Wednesday, October 31, 2007

So Here's A Question

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I have this theory. I suspect there will be a detailed article at some point. But in the meantime, I want to get everyone's opinion because I think this could be a fun topic. So, please, post some comments.

Some beer goes really well with certain types of music. For example, Spaten Oktoberfest goes really well with live polka music. On the other hand, it would be very very difficult to go to a Cracker concert at the High Noon Saloon (Nov. 8th at 8pm - $18 advance) and drink a Bigfoot Barleywine; though Shiner Beer might be appropriate.

So, what makes some beer better with some music? Have you noticed that a particular beer goes particularly well with a certain band?

In other words, is it possible to listen to Andrew WK and not drink a PBR? Is there something other than John Coltrane for a Paulaner Salvator? I'm not sure, yet, what makes these beers seem so suitable to this music. And I'm sure there are better matches out there. Maybe it has something to do with what the French might call "terroir." Maybe the fact that a beer and a band both come from the same general region is a factor; they both come from the same "place" so to speak. Though this can't be the full reason because often the places do not match up. Maybe it has to with the qualities of the beer that match the qualities of the music. In which case it is the most bizarre case of serendipity known to man.

What are your favorite bands and what do you drink when listening to them?

A few of mine to start the festivities (other than Cracker and Coltrane). I fully admit that there may be better matches out there. But with these bands I've actually had an "ah-ha" moment with these beers:

Early 70s Bob Dylan: New Glarus' Enigma
Devo: Bell's Oberon
A Tribe Called Quest: Edmund Fitzgerald Porter
Radiohead: Aecht Schlenkerla Marzen Rauchbier (I really don't understand this one at all)

Anyway. What say you?

Monday, October 29, 2007

In Light Of The Events in San Diego I Will Hold Off On Jokes About Fire

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Dopplebocks. Along with the rauchbier and barleywine it is one of the most divisive styles. You either love 'em or hate 'em. It is the anti-IPA. No hops, practically all malt. Thick, chewy malts. We've already reviewed one of the world's finest here on this site. Typical of the style are chocolatey and roasted notes, thick body, and often subtle hints of cherry or even brandy-ish alcohol. But, like all styles, there's some room for movement. Of course, at some point the dopplebock becomes a vienna lager (lighter and lower alcohol). The ale version is often spiced and called a "christmas ale" or "holiday ale" or "celebration ale."

Autumnal FireCapital is known for its dark lagers. They've been brewing them forever; or at least since 1984. Since 1997 the Autumnal Fire has been winning awards. It routinely receives rave reviews at RateBeer and BeerAdvocate. And it easy to see why. It is a supremely drinkable doppelbock; though, if you get too caught up in it, you might regret its 8.5% ABV.

Its ruddy complexion has a thin, wispy white head with very little lacing and little, as the wine folks might say, legs. While this atypical of the style (the thick, heavier beer tend to lace quite well), it is not so alarming as to really notice. In fact Augustiner's dopplebock (Maximator, which I promise I will write about soon) is similarly handicapped. The aroma of the Autumnal Fire is not quite similar to its Oktoberfest, a malty, caramel and sweet aroma; though this has a cherry brightness and a yeasty mellowness that makes it more complex than the Oktoberfest and lacks any of the hops. There isn't really chocolate on the aroma, so to find it in the taste is moderately surprising; it is quite sneaky. But, it is there, wedged between a strong roasty caramel sweetness and long finish of subtle alcohol notes. The body, as mentioned, is on the thin side for the style with none of the typical syrupy-ness that can be so difficult. Perhaps one of the few complaints would be that the tastes don't hold together, once the sharpness hits, the flavors are gone, leaving little residual flavor. It is a difficult beer to savor.

What is most interesting is that Capital insists on releasing the Autumnal Fire in a six-pack. The style, and even Capital's version, is a heavy (heavier) beer. While it is not a "special" beer, it is not available year-round. But the style is typically sold in single bottles. Where they are super-heavy (e.g., the Samiclaus) they are sold in the 12 ounce size, while the lighter ones might be sold in a 1.25 pint bottle. In America, we might package them in "bombers" (22 ounce). In any event, six of them seems a little much. And, truly, they could probably sell four at the same price they are currently selling six.

Personally, I rarely drink more than one of these at a time. Thus, it is a waste of space and money for me to buy 6 of them. I might be more inclined to purchase them more often in singles. Which, I suppose, is probably a request for the retailers out there. However, I might also be willing to buy a 4-pack, much like New Glarus packages its "unplugged" series. This would give me enough to drink, without wondering what I'm going to do with the other 5 bottles. In the meantime they will be dated and cellared.

Does anyone have experience with aging the Autumnal Fire? How does it hold up?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Sorry For The Lateness Of This Post (or, The Post About How Awesome Josef Is)

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Generally we try to run on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule around here and get posts to you by the time you are reading your online news and having some coffee. But this week at MBR has been a little crazy; so, quite frankly, we forgot that today is Friday. It's great that people are finally starting to realize that SB 224 is going to affect them. It may be too late, we will have to wait until later today or Monday to find out what Gov. Doyle's all-powerful line-item veto has to say. In the meantime, if you are looking for all of our coverage of SB 224, click over here.

Until then, as the title to the last post implied, I wanted to talk about Josef. Well, not Josef specifically, the idea of Josef. Or, to be less obscure about it, about why we pay premiums for good beer and wine at the bars and restaurants around town.

We can sympathize as much as anyone about having to pay $5 for an Autumnal Fire at some fancy-schmancy bar. I can go out, pay $5, not including tip, for an Autumnal Fire. Or, I can buy a whole six-pack of the stuff for $9 (some other day, we'll talk about why Capital should be packaging that stuff in 4-packs, but for now, the 6-pack will do). But the fact is, even if we invite our friends who we were going to meet at that bar over to our house, there's plenty of reason to get out and mingle.

For one, the social aspect of your neighborhood bar. We all have them. Some are fancier than others. Some are more active than others. Some have TVs. Some have cigars. Brasserie V is a neighborhood bar. Wonders is a neighborhood bar. Maduro is a neighboorhood bar. JT Whitneys is a neighboorhood bar. Jade Monkey is a neighboorhood bar. These bars, and all the others around town, are a microcosm of the neighborhood, and a refuge for it. You can walk into the bar and it can instantly tell you about the neighboorhood you are in. Wonders, in its quirky layout, somewhat unique tap-list, modest prices, and laid back attitude is typical of its near-east-side sensibilities. Brasserie V exudes the yuppie-dom of the near-west-side Monroe Street corridor. And so on.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg. Which came first, the bar that looks like the neighboorhood or the neighborhood to the bar. Well, in all likelihood it's a little of both. As the bar settles in to the neighborhood and the locals frequent there, it begins to take on the requests of its patrons. Really, it's darwinian-ism at its best; we want to go places that we are comfortable. The bar will not survive if we are not comfortable there. Thus, Wonders takes on the sensibilities of the non-tenured UW Professors that live in the area, and Brasserie V looks like a tenured UW professor and Maduro has the feel of an urban hipster and so on.

So, to plagiarize Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, an enjoyable trip is all about set and setting. If we want to be loud and obnoxious and still have a grand ol' time - perhaps start the evening with a Delerium Tremens even knowing we will end it on PBR - we go to Paul's Club. It gets us in the mood. If we want to play pool, drink some fine local beer, and catch the college football game, we go to The Great Dane. If we want to relax and get to know our neighbors and shoot the breeze we go to the neighborhood bar.
Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn't you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

(c) 1983. Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo. Theme From Cheers.*
Because all of our problems are at home. Bills are in the mail. Kids are screaming. The spouse is there. The dogs and cats are there. The eight projects that have been on the to-do list for five months are there. But, we can go to our neighborhood bar, be in a comfortable, familiar place, kick back, have a drink and unwind. But, if the environment is unfamiliar, we are not comfortable there and cannot unwind. Set and Setting.

So, what does this have to do with beer and paying $5 for a beer that I can buy for $1.50 at the local market? Well. As mentioned, the neighborhood bar is not home. It takes a lot of man-power and effort to make a place that you can enjoy. It takes fixtures. It takes servers who can tend to your every need but not hover over you. It takes cooks who prepare food that is in line with expectations. It takes bartenders who know what you like and what you are going to order when you walk in. It takes someone knowing who can circulate in the bar and talk to folks and find out what their tastes are and what they like, what drinks are working, what drinks aren't.

Unfortunately none of these people work for free. So, part of that addition $3.50 (without tip) that you are spending on your $5 Autumnal Fire is going to pay their wages. But, for the most part, these people are working for little more than free. In fact, often the owner is not being paid for his time to walk around and talk to people, stand-in when the bar gets crowded, deliver food to tables, get bottles and kegs from the basement, and all of the other little things that need to be done every single night. Of course, he gets a share of the profits of the place - but only if the place has profits. The bartenders and servers are being paid wages that while, technically, are higher than those in third-world countries, barely cover necessities. The cooks are rarely seen and recognized for any of the work that they do. The servers by knowing the food and the cooks, can inject life into the dead cow on our plates. The bartenders, in adition to getting us drinks, also know the product and can help us make informed decisions - because they know us and what we drink and what we like, they can make suggestions that might just open our eyes. Because it is our neighborhood, it is their neighborhood. The people who work in these neighborhood bars know the gossip, they know the people. They know what makes us smile, and they know what is important to us. They make it a relaxing, informative environment. It's why the neighborhood bar is a fixture of American life.

So, in other words, we get quite a lot for that $3.50 premium. Not to mention the fact that some of these places have food and drinks that we simply can't get at home (do you have a fryer of beef fat to deep fry your belgian frites in? how extensive, really, is your scotch selection?). And, those that live on what little extra we are willing to throw their way, can afford to relax occassionally on the tips we give them. It seems cliche, but it seems necessary to end on what might be the most over-used phrase in show business:

"Thank you for your time ladies and gentlemen. We hope you had a great time. We did. Tip your waitresses and bartenders. We'll be here all week."

* Note: Gary Portnoy also wrote the Theme to Mr. Belvidere.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I Was Going To Post About How Awesome Josef Is

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But, instead, I should probably mention that yesterday the budget was passed. As part of the budget, an add-on bill was tacked on at the last minute by Gov. Doyle.

I'm sure you all see where this is going. Yes, you guessed correctly. That pork bill was SB 224. So, SB 224 is now law, with only the "minor" revision that eliminates the requirement that the restaurant be at least 40% of the brewpub income. The Great Dane can now brew at Hilldale. So, congrats. I suspect that you will see the first beers there by the end of the week.

In our prior posts about this topic, we've suggested that the Wisconsin Distributors have taken over the bill and turned it into something that may not be the best for brewers, but works very well for them to further cement the three-tier system. Comments in our last post suggest that the three-tier system is the greatest invention since sliced bread, being the sole force bringing all of the world's craft beer to our doorsteps.

I have a few comments about that.

First, we never said the three-tier system wasn't beneficial. It is a very useful system. The problem of this bill in particular, but the distributors in general, is that their political power further deprecates alternative methods of distribution. If the three-tier system is so awesome, why don't we have Stone, Alaskan, Brooklyn, Jolly Pumpkin, and other nationally distributed beers here? If the three-tier system is so awesome, why don't we have a greater diversity in our beer stores? If the three-tier system is so awesome why does the influence of Miller, Bud, Coors, et al determine what is available in our restaurants? Yeah. The restaurants count on the distributors to make recommendations (remember, even the CEO of Miller suggested that the biggest benefit of the distributors is that they know the local market so well). But the "recommendations" of the distributors are paid for by Miller, Bud, Coors, et al who provide incentives (either over the table, or under it) to ensure that their product gets recommended (seriously, there is no other reason that Miller Chill is still in stores).

If the three-tier system is so awesome why does it need specialized protectionist legislation?

Even despite all of that, our problem with this bill is not that it passed. Our problem is that it was passed in such an under-handed fashion. It was hardly debated. The revisions were not debated. It was appended at the last minute as a political favor on a budget that was under pressure to be passed. This small part of the budget wasn't going to prevent it from being passed. And, that, is our main problem with this bill. If after debate on its own merits, absent the influence and money of the distributors (or The Great Dane, or The Brewers Guild, or any other political action group for that matter), the senators and the assembly both passed this, it would signal a legitimate claim that reasoned discourse decided this was appropriate. But that's not what happened. Afraid that the bill couldn't pass on its own merit, the distributors took over the bill and shoved it down an unwitting public's throat.

As a result, small breweries will be severely limited in the options that they can undertake to grow their businesses. We have turned away novel distribution methods (e.g., Granite City) and we have hampered the regional competitiveness of one of the few vibrant portions of this state's economy. All because the distributors are afraid that if some brewery has a restaurant on their premises that this will somehow erode the three-tier system.

Well. Congratulations to The Great Dane. Seriously, they were just in this for themselves, and I can't say I blame them. They got, finally, what they wanted. This particular piece of legislation, though, is far from ideal. Yet, I can't help but wonder what solution would have arisen after reasoned debate.

========Edit==============
We're getting a lot of hits about this today, so I thought I'd invite all y'all to read up on everything we've done about SB 224 (The Great Dane Bill). If you click the tag at the end of this post that says "SB 224" you will see all of our posts on this subject. We've had a couple that lay out, in quite some detail, exactly what this bills does, and we also have interviews with Tyranena's Rob Larson and The Great Dane's Eliot Butler. Anyway. Thanks for reading! Keep coming back, we promise more about beer.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Not To Beat A Dead Bear

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I know we've already had post upon post upon post upon post about SB 224, and I promise you, this is not one, but I want to make a point that I hope the Wisconsin Distributors Association, Miller Brewing Company, and our state legislature (who are beholden to the Distributors) can hear, see and taste.

Bear RepublicYou see this logo to the left there? The one for a little brewery in Sonoma Valley California? The one that won Small Brewer of the Year in 2006? The one that makes a world-class IPA distributed in many fine bars here in this state? Yeah. That one. You see it? It could be illegal under the law under consideration in this state. I won't belabor the point, but this brewing company is both a Nationally distributed brewery and a brewpub. If the distributors had their way, this type of startup would not be possible here in Wisconsin.

But, this post is not about SB 224. It's about getting ready for winter and finding that one stout that you want a case of to last you. Last winter it was Bell's Java Stout - an excellent, full-bodied, coffee stout. This year, find a bottle of Bear Republic's Big Bear Stout. It's a great dry, roasted stout with a surprising citrusy/hoppy finish. Best served chilled, but not cold - let's call it about 50 degrees or so; too cold and the flavor is stifled, and while it warms up well, there is a nice sweet spot when it is slightly chilled that makes it seem much lighter than it actually is. Very nice. Very drinkable. Get a few bottles and cellar them; it should cellar quite well as the malts should calm down with age - though it may lose some of the bright hoppiness that really makes this such a fun beer.

Big Bear Black StoutAppearance: creamy, tan head with lots of small bubbles; dissipates quickly; dark, dark brown, virtually black; the color of coffee; strong lacing clings to the sides of the glass

Aroma:malty and roasted but very bright; subtle earthiness mutes a grassy almost lemony hoppiness;

Taste: strong chocolate, caramel and roasted specialty malts dominate the front giving a pronounced toffiness, while the base malts add some complexity; hops flush out the taste, but add a lasting citrus-like bitterness that reveals itself more in the aftertaste than in the bulk of the flavor profile; as it warms up the hops become more prevalent, and the flavor really smooths out. (ed: the website mentions brown sugar and molasses, which adds to the "toffee" like taste here)

Body: thick, but not nearly as chewy as expected; while very thick, it is not syrupy; the malts dominate, but the hops add a nice twist to keep the flavors fresh;

Drinkability: I drank an entire bomber by myself. Oh. It's over 8% abv, too. Yeah.

Summary: Poured into a snifter; the citrusiness of the chinook and cascade hops really help keep this beer fresh and make it distinctly American - this is a very nice stout that I could really make a consistent player. I'd love to have this on tap at my local bar. Typically I'd rail against the over-use of cascade hops. Having said that, there are two factors that I would note: 1) this beer actually IS from the American Northwest (Sonoma, CA); 2) it's use is somewhat antithetic to the general, more irritating, uses. Cascade hops are, to me at least, associated with the start of the American craft brewing movement. Now that the movement is out of its infancy it would be nice to see some creativity and diversity. Thus, I get very frustrated that every Pale Ale (India, Extra, or otherwise) has cascades and that distinctly citrusy, orange-like bitterness. However, I have no inherent problem with the cascade hops - it has a nice flavor and aroma that can really impact a beer's taste. So, to see it used in an atypical application, like in a roasty stout, is (excuse the pun) refreshing.

Website Notes: ... a blend of Belgian and English roasted barley and crystal malts ...Louisiana sweet molasses and dark brown sugar ... well hopped with Chinook and Cascade hops ... OG 1.076, ABV 8.1%, IBU 68.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Hey, Barkeep!

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We all have stupid questions. Even the beer wizards here at MBR. As one of us admitted last month, “I wasn't the full-blooded, regional craft beer snob that you see before you today.”

What rarely is admitted is one person’s stupid question is often a lot of people’s stupid question. So we are introducing a new segment, something we like to call Hey, Barkeep! On the third Friday of every month, we will be answering some of the questions of the Beer Challenged.

We want all of you to reach the “full-blooded, regional craft beer snob” level like us! We will be gathering questions from you at bars, festivals, and, of course, e-mail and answering them at madisonbeerreview.com. So come on and send us your burning questions that you have been wanting to ask but just can’t without risking the “You’re kidding, right?” look from the real live bartender.

We promise to be gentle. Or at least funny. OK, we will try to be one or the other, but we definitely promise to answer them on Hey, Barkeep!

Our first question: Who are these Fuggles people and what does Harry Potter have to do with my beer?

Muggle. Fuggle.

Fuggle is a hop variety from England. There are a few primary hop-growing regions in the world: Germany, England, and the Yakima Valley in Washington state (there are others, but these are the primary ones). Fuggles are grown in England and in the United States. The UK version was first propagated in the early 1900s and used in traditional ales and bitters there. It is a hop still very much associated with English style ales, porters and stouts.

Hops serve two primary purpose: bittering and aroma. Before the advent of refrigeration, hops were also used for their preservative power. In fact, the India Pale Ale's signature bitterness was derived from the need to preserve the pale ale on the trip from England to India. Since the advent of refrigeration, the use of hops as a preservative have fallen off.

Today, hops are far more prevalent than they were. What would have been considered a bitter IPA during the British occupation of India in the mid-to-late 1800s, would now be considered a typical American pale ale. Bitterness, once an undesired, or at least subdued and understated, quality in beer, is now one of the predominant features of any number of styles, including most modern "American" and "Imperial" styles of beer. There are dozens of different varieties of hops. Each imparts different bitterness and aroma. For example, the Cascade hop gives many American beers a citrus-y, orange-like bitterness and aroma.

Hop bitterness is primarily measured by its content of alpha acids. In general, the greater the contentration of these acids, the more bitterness the hop can impart. Alpha acid can be as low as 3-4% and as high as 16-17%. Of course, the actual bitterness imparted is also related to how long the hop is boiled. There are any number of times during the brewing process that hops can be introduced. They can be introduced during the mash (wet-hopping); this is not common, but provides a very subtle bitterness that can sometimes be confused with roastiness or a alcohol-like sharpness. In fact, this was prevalent when hops were used entirely for their preservative powers; but has fallen out of favor, for the most part, because the bittering and aroma power of the hops is destroyed.

More commonly, the wort (liquid produced from steeped grains) is boiled after it is mashed and the hops are introduced during this boil. A boil typically lasts for 60 minutes; much longer and the wort starts lightening in strength and caramelizing. Hops introduced at the 60 minute mark fully impart their bitterness. Hops can also be introduced at any point thereafter, and the trade-off is generally between bitterness and aroma. The shorter the boil, the more aroma; the longer the boil, the more bitterness. Hops can also be introduced during the primary or more likely a secondary fermentation; this is called dry-hopping and it is entirely for aroma purposes. A hop's aroma is frequently associated with its beta acid number; the higher the beta, the more aroma the hop imparts. Beta-acid typically ranges from 2-9%.

The Fuggle is an "old-skool" hop. It has a mild, grassy, floral aroma. It's powers come mostly in the late part of the flavor profile, so it is very much considered a finishing hop. It's alpha-acid is typically in the 4-5.5% range making it on the low-end of the bitterness scale. It's beta-acid is typically around 2-3%. Thus, this hop is both mild bitterness and moderate aroma. It is considered a subtle hop these days, so it is used more for it's "old-skool-ness" than for its bittering or aroma powers. It is typically combined with other hops and adds complexity to the hop profile. If you can detect a floral, chamomile-like flavor in the aftertaste of your beer this may be from the use of Fuggles hops.

These low-alpha-acid hops have fallen out of favor among brewers in general and American craft brewers specifically. The past few seasons have been particularly bad for hops, and it is predicted that the scarcity of hops (and barley) will cause beer prices to increase. To combat this scarcity, hop growers (and users) are becoming more sophisticated in their usage and choosing to use small portions of high-alpha-acid hops instead of a large quantity of low-alpha-acid hops. These high-alpha-acid hops have also been bred to have varying levels of beta-acids and aroma profiles.

Since the Fuggle has low bitterness and a mild aroma, it's use is somewhat unnecessary. As the hop shortage gets worse, its use is likely to diminish further.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

City Brewery and the Contract Brewery

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Somewhere along the line "contract brew" became a dirty word in the craft brewing industry. It is unclear why contract brewing, where a brewery brews beers other than its own, is so looked down upon. But the fact is, there are plenty of great brewers out there who just don't have a brewery to use.

The problem with contract brewing is that it introduces an unknown into the brewing process. If there is insufficient quality control then the beer will not taste like it should. But this is a fault of the brewery seeking the contractor. The contracted brewery will, typically, do exactly what it is told to do. If the contracting brewery requires a high level of quality control, the contracted brewery will brew to that level of control. If the contracting brewery is submitting a bad recipe to be brewed, that is not the fault of the contracted brewery. In other words, if a contracted beer is not any good, the majority of the blame lies with the contracting brewer, not with the contracted brewery.

There are some times where the brewery is just the machines. In some cases, like at Minhaas/Berghoff in Monroe, the contracting brewery sends it own brewer (and sometimes its own employees) and its own ingredients to the contracted brewery. In these cases, the contracted brewery is simply machines. In which case, there is little distinction between using a contract brewery and having one's own brewery.

All this is to say that there is nothing inherently wrong with contract brewing. If it's a bad beer, it's a bad beer. But just because it has been contract brewed does not mean it is necessarily a bad beer (or even should have a presumption that it is a bad beer). City Brewing Company in LaCrosse, WI is a contract brewery. In addition to their own beers, City has been contracted to brew Smirnoff Ice, Mike's Hard Lemonade, Pabst, Rolling Rock, and Sam Adams - among numerous others.

LaCrosse LagerRecently, however, the brewery itself has become a "pure" contract brewery. City Brewing Company sold off its own brands to a local group that will take over marketing and distribution; though City Brewery will continue to brew them. With all of that said, City's products have fairly high availability across the state. LaCrosse Lager and City Lager are both well-known as low-priced, good pale lagers. They aren't the greatest beers in the world, but they've never tried to be. They are good, cheap beers. They also make some seasonal beers: The Golden Leaf Wheat Ale, City Cream Ale, City Winter Porter, and the City Festbier. It's the first and the last that we are concerned with today.

The Golden Leaf Wheat Ale is a solid, albeit second-tier, wheat ale. It pours a slightly hazy golden color, with a moderate white head that dissipates quickly. It has a faint aroma of fruitiness and sweet clover, but is otherwise low-aroma. It has a smooth, sweet flavor of both maltiness and honey. The hops are surprisingly pleasant with a sharp bite in the finish, but they otherwise stay out of the way. It is a fine beer, neither over nor under-whelming.

The City Festbier is a solid Oktoberfest beer. While it has yet to be seen in the wild here in Madison, it has greater availability in the LaCrosse area and in the North. Pours a thick, white foamy head with moderate carbonation and copper color. The aroma is sweet and malty with a faint earthiness that is equal parts fruity and roast-y. The flavor is all sweet, in fact it tastes almost, though not quite, artifically sweet. There are very little lingering flavors, and has a clean finish. Throughout the course of the beer the sweetness fades a bit, making this a very drinkable beer. It doesn't warm up very well, however, so drink it quickly.

By the way, the City Festbier was brought to MBR by one of our readers. This is something that we hearily endorse. If there's an interesting beer out there that you think should be reviewed, either let us know where we can get it, or bring us a can (or bottle) or two. Thanks David!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Great American Beer Festival - Denver, CO

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No, we didn't go. We wish, but alas, it just wasn't in the budget.

However, some of our fine Wisconsin Breweries did go. Capital, Miller, Leinenkugel's, New Glarus, Sprecher, Lakefront and The Grumpy Troll were all winners this year, Congratulations:

Capital Brewery Company, Inc.
7734 Terrace Ave
Middleton, WI USA
www.capital-brewery.com
2006: Gold, Autumnal Fire (German-style Strong Bock); Silver, Eisphyre (German-style Strong Bock)
2007: Silver, Capital Munich Dark (European Dark/Muncher Dunkel)

Central Waters Brewing Co
351 Allen St
Amherst, WI USA
www.centralwaters.com
2006: Gold, Bourbon Cherry Stout (Wood and Barrel Aged Strong Beer)

The Grumpy Troll
105 S. Second Street
Mount Horeb, WI USA
http://www.thegrumpytroll.com/
2007: Bronze, Amnesia (Baltic-Style Porter)

Hereford & Hops Brewpub
2305 Sherman Street
Wausau, WI USA
www.herefordandhops.com

Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company
1 Jefferson Ave
Chippewa Falls, WI USA
www.leinie.com
2006: Gold, Leinenkugel's Creamy Dark (American Style Dark Lager); Silver, Leinenkugel's Sunset Wheat (Herb and Spice Beer)
2007: Gold, Leinenkugel's Berry Weiss (Fruit Beer or Vegetable Beer)

Lakefront Brewery
1872 N Commerce St
Milwaukee, WI USA
www.lakefrontbrewery.com
2006: Gold, New Grist (Experimental Beer)
2007: Silver, New Grist (Gluten Free Beer)

Miller Brewing Company
3939 W Highland Blvd
Milwaukee, WI USA
www.millerbrewing.com
2006: Gold, Mickey's Malt Liquor (!?!? American-Style Specialty Lager); Gold, Red Dog (American Cream Ale or Lager); Silver, Miller High Life (American-Style Lager); Silver, Milwaukee's Best Light (American-Style Light Lager); Silver, Icehouse (American-Style Specialty Lager); Bronze, HG 800 (American-Style Specialty Lager); Southpaw Light (American-Style Light Lager); Bronze, Henry Weinhard Private Reserve (American Cream Ale or Lager); Fred Miller's Classic Chocolate Lager (Herb and Spice Beer)
2007: Gold, Hamm's (American-Style Lager); Gold, Icehouse (American-Style Specialty Lager); Silver, Henry Weinhard's Classic Dark (American-Style Dark Lager); Silver, Mickey's Ice (American-Style Specialty Lager); Silver, Miller Genuine Draft (American-Style Lager); Bronze, Mickey's Malt Liquor (American-Style Specialty Lager); Bronze, Frederick Miller Classic Chocolate Lager (Herb and Spice Beer)

New Glarus Brewing Company
119 Elmer Road
New Glarus, WI USA
www.newglarusbrewing.com
2006: Mid-Size Brewing Company and Mid-Size Brewing Company Brewer of the Year; Gold, Belgian Red (Fruit and Vegetable Beer); Cherry Stout (Wood and Barrel-Aged Beer)
2007: Bronze, Raspeberry Tart (Fruit and Vegetable Beer)

Northwoods Brewing Corp LLC
3560 Oakwood Mall Drive
Eau Claire, WI USA
www.northwoodsbrewpub.com

Rock Bottom Brewery - Milwaukee
740 N Plankinton Ave.
Milwaukee, WI USA
www.rockbottom.com

Sprecher Brewing Co.
701 W Glendale Ave
Glendale, WI USA
www.sprecherbrewery.com
2007: Shakparo Ale (Gluten Free Beer)

Titletown Brewing Company
200 Dousman Street
Green Bay, WI USA
www.titletownbrewing.com

Water Street Brewery
1101 N Water St
Milwaukee, WI USA
www.waterstreetbrewery.com

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Great Dane Dilemma Part IV - The Great Dane

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This is the last of our four part series on legislation currently being considered that would enable The Great Dane to serve its own beer at its Hilldale location. This legislation is currently known as Senate Bill 224. For a detailed look at SB 224, you can read our summary here, and you can view the actual bill here. As we pointed out, this legislation is not without controversy. Many small brewers, including Tyranena Brewing Company, think that this legislation could seriously hurt their ability to compete both here in Wisconsin and on a regional and national level; you can read our interview with Tyranena's owner and head brewer, Rob Larson, here.

In late 2005, co-owner and President of The Great Dane, Mr. Eliot Butler, was introduced to the idea of putting a Great Dane Pub at Hilldale. Mr. Butler, knowing that the current legal environment was against him, nonetheless believed The Great Dane would be successful there whether it could be an active brewery or not. The location would reach its greatest potential as a brewpub, but could still be successful without it. So, he and his business partners agreed to the location. But this story actually begins a few years before that.

In 1994, The Great Dane Pub and Brewing Company set up at the Fess Hotel Building in downtown Madison. It was the first operating brewery in Madison since the Fauerbach Brewery closed its doors in 1966. By 1999, The Great Dane was on its way to becoming the Madison institution that it is today. Around that time, a small brewpub up in the Fox River Valley, appropriately called Fox River Brewing Company, was trying to get the laws changed so that it could have more than two locations. Mr. Butler remembers, "I spoke at the Senate committee hearing that Fox River Brewing instigated that led to the exemption for 'small brewers' (under 4000 barrels cumulative) allowing them to have six retail locations as opposed to two. I begged the senators to set the limit at 10,000 [barrels] and failed due to the wholesalers' power." These committee hearings led to revisions that resulted in a minor exception to the general rule that "tied houses" were prohibited. Namely, that a brewery can have two Class B licenses, but can distribute to up to four more locations if its total brewing capacity is less than 4000 barrels per year.

Clearly, Mr. Butler had his eyes on expanding The Great Dane. In fact, in 2002 The Great Dane opened its second location in Fitchburg. Around this time, Mr. Butler took another shot at convincing the legislature to change the laws. In Mr. Butler's words, "I chose the wrong lobbyist ... those efforts cost me lots of money and went nowhere."

So, in 2005, when Mr. Butler had a decision to make about Hilldale, he chose the same lobbyists that had been successful for the Wisconsin Brewer's Guild.
"I just believed that the current law is so unreasonable and unfair that we would eventually succeed. ... After meeting with [the lobbyist] I was hopeful that the law would be altered in the Spring of 2007. I knew I was taking a big risk, not just with the success of the new store, but with the entire Great Dane brand and concept. Perhaps it was my belief in the excellence of our restaurant operations that provided the courage to move ahead."
Of course, it is now Fall of 2007 and the law has not been changed.

The Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association is a formidable opponent. As has been noted before, no law regarding alcohol passes in this state without the approval of the distributors. The idea that the cap of 4,000 barrels per year would have to be raised would have to have the approval of the distributors. And, thus, the political process of getting that cap raised began. "I was not so naive to think the wholesalers would give us these 'concessions' without getting something in return. Or that they would agree to lift all limits, as I and every other craft brewer would love to see happen."

Modern politics is a game of compromise. Whether it should be or not is another debate best left for another day. But, the fact is, very few legislators are going to go about changing the alcohol laws without first asking the distributors what they think, at least not for the request of a single brewpub. In a perfect world, The Great Dane could propose a law that simply changed the barrel cap from 4,000 barrels to 10,000 barrels - a simple proposal suggested by Tyranena's head brewer in our last post and proposed to the State Senate by Mr. Butler back in 1999. A proposal that was rejected by the distributors.

Bear with me please, but let's analyze this suggestion for a moment.

The following information is based on tax filings in 2006. The Wisconsin beer tax for producers less than 50,000 barrels is $1 per barrel; we will assume that breweries this low on the production scale are not exporting out of Wisconsin in any significant amount (exported barrels are not taxed at all). In 2006, 52 breweries in Wisconsin brewed less than 5,000 barrels (paid less than $5000 in beer taxes). All but 10 of them brewed less than 1,000 barrels. Which means that 10 breweries in the state brewed between 1,000 and 5,000 barrels of beer last year. We know that 1 of those 10 is The Great Dane. Which leaves 9 breweries that brew more than 1,000 barrels and less than 5,000 barrels. There were only 3 breweries in the 5,000 to 10,000 barrel range. What does this mean? Well, this means that raising the cap from 4,000 to 10,000 barrels would affect, at most, 13 breweries (even if we assume that all 10 of them are between 3,500 and 5,000 barrels), one of whom is The Great Dane. Such a cap increase would allow those 13 breweries to distribute to up to 6 locations, instead of 2. How many of them would take advantage? Half of them? Clearly, not all of them; because some of them could have 2 (or even 6) now, but they don't. (If you're interested in where these numbers came from, please see Rep. Terese Berceau's website; somewhat interestingly, it comes from her proposal to raise the beer tax in Wisconsin).

The reality is that the Wisconsin Beer Distributors are putting up a fight that really only affects, at most, half a dozen breweries. Nonetheless, it is a significant move, as any of those 42 that are less than 1,000 barrels could find a market and take off; not to mention those starting up in the future. And, the fact remains that the distributors are opposed to any further erosion of the three-tier system in any form.

So the battle rages on, and the current proposal, SB 224, represents the compromise that the distributors are willing to make to allow 10,000 barrels per year at 6 locations. It basically requires a brewer to make a choice when it starts: brewery or brewpub. If brewery, it must fit fully in the three-tier system; If brewpub, it must stay below 10,000 barrels.

As Mr. Butler notes, "new start-up brewing companies are going to need to have more developed business plans and financing and exit strategies than before." In other words, the owners will need to understand the law and have these options fully mapped out in a defined business plan. The business plan will have to include what strategies will be once these limits are reached and what types of funding will have to exist to stay above or below these limits. Brewing companies that choose the distribution route will have to be creative in how their beer is marketed; opening an on-premises (or off-premises for that matter) restaurant will not be an option. If a brewing company chooses to become a brewpub it must be willing to abandon (spin-off?) its restaurants once it needs to surpass the 10,000 barrel limit. Of course, as Mr. Butler notes, the other option is to simply expand out-of-state once the brewery reaches its in-state limits.

It is useful to be reminded that SB 224 has not yet passed. It is not yet law. It can, and likely will, change from the form it is currently in. Nonetheless, it is a legitimate compromise. It would allow The Great Dane, and other brewpubs in the state, its additional locations and a reasonable path for growth, even if that growth is capped at 10,000 barrels. Current breweries would be grandfathered to the current laws (allowing restaurant permits and up to 2 Class B licenses). Of course, the breweries can still have a Class B license, just not a Class B license and restaurant license; so, breweries could still have a tasting room. On the other hand, starting as a brewpub, even one that's income is less than 40% from sales of food, is an attractive option for entering the market, both locally and regionally. Preventing this income stabilizing and marketing opportunity would handicap small brewers vis-a-vis the region in competing against beers from other states. Moreover, preventing such additional income streams could reduce some of the risks that in-state brewers might be willing to take. Without the safety of non-beer related income, a brewery might be less willing to take a risk that would impact its only source of income, even despite the opportunity for reward for taking that risk.

As of this writing, the Wisconsin Brewers Guild has yet to officially endorse SB 224; in fact, they "officially" oppose it. The Wisconsin Distributor's Association endorses it. Strangely, the Wisconsin Independent Businesses endorses it. The Wisconsin Restaurant Association and the Tavern League are undecided or have reservations. Miller Brewing Company "officially" is undecided, but its CEO has recently made statements strongly supporting the three-tier system ("The three-tier system is the best business model for the beer industry").

For his part, Mr. Butler has this to say:
I do truly believe that the benefits of the bill outweigh the loss of 'total freedom' for future brewers in Wisconsin.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Great Dane Dilemma Part III - Small Breweries

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The first two parts of this series are covered here and here. In those posts, we summarized, in some detail, the particulars of Wisconsin Senate Bill 224.

SB 224 is a big deal. As consumers, we don't really think about the details of getting beer from Point A (the kettle) to Point B (our stomach). In many respects, we've never really had to worry about it; free market economies give freedom to the producers to pick their channels of distribution, with some limitations. For example, the current state of affairs says that breweries (defined, generally speaking, as any entity that produces fermented malt beverages for consumption by the general public) have to sell to distributors and distributors sell to retailers. The general rule is that breweries cannot sell straight to retailers, or even straight to consumers.

Obviously, there are exceptions to the general rule that allow small breweries some flexibility in a crowded three-tier distribution system. Breweries can sell bottles and cans at the brewery, so long as these bottles and cans are not consumed on the premises. This is a Class A license. Breweries can have tasting rooms, so that consumers visiting the brewery can sample the beers there. This is a Class B license. Breweries can prepare and serve food at the brewery if they have a Restaurant license. Colloquially, we usually call a brewery that has a Class B and is a restaurant a "brewpub." A brewery can have two Class B licenses; this limitation to the exception (because remember, the general rule is that no beer goes from brewer to consumer without first going through a distributor)was to prevent large brewers (i.e., Miller, Pabst, and Schlitz) from simply opening up a series of bars all around the state and keeping small brewers from having the same opportunities. A brewery can have up to 20 restaurant licenses (although still only two Class B licenses), and, if it is suffiently small (under 4,000 barrels per year), can supply up to four of the restaurant with its own beer ("tied houses").

This was an important development for the encouragement of small breweries in the state. Allowing small brewers to serve food at their breweries, and to serve their beer at their breweries would allow small-time brewers to gain entry into the market. Consumers could try the beer; then, if they liked it, could find the bottles and cans at their local retailer. Without this outlet, small brewers could only compete with the big brewers at the shelf, without any context or consumer knowledge.

In this environment, numerous small breweries came to thrive in Wisconsin. Among them, Capital, New Glarus, Lakefront, Lake Louie, Central Waters, South Shore, and Tyranena, among others. Nestled in the hills and low-lands along the stretch of I-94 from Madison to Milwaukee, Tyranena brews exceptional beers. Tyranena is perhaps best known for its hoppy beers, such as the Bitter Woman (an India Pale Ale - aka "IPA"), and the Bitter Woman From Hell (an Extra IPA), and the Hop Whore (an infrequently brewed Imperial IPA). But it also has a terrifically smooth and mild American brown ale called Rocky's Revenge, the light and sweet Three Blondes Honey Blonde, and an amazingly subtle and complex Oktoberfest beer.

Like most breweries, if you were to visit (and it is highly recommended that you do) you could take a tour of their facility and then try some of the beers in the tasting room. On the weekends in the summer you can sit on the patio and enjoy a band or two. You can also participate in their charity bike ride or their charity beer run.

The point here is that Tyranena has quite a few ways of getting people to their brewery and getting its name in front of consumers. Other breweries use other means to get their name in front of consumers. For example, Ale Asylum or Milwaukee Brewing Company, or Central Waters might have a restaurant at their brewing facility to attract potential buyers. And, this, says Tyranena's head brewer, Rob Larson, is part of the problem with SB 224.
"If they choose to become a brewery with a restaurant they must get a brewpub license and they are then limited to 10,000 barrels per year in production. Many breweries open as a brewpub to ensure a market for their beer. A practice that is becoming increasingly important as the wholesalers are consolidating and there are few options to entering markets."

Mr. Larson goes on to point out that any brewery starting under the rules proposed by SB 224 would have to qualify as a brewpub if it wanted the additional market benefits of having a restaurant. One of those rules that is part of the current bill is that the restaurant activity must account for at least 40% of sales. Something that is very difficult for a brewery that wishes to focus on distribution and use the restaurant as supplemental income or for market development. And because this new brewery could not be a brewpub, it would be prevented from opening multiple locations with restaurants. Yet, Mr. Larson goes on to point out, a brewpub can also distribute. So, you end up with the inequitable and unfair result that brewpubs can compete with breweries, but not vice versa.
"A brewery would not be able to operate a restaurant at their tasting room, but the tavern down the street that sells less than 40 percent food would be permitted to sell beer and food? These are simply artificial deliniations that limit the future growth opportunities of breweries."

Mr. Larson is blunt about the impact of SB 224: "This legislation limits potential avenues for growth for our brewery." He further suggests that Wisconsin breweries would also be at a competitive disadvantage in the national marketplace:
"It is difficult to know how business is going to advance before it even starts. Goose Island started as a brewpub. Great Lakes started as a brewpub. But in Wisconsin, under SB 224, a brewpub would have to give up its up to 5 locations to become a larger brewer. Do we really want to limit the potential of Wisconsin breweries and businesses? Put them at a competitive disadvantage to out of state breweries?"

"I think almost everyone in the Wisconsin Brewers Guild is in favor of allowing the Great Dane to have additional locations so long as it does not adversely affect the opportunities for other breweries and so long as we are all treated equitably," Mr. Larson says. The problem is crafting a solution that would allow The Great Dane to have additional locations. Mr. Larson makes two suggestions, both of which are simple, would allow The Great Dane to expand, and yet leave market flexibility for small breweries: lift the [tied house] cap from 4,000 barrels per year to 10,000 barrels per year; allow all breweries to have 5 Class B licenses.

"However," Mr. Larson notes, "to pass any legislation in this state that has to do with alcohol you need the [political] support of the the wholesalers." And both of his solutions would further erode the three-tier system. "The wholesalers are interested in protecting their tier in the three tier system which has come under attack with a couple of recent Supreme Court opinions. So the wholesalers are doing everything they possibly can to strengthen state statutes to their benefit, which does not necessarily coincide with the interests of small breweries." Specifically in reference to SB 224, Mr. Larson says that the original bill drafted by The Great Dane was two pages. It is interesting to note that now that the Wisconsin Beer Distributor's Association has officially endorsed SB 224, the bill has swelled to over 26 pages.

Clearly, Mr. Larson, and by extension his Tyranena Brewing Company, is not in favor of SB 224 as it is currently written. He sees it as specialty legislation largely written by a biased trade-group opportunistically taking advantage of an isolated situation to further its own agenda at the expense of Wisconsin's small brewers.

It basically comes down to the fact that the state statutes are screwed up and written for another time. But this patchwork approach to permit The Great Dane to open an additional location and strengthen the legal stranglehold of the wholesalers is not necessarily in the best interest of small brewers. If SB 224 had been in effect 10 years ago, The Corner Pub would likely not exist today, the Ale Asylum would likely not exist today, Rowlands Calumet would likely not exist today, Granite City would not be welcome in Wisconsin. The wonderful diversity of the Wisconsin brewing industry would not exist. Instead it would be a state mandated cookie cutter approach where there would be only places like Great Danes, Rock Bottoms, Millers and Leinies.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Great Dane Dilemma Part II

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A few weeks ago, we started some discussion about what we've called The Great Dane Dilemma. For the uninitiated or formalistic, the definition of "dilemma" is: "state of uncertainty or perplexity especially as requiring a choice between equally unfavorable options." A more appropriate word does not exist in the English language.

The "state of uncertainty or perplexity" is embodied in Senate Bill 224. It is instructive, however, to look at the current state of affairs that has instigated the design of SB 224. At the end of prohibition, laws were put into place that would protect small brewers in the retail marketplace. There was a legitimate fear that the larger breweries such as Miller, Pabst, and Schlitz would oligopolize the Wisconsin beer market by saturating the state with tied houses.

In order to protect consumers from a consolidated market, the Wisconsin Legislature passed the law that is currently in effect. This law prevented breweries from creating "tied houses" but allowed a small number of "brew pubs." The distinction is technical, but important. At a "tied house" beer is not brewed on premises, but the restaurant only serves beer from one source. At a "brew pub" the beer is brewed on premises and sold at that location. There is also an exception to the "tied house" law that allows small breweries, defined as a producer of less than 4,000 barrels, to have a limited number "tied houses."

This all comes together with The Great Dane because The Great Dane has reached the "brew pub" limit, they have two. The current law would allow The Great Dane to distribute from those two brew pubs to their third location at Hilldale under the small brewer exception to tied houses, if The Great Dane stays below the 4,000 barrel limit. If they exceed that limit, they would have to sell their own beer to an independent distributor, suffer the 30% mark-up, then buy it back. As it currently operates, The Great Dane is over the 4,000 barrel limit because of its brew pub operations and outside distribution; The Great Dane sells to distributors and its beer can be found at various bars around the city.

Thus, on the one hand, we have unfavorable option number one: the law stays the same and The Great Dane is unable to supply its Hilldale location without going through an independent distributor while maintaining its two brew pubs and continuing to distribute outside of its own establishments. Why is this an unfavorable option? Primarily because it is not in accordance with the purpose behind the law. Recall, that the purpose was to prevent market saturation by big breweries. Clearly, The Great Dane is not a "big brewery." Three brew pubs and a nominal amount of distribution in the Madison area is far from market saturation. Yet, the law is preventing exactly the sort of entrepreneurship and craft brewing that should be encouraged.

It would be folly to note just The Great Dane because there are a lot of great brewpubs in this state that would be unable to expand. The Milwaukee Ale House, for example, is looking at further expansion.

On the other had, we have unfavorable option number two: Senate Bill 224. SB 224 changes the rules regarding how breweries and brewpubs co-exist. Under the current rules, a brewery can hold a Class B license for up to 2 facilities, regardless of how many barrels the brewery produces. A Class B license allows the brewer to sell fermented malt beverages (beer) for consumption on premises. If the brewer is "small" (under 4,000 barrels a year), it can distribute to up to four locations. And, a brewery can hold a restaurant permit. So, a brewery like Tyranena can sell its beer and operate a restaurant at its brewery because it has a Class B license and could acquire a restaurant permit. If it wanted, it could open a second location with a restaurant and Class B license.

SB 224 changes the brewery/brewpub dynamic and sets out distinctions between being a brewery and being a brewpub. Breweries must adhere strictly to the three-tier distribution (brewery, distributor, retailer), while brewpubs do not. However, the trade-off is that a "brewpub" is very narrowly defined and one cannot be both a brewery and a brewpub. And, SB 224 prohibits a brewery from holding a restaurant permits; if the brewery wants to serve food and beer, it must qualify as a brewpub.

So, what does it take to be a brewpub under SB 224? Well, first, the brewery must produce less than 10,000 barrels per year. This would rule out all but the very smallest Wisconsin breweries. Thus, breweries such as Tyranena, Grays, New Glarus, Capital, Viking, South Shore, and Lakefront would all be prohibited from operating restaurants on their premises; something all of them can do, if they desire, under the current law. Second, the brewpub must brew everything on premises; this is not really much of an issue, but does act to prohibit "tied houses" (Gray's Tied House in Verona is not, despite its name, a true tied house because it brews on premises) and would prevent a situation like at Granite City where part of the brewing process is performed off-site and some of it is performed on-site. The brewpub must operate a restaurant where food sales account for at least 40% of all sales. This is a tricky provision because it requires that each location have sales of food over 40%; thus, it would foreclose a brewpub operating a bottling brewery where they happen to serve some food. It would also prevent small breweries from utilizing restaurant operations as another income stream until beer revenues stabilize. For an example, consider Ale Asylum on Madison's East Side: food does not account for 40% of their total revenue because it is primarily a brewery, but without the food, income streams might be scarce or unstable. Ale Asylum, under SB 224 as it is currently written, would not qualify as a brewpub and thus would be foreclosed from serving food at the brewery.

Next, in addition to the above requirements for a brewpub license, the brewpub must also hold a Class B license and sell beer manufactured by others. This provision is very clearly a distributor protection clause. The distributors want to make sure that every restaurant or pub in the state has to purchase something from them. And, the final requirement of significance is that the brewpub cannot hold a Class A license, a brewer's permit, or warehousing or distribution permits. You will recall that a Class A license allows the breweries to sell (in quantity) bottled beer for consumption off-premises. Again, this provision is very clearly distibutor protectionism, as it prevents any small-time competition to the three-tier distribution system. Presumably, the fear is that if all of the brewpubs could sell bottles and warehouse at their facilities, consumers could just go straight to the source instead of driving down the beer store which is supplied by the distributors.

What SB 224 represents then is an attempt to distinguish between breweries, which can only distribute through the three-tier system, and a very narrow exception to the three-tier system for brewpubs. If a brewer meets the brewpub requirements, it can hold up to six brewpubs in the state.

SB 224 carves out a niche for brewpubs and it does a great job of that. It would allow reasonable expansion by brewpubs. And, believe it or not, would allow brewpubs to bottle up to 1000 additional barrels, on top of the 10,000 barrels the brewpub permit allows, for retail sale. So, this is a great law for brewpubs. Or at least until they want to exceed the 10,000 barrel limit or want a seventh location.

We called it "unfavorable" a little bit ago, and you can probably start to see why some see SB 224 as an unfavorable law. Brewers are forced to choose between being a brewpub and being a brewery. One cannot be both under SB 224. Thus, it forecloses income streams that small breweries take advantage of. For example, Grays would be unable to open Grays Tied House. Ale Asylum could not have their wonderful premises. Tyranena would not be able to run a restaurant at its facility. This income stream is not only surplus income, but it generates tremendous amounts of goodwill for the breweries and craft-brewing in general.

This has been an in-depth look at what SB 224 accomplishes. We aren't judging whether this is "good" or "bad" for the industry. We've merely noted that it changes how the industry currently works and in what ways the industry will be impacted. As for judging this bill, we will have two interviews in the coming days (Wednesday and Friday): an interview with Rob Larson, owner and brewer at Tyranena Brewing Company in Lake Mills, WI; and, an interview with Eliot Butler, co-owner and business manager of The Great Dane. They both have some really great insight on SB 224 and its impact on their brewing facilities, and the industry in general.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Oktoberfest - The End

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And, as October begins, we leave with the momentum of our Oktoberfest posts to carry your beer buying decisions. Indeed, we've been talking to you guys on the streets and it seems our comments have helped quite a bit. So, thank you!

So, like Amazon and other online retailers, this is the part where we tell you: "if you like this, you may also like _______________." And the blanks here are all styles that are similar, but not exactly like, an Oktoberfest beer, aka marzen.

Like we said Wednesday, the marzen style is defined by a pronounced caramel maltiness, it is usually lightly to moderately hopped with noble (European) hops. Its color ranges from dark gold to dark amber and it generally has a foamy off-white head. It is best served cold (45 degrees or thereabouts), but warms up well. And, there is a definite preference towards drinkability; it has a medium-light to medium body and typically little aftertaste. These are not terribly complex beers, though there is some capability with the malt profile to show-off a bit. But, overall, there are not fruity, spicy, or overly earthy tones either in aroma or flavor.

Captial Winter SkalUp first, is the brother of the marzen, the Vienna Lager. The Vienna is very similar to the marzen, with the only primary difference being a heavier body, and not quite as much emphasis on the caramel. Of course this similarity in style seems natural, the drive from Munich to Vienna is only 400 kilometers, about 270 miles or the distance from Madison to Minneapolis. Close indeed. The Vienna lager is typically a slightly heavier beer than the marzen. It is a bit smoother, with a thicker mouthfeel and lower carbonation. Sometimes it can have a syrupy feel to it. And, it is generally low-hopped with noble hops. For a perfect example of a Vienna lager, check out Capital's Winter Skal when it comes out. While they can be consumed in a pint glass, they can also hold up well in a snifter or red-wine style stemmed glass.

Another similar style, is more like a cousin of the Oktoberfest: the amber ale. You can think of the beer world divided into two main areas: ales and lagers. The only real distinction is a technical one (though it turns out to be a very large distinction), lager yeasts are bottom fermenting while ale yeasts are top fermenting. Lager yeasts are typically fermented at cold temperatures (as low as below 32 degrees farenheit) while ale yeasts ferment at room temperature (or thereabouts). For our purposes here, without going into too much detail, the biggest distinction that you will find is that ale yeasts will impart a subtle fruitiness. The amber, of course, has a number of derivatives: the american amber, the irish red, and the alt-bier (an amber ale that is fermented in a lagered style at cold temperatures). Amber ales have the typical caramel sweetness and are moderately hopped. Of course, the American Amber can be very highly hopped. The Irish Red is much smoother, and is often served from the tap on nitrogen (as opposed to CO2, nitrogen provides a firm, smooth, velvety carbonation). While the alt-bier is the schizophrenic cousin: it is typically a red recipe that uses ale yeasts but ferments at lager temperatures, this eliminates some of the fruitiness, but the ale yeast provides a smoother, less crisp finish.

Finally, last, but certainly not least: the rauch (smoked) bier. You either love 'em or hate 'em, there are really no two ways about it. Generally the rauch recipes are based on marzen styles, though some breweries have used helles, pilsner, or bock recipes. The malts, before being used, are put in a smoke house where they are smoked over beechwood, or sometimes oak, or other woods. They are very dry. The strongest of them can leave what feels like a vacuum in your mouth. The body is generally medium-light to light. Some of them can taste like you are drinking a sausage. Seriously. It turns out that this years Unplugged beer from New Glarus will be a Rauch beer. We love rauchbiers here at MBR, so rest assured that the day this one is out, there will be a review here.

So, get out and try some of these other styles. If you like Oktobers, these are all similar, and, as you can see, Wisconsin breweries, retailers, and bars have them.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Oktoberfest - The Penultimate Review

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Oktoberfest started as a simple marriage celebration between two royal families, and is now a world-wide celebration of German heritage from Munich to La Crosse. This has been great experiment for us here at MBR, it was the first in-depth style study that we've done on the site; if we say so ourselves, it went swimmingly. We've learned quite a lot during the course of our month of reviewing a single style of beer. We've learned that even after weeks of the same style, one beer can jump out and grab you. We've learned that name doesn't really mean a whole lot. We've learned that the Germans make damn fine beer.

As a preview of what's to come here at MBR. Today we'll hit our last true Oktoberfest, from Hacker-Pschorr, one of the 6 Munich breweries. Coming up Friday we'll look at styles that are similar to the Oktoberfest, if not strictly in keeping with the style. Then next week we are going to spend all three posts on a single topic near and dear to a lot of our hearts. That's the near future; until then ...

You'll recall, the six Munich breweries are Spaten, Paulaner, Augustiner, Hofbrau, and Lowenbrau. You may also recall that of those, only 2 remain as independently owned breweries: Augustiner and Hofbrau. Spaten and Lowenbrau are owned by InBev, Paulaner and Hacker Pschorr are owned by Heineken. Surprisingly, Lowenbrau's Oktoberfestbier has remained elusive despite its global distributor. Not surprisingly, absent the global distribution chain, both Hofbrau and Augustiner remain nearly impossible to find stateside.

While we can't say for certain here, because we can't compare today's beers with beers from pre-corporate ownership, the general consensus is that there has been a notable decrease in quality since their purchase. Also interestingly, the Hofbrau and Augustiner Oktoberfestbiers get universally low ratings at RateBeer and BeerAdvocate. This is hard to believe because it's sort of like saying Windy City Hotdogs aren't very representative of Chicago-style Dogs, or that Bucky Badger cheese curds are bad examples of the curd style. It's a non-sequitur. It is saying that the only breweries officially allowed to make beer for the festival for which the style is named is a bad example of the style. It cannot be. Would you say that Wisconsin State Fair creme puffs are bad creme puffs because they are just too fluffy for the style? NO. It wouldn't make sense. As one reviewer said of the Hofbrau Oktoberfestbier "A fair Oktoberfest, not a bad beer but pretty standard." I suppose, in the most literal sense of the word "standard" it is - it is the standard. Or, as per the Augustiner "Not as good as I was expecting." Then, it seems, that your expectations were off.

And, this is something that we have learned through this whole Oktoberfest tasting: everyone has their interpretation of the style. It's still possible to make beer that isn't good, don't get me wrong. But, the style has some wiggle room. From the sounds of it, the style encompasses everything from Augustiner to Hacker-Pschorr (as you will see, HS was the "darkest" of the sampled Oktobers). But, there are some common characteristics: first and foremost, caramel; also, an emphasis on maltiness as the primary flavor component; they aren't terribly complex beers; they finish cleanly and utilize noble hops almost entirely as there is very little hop aroma; the colors range from golden/light copper to deep amber; while some deviation in the strength of the caramel is not unusual, there are very few "other" flavors (e.g., New Glarus' spices are definitely not in line with the style) with only HS's "chocolate" malts being any significant deviation. As style, the emphasis is definitely on drinkability; these are intended to be consumed in quantity, so the flavors are simple, the beer is light to medium bodied, the finish is clean, and the abv is moderate (generally from 5.5 to 5.8 abv).

Hope you've enjoyed our month-long sojourn into the world of Wisconsin Oktoberfestbiers. Auf Wiedersehen zu Oktoberfest, verantwortlich trinken.

Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest
Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest
Appearance: the darkest of them so far, a deep amber and somewhat hazy, with a thin white head

Aroma: you can smell this thing from across the room; caramel and maltiness; crazy sweet smelling, almost chocolatey some hop brightness, but very grounded and earthy and nutty

Flavor: tastes exactly like it smells, with a surprisingly smooth, not crisp, finish; the bottle says produced on 07.06 - it's hard to know if this refers to the European convention, in which case it would June of 2007, or if it's the American convention in which case it was produced in July of 2006; the pale malts add nice body and there seems to be even a bit of wheatiness to this to lighten things up a bit; the chocolate is subdued after the initial shock

Body: medium body; smooth, as opposed to clean finish - definitely some lingering sweet flavors lying about, sort of toffee-ish on the finish

Drinkability: the fuller body would make it difficult to consume too many of these, but the taste would definitely bring me back for more; I'd want to lighten the load after while, but I'd start at the Hacker-Pschorr tent.


Notes/Summary: I really enjoyed this beer. It reminds me quite a bit of the Calumet Oktoberfest; though Calumet's doesn't have the chocolate and has a little more assertiveness from the hops; which is my only real complaint with this beer, the hops are virtually non-existant and the flavor kind of drags on and makes the beer seem a lot heavier than it really is.

I think this may be a bottle from last year. If you check the Hacker-Pschorr website, it shows that this year's batch number for the .5 l is 22147; the label on our bottle reads 21263. This might explain the lack of hops and minimal head. Perhaps someone could confirm for us?

Monday, October 1, 2007

Oktoberfest - I'll Let You In On A Secret

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Sample Shelf TalkerFirst, a word from our sponsors. Oh, right. We're the sponsors. Well, a word ... As we mentioned in the last post, we want to help promote beer and educate consumers. To that end, if you check under the "Home" section of the navigation menu in the upper-left-hand corner, you will notice that we now have MBR shelf talkers for retailers to use. We will provide these for each beer that we actually review here on the site. They are a little different from "traditional" talkers. First, in keeping with this site, we do not "rate" beers here - there are no numbers. Personally, we find numbers pretty useless; what does "90" mean? So, no numbers, just descriptions of the beer, and some suggestions for appropriate glassware. If you are a retail outlet, feel free to use these to help educate your consumers.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled post ...

We here at MBR often drink beer that comes from somewhere other than Wisconsin or Germany. I know, it can be hard to believe. The last non-Wisconsin, non-German beer we reviewed here was Dogfish Head's Midas Touch Golden Elixer on August 23rd, over a month ago. But, believe it or not, we've been known to drink other beers. While today we aren't going to leave the Oktoberfest style, we are going to leave the state of Wisconsin. In our travels, we've picked up a few non-Wisconsin, non-Oktoberfest beers that are close, interesting, widely available, or otherwise that can be part of this Oktoberfest series.

Today, we are leaving the state to visit some neighbors.

August Schell Brewery


Our first beer comes from two hours South-West of Minneapolis; from New Ulm, Minnesota and August Schell Brewery. Schell has been brewing since 1860 and claim to be America's second oldest family-owned brewery. Any brewery that comes from the "Polka Capital of the Nation" is A-OK in our book (although some of us at MBR have spent significant time in Wisconsin and Cleveland and would see them's as fightin' words). With a sturdy understanding of history, it's not hard to believe that a fine Oktoberfest beer comes from this town of 14,000 people. August Schell only brews four year-round beers (a vienna lager, a pilsner, a pale ale, and a caramel bock), and seven seasonal beers. The concentration at the brewery, it seems, is on quality over quantity. We really enjoyed this Oktoberfest and will try to make the trek down to New Ulm and visit the brewery next time we are near the Twin Cities.

August Schell OctoberfestAugust Schell Octoberfest (sic) Beer
Appearance: burnt-orange/copper color with thick, off-white head

Aroma: bright, almost lemony and sweet, citrusy behind the sweetness

Flavor: med-light body, slightly sweet, but moderately muted flavor; little hoppy bitterness; fast, but muddled finish - flavors just kind of fade away instead of a crisp, hard finish - an improved hop profile could clean up the finish considerably

Body: med-light body, moderate carbonation, fades quickly

Drinkability: good drinkability, I could drink these at a bar watching the Vikings lose another game to the Packers; flavors could be more assertive and a focus on the hops could really clean this beer up nicely.

Notes/Summary: A nice beer from a brewery that we haven't heard a lot about; perhaps some of the Minnesota readers could leave some comments about this brewery? Rants? Raves? Complaints? This is solid. Reminds of the Point Oktober a little, though a little more assertive than Point; sort of a cross between Point and Tyranena.

Bell's


The next brewery needs no introduction. Bell's is well-known here in Wisconsin. Between the Oberon, the Two-Hearted, and virtually the entire line of Bell's product, it would be pretty hard not to have some opinion (generally very favorable) of Bell's. They have a very good reputation here for brewing quality beer, for supporting The Great Taste of the Midwest (they took over Maduro this year for a pre-party there), and for pulling all of their product out of Illinois after a dispute with distributors there. (as an aside: if you haven't read that article from the Chicago Reader or aren't aware of the circumstances surrounding Bell's withdrawal from Illinois, please click on that link and read the story; it's an amazing piece about inept politics and the power of distributors' lobbies). So, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that Bell's makes a damn fine Oktoberfest beer. What did come as a surprise was just how good this beer is. In our own subjective opinions it is the best Oktoberfest we've reviewed this year. It's only real American competition would come from Rowland's Calumet Brewery in Chilton, WI - a beer we unfortunately couldn't include here because we have not been able to make it the two hours up to Chilton to pick up a growler.

Bell's Octoberfest BeerBell's Octoberfest (sic) Beer
Appearance: bright orange, the color of the label and fallen leaves; crystal clear, thin white-ish head that falls away quickly

Aroma: earthy and only mildly sweet; a light fruitiness from the hops and clear bread-like freshness; one of the few Oktobers where you can SMELL the depth of the malts

Flavor: wow! Great hit of caramel maltiness and hops then it's gone; demanding that you drink it again, and again, and again; if you can manage to hold it in your mouth, a subtle roastiness comes through and it reveals itself to be surprisingly full; this beer has a fruitiness (from the yeast maybe?) that adds a nice complexity and brightness to the flavor; the label says this is 5.7% abv, which might explain some of the brightness (it's a little high for the style)

Body: at first seems medium to light bodied, but is actually a pretty solidly medium bodied beer; this beer finishes fast and clean with only a slight residual malty aftertaste left

Drinkability: I could drink this everyday for the rest of my life.

Notes/Summary: This is one of the top Oktobers that I've consumed; there's really no two ways about it. While this was not a blind tasting, I'm not sure it matters much. There are few widely-available Oktobers that can compare; while I would put Calumet and it's slightly darker, more roasted and fuller Oktober against this one, that would be a battle I would never want to end. Awesome. My only improvement for this beer would be to extend the flavor a little more; the finish comes too quickly and hides some of the body and depth of the beer - I think a function of the bright hoppiness.