Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On (and Off) Wisconsin

During the Madison History Walk on Friday our guide, Andrew, made a comment that I found really interesting. The number one state in state brand loyalty is, not surprisingly, I suppose, Texas. People from Texas are proud of it and will go out of their way to purchase things from and by the people of Texas. Number 2 is Wisconsin.

While probably not surprising to the people of Wisconsin, I don't know if people outside of the state completely realize this. In fact, to be honest, I'm not sure people outside of Wisconsin spend a whole lot of time at all thinking about the state of Wisconsin. Indeed, prior to moving here I'm not sure I could have accurately pointed out on a map of Wisconsin where any city other than Milwaukee would be located.

But, hey, do you know where Toledo, Ohio is? or Dayton? or Fort Wayne, Indiana? I didn't think so.

This brand loyalty has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are obvious. We have had an explosion of growth in the craft beer industry here; new brewpubs and breweries are sprouting up all over the place. It is not much of a cliche to say that virtually every town has its own brewery. This is true because people from Wisconsin drink beer from Wisconsin and they drink a lot of beer. So breweries like Lake Louie, O'So, New Glarus, and others have a legitimate chance of success without ever having to leave the safe nest of Wisconsin.

From a consumer standpoint however, we should be a little more adventurous. First, and most obviously, Wisconsin breweries are painfully monochromatic. Amber? Check. IPA? Check. Dopplebock? Check. With the exception of Furthermore playing on the fringes, and really, adding stuff to pale ales isn't that far out on the fringe, there are few breweries in the state that play on niches or in specific styles or really have a strong identity of their own.

In the meantime, breweries that do interesting things and have solid identities are being passed over and forced to leave the state. Dogfish Head left, Stone left, Boulevard left, Allagash left. All solid breweries. Indeed, in some (most) cases much stronger, more consistent, better breweries than we have here in Wisconsin. And it is very possible that more will be leaving. Some of this is their problem, of course. Stone just got cold feet; Dogfish Head didn't want to put in the marketing efforts (and, no, I'm not buying Dogfish Head needed to reallocate product; they actually entered some markets with the beer that they pulled out of Wisconsin).

People in Wisconsin will drink local before they drink quality or experiment. Is this a problem? Only if you value differentiated products or real competition. Do we only drink Wisconsin wine? No because Wisconsin wine isn't very good (sorry Wollersheim, you are, admittedly the best of a bad lot). Do we only eat Wisconsin cheese? Well, maybe we do - but we have a competition in this space that doesn't seem to exist in the breweries.

I spoke with Marc Buttera at O'So, and he's asked a number of in-state breweries to collaborate on a beer with him. How awesome would that kind of collaboration be? Night Train meet Bedlam? Lupulin Maximus meet Rocky's Revenge? Consecrator meet Dankenstein? F-ing awesome. So far everyone has turned him down. Why? Because breweries here are afraid of competition. They like their safe nest and loyal customers and Ale Asylum's afraid that if they collaborate with O'So people will like the O'So better and drink that instead. [ed note: I just picked on Ale Asylum, I have no actual evidence that this is the case with them and frankly my mind explodes with the possibilities of a Dean Coffey/Marc Buttera collaboration!]

But that's not how it works. If the last few years of the beer industry have taught us anything it is that there is no "instead", it is all "in addition to". There is no competition and collaboration works.

So, as consumers we shouldn't be afraid to experiment and try something new. Like Dank? Try Nosferatu. Like Ballistic? Try Hop Rising. Like Dirty Old Man? Try Black Bear Stout. Like Fixed Gear? Try Ard Ri. You get the point. There's a lot of great beer out there and you'll find that you aren't substituting; you always come back to that Lakefront, Ale Asylum, Tyranena, etc. You always come back to the local because, well, because it's local. But in the meantime, you're missing a lot of great beer out there.

Breweries. Get out and collaborate. Take Marc up on his offer. Only good can come of it. You are not too busy. You have nothing to fear. How cool would a Lake Louie/Lakefront beer be? Lakefront Louie? Come on. It's too easy. Hinterland/Furthermore? Heretofore. It's fun. Everyone can do it.


  1. with this statement - "First, and most obviously, Wisconsin breweries are painfully monochromatic." you lose most of your credibility as a writer for WI beer. Can't you see the forest from the trees? DO actually ever drink local beers other than your few pet breweries?
    You certainly seem to be more of boutique/gimmick beer drinker, and that's fine..for you. My big does "pushing the envelope" determine if a brewery is good or not? I always assumed it was quality, consistent product.
    All I can say..when I'm in other states, or on beer forums..people wish they could get the beers we have in WI. Everytime I'm on vacation...someone tells me what great beers we have here.
    Maybe nobody wants to collaborate with O'so, because frankly their beer isn't that great? Or maybe its their political leanings?
    Also..the thought that local breweries don't collaborate really shows your lack of knowledge.
    To note...I drink a lot of beer. I've drank beer from all over, all styles, all sorts of brands from coast to coast, sea to sea. Are there other good beers out there? Of course. Are they better than what I can get locally? Some are..some aren't. Do I buy local given the chance, when I know its a quality product? Of course. DO I feel like I'm missing something by not substituting an out of state beer that compares to a local beer. No.
    My suggestion to you is to take some time and really learn WI breweries and their brewers. Learn to not get caught up in gimmicks and hype. Learn what it takes to be a successful brewery, with great market presence, and quality product.
    Then just maybe..someone will collaborate to make that triplebrettbourbanblackipalambicagedinryesoakedwinebarrels you really want. Ha!

  2. I agree with your comments 100%. I like Wisconsin beer, they just aren't very "cutting edge" and there really aren't any stellar brewpubs within an hour of Milwaukee. Delafield and Silver Creek are about the best offerings. Madison has Grumpy Troll, Ale Asylum, Great Dane, Vintage and Tyranena all close by - lucky you!

    I take a trip to Michigan about twice a year because they are much further along in terms of craft beer diversity and quality. On my last trip I went to Odd Side Ales, which had many styles I'd never dreamed of (peanut butter cup stout, orange coffee stout, apple pie, etc) and picked up a bunch of interesting bottles from Shorts Brewery. There were about five decent brewpubs within an hour from my hotel - places like Founders, HopCat and New Holland.

    But maybe Wisconsin brewers are starting to get it. I just tried a spruce tip infused Double IPA from Black Husky that was very interesting. South Shore finally hit the shelves with their Bourbon Barrell Coffee Mint Stout. Furthermore makes some interesting brews, but without a brewpub, we only get about one new variety a year. Ale Asylum is excellent but they too are slow with new beers and don't have any one-offs that drive the craft beer geeks to a brewpub. O'so puts out some good beers as well and I hope someone collaborates with them. Speaking of collaboration, I did have the Lakefront-Leinenkugel Oaty Goat Dopplebock last night and I was impressed, it was actually pretty good.

  3. First, I agree with you, Steve G, that more brewpubs would be great, but with the laws the way they are (MBR did some posts regarding those a little while ago, but I'm too lazy to find the link), there is little incentive for someone wanting to distribute to go into brewpub land.

    As for the premise of the article, I don't think state loyalty is a bad thing. It makes it possible for little breweries to exist. Breweries will make what people will buy. I posit that there is not enough of a demand here for experimental yet. We are in the land of Miller Lite. That means that anything from Pearl St. is experimental to many.

    Oh, and to broaden naive little Jeff's palate as he only drinks Leinie's and Spotted Cow, I am thinking our Wausau trip will be in June. Next step, MBR-coordinated beer & camping trips!

  4. I second Erin! MBR meet and drink!

  5. I think all craft beer drinkers like to see options and lament the loss of Stone and DFH in the Wisconsin market, but I think there is a bit more diversity here than Jeff may be giving Wisconsin credit for. New Glarus Unplugged and R&D beers are consistently interesting and innovative without just being more aggressive, and Tyranena Brewers Gone Wild has come up with some interesting experiments as well. Ale Asylum's Bedlam was a genius pairing of belgian yeast and citra hops. Capital has pushed the envelope with some cool lagers like the Barbara dopplebock. Lakefront made a %100 Wisconsin beer. The list goes on.
    There has also been collaboration (Grumpy Creek, Great Dane and Capital's attempt to make a 17% all malt lager), though maybe not as much as you'd like. I will say that collaboration can be pretty cool; I had a couple of the Stone collaboration beers when I was in San Francisco and both were good, as is the Avery/Russian River Collaboration not Litigation Ale. Though I will say if I were a local brewer, I would be wary to put my name on anything made by O'so's. I know you are a fan, but I've had their beer on tap 4 times, and 3 of the 4 had VERY high levels of diacetyl, to the point of being nearly undrinkable. I noticed quite a bit of diacetyl in a bottle of Night Train as well. I might be more sensitive than others are to this flavor, but I wouldn't be surprised if some other brewers are tasting what I'm tasting.
    As for everybody making an Amber and an IPA, I think you'll find a similar trend in most places. Yes, I think the amber lager is more popular in Wisconsin than other states for some reason, but across the country you'll see that most brewery's bread and butter is either a mass appeal light-easy-drinker or a straight forward hoppy beer (Pale Ale or IPA) for the craft beer drinkers. People, even craft beer drinkers, like what is familiar and though they may branch out occasionally, tend to go back to the old stand buys. Over half of New Glarus's sales are Spotted Cow, over half of Goose Island's sales are 312 (easy drinkers); over half of Ale Asylum's sales are Hoppalicious, over half of Surly's sales are Furious (hoppy). Go all around the country and you'll see the same story. These are the styles that the market demands and that keep craft breweries running, even if geeks like us don't talk about them all that often.
    A brewery like Furthermore is an exception, and as a craft beer consumer I'm very glad that they are in the market to provide some diversity, but the fact is that they are unlikely to sell as much Knot Stock in a given market as a brewery like Ale Asylum will sell Hoppalicious. This is why most breweries in Wisconsin and around the country have an amber and/or IPA and/or wussy wheat beer; these are the easiest beers to sell. And who doesn't love a well made IPA? I could go for a Bitter Woman/Ballistic/New Glarus IIPA/Kiss the Lips/Maggie/Lakefront IPA right about now...

  6. I like our local hoppy beers, but I'd like them better if they were less balanced (i.e. hoppier and drier, but not necessarily more bitter). New Glarus nailed it with their IIPA. If they can pack a proportional amount of hop flavor/aroma into Moon Man, they'll make the west coast obsolete 'round these parts.

  7. I've got my own thoughts on the variety of Wisconsin beers -- and I strongly agree with the first Matt on the value of a producing a beer that is consistently good.

    I too have visited a lot of the nation's beer Utopias, but there's another theme that's consistent in those places with multiple exotic brew pubs and microbreweries: People there are willing to pay premium prices for fine beers.

    In my experience, that's just not the case in most of Wisconsin. There are exceptions in Madison and the Milwaukee area, but most drinkers I've met in this state will err on the side of the cheaper beer.

    So, yeah, I would love it if Wisconsin had as many beers as Philadelphia, Denver or Seattle. But there are also economic factors at play here. It's only our palettes; it's our wallets.

  8. If I know where all 3 cities are, do I win something???

  9. 1. Wisconsinites are fiercely loyal - I wonder where this survey/list that ranks them 2nd is. Nothing comes up when I google it.
    2. Wisconsinites don't take alot of risks - brewers or beer drinkers or in general
    3. The demographic/economic factors are real

    I am looking to move from the San Francisco Bay area to Madison and am concerned about giving up the local beer that I have come to love here. I know there is good beer in Wisconsin but I don't think it can compare to the scene here in California. I really believe that fresh is better and local should mean fresh. It would be great to see some of these WI brewers/drinkers take more risks.

  10. A few comments.

    1. I love our local beer. But as the first matt and Adam pointed out, consistency is an issue. Perhaps a little competition from AleSmith, Boulevard, or Brooklyn would help them to make consistency a bigger priority? By the way, the rumor mill is saying Three Floyds (again) and possibly Victory will be leaving Wisconsin by the end of the year as well.

    2. Jake, a lot of great points. First, the guide, Andrew, works at UW and was reporting on an unpublished work by a professor there. I tried to get the report, but, sorry, you'll have to trust me on this one. I generally to have citations for stuff like this, but I just wasn't able to get my hands on the report. Second, I think you'll find the beer as good or better in many ways. It is a very different beer scene, so I understand your trepidation, but there is, really, a lot of great beer here that is as good and in some cases better (though maybe not as hyped) as the stuff you get out there.

    3. Mark, you win my shining admiration.

  11. Belgian style beers are the only ones I don't see enough of in Wisconsin. I suppose IPA is somewhat underrepresented.

    It wouldn't surprise me to see Three Floyds leave. They don't have much of a footprint in the state as it is.

  12. I really hope those Three Floyds and Victory rumors aren't true. Victory's Prima Pils is one of my favorite Pilsners on the market, and Alpha King is one of the Midwest's rare standout IPAs. We never seemed to get much Stone, Allagash, Dogfish Head, etc., in La Crosse, but I thought Victory and 3F had a significant following. It would sure sting to see them go.

    @Jake: You'll find a lot of great beers in Wisconsin, but we seem to avoid the Big Hop game (there's an article I'd like to see MBR write). As Anon said, we don't have many Belgians either, but true to our heritage I think we have the best Lager culture in America.

  13. Adam - LaCrosse has long been an underserved market for beer variety (The Heileman/City influence I think), but it's much better than it was even 5 years ago. When I've been back to visit, Woodman's has always had a great representation of the beer available in wisconsin (including 3F). Unfortunately, the limited amount of DFH, Stone, Allagash that WAS available seemed to be gobbled up my Milwaukee and Madison...

  14. "I suppose IPA is somewhat underrepresented."

    Tyranena, Sprecher, Sand Creek, Rush River, Red Eye, Potosi, Pearl Street, O'so, New Glarus, Point, Lakefront, Lake Louie, Furthermore, Dave's BrewFarm, Chameleon, Central Waters, BluCreek, Ale Asylum, Milwaukee Brewing Company, the Great Dane, Vintage, Granite City - all of them have IPAs, some more than one. E.g. - Tyranena has an annual seasonal, and often time a limited edition Brewers Gone Wild IPA. You've got several variations on the style here too. Belgian IPAs, American IPA, Imperial IPA, those with green tea, rye, orange, etc.

    How many more IPAs do Wisconsin brewers need to brew before the style is "represented"?

  15. Wow. Sometimes I wonder if some of us who enjoy "craft" beer have a limited attention span when it comes to the liquid itself. I do want to add that I was working at my all time favorite festival, the Wisconsin Brewers Beer Fest in Chilton yesterday. We were swamped and went through loads of beer, literally pouring non-stop for almost 5 hours until we ran out. And the same was true for all the other breweries in attendance. And not once did I hear of any issues with Wisconsin breweries having not enough variety, innovation, collaborations, and any other topic covered in this blog and comments. What I did see was loads of people enjoying themselves and the beers they were drinking immensely.

  16. I'm of the firm opinion that Wisconsin brewers as a whole serve the market much better than the out of state competitors like Stone, Dogfish, etc. These in-state operations are putting out the beers that the market demands while the others are not. This isn't to say Stone's offerings aren't "good" or that they don't serve their home markets well (they obviously do), but the fact is they did not succeed here. It's a mistake to somehow blame this on collectively on WI - the "we don't know enough to properly appreciate greatness" argument occasionally bandied about. So is claiming the conservative in comparison approach of many local brewers is faulty because it doesn't match up with the big boys from California and Delaware.

  17. MadisonBeerDrinkerMay 26, 2011 at 11:25 AM

    Wallrock, is there a site you go to (that I dont) where you fail to produce informed, insightful comments?

    Because, here, AVClub,, etc. is nothing but gold


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