Friday, January 29, 2010

BrewFarm Select

Despite being accused, and probably guilty, of - let me make sure I get this right - having a "burned-out tongue" and being a "stuck-up hophead", I do like pale, easy-drinking beer. Whether it is an ale in the form of New Glarus' Spotted Cow or a lager in the form of Capital's Special Pils. When I'm playing poker with the guys, or even just want to sit down and drink a beer without thinking about it too much, I like to grab a pale, simple-tasting beer.

But there's a trick to these beers. Too little flavor and you end up with a macro-clone. Too much flavor and you defeat the purpose. Despite recent accusations of snobbery, I'm not an adjunct-hater. But, again, the balance is necessary. Spotted Cow gets dangerously close to too much corn. Supper Club tips the scale. But, at least give them some credit for making the effort; many other breweries simply refuse to make these beers because they don't want to be associated with pale, fizzy, beer.

But, it's a huge part of the industry - in fact, it is, hands down, the biggest part of the industry. As "the Cow" has shown, having a pale, fizzy, adjunct beer can be your ... ahem ... cash cow (sorry). You can go into almost any bar in this state and, even if they only have three tap-lines, Spotted Cow will be on tap. This is a huge boon to a brewery. It can also be a, literal, headache as these bars tend to suffer from less-than-stellar cleaning habits which infects beer with diacetyl, making the corn taste like popcorn and giving the drinker a headache before the first glass is finished.

I don't know what the numbers are, but I suspect that this "off flavor" and "headache inducing" aspect to beer drinking prevents, or impedes, the development of beer drinkers. This is often the first, and sometimes only, interaction that a prospective drinker will have with a brand. Think, for a moment, about a place like Platteville, WI. A small college town with a strip of bars that attract local college kids as they are coming of age. One of these folks goes into the bar for the first time, sees "Spotted Cow" on tap, but the tap is infected. With such an unpleasant experience ("dude, I have a killer headache. f- that Cow man, just give me a Jack and Coke"), it's no wonder that younger generations are increasingly turning to spirits.

So, that gets a long way off-topic. But, the fact remains that pale, fizzy beers with flavor can be a brewery's savior even in the craft industry. Spotted Cow, Oberon, 312, Dortmunder Gold - all flavorful, easy drinking, pale, fizzy beer.

Into this market steps Dave's BrewFarm Select, the first full-release for the BrewFarm we've been talking about here for quite some time. Brewed and packaged in cans (cans!) at Stevens Point under the direction of brewer David Anderson, the Select is a pale lager in the vein of Dortmunder Gold. It aims to be a beer that you can drink anywhere; equally at home out of a can as at a fancy restaurant in a fluted pilsner, a beer that you can ignore, but also a beer that you has some taste and complexity that if you really take the time to notice is quite complex. These are all the things that the Dortmunder Gold is, let's see if it holds up to these considerable expectations, shall we?

Already available in parts of the state, BrewFarm Select should be available on shelves in Madison and Milwaukee soon, if it isn't already, through Beechwood Distributing.

[Ed Note: I'll get a review up sooner rather than later, but I wanted to make sure this got up before tomorrow's Isthmus Beer and Cheese Fest, since this is one of the first Southern-Wisconsin Beer Fests that the BrewFarm is attending. If you make it over there, make sure to say hello to David and Pam]

BrewFarm Select
BA. (A-) RB. (NA)
Appearance: served as yellow, fizzy beer should, straight out of the fridge, though I couldn't bring myself to drink out of the can for review purposes; more golden that yellow, it is quite fizzy (carbonated) and has a small-ish white head
Aroma: the aroma is notable even as it pours out of the can; the aroma is all malt with a touch of hops to clean it up and lend some nice spiciness
Flavor: oh yeah, clean, crisp, refreshing; strong malt breadiness, with maybe some vienna or munich sweetness, biscuity; I don't pick any caramel, and the hops are pretty light in the flavor, almost no bitterness
Body: while this is light-ish bodied, the finish is surprisingly clean, even if a little long which lends a little added body to subsequent sips
Drinkability: this is a beer style that is all about sessionability and drinkability; do you want another one, and do you want another one right now? I'd take another four or five of these; right now
Summary: It's hard to get worked up over a pale lager, as there are so few that are of any quality; of course, Dortmunder Gold is the ... errr ... gold standard, but Capital Special Pils and Calumet's Pils are both right up there; for special releases I think New Glarus' Bohemian Lager was one of the best of the style to ever be produced. But I would instantly put this in the category of Capital and Calumet as contenders to Great Lakes Dortmunder. A worthy effort for the BrewFarm and a nice feather in Point's contract-brewing cap.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Cooper's Tavern

A new beer bar, I think the trendy phrase to use these days is "gastropub", on the Square here in Madison. The Coopers' Tavern has been open about two weeks. I'll keep this review relatively short because there really isn't much to say except: yes, yes, and yes. Or, in the phrasing of the continentals it seeks to mimic, "get thee to there in a most expedient manner." Or something like that. I doubt that they actually say such thing.

Big beer list. And, yes I tend to cynicism at times, I'm always a bit skeptical when I hear that a pick-a-European-country bar has a "good" taplist. Especially when said pick-a-European-country bar is be-decked in kitsch and faux-thenticity as all FoodFight restaurants are. Even worse, "Good European Beer" typically means Guinness, Bass and, maybe, Harp and sometimes, if you're lucky, Smithwicks. And that's it.

Oh no. Not here. Good European Beer. And by European I don't just mean Belgian. Look, I like an abbey as much as the next guy, but please, can we please just get some decent German lagers and English ales? What? They make beer in Spain? A real, live, German Kolsch? Old Speckled Hen on tap requiring a two-stage pour? I about creamed my pants. That was before I even saw the 100-bottle bottle list.

And, yeah, while I admit I'm a convert to the "Publick House" ideal of geezers sittin' around shootin' the shit about Margie and that cad down the alley, a tv or two with some football (and not that pansy-ass Brett-Favre-interception-throwin' kind - the real football) on will make my day.

So, while I actually went into it quite skeptical and a tad cynical I'll be the ornery geezer on the pub stool in the corner wearing my Gunners gear.

Monday, January 25, 2010

I Promise This Is The Last Time I'll Call It JT Whitneys

As many of you know by now, JT Whitneys' space on the West Side of Madison at Odana and Whitney Way is now occupied by the owners of the Vintage. They have decided to call it Vintage Brewing Company. It opened maybe a week or two ago (?), and the brewery is currently inactive with nothing planned until March, at least. Thus, admittedly, this review may be a bit premature; however, since it is a bar in a place called "X Brewing Company" I think it's fair to get a feel for the place.

Before I get to the pub itself, I want to go off on a quick diversion because I think it really sucks that they've chosen to import a brewmaster from outside of Wisconsin to brew here. There are quite a few very talented brewers in the city of Madison and Wisconsin generally that are currently unemployed and looking for work. However, most of the breweries in the area are set for brewers and assistants, so jobs don't open up often. Thus, when one does open, I think it would behoove the owners of said facility to at least interview some of those unemployed brewers and try to support our local brewers rather than be nepotistic and hire a relative from out-of-state.

Anyway. With that out of my system, I was able to hit up the Vintage Brewing Company on Friday night and, unfortunately, I can't really recommend it. I'll get the worst of it out of the way first: the mac and cheese was awful. To quote Mrs. MBR: "I'd have rather had Roundy's Shells and Cheese". It was all of the worst things about bad macaroni and cheese: it had been cooked too hot, the cheese had separated, and any binding agents had caused it to be gritty; the shells were over-cooked and mushy. The $12 crab cake (note: not crab cakes) appetizer wasn't much better; though the top was finely crusted, the bottom was soft and mushy and the inside was cold; and the mango salsa was most generously described as "interesting." The pulled pork sandwich was fine. But for one crab cake ($12), a pulled pork sandwich ($9), and mac and cheese ($14), we spent $31 and one of us didn't hate our food. In all, I wouldn't recommend it for the food; though as a cook and eater of food, I tend to be a bit more forgiving since we all have off-nights.

So, OK, the food was less than stellar and moderately over-priced, but you aren't reading this site for the food. How was the beer?

Less than interesting, unfortunately. A (very) limited tap and bottle list that, to its credit, focused on local beer was wrong. A fellow diner ordered the "Sprecher Abbey Triple Alt" (sic; no such beer exists, by the way, though it was listed in exactly that way on the menu - presumably it was the Sprecher Abbey Tripel and the "Alt" was a typo) and was served a MadTown Nut Brown instead. He wasn't asked if this (not even remotely close) substitution was acceptable. And while taps are $4.50, Strongbow, listed with the rest of the "tap beers" was inexplicably $6, with nary a price to be seen anywhere on the drink menu in any event.

To me, though, the biggest disappointment was what seemed like a conspicuously strong and pointed disinterest in quality beer. What taps and bottles they had, which wasn't much (about 6 taps or so, and maybe 10 bottles) overlooked seasonal and special releases in favor of predictable, unadventerous, year-round releases. Of course, something can be said for offering something that the general public, typically unfamiliar with more exotic and bold beers, can readily approach. But does that really need to comprise the entire tap list? Morevoer, I'm not sure that bodes well for what could be coming from the brewery itself. If the restaurant and bar is this disinterested in craft beer when they have the entire universe of Wisconsin craft beer to pick from, what will they do in the infinitely more challenging arena of creating their own?

Combined with a less-than-stellar menu, it seems that Vintage Brewing Company isn't really interested in providing a craft experience. The goal here is not to present skilled art in a manner that might appeal to a general public. Rather, the goal here is to take advantage of a fad and try to get dollars out of people by presenting a superficial sheen and a facade over what is otherwise the same thing you can get at any of the chain restaurants down the street at the mall.

Look, I hate writing bad reviews and you'll probably call me a cynic. I choose to think that I have high standards, and see little reason to excuse, or give a free pass to, mediocrity. And, yes, I'm perhaps a bit more vehement than I might otherwise be, but it really irks me that the Vintage came into this space, bringing in outsiders in the process, jumping in line over many other groups. Groups that were actually interested in using the space to brew good beer and provide an experience that JT Whitneys wasn't in my time, but I am assured was in its glory days. It irks me that this space could be used for such great things, and they not only blew it, but did so in such a shallow, callow, poseur, manner.

Look, admittedly the place is new, and it's not yet brewing. I'll go back when the brewery is up and running, but frankly I see no reason to go here instead of The Great Dane, or even Granite City down the street.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Review - Lakefront Local Acre

Last week we published the podcast of our roundtable discussing the Local Acre and the state of Wisconsin local agriculture and value-added agricultural production. Today is a simple review of the beer that has generated all of this interest. As the label says, this is a lager that weighs in at 7.5% ABV or so. It uses 100% Wisconsin hops, and 100% Wisconsin grains.

Lakefront Local Acre
BeerAdvocate (B). RateBeer (NA).
Appearance: pale golden and hazy, a light straw color maybe? More hazy than typical for a filtered lager [ed note: it is not filtered; my comment here merely was a reference to the fact that lagers of this type typically ARE filtered]; this may be intentional to give it a "rustic", "authentic" Wisconsin feel, or it may just be a result of the sheer amount of 6-row, husky grain in here; the head is about 2 fingers and dense in my imperial pint; it's a very pretty beer actually
Aroma: husk and malt with a light floral hoppiness; I'm guessing that these are not cascade hops, but maybe something like a Northern Brewer or Hersbrucker; the aroma is pleasant and the presentation alone makes this quite a beer [ed note: they are actually cascade hops; but as I've mentioned before, the Wisconsin variety of Cascade is somewhat muted; and it might account for the lemony citrus-iness that seemed otherwise unaccountable]
Flavor: soft, with more hop bitterness than one might otherwise expect given the muted aroma; the taste is all malt, with lemony brightness and clean finish; there is a faint bit of alcohol that comes through at the very end; not a strong huskiness in flavor that one might expect with 6-row malts; the lemony brightness almost gives it an ale flavor
Body: soft, but medium-light bodied (at least as compared against other light-colored lagers); the finish is quick and fairly clean
Drinkability: quite nice, though a bomber goes a long way; but I can easily see drinking a bomber by myself (as I'm ... ahem ... currently doing) and wanting more.
Summary: reminiscent of a mai bock without some of the syrupyness typical for that style, this has an interesting flavor that is unique unto itself; there is a sweetness, brightness, and hoppiness that is unusual for a typical American pale lager; it would make an EXCELLENT festbier if Americans weren't so persnickety in demanding that Oktoberfests be amber styles and I can see this really taking off as a flagship for Lakefront; it's complexity is interesting, even though at the end of the day it IS a pale lager; I quite like it and wouldn't hesitate to spend the $6 for a bomber that's being asked, though perhaps as a Spotted Cow killer in keg and 12ozs it might be better-received (though I doubt there's the supply of raw materials to meet that kind of demand)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Lakefront Local Acre - Beer Talk Today, Pt 2

Earlier this week we posted the first part of our roundtable focusing on local food. While the audio quality isn't fantastic (we were sitting in The Old Fashioned at 5:15 in the afternoon), we learned some stuff about local economies that I thought was pretty informative.

First, in order for our food chain to be localized, we need to decommodify it. No, I don't think "decommodify" is a word. But I do think the concept is important. Regardless of the food stuff, cheese, sausage, wine, beer, whatever, in order to have a local food supply, the local food can't get mixed with the non-local stuff.

And, why not commodify? It leads to lower prices, which is better for the consumer. Ah, yes. But it leads to at least two bad consequences: first, and probably least importantly, groups tend to the average. So, if you mix sub-par milk, with high quality milk and a lot of mediocre milk, you get mediocre milk. I don't know about you, but I'd rather drink (or make cheese from) high-quality milk. However, there are many, many more low and mid-quality producers (Deans) than there are high-quality producers (Blue Marble), so when standards are decided, the numbers win.

This leads to the more important point: this system is great for the sub-par and mediocre milk producers, not so great for the high-quality milk producers. Moreover, it is conventional wisdom (and common sense) that says that you can't make high-quality products without high-quality materials. Thus, the absence of high-quality milk on the market, makes it very difficult (and very expensive) to produce high-quality cheese and other milk-based products.

As a result, a "second", non-commodified, distribution system has started appearing. Those who are interested in producing high-quality, craft/artisnal, value-added products are specifically seeking out high-quality producers. As a result, a proliferation of co-ops is beginning to appear. Pockets of producers looking to pair with like-minded value-added producers, and vice versa. In some cases, the value-added producer (the cheesemaker, for example) is partnering directly the farm. For example, Blue Mont Dairy is working with one specific farm to use the milk from one herd on that farm to produce a triple-cream cows milk cheese.

Interestingly, these pockets of co-ops tend to be, through natural causes, to be geographically related. A good example is the Driftless area of Wisconsin. However, these co-ops are not forming in a European style. In Europe we see that a geographically similar group of value-added producers are all interested in producing similar product, thus the raw materials there become uniform (in type, not necessarily quality), as do the processes. However, craft agriculture in the United States has thus far resisted such lock-step uniformity. Which, of course, is not a bad thing. It just means that adoption of European systems of organizing (e.g., AOC, etc) may not be the best models to apply to US agriculture.

So, what does this mean for the beer industry? Well. We haven't gotten that far yet. Stay tuned.

On part two of this weeks podcast, we return with our panel to taste Lakefront's Local Acre, the first beer since prohibition produced with 100 percent Wisconsin ingredients. We then discuss the viability of "100 percent Wisconsin" as a style, and if Wisconsin beer has a recognizable style when it comes to craft beer. Thanks to all the panelists and The Old Fashioned for hosting us.

Here's the mp3

On Monday we'll have a review of the Local Acre.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Press Release Thursday - Celebration of American Distilling

I attended this event last year and it was fantastic. Whether you know a lot about liquors and want to taste 30 yr oak aged bourbons, or you know nothing and want to learn what the hell aquavit is (answer: very, very, very tasty), you'll have a great time. It's a little pricey, but there is no other event like it and, frankly, it is worth every penny.

-----------START PRESS RELEASE---------------
On Thursday February 18th, 2010 from 7pm to 10pm the Madison Malt Society will hold the 2nd annual “Celebration of American Distilling” at the Edgewater Hotel. It is a spirits tasting event like no other.

Tickets are $55 or $65 for VIP tickets (very limited). VIP tickets allow entry to the event 45 minutes early to spend more one on one time with the distillers.
Tickets are available now at:
Star Liquor 608-255-8041 Barriques on Monroe 608-284-9463

The Malt House 608-204-6258 Barriques in Middleton 608-824-9463

In Milwaukee at Great Lakes Distillery 414-431-8683

In Chicago at North Shore Distillery 847-547-2499

Last year’s event was a huge success with both attendees and distillers. Guests got to sample the wares of 28 different distillers with product ranging from Absinthe to Bourbon to Vodka infused with Horseradish. This variety of products reinforced the belief that distilling is at the beginning of a boom time very much like the pioneers of craft brewing experienced in the mid 1980s. This year’s event will feature some new distilleries that have been growing for the last year and now feel they are ready to show off their wares to guests at the tasting. Small distillers like Tuthilltown Spirits from New York and Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey will join the more established distillers at this year’s event. Local distilleries were featured at the 2009 tasting and Wisconsin’s own are sure to impress again this year. Yahara Bay, Great Lakes, 45th Parallel and Death’s Door all have exciting new products to share with us.

Trying new products is only part of the appeal of an event like this. Guests are also afforded the opportunity to speak directly with the people who lovingly craft their spirits. So the next time they sit with a glass of artisinal spirits they can remember how passionately the distiller spoke of their product. At the 2009 event more than half the tables were manned by master distillers, distillers, or owners.

This year’s event is again sponsored by Union Cab who will offer discounted cab rides home for all who attend. Other sponsors include Isthmus and Lakeside Press. Free appetizers will also be served.

This is a charity event and this year’s beneficiary is WORT Listener Sponsored Community Radio.

For further info check out or become our Facebook friend at or call Adam Casey (608)255-8041

Madison Beer Review Presents Beer Talk Today

On the first podcast of 2010 we've teamed up with Jeff at MBR to discuss an exciting new product, the first craft beer brewed with 100 percent Wisconsin grown ingredients, Lakefront Brewery's Local Acre. We've put together an all-star panel of local food and beverage enthusiasts, including folks from the Underground Food Collective, The Old Fashioned, Fromagination and Blue Mont Dairy, to discuss how beer fits into the local food movement and the broader landscape of Wisconsin produced food. Stay tuned for part two, where we actually get around to tasting the beer.

Here's the mp3


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Not To Beat Up On Point Brewery

Look, I like Point Brewery. I really do. Point Amber is my go-to all-weather neighborhood get-together beer. Personally I haven't really been sold on their new-ish craft lines (Cascade Pale and Oktoberfest excepted) and, honestly, I haven't had any of their "Whole Hog" lines. Part of it is just because they are relatively new, and I haven't gotten around to it.

Part of the reason for that is that I don't really see Point filling a "quality craft" niche. I could be surprised, you never know, but I just can't imagine that, say, the "Six Hop IPA" would really hold up well against Stone, Three Floyds, Surly, Ale Asylum, Tyranena or even New Glarus.

Which isn't to say that Point shouldn't try, but as a business person I prefer to see businesses who understand themselves. It is not the usual case that a 153 year-old company redefines themselves. And Point has never been a "quality craft". Point serves a great area of the market - mass-market style beer that actually has taste and appeals to its consumers sense of locality. There is a huge market selling beer in quantity to people who want something better than Bud, Miller or Coors, but aren't interested in $10 six-packs and like to support local beer. Yuengling has made a killing in this market and Point could easily be another Yuengling.

So, when I see a CEO/owner commit in print to a direction that doesn't seem to recognize the company's core competency, I get worried. Joe Martino, interviewed by the Wausau Daily Herald:
I would say it would be to anticipate trends and try to get to the front of the line of what is going to be popular in the future. Evaluate and anticipate trends. Introduce brands that would be the next thing, and not be second or third in the marketplace. ... We can't wait until the wheat beer phenomenon comes around and then we have one.
Stevens Point is not a "trend leader". We can argue this until you are blue in the face, but to insist on it is to show a sorely misplaced understanding of the craft beer market and Point's place in that market. As if to emphasize that misunderstanding Mr. Marino hopes that the "wheat beer phenomenon" comes soon - a comment which shows Mr. Marino's market research to be about 2 years behind the curve and completely usurps any credibility in the first part of that statement about wanting to be a trend setter.

Iin the craft beer industry, if you're looking at trends you're already behind it. The trend leaders are not out looking to set trends, they set out to experiment with beer and the trends find them. Indeed, one brewery is rarely always a trend setter - consumers find a brewery or beer that they like and that becomes the trend - breweries do not, indeed cannot, set the trend. [As a side note, if you want to understand this phenomenon, look into the concept of Brand Hijacking] And Point, as much as Mr. Marino protests, is not an experimental brewery. I'm not saying they can't be, I'm just saying that they aren't.

All of which isn't to say there can't be money in lagging on trends. Great Lakes does it very well. But if that's the game Point wants to play they need to compete with not only Great Lakes, but Bells, Summit, New Glarus, Goose Island and Sierra Nevada just to name a couple of big obstacles. And, while I can appreciate the aspiration I'm not sure Point is there yet. But neither is Yuengling, or Saranac and they seem to do alright for themselves.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Press Release Tuesday - Isthmus Beer and Cheese Fest

Beer and cheese seem to be getting partnered up quite a bit these days. A nice, local, quiet day of beer and cheese in the intimate setting of the Alliant Energy Center.

----------START PRESS RELEASE------------------

Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest – Tickets on sale now
MADISON, Wis. – Get your tickets today for the Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest on Saturday, January 30 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Alliant Energy Center.

Join us between the lakes in frosty Madison for a wintertime celebration of Wisconsin’s finest beer and artisanal cheeses. Meet and mingle with brewers and cheesemakers from all over the great state of Wisconsin, as you sample their delicious and often hard-to-find products.

At the fest, you can listen and learn from experts about what beers go best with what cheeses, chocolates and everyday foods. You’ll also be able to dance to great live music from the Cork n’ Bottle String Band and mix and mingle in the bier garden.

For an ever-growing list of the Fest’s brewers and cheesemakers, please visit Tickets are limited. Advance tickets are $40 and can be purchased at Buy two for that special someone on your holiday list!

The 2010 Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest is sponsored by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, TRICOR
Insurance and Star Liquor.

Monday, January 4, 2010

That Review I Promised - O'So Dank

Sorry, but I'm a bit under the weather this past weekend. Let's just say $3 bloody marys are not always as good of an idea as they seem.

O'So Dank
BeerAdvocate(A-). RateBeer(65).

Appearance: hazy copper with a persistent tan head; a gorgeous beer served at 50 degrees
Aroma: big, bright floral and citrus hops me want to drink instead of write these damned notes; alcohol, biscuit and tiny bit of caramel sneak in, too
Flavor: alcohol and hops; solid malt balance; tastes like a big British (bread and biscuit) as opposed to American (caramel) red; the comes all the way through, but the complexity is tantalizing
Body: medium bodied with a surprising (given all the malt in here) dry, but long finish
Drinkability: the medium body and amazing malt complexity kept me drinking; the hops made me want a second, the alcohol made me re-think a third
Summary: Awesome. Period. Imperial Red. Strong Ale. Imperial Scotch. Old Ale. Call it whatever you want, I loved it. This beer will hold up really well for aging and it will be a great one to revisit year after year. An instant classic.