Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Great Dane, Best in Wisconsin

First off, let me say that life is beginning to settle down and as a result I am back to brewing again! After a long hiatus, I was finally able to put up two batches which I hope will make nice Christmas presents. The first was ten gallons of what I'm calling my Holyday Brown, made with black patent, pale chocolate, Special-B, and honey malts. Northern Brewer is the featured hop variety. I had the first chilled and carbonated pint with dinner last night and it is tasty indeed. The second batch is an American IPA, but it's still fermenting so I haven't tasted that one yet. It feels good to brew.

For today's posting, I need to highlight one more great Wisconsin brewery. I consider this the best brewery in Wisconsin and, in fact, probably the best brewery I know of anywhere. The only downside of it all is that their beer is not available anywhere in cans or bottles, so you'll just have to come to Wisconsin to get some.

The Great Dane Brewery has locations in downtown Madison, Fitchburg, Hilldale, and most recently Wausau, WI. The ambiance in each location is great, full of rich, polished woods. The food is very good too, solid and tasty pub fare. But ambiance and victuals are merely the setting. The diamond at the Great Dane is the beer.

These brewers are incredibly talented. They seem incapable of making a bad beer. Every beer I've tried there—dark or pale, lager or ale—you name it, it has been perfect. My particular favorites have been the Emerald Island stout, the Black Earth porter, and the Old Glory American Pale ale. Yes, I'm an ale guy, but their lagers—such as the delicious Peck's Pilsner—are great too. But I think my very favorite has been the Stone of Scone Scotch ale, with a thick, lucious mouthfeel and rich caramel finish.

Now that they have a location in Wausau, WI, how about a pilgrimage to St. Mary's Oratory, followed by a few celebratory pints?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Beer Scene in China, Redux

Back in April of 2008 I posted my comments on The Beer Scene in China, based on tastings during my second trip to Shanghai. I've just returned from my third trip and have new and different tasting adventures to share.

The old standbys remain the same. Tsingtao is readily available and quite good for its style, a dry Austrian pilsner. I also tried several other beers in this same vein: Asahi, Carlsberg, and Heineken. The last one is commonly available here in the States as well. I had it for the first time from a can while in Shanghai and I must say that it is much better from that superior container than from its more typical green bottle. Boo to green bottles. It tasted much more fresh and had a better malt to hop balance than other times I have tried it. Even better was the Heineken I had for the first time on draft in the Minneapolis airport. This was even better, tipping well over toward the malt end of things and really quite enjoyable. The Asahi and Carlsberg were just ordinary; nothing worth commenting upon.

I tried the microbrew scene of Shanghai for the first time at the Boxing Cat Brewery. They had four of their ten beer line-up on tap, so we got a sampler. Unfortunately for my palate, I started with the Sucker Punch Pale Ale. This was a juicy, citrusy American style pale ale. It didn't really stand out, but was okay. We got an order of french fries to cleanse the palate and then tried the other three. Of these, it seemed to me that there was clearly something wrong with the Title Belt Altbier. This was decidedly tart, which seemed totally wrong for the style. Of the four, this was the only one that was downright unpleasant. The Standing 8 Pilsner was a good specimen for the style, earthy and crisp, but lacked any of the spicy notes that make a great Czech pilsner. And the Brewer's Choice was okay, but again not really noteworthy. This is billed as a "malty libation not on our list"; to me it lacked any real character. It was as if the brewmaster just dumped a bunch of caramel malts together without much regard for balancing the final product. So I was relatively underwhelmed by the offerings at this establishment.

We left the Boxing Cat and went to the Paulaner Brauhaus for a bit of supper and, we hoped, some better beer. They were gearing up for the kick-off of Oktoberfest that evening and were expecting a seriously large crowd. The wait staff (lovely Chinese maidens attired in traditional German dress—somewhat incongruous to be sure) were able to seat us in the biergarden which was fine on such a lovely warm evening. I ordered a half liter of the Oktoberfest with great expectation. This is one of my favorite styles and I have enjoyed the Paulaner version before. But alas, as I experienced the last time at the Paulaner in Shanghai, there was a problem. There was a distinctive astringency to this beer, exactly like that I experienced in the M√ľnchen I tried last time. Basically, I think that either the water in Shanghai is not conducive to brewing these German styles, or they are pressing their extraction rates too hard and getting some tannins in the beer. Or both. The ambiance is lovely, the food is fine, but the beer just isn't. Too bad.

The real highlight of the trip was a new find. I have heard of a Tsingtao Dark, but have never seen a specimen while in China. But while perusing the shelf of the local equivalent of a 7-Eleven, I did spy some bottles of Tsingtao Stout. This I had to try. It was quite good. A very sweet stout, it leans much more toward the molasses and brown sugar than roasted coffee. And upon first taste I definitely detected a distinct but not unpleasant alcohol note--sure enough, it comes in at a respectable 6.7% ABV. Rich, slightly syrupy, satisfying. I went back several times for more.
So, the bottom line is that there's beer in China. There's even good beer in China—and happily one of the best is from a Chinese brewery. But ultimately it's just not the place to find great beer.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company

To continue our look at the breweries of Wisconsin we'll head up to Chippewa Falls, home of the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company. Leinenkugels Brewery or "Leinie's" as it is affectionately called here in Wisconsin, was founded in 1867, making it one of the oldest continuously operating breweries in the United States. Unlike the vast majority of Wisconsin and other American breweries, Leinenkugel's managed to weather the storm of Prohibition by switching to flavored sodas and low-alcoholic "near beer". You've got to admire that sort of resiliance.

As with real estate, so with brewing, a huge aspect of a successful venture is location, location, location. Jacob managed to find a place where the water was abundant and eminently suitable for brewing:
Jacob located his brewery near the Big Eddy Springs, from which poured nonacidic, nonalkaline water that the brewery uses without treatment to this day. . . . Water is the key to the brewing process, and most brewers have to treat their water in one way or another in order to make it suitable for brewing. Jacob never seemed to have this problem, and the brewery's water is still of high quality today (The Breweries of Wisconsin, 142.)
The brewery was a family owned and operated enterprise with a fiercely loyal customer base for over 100 years until it was bought out by the Miller Brewing Company in 1988. Some of the top executives at the brewery continue to be in the Leinenkugel family, but in today's world relinquishing of control to a major conglomerate like Miller could very easily spell the end of Leinie's at some time in the future. There won't be any more retooling to put out soda and near beer to weather some future economic storm; rather it will be the standard story of American industry: You're not making the cut any more. Goodbye. Lights out. And that would be a sad day.

Now, as for their products, I must confess that I would not call any of Leinie's brews "great". But quite a few are good. In addition, they are reasonably priced. And because of the Miller ownership the distribution range is broader, so you may stand a better chance of being able to sample one or more in your area.

Leinie's Red Lager is a very solid entry, much better with food than by itself. By itself I find it a bit too bitter, but offset that bittering with some good beef or lamb and you have a great combination. The Creamy Dark is not so much creamy as crisp and snappy, but with a nice roasted backbone and good malt/hop balance.

The Honey Weiss—light, crisp, with a delicate but noticeable honey note—is very popular around here, especially dispensed by the keg at larger gatherings like picnics and wedding receptions.

The Classic Amber, a new brew in the line-up, is really quite good. I expected it to be fairly sweet, catering more to the popular crowd, but it actually has a fairly dry quality and an unexpected, subtle, and very nice roasted note to it.

On the other hand, there are several of their beers that leave me cold. The Leinenkugel's Original is unpleasant to me. Strangely, this is the beer that they used to establish themselves, but I find it over-hopped and a little strange. The Berry Weiss is basically a chick beer, lotsa berry and only sorta-kinda beery. And their Sunset Wheat tastes to me like a blueberry PopTart. Blech.

One that may come in along those same lines is the Summer Shandy—a mix of beer and lemonade—but I have not tried it. On the other hand, a lemonade shandy is one concoction I frequently make for myself on warm summer days (try it!) so it actually stands a chance of being good, if they don't make it too sweet.

But all in all I say Bravo to Leinenkugel's, especially for hanging tough through all sorts of trials. That's great Wisconsin spirit for you.

Friday, March 27, 2009

New Glarus Brewing Company

New Glarus is a fairly young brewery here in Wisconsin, but its products are top flight. Let's be very clear, Dan Carey is a very, very talented brewer. What's all the more cool is that this brewery was started as a collaboration between him and his wife, who is a talented entrepreneur and raised the capital to start the venture as a gift to her husband.

Jerry App in The Breweries of Wisconsin has this very short blurb on the original New Glarus Brewing Company:

This brewery opened in 1866 and became known as the . . . New Glarus Brewing Company in 1911. The brewery did not reopen after Prohibition. Today the building is part of a grocery and meat market. (p. 184)

Well, that's all the information we have for history, but it's interesting that this town has a long-standing tradition of beer brewing.

Anyway, there are a lot of great beers coming out of of the new New Glarus Brewing Company, but I might as well start with a couple I don't care for very much. Lots of times around here you'll hear people say, "Oh, I like the New Glarus Spotted Cow." Well, I really don't like the Spotted Cow, not because there's anything wrong with it but because it's pretty light and (to me) non-descript ale. But as we say here on CBR, de gustibus non est disputandum. I also did not care for their Edel Pils, which I thought was a bit out of balance to the bitter side of things and had a kind of overbearing malt presence. But, this beer has won its share of awards, so that may just be my personal taste speaking.

However, the company's Fat Squirrel is absolutely wonderful. This brown ale is rich and spicy, a top example of one of my favorite styles. It must not be drunk too cold, in order to really catch all of its nuances. This is a beer you can really savor. The great thing about this beer, for me, is that I can be pretty certain that I'm going to get a really fresh bottle, since the brewery isn't very far from me and the turn-over on our local store shelves is pretty high.

Organic Revolution is a wonderful American style pale ale, snappy and crisp with great balance and a very smooth malt palate. It's nice to see breweries make this move into the organic market.

Some of the breweries specialty beers are also impressive. The Coffee Stout is roasty and rich, the Staghorn Octoberfest has an especially nice caramel and hop spice mix and my wife, who is not an avid beer drinker, really appreciated the malty smoothness of the very drinkable Uff-Da bock (if you are not Scandanavian you may not know what "Uff-Da" means; this will be left as an exercise for the reader.)

Lots of Dan's beers, including the delectable and unique Wisconsin Belgian Red (each bottle made with over a pound of Wisconsin Door County cherries) has earned a very impressive list of awards

Dan also has an "Unplugged" series of over-the-top beers that he brews as specialties for a given year. I have had several of these, including the Imperial Pilsner and the Imperial Stout. I am very much looking forward to trying his Olde English Porter later this year.

There are a couple of New Glarus brews that I have not tried but that beckon me. The Totally Naked sounds intriguing in its simplicity and the Snowshoe Red Ale represents one of my favorite styles and I have a hunch I'll love the New Glarus offering.

Unfortunately, again, the distribution of these great beers is limited, but if you come through Wisconsin or Minnesota, I'd highly recommend grabbing a six pack or three.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tyranena Brewing Company, Lake Mills WI

In tackling the task of highlighting the many fine and some not-so-fine breweries in Wisconsin, I might as well start with my current favorite, the Tyranena Brewing Company in Lake Mills, WI. I have already highlighted one beer from this fine brewery, the absolutely wonderful Bitter Woman IPA, as described in Ten Beers I Go Back to Again and Again:

A very complex malt palate (the brewery lists 2-row, Vienna, Carapils, Wheat, Caramel malts in the grain bill) is supported by a very assertive but absolutely clean bittering. Citrus and pine notes prevail on the nose and the palate. An outstanding American IPA (India Pale Ale).
This is a beer for which one's mouth literally waters. But the Bitter Woman is by no means the brewery's one hit wonder. A while back I was able to secure a sampler pack of a variety of Tyranena's products, so I got a crack at each of the brews in their standard line-up. Some of these aren't my favorite styles, but believe me there's not a bad one in the bunch. For example, Three Beaches Blonde is a light ale perfect for those who aren't sold on the intense bittering of an IPA or fear the dark roast of a porter or stout. This beer has a wonderful fruity quality and a nice hint of honey on the finish.

Still on the lighter side of things, but more my style, is the fine Headless Man Amber Alt. This eminently drinkable brew strikes a fine malt-hop balance and finishes clean and smooth, with a pleasing caramel sweetness. The Stone Tepee Pale Ale is a nice example of an American pale, with plenty of juicy citrus hop flavor and aroma, dry finish, but a more subdued bittering than the IPA.

Very, very interesting is the Rocky's Revenge, a brown ale aged for a time in bourbon barrels. I've had examples of this from what I surmise were two different batches. The first, I would say, was a little over-the-top in terms of the bourbon essence and I caught what might have been just a hint of astringency (from the oak?). The second try, though, was wonderful, with a creamy vanilla and oak essence blending beautifully with the nutty goodness of the brown ale. Fabulous.

The Chief Blackhawk Porter is a fine example of the style, roasty and pleasingly bitter, with a very nice coffee note which I can never quite get in my porters and stouts.

But the best of all that I have had comes from their Brewers Gone Wild! series. Unfortunately, I have only had one in this series, but it's a doozy; indeed, I currently have two left of a four-pack that I bought just to verify my initial impressions (research trials, you know. Must be scientific about these things.)

The Devil Made Me Do It! Imperial Oatmeal Coffee Porter pours intensely black with a dark, compact head. It bears its formidable alcohol level with grace and goes down with a wonderful, silky smoothness. Many brewers and drinkers attribute this to the oats and I have to say that there does seem to be something about the mouthfeel of an oatmeal stout that is truly special. This beer presents its porterly goodness in an intense roasted coffee rush followed by an astounding denouement, a lingering smoky note wafting gently away like a ring blown from a fine cigar. Incredible.

According to their Web site, their beers are as yet only available in Wisconsin and Minnesota. But if you are in either of these two states, I encourage you to try the excellent brews from this remarkable brewery.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Breweries of Wisconsin

I have the privilege of living in southwest Wisconsin, an area described as the "Jewel of the Midwest" by one of my friends who does not have the good fortune to live here. Wisconsin has a venerable history of brewing. And it currently has some really outstanding breweries (none of which rhyme with "filler", by the way.) So I'd like to start a series on the breweries of Wisconsin and what better place to start than with the impressive book, Breweries of Wisconsin, by Jerry Apps?

Apps' book is a remarkable piece of research and a fascinating look into Wisconsin beer making's humble roots, its expansion throughout the state, the establishment of certain Wisconsin cities as major brewing centers, the massive decline brought about by Prohibition, and the on-going resurgence of commercial brewing in the state:

Wisconsin's brewery history began thirteen years before Wisconsin became a state and a year before it became a territory. By the late 1890s, when dairy cows began grazing in Wisconsin fields and dairy barns began gracing the rural countryside, nearly every Wisconsin community already had an operating brewery. Wisconsin was a beer state long before it became known as America's dairyland (p. xiv).
In an appendix, Apps enumerates a partial list of Wisconsin breweries he has catalogued in his own studies and, by a rough count, there are at least 325. But this list is mainly comprised of those large enough to be noticed and surely does not include inumerable smaller, local breweries. Today, according to the latest update at Wikipedia, the count of breweries in Wisconsin is around twenty five, with another few dozen brewpubs. This is actually a large increase from twenty or so years ago when the count would probably have been more like ten in total. What happened between then and now to cause this enormous decline? Prohibition, of course.

Apps hits the nail on the head with one of his chapter titles: "From Temperance to Prohibition". Indeed, the whole "Temperance Movement" is inaptly named. The Catholic Church teaches temperance, that is, moderation in all things including the consumption of alcohol. Certain elements of Protestantism manage to glom onto all of the passages of Scripture that condemn drunkenness, while weaving around all of those passages of Scripture that speak positively about the moderate consumption of alcohol. It's sometimes called "Puritan", but that is perhaps a bit unfair since many (most?) of the Puritans enjoyed a good pint of ale as much as anybody (although cf. the article "Puritans & Alcohol" for a slightly different view.)

Anyway, long and short of it is that the "Temperance Movement" was not about temperance at all but about total abstinence. And this movement finally had its way with the enactment of full-blown Prohibition in this country in 1919. One effect of this was to devastate the vast network of local Wisconsin breweries.

As in other parts of the country, a few mega-breweries were able to survive, by switching to products such as malt extract (as a nutritional supplement) or soda pop. One of the really fascinating parts of Apps' book is how a number of smaller Wisconsin breweriesmost notably Point and Leinenkugel'swere able to weather the storm.

Now, of course, the country has shaken off Prohibition (as a constitutional amendment, although not entirely as a mindset) and a certain renaissance of craft brewing, starting in the 1970s, has led to the establishment of a number of very fine new breweries in the state. In a series of upcoming posts I'd like to give my views and reviews of the many fine and certain not-so-fine brews that gush forth from the breweries of Wisconsin.

If you have a favorite Wisconsin brewery or Wisconsin brew, please share that with us in the comment box. And if there is one you're curious about, ask. I will do my best, as daunting as it may be, to secure a representative sampling of their products and report back here. ("What do I need with another six pack of beer? It's research, Honey, research! My readers are counting on me.......")