Believe it or not, it's almost the middle of September. It seemed like just last week it was early spring and we drinking the late winter dopplebocks. Now, Autumnal Fire is already back on the shelves (an aside: is it just me, or is Capital really jumping the gun this year on their seasonal releases? I expect such things from Leinie's, but is early September really the best time to be releasing a style more typically associated with late October and November? Or am I misremembering the typical Autumnal Fire release schedule?).
Which means, it's time to start thinking about the year in review. Yeah, I know, we still have Octoberfests to drink, Lake Louie's Louie's Reserve in November, New Glarus still has two Unplugged series to release. Tyranena is releasing another Brewer's Gone Wild version of the Hop Whore. In short, there's still a lot of beer to be drunk. Still a lot of events to be thrown. Still a lot of tastings and beer dinners left in the year.
But, I got started thinking about these end of the year lists, because I was in the Barriques on County Road PD at Seminole Highway the other day and I'm not sure that there is a more improved beer selection in the city. Is it the best selection? Eh. Maybe. Maybe not. To be honest, other stores have more diversity, other stores have better prices, other stores have deeper catalogs. But, I'm not sure there is another store in the Madison area that has improved as much as that particular location.
Now, some may accuse me of biases. This particular location is very near to my home - but in some ways, this makes me more qualified to comment since it was such a frustrating retailer in such recent memory. I know the store's manager very well - I used to work for him, and for Barriques, at a different location. I can tell you that my experience with Barriques' upper management was not entirely positive - I think they are luckier than they are good. And, one place that they got very lucky was hiring David Sanborn, who is now the manager at the Barriques on PD. Mr. Sanborn came from LaCrosse and started with Barriques almost one year ago. Since he started, the Fitchburg Market is his third location (he also managed the University Avenue and Old Sauk locations); Mr. Sanborn been at the Fitchburg location since the early part of this year.
Barriques is best known as a coffee shop and wine shop. Its Wall of 100 wine selection is well-renowned in the city. Most of the Barriques locations serve light food - mostly soups and sandwiches and other typical coffee-shop fare, in addition to cheese boards. Each location is a little different - the Monroe street location has a huge wine and scotch selection; the Old Sauk location serves a surprising amount of food; the downtown location seems to mostly be a coffee shop. The PD location, technically within the borders of Fitchburg, is more of a market with a coffee shop in it. The PD location sells cheeses and a large selection of local and gourmet packaged foods in addition to a large wine selection and the biggest beer selection of all of the locations.
Before David took over managing the Fitchburg Market, the beer selection was three doors of typical Wisconsin-centric sixes, and one door of poorly thought-out single bottles taken mostly from the sixes. It had the same selection as most every other decently-stocked retailer in the city. Typically, the best one could hope to find was a 750ml of Rodenbach Grand Cru - which is a fine beer, if not terribly difficult to find or creative of a choice.
One can now find Mikkeller's It's Alive! Belgian Wild Ale, Brouwerij De Molen's 1914 Triple Stout, and other interesting Continental beers and a full line of Allagash, Southern Tier, and Ommegang brews. It is still three doors of mostly Wisconsin-centric sixes, with some much more well-thought out sixes mixed in, one door of mostly 12oz bottles from all over the world focusing on higher-end Belgian, German and other Continental ales, and one door of mostly 22oz and 750ml bottles of high-end American and Continental beers. Not to mention lots of non-refrigerated store spaced dedicated to sixes and bottles from Wisconsin and other locales.
It's not all sunshine and candy sprinkles, though. The prices are a little higher than what would one like in a retailer, the staff is not particularly well-educated or helpful about the beer selections, and the location isn't exaclty Barriques' most convenient. While the selection is improved, it's still not the best in the city (well, it might be the best in Fitchburg). However there is the added bonus that you can drink the beer in the confines of a typical Barriques coffee/wine shop - just don't ask for something other than a pint glass to enjoy your fine beer, lest you suffer the derision of the staff.
In the past, I have had occasion to quaff a few, or more, with Mr. Sanborn. He is a beer-populist - equally at home with a PBR or an Oak-Aged Speedway Stout. And that, I think, is what makes the beer selection at the Fitchburg Barriques Market on PD so compelling. While not the largest selection, it is only five (or six?) doors, it is a diverse selection that focuses on beer meant to be consumed today with friends and for all occassions, not necessarily beer meant to be squirreled away and used as a conversation piece. Where once the availability felt more like it was chosen by the distributor, the selection now carries Mr. Sanborn's imprimateur.
So, do you have any nominations for most-improved beer selection? Best beer selection? Best beer? Best new brewery or brewpub? Best beer event? Best 2008 release? Your nominations need not be Madison-centric. At the end of the end of the year we'll put all the nominations together and see what, if anything, seems to stand out in the crowd.