a couple of years ago, he and a few of his writers did a blind taste test of 19 different “lawnmower” beers, lighter summer beers ranging from Sierra Nevada to Pabst Blue Ribbon. Every one of the tasters picked Spotted Cow as the best.
“We set ’em all up, we tasted them blind, and at the end of the day, every one of us said this beer is almost hands-down heads and shoulders above the rest of this bunch,” Glazer said.
Barriques’ Sanborn said it’s easy for beer lovers to undervalue a lighter beer like Spotted Cow in favor of something darker and richer. But that lighter, more approachable beer can be full of subtleties as well.
“I like all facets of beers and all the flavors that it can provide,” Sanborn said. “One of the things that I’ve been advocating with our customers is fizzy yellow beer. Fizzy yellow beer doesn’t have to mean something thin and flavorless. It can be something complex, something you can sit and enjoy.”
Glazer added that a beer like Spotted Cow can be difficult to make, because the brewmaster has to make it exactly right every time.
“There’s nothing to hide your mistakes in,” Glazer said. “Consistency is very, very important in these beers. You can’t have one batch that is completely different than the batch before it. When you have a beer that has these sort of subtle light-flavored ingredients, a simple mistake in the brewing process compounds itself, and you end up with a very different product at the end.”
With its friendly taste and ubiquity, Spotted Cow can serve as an entry point for Bud and Coors Light drinkers who are looking to get into Wisconsin craft brews, Sanborn said. But Glazer said he knows some macro drinkers just go as far as Spotted Cow and are satisfied to stop there.
Whether they’re lifelong residents of the state or just visitors, people associate Spotted Cow with Wisconsin.
“Spotted Cow is an important beer in Wisconsin,” Glazer said. “For better or for worse, when people come to Wisconsin they look for Spotted Cow. And they don’t have to look very hard.”