Friday, February 1, 2008

I Really Want To Like JT Whitneys

On the corner of Odana and Whitney sits a brewpub. It has big screen tvs, a nice big friendly bar, decent enough food, free poker. It has all the makings of a neighborhood bar, even despite the fact that it isn't really in any neighborhood. But why do I wish they just wouldn't brew their own beer? Some of their beers are very good. But many of them aren't. I'm afraid to order any of them for fear that I will get one that isn't any good.

Sorry I can't be more specific. But maybe it's my fault. Maybe I shouldn't even bother with their barley wines and the weizens and the belgian beers (just to name a few). Just go, order an IPA or Alt or Kolsch, watch the Badgers game, play some pool and call it a day.


  1. From what I can recall, the bartenders at J.T. Whitneys (and the other brewpubs in town) will be happy to give you a sample of what is on tap.

    I think you should take this tack, instead of whining that you "might" get a lousy beer.

  2. I'm inclined to agree with you about JTW but I will say that their rauchbier is not a terrible way to introduce someone to the style.

  3. Alright, I'm going to try and tackle this issue and apologize in advance if it takes a lot of space :).

    I was the assistant brewer at Whitney's for a year and a half, and spent a lot of time thinking about why the pub is perceived the way it is. Some beer geeks love it and some hate it. The homebrewers guild has plenty of representation on both sides. I've had customers tell me "I don't go to the Dane because their beer gives me headaches" and I've read Isthmus forum posts that said "I go to the Dane because the beer at Whitney's gives me headaches." One frequent customer, a well-traveled weissbier aficionado who wasn't shy about telling me when he didn't like one of our beers, puts the Heartland Weiss near the top of his list of favorites. The regulars used to tell me, almost on a daily basis, that "Rich Becker's beer is the only reason that anyone comes in here." The point I'm trying to make is that the consensus regarding the quality of beer at Whitney's is widely contradictory, although I'll admit that the internet feedback is overwhelmingly negative.

    I think it comes down, in large part, to presentation. Before I started working at Whitney's, I thought their beers were fairly bland and most of them tasted the same. Now, I believe that their beer will stand up to anyone else's in town if you warm it up and serve it in more elegant glassware (ice cold beer numbs the taste buds and obscures flavor differences between beers). The reason that won't happen, in my opinion, is because the bulk of JT's business comes from people who like cold beer presented in a no-BS fashion. Once that the precedent was set, Whitney's didn't want to bite the hands that fed it. The average customer is somewhere between a Miller drinker and a beer snob, and the beer is a means to an end - having a good time - instead of the end itself. I think that leads to a diverse and unpretentious bar atmosphere, which I really enjoy, but hardcore beer enthusiasts get the shaft as far as presentation goes.

    As for the beer itself, Rich is a well-educated brewer who never has sanitation issues. I also believe that he creates good recipes, but that's my opinion. The red and gold occasionally have some diacetyl in them because those beers are quick movers and tend to be given less warm-conditioning time the bar's other offerings. Most of the beer geeks I know avoid those styles like the plague, though, so a buttery overtone in the "light beers" is a worthwhile tradeoff, from the perspective of JT's customer base, for being able to have 14-16 beers on tap at any given time. I'd love to see the brewery add an extra fermenter or two (which would require knocking down an outside wall), but right now they're making the best out of what they have to work with.

    If you have the time, I encourage you to visit Whitney's between 11 and 4 a weekday and poke your head in the brewery to ask if Rich and/or Charley have a free moment. They're both friendly and accommodating and, if they're not too busy, will be more than willing to tell you about what's going on with the beer (for example, if the current keg of barleywine is a delicious four-year old batch or a rougher batch from a year ago). If you have a suggestion for them, they'll either take it to heart or explain why it won't work.

    No beer or brewpub is going to sit well with everyone, but I disagree with the sentiment (not explicitly stated here) that, in Whitney's case, it's because they run a hack brewery. Anyway, I hope I've at least given you a little more food for thought to help pinpoint what you don't like about the beer at Whitney's.

  4. Read the post again, Anonymous. He has tried most, if not all, of their offerings. He's lamenting the fact that even the better beers have off days.

  5. I think I've figured out how to get some discussion going here. Wow!

    A few comments of my own:

    A. From my experience the bartenders are less than helpful - while they may be willing to pour the sampler, they know agonizingly little about what they are pouring. My preference is to avoid samplers, simply because I don't think it's fair to pass judgment on the basis of a 1/2 oz sample.

    B. I do enjoy their smoked beer.

    C. Joe, I will say this, and it may seem contradictory to what the post focuses on, but I do appreciate the diversity. I love that they are not afraid to experiment with styles. It gives the public the opportunity to drink beers that are not typically made here in Wisconsin. However, I'll disagree somewhat and say that I'm not entirely sure presentation is an issue; in many cases the beers simply are not to my liking. And I phrase it that way beacuse I'm not sure that the beers are "inconsistent" in a brewing quality way - in other words it definitely does not seem like they are having equipment problems or tap problems. But I spend a lot of time at JT Whitneys and I have two primary consistency issues: 1) the same style is not consistent across batches (I've had some really good barley wines there, I've had some really bad); 2) some of the styles are really good representatives (the alt-bier and the IPA are easy to pick out) but some just seem mislabelled (the "kristal" is so tart that it seems like it should be labeled a "berliner" and they serve it WITH a lemon!). But I appreciate the suugestion to stick my head in and talk to them; I'll have to see how accommodating (somehow I suspect that I may not be too high on their list right now :(

    And, I was not implying that they are a hack brewery; very much the opposite, given the generally high quality, the inconsistency is disappointing.

    C. Palmer, sorry for the misidentification.

    D. Thanks Kathy!

  6. Gotcha. I assumed that "I wish they just wouldn't brew their own beer" meant that you thought they did a lousy job in general.

    When I worked at Whitney's (8/05 - 2/07), Rich changed a few recipes without renaming the beers. Some people love that type of inconsistency because it's whimsical in a way that production breweries and franchised brewpubs can't get away with. However, you bring up a good point that it's important to be consistent in how customers' expectations are met.

    Published style guidelines are often lamented by professional brewers because they restrict both the creativity of the brewer (you have to stay within the guidelines to win competition medals, which is often a benchmark of perceived quality) and the language by which he/she can use to describe the beer (what concise, descriptive name does one give to an amber-colored ale that has less than 25 IBUs?). That's not to say that guidelines don't provide a lot of real value to brewers and consumers, but a lot of brewers treat them pretty loosely and Whitney's is definitely one of them.

    You list two interesting examples of inconsistency because I'd wager that both are due to age. I never brewed the krystal weizen so don't quote me on this, but I believe the beer is just a filtered batch of Heartland Weiss. If it's as tart as a Berliner weiss, it probably sold poorly, has been on tap for longer than its shelf life and needs to be dumped. The barleywine, on the other hand, is unfiltered and IMO improves after years of aging. I generally hate young barleywines, and the bad batch you had was probably a year or two away from tasting like the good batch you had. As far as I know, the recipe and brewing process has always been the same. I used to update the chalkboards with the vintages of aged beers, and I'll suggest the brewers get back on the wagon the next time I talk with them (unless they're reading this).

  7. Interesting conversation and website here.

    Let me chime in here as a "neighborhood" person or one who lives quite close, I have tried to enjoy this establishment numerous times only to walk out with the same disappointment.

    Many of my fellow brew belching buddies, have pointed to JC when we are looking for a quick and easy place to kick back and throw a few down.

    For a while we were regular Packer Sunday customers, but it got to the point where the same complaints continually came up each time we stopped in. POOR TASTING BEER and HORRIFIC SERVICE!

    The food on a good day is mediocre at best, which is unfortunate since we often eat while we drink, imagine that concept!

    I too noticed the inconsistency, but wrote it off as my own opinion the first few times. Eventually friends began to comment and we agreed the beer we were drawn into was becoming as shoddy as the service!

    Since this is a beer blog, I'll leave the numerous service complaints out, but will add, in this business, the whole experience can actually drag on each other.

    It truly is sad, especially since I live nearby and hate the chains whether I am seeking food or drink! I wish they could get their act together, but since I have stopped going there, it will take word of mouth to get me back in there!

    Thanks for the site! I'll look back here for more! Horst

  8. Honestly, I felt the biggest problems with their beer were most likely due to age. At different times, the beers either did not sell well enough, and thus were in storage for far longer than they should have been, or (and this seemed to be the problem more often than not) the beer was pushed out for sale far too early. From what I heard from Whitney's employees, the production staff were under great pressure to get beer out for sale as soon as possible, and Whitney's did not have the facilities to store or age large quantities of beer. Also, this rush to get beer out on tap led to some poorly thought out recipes, since the focus was so much on production rather than on crafting the perfect beer.

    All this seems somewhat academic at this point, however, as Whitney's appears to be closing.


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