Just some thoughts on the events occurring pre-Great Taste of the Midwest (which, unfortunately, I could not get to this year). There were three events that I knew of (via forums at RateBeer.com and BeerAdvocate.com): Bell's at Maduro; Dark Horse Brewery at Wonder's Pub; and, Founders Brewery at Glass Nickel Pizza. My plan was to get to all 3. That didn't pan out.
First to Bells.
We were at Maduro around 6pm and the place was fairly packed. People overflowed into the sidewalk and Bell's had taken over. The outdoor seating had Bell's umbrellas, there were Bell's flyers everywhere. All of the staff were wearing Bell's t-shirts. All 15 taps were Bells beers.
They had everything you might expect: Oberon, Two-Hearted, Java Stout, etc. They also brought in stuff that is a little harder to find: 6000, 7000, 8000, and the Hell Hath No Fury. All-in-all they had something like 15 taps. I ordered the Hell Hath No Fury. It is a Belgian Abbey Dubbel. The abbey dubbel style is great when it is done correctly (think of the fine Trappist beers); unfortunately, not many breweries out there can make a good one. By all accounts, Bells was supposed to be middle of the road, but I thought I'd check it out.
Unfortunately, I was inexplicably served a Java Stout. The place was crowded and the bartenders were busy; I think the bartender just confused the order. In any event, I did not get the Hell Hath No Fury, I got a Java Stout - a fine beer, but not really what I had been expecting. So, with that we left and got some food ...
... then on to Wonder's Pub for Dark Horse.
Wonder's Pub was the exact opposite you could find from the circus over at Maduro. First, Wonder's is practically impossible to find if you don't know where it is. We had directions and went past it three times. When we walked in, we found what appeared to be a perfectly normal bar in the middle of east side Madison. No banners, no umbrellas, no t-shirts (well, a few; in fact, enough that it seemed odd, given Dark Horse's relative obscurity; but still, not nearly as pervasive at Maduro). When we went to the bar, we saw only 2 Dark Horse Beers on tap, along with the rest of their standard taps including at least one from Bells. The 2 Dark Horse beers were the Crooked Tree (IPA) and the Scotty Karate (Scotch Ale). Their website and the forums had seemed to promise more (e.g., their stouts, at the very least - I love their Fore: Smoked Stout).
So we got a Crooked Tree and sat down to figure out what the deal was. To our right, a guy wearing a Dark Horse t-shirt was holding a snifter and pouring a bottle into it. So, I asked him where he managed to find that bottle. The guy said he had brought it with him - he was one of the brewers at Dark Horse Brewery. Russ Beattie sat down and we chatted for about an hour.
Their brewery is in Marshall, MI, a town of 7500 on the expanse of I-94 between Chicago and Detroit. They only brew a little over 2,000 barrels per year. (By comparison, New Glarus is over 10,000 barrels and Capitol is over 20,000 barrels). They tend towards the hoppier, and their IPA is their most widely available beer. Over the winter they brewed a series of five (yes, FIVE) stouts. I had had the Fore, and they had brought the One and Too.
Russ handed us a One (an Oatmeal Stout) and two plastic cups (the bar was running low on cups and didn't want glass ones going out apparently). It was quite nice. Moderately chilled, dark, and sweet. It had a full mouthful with just the right amount of oatmeal (it was neither too fuzzy nor too thin), a pleasant chocolate flavor, subtle carbonation and a nice roasted coffee finish.
As I enjoyed my beer, we talked a little more about Dark Horse. It started when Russ and Aaron were up at Northern Michigan home-brewing in their dorm rooms. The RA could be bought off for the right payment. They found some funding (a random aside: "gas station and party store" doesn't mean the same thing in Michigan and Wisconsin: in Michigan "party store" is a liquor store: In Wisconsin, a "party store" is a place to buy streamers and cardboard center-pieces; one makes considerably more sense to be found at a gas station) and started up a brewery in their hometown of Marshall.
The idea of a series of stouts seemed kind of odd to me. Looking back, I'm not sure why it seemed so odd; the stout is a very versatile style that can hold up not only delicate fruits, but hefty oatmeals and roasted barleys. In any event, the series developed sort of backward. Aaron had 5 labels that he wanted to use for a series. It was only after they had the labels did they decide to brew stouts. So the stouts match the labels. They have: an oatmeal stout, a cream stout, a blueberry stout, a smoked stout, and an imperial stout. Russ seemed pleasantly surprised that these can be found here in town at Riley's (or at least they could have, I'm not entirely sure they still have them there). I've now had the one, two and four. All of which are excellent.
Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, Russ, let me in on a little secret that I'm not sure he wants me to share with you. Needless to say, it involves Dark Horse and fermented beverages. I can tell that it's apparently really good stuff, and seems like something that would sell particularly well here in Madison. I agree with Russ that it could really help Dark Horse reach the masses.
Scotty Karate stomped and hollared for a while. If you like Scott H. Biram, or th' Legendary Shack Shakers, or Reverend Horton Heat, Scotty has their same low-fi country-metal sound. The guys at Dark Horse really like Scotty, and I've got to agree. In fact, at the brewery they frequently have excellent live music and Scotty can often be found there.
Sadly, we never made it over to Glass Nickel for Founders (they of "Breakfast Stout" fame).