Hoo boy, it’s been a lively few weeks in the local beer scene.
First, congratulations to founder Ryan Browne, brewmaster Clinton Lohman and the rest of the crew on what so far looks like a very successful launch of Working Draft Beer Co. Since the March 5 opening, Lohman said, he’s been busy keeping up with beer sales that have been about 40 percent above in-house expectations.
I’ll weigh in with my own thoughts on Working Draft in time, perhaps after the Near East Side beer scene grows again with the opening of Giant Jones Brewing, expected in May. I have a feeling the Capital City bike path is going to be full of curious beer people when the weather breaks.
Another new beginning didn’t get as many headlines but deserves equal mention. Keith Symonds, the founding brewmaster at Next Door Brewing, has taken the reins of the beer operation at Lucky’s 1313 Brew Pub on Regent Street and earlier this month debuted five new beers.
Relatively straightforward are the 4 percent ABV Game Day Red, Extra Special Badger nitro ESB and NZF IPA with New Zealand and Wisconsin hops. More adventurous palates will want to try C is for Cookie, which attempts to emulate an oatmeal cookie with malted oats, raisins, cinnamon, vanilla and a touch of lactose for the icing; and The Dybbuk, a 10 percent ABV Belgian golden strong ale brewed with some rye malt in the mix.
It’s an exciting rebirth for a beer operation that sorely needed some TLC.
There’s much more news to catch up on in state and national beer. Let’s go.
The haze stays
Last week the gatekeepers of what used to be called craft beer acknowledged what everyone else who has been paying attention already knew: The modern American hoppy ale has mutated.
The Brewers Association announced that it was adding juicy or hazy pale ale, juicy/hazy IPA and juicy/hazy double IPA to its official beer style categories, meaning they will have their own medals at the Great American Beer Festival, the most prestigious U.S. beer competition.
These beers, many of which are also known as New England or Northeast IPAs, are defined by their pale, hazy appearance, intense fruity aromas and muted bitterness — at least compared with their American IPA forebears. The technique most critical to this style is massive dry-hopping, or putting hops into a beer late in the production process to preserve their aromatic qualities.
The style has absolutely exploded nationwide, with many East Coast breweries building names and fortunes on it alone. Since December, all of the biggest craft brewers have rolled out their entries: Samuel Adams New England IPA, Sierra Nevada Hazy Little Thing and New Belgium Voodoo Ranger Juicy Haze IPA. They’re all pretty good (New Belgium) to very good (Sierra Nevada), though I wonder how well they’ll hold up to age, as the style is notorious for its short shelf life and these breweries don’t have a lot of velocity in markets like ours these days. Watch those dates!
Wisconsin brewers have been slower to the trend, with O’so Brewing in Plover being the biggest early adopter, putting out four beers since last spring that fall squarely in the BA’s new category.
Smaller brewers have naturally been more willing to play in the haze sandbox. Untitled Art has released several of the style since its launch with Juicy IPA in early 2017. Just last week, Great Dane released the first cans of its hazy take, named Vermont Bandwagon in a nod to the style’s homeland. It was brewed just once before, last summer, and this slightly tweaked version isn’t super hazy but is juicy, with orangey, peachy fruit notes along with a kind of leafy herbal character that’s pleasant but not often seen in its category.
The BA’s enlargement of the style tent to include these beers was both necessary and important. Ignoring such a sweeping trend would have been a bad look, but from a practical perspective the juicy hazebombs were also too distinct from the piney, citrusy, bitter American IPAs that they simply could not be judged together. They just taste, smell and look different. Sounds like a different style, right?
But the NEIPA has been divisive, with some beer thought leaders decrying it as a gimmick and fad that wouldn’t last — and therefore not worthy of more recognition. The BA’s acknowledgement of the style will likely put some of that to rest.
The best NEIPAs I’ve had, for the record, are M-43 from Michigan’s Old Nation Brewing and any number of beers from Hop Butcher for the World, a young Chicago outfit with Wisconsin ties that I wouldn’t be surprised to see on local shelves eventually.
Fanny Packs are back
On the other end of the IPA spectrum is a new (old) offering from One Barrel Brewing.
Six-packs of Fanny Pack bottles hit shelves for the first time in February, though this unabashed throwback is actually the best-selling IPA in One Barrel’s five-plus-year history. Before Fanny Pack joined its year-round portfolio via large-scale production at Octopi Brewing in Waunakee, it was known as Pine Fox during its time in the Atwood Avenue taproom.
Fanny Pack pours a pale copper with a little bit of haze, but certainly not HAZE. This is not that kind of IPA. The hops are pretty straightforward for an IPA making its package debut in 2018: Simcoe and Chinook, which offer a now old-school West Coast IPA character of clean pine and citrus. But there’s some nuance here, with a malt character of lightly toasted bread that adds some depth without overpowering the lupulin stars of the show. Fanny Pack is 6.5 percent ABV, and its moderate bitterness and ample dryness are a refreshing combination that drove the explosion of IPAs earlier this decade.
Meanwhile, another new chapter for One Barrel began last week with the first wide release of its cider. Gentry’s Rosé Hard Cider is a semi-sweet cider made with Pinot grapes and aronia berries for flavor and color available on draft and in cans. Gentry also has a dry version in the works that may be released as summer approaches, depending on how the Rosé sells.
I love O’so’s Convenient Distraction, always have.
But I hadn’t bought the coffee vanilla imperial porter for more than a year because, man, those large-format bottles (O’so’s are 750-milliliter) just don’t work well for everyday drinking. I’ve got no problem with 750s or 22-ounce bombers for special releases, but if I’m settling in with a bottle after dinner at home, it’s 12- or 16-ounce bottles or cans almost exclusively.
O’so shifted Convenient Distraction to six-packs, still year-round, at the beginning of 2018, and I’ve so enjoyed my six-pack that I’ll be reupping frequently. There’s only a little bit of a price-per-ounce break from the big bottle, so the six-pack price is a bit gaudy at around $14.
But Convenient Distraction is worth every penny. The beautiful aroma speaks of its two adjuncts — coffee and vanilla — as one, begging a sip. The balance of flavors in this beer is sublime — sweetness from the vanilla and malts, moderate roasty bitterness from the coffee and the malt, and just a kiss of hops, too. Everything’s in its right place, and there’s a pleasant dryness that makes it drink a lot easier than a 10.5 percent ABV biggie should.
Dawn has broken
There’s a lot of action coming down the pike in woody Wisconsin coffee beers, too.
This week saw the long-awaited return of Central Waters Brewing’s beloved but troubled Peruvian Morning bourbon barrel-aged coffee imperial stout. This beer was quite a treat before it was discontinued in 2014, the second year it was contaminated with beer-spoiling bacteria.
Since then, Central Waters has investigated its Peruvian problem and invested in lab facilities to protect its massive stake in its flagship barrel-aging program. A cinnamon-vanilla variant of Peruvian Morning, Cassian Sunset, returned to great acclaim in 2016.
I didn’t get a chance to try the rebooted Peruvian Morning in time for this column (it should have hit shelves Monday), and it’ll be interesting to see how Central Waters’ classic holds up to what’s been a very busy four years for bourbon barrel coffee stouts.
While Central Waters is undoubtedly the barrel-aging leader of Wisconsin breweries, Lake Mills’ Tyranena is a strong contender for No. 2. What might be Tyranena’s Exhibit A also hit shelves last week: Devil Over a Barrel, a bourbon barrel-aged version of its already excellent Devil Made Me Do It imperial coffee porter. It’s a study in how the vanilla-oak character of bourbon barrels can fold beautifully into a fruity, almost berry-like coffee.
Also returning imminently is 3 Sheeps Brewing’s Uber Joe, a coffee-cocoa-vanilla imperial stout aged with oak that was one of my 2017 beers of the year. Four-packs should arrive at retail this week or in early April. If you’re interested in trying it at the source, there’s no better time than 3 Sheeps’ sixth anniversary party on April 21.