There have been a lot of breweries selling their beer for the first time in Madison the last several months, and until recently there’d been a common thread among them: They were from outside Wisconsin.
From Chicagoland have come 18th Street, Mikerphone and Hubbard’s Cave. From Nashville, Southern Grist. From Connecticut, Fat Orange Cat. Just last week, from Fargo, North Dakota, Drekker.
These are mostly small breweries, but they bring a lot of regional and even national buzz along with their beers — mostly IPAs of the hazy variety, and stouts.
It would appear so far that these brewers are displacing attention but really not a whole lot of actual sales. But some other entries to the Wisconsin market in recent years are moving serious units. According to reports filed to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, California’s Stone Brewing and Georgia’s Terrapin Brewing (a MillerCoors brewery) each sold about 3,500 barrels of beer in Wisconsin last year. That’s just a little shy than the combined production of Lake Louie out in Arena and Titletown Brewing up in Green Bay last year. Colorado’s Odell sold about 1,200 barrels here last year. That’s as much as Stillmank Brewing in Green Bay made. And Chicago’s Half Acre sold just over 1,000 barrels—about as much as Plover’s O’so Brewing declined last year.
But in the past few weeks, three new entries to the shelves and tap lines of Madison have come courtesy of fellow Wisconsinites. Let’s take a closer look at this trio.
Third Space Brewing
This brewery in Milwaukee’s Menomonee River Valley is arguably the best to come from the Cream City’s brewery boom of 2015-16.
It’s certainly been the fastest-growing of its class. After opening in September 2016, it rocketed to better than 5,100 barrels of production in 2018, a figure already on par with long-established Wisconsin brewers like the Great Dane and Hinterland, according to figures reported to the state.
That’s a heck of a lot of beer for a toddler of a brewery. Following completion of a capacity-doubling expansion last year, Third Space beer finally arrived in Madison last month — the first market outside its home territory.
What’s all the fuss about?
Simply put, Third Space and brewmaster Kevin Wright have made nothing but solid-to-outstanding beer so far. The styles are well chosen, mostly by the book, crisply executed and consistent in quality. This, particularly for a hop-forward portfolio, is the recipe for brewery success.
Specifically, there’s Happy Place, the American pale ale that has become a staple in my fridge and a near ubiquitous beer at Miller Park — the clear go-to beer there for both quality and availability.
There’s Unite the Clans, a rye-tinged Scottish ale that is already a two-time medalist at the Great American Beer Festival, including a gold medal in the rye beer category.
There’s Ice Bear, a smooth, balanced Baltic porter. That’s Gold, a crisp, quenching Kölsch that plays very well in warm weather. Unbridled Enthusiasm, a fruity-hopped double IPA that medaled in a very competitive GABF category in 2018.
If you’re willing to travel, there’s a barrel-aging program that has produced stouts, porters, barleywines and kettle sours that rank among the state’s best in those categories. These brewery-only releases include variants packing the candy bar adjuncts that are all the rage among beer geeks.
An interesting beer: Among the beers dropping in Madison is La Cocina dark Mexican lager. The beer’s is actually quite amber, a little paler than, say, Negra Modelo, and it has a lovely bready-toasty malt character balanced with a mild but refreshing snap of noble hops.
Along with the many ways craft beer has redefined the modern American beer landscape, it’s also reviving one aspect of history: Many small towns have breweries again. This was the case in Ahnapee, a bustling Lake Michigan fishing center east of Green Bay, starting in 1868. The burg was renamed Algoma when it incorporated in 1879, but its brewery closed seven years later.
In 2013, though, a new craft brewery adopted the old name and Ahnapee was reborn in a former dairy just outside of town and small taproom near the mouth of the Ahnapee River downtown. Ahnapee Brewery boosts its footprint by brewing beer for six-packs and draft distribution using other breweries, most recently at Hinterland in Green Bay.
The flagships these days, at the hand of owner and brewmaster Nick Calaway, are Little Soldier amber ale and Two Stall milk stout — two very nice beers that trade bestseller status depending on season. Ahnapee is self-distributing these beers as well as seasonals and a handful of limited releases to Madison. Arriving in April is Ahnapee’s spring seasonal, Tropics golden ale fermented with pineapple, mango and passion fruit. But first...
An interesting beer: They did it. They went and brewed a mushroom beer. But it’s good! The secret to Fun Guy is that it’s almost entirely just a really solid brown ale: clean and balanced, with nice caramel-toffee notes and a soft body. The mushrooms — originally foraged morels when batches were smaller, now stretched further with porcinis, lobsters, oysters & boletes — lend an earthy umami that develops as the beer warms. But that character is subtle enough that you might not even notice if you didn’t know about the spore spawn within. Normally I wouldn’t recommend a brown ale with pizza, but give this pairing a shot.
Lion’s Tail Brewing
This Neenah brewery was one of Wisconsin’s earliest adopters of the New England or hazy IPA style that is all the rage these days, and it’s begun regular keg deliveries to Madison. (So far, Brasserie V, Blue Moon Bar & Grill, BarleyPop Tap and Shop, the Mr. Brews location on High Crossing Boulevard, Growlers to Go-Go and The Coopers Tavern.)
Expect a heavy dose of Juice Cloud, the NEIPA that put Lion’s Tail on the map: bright but opaque, with wheat and oats lending a soft mouthfeel and double dry-hopping with Citra to pack in intense tropical aromas and flavors and only moderate bitterness.
The Beer Bracket is back!
If basketball isn’t quite enough to make your March mad, the Wisconsin Beer Bracket is back for its eighth year of crowning the Badger State’s favorite brew. The Beer Baron has picked the field of 64, and it’s up to you, dear reader, to determine which beers advance, round by round, until we have a champion. To that victor, bragging rights. To you, perhaps, one of the three gift cards furnished by presenting sponsor Festival Foods. The contest is on now; join the fun at go.madison.com/beerbracket.