The new six-packs on the cooler shelf — those paper-bag brown ones with red and green neck labels — made me a little nervous.
Sure, I was excited that my favorite hometown brewery, Green Bay’s Titletown Brewing, was bottling its beer after 19 years in business, and that those six-packs were finally coming to Madison more than six months after I’d heard a launch here was imminent.
But it meant I soon would be evaluating Titletown’s beer in an entirely new way.
Titletown has been a part of my life since I returned to Green Bay after college in 1999. My dad became a regular there for Friday happy hours during that time; I joined him for as many as I could because at Friday happy hours, Dennis and his crew are awesome. I organized my parents’ joint retirement party there. Far-flung family and friends gathered there the night before my sister’s wedding.
Those and dozens of smaller moments in between have added a lot of personal context to the way I feel about Titletown and its beer. And while I pay at least somewhat close attention to just about every beer I drink, I’d never studied Titletown’s beer the way I do others that I recommend in this column.
Hence the nerves. Without the good vibes to assist, would the beer hold up to that scrutiny?
What brings us to the question is a reason so common these days: A new brewing facility allowed expansion into new markets.
Titletown opened in 1996 in a railroad depot near the riverfront downtown that had served travelers from 1899 until Chicago & Northwestern ended passenger service there in the 1970s. The brewpub opened just two years after the venerable Great Dane’s debut in Downtown Madison, and it was the Green Bay’s first brewery since the Rahr brewery closed in 1966.
It built a loyal following on a perfect name, an appropriate blend of railroad and football imagery, good traditional pub food and solid beer that took a significant step forward when David Oldenburg became head brewer in 2006. He and his team brewed just under 2,000 barrels of beer in 2014, an astonishing amount considering the tiny, cramped brewing room behind the pub’s main bar. That production was enough to crack the Brewers Association’s top 100 brewpubs in the country, according to owner and founder Brent Weycker.
But Titletown will be in a different category next year after the opening of a massive new facility just across a service drive recently renamed Donald Driver Way. It can make — and bottle — about 10,000 barrels of Titletown beer a year in 30-barrel batches. (Oldenburg hopes to make about 5,000 barrels this year.) There’s a striking new tap room, larger event space, and a rooftop beer garden expected to open later this summer.
The new brewery is part of a larger redevelopment of an old vegetable canning plant that also includes offices for a financial planner, software firm, chiropractor and the like. More is on the way.
A production brewery has been a longtime consideration, Weycker said — probably building new, probably outside the central city. But the lure of the redevelopment right next door just fit too perfectly, and city boosters are rightly excited about the project.
“It was an opportunity to take part of old Green Bay and take it in a new direction,” he said. “It’s becoming what we wanted downtown to be when we came down here.”
But opening a new brewery in a nearly century-old building has trade-offs, both known and unknown, and those challenges delayed the first brew day a month past the October grand opening.
More hiccups — along with steady demand for six-packs and kegs in the home market — put off the opening of Madison as Titletown’s first market outside Green Bay until this month.
Titletown has distributor agreements to bring its beer statewide eventually and room in the new brewery to make as much as 20,000-25,000 barrels in the existing footprint. Oldenburg said Milwaukee will be next but declined to set a timetable, saying Green Bay and Madison have to be taken care of first.
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“It’s been a challenge to figure out when to send bottles where. You don’t really know how much you’re going to sell until you’re selling it,” Oldenburg said of juggling multiple markets with a production schedule. “Not sending enough is almost worse than not sending any at all.”
But the beer is here, and it comes for now in two forms, a malt yin and hop yang that are Titletown’s top two sellers.
Johnny Blood Red is a malty Irish red ale named after Lambeau-era Packers halfback Johnny McNally.
Green 19 is a terrific West Coast India pale ale with that style’s attendant citrus-pine aroma — here prickly and potent — and ample bitterness atop the Midwest’s signature firm malt base. Once called Hopasaurus Rex, it left the fun but frequently employed pun behind for a name barked out by Aaron Rodgers at the line of scrimmage dozens of times a week during the most-watched TV program in the state. Now that’s inspired marketing.
Those six-packs, though, will soon diversify. Up first (too early for my tastes) is Oktoberfest, a beer that in the past was rarely made in enough quantity to even make it to its namesake month. That’ll be followed by Boat House, which won the Bohemian pilsner gold medal at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival. This fall/winter we’ll get Dark Helmet, a schwarzbier that won bronze at the 2009 GABF; the “Spaceballs” reference in the name will be nudged toward a football theme for the label.
So shall we answer the question posed earlier? How’s the beer?
Yes, let’s, and do so by checking out my dad’s favorite Titletown offering.
Johnny Blood Red
Style: Irish red ale
What it’s like: Smithwick’s is probably the world’s best known Irish red; closer to home you might know Conway’s from Great Lakes and Lady Luck from Karben4.
Where, how much: Titletown’s beer hit Madison bottle shops on July 1; my six-pack of the year-round Johnny Blood was $9 at Trixie’s Liquor on East Wash.
The beer: The Irish red is a style that just looks like a great beer, and Johnny Blood doesn’t disappoint, pouring a gorgeous deep ruby with a moderate creamy head. The aroma speaks of malty caramel and bread but also a slightly spicy hop character. With a drink, though, the malt jumps forward and those slightly toasty, caramel notes take over from start to finish. Johnny Blood is a sweet beer, no doubt, but it’s far from cloying. Balance, robust flavor and a drinkable, medium body make it the near definition of what craft beer lovers love about beer.
Booze factor: Approximately 5.5% ABV
The buzz: So, I suppose the rating below could be met with some skepticism, given my clear and professed soft spot for Titletown. I understand, check out a bottle or a pint and judge for yourself.
Bottom line: 4 stars (out of five)