By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In M, the magazine of Isthmus weekly newspaper
Local. Seasonal. It's a great approach to buying fruits and veggies, so why quaff the same corporate brew year round? This is Wisconsin. Take advantage.
In the nineteenth century, beers varying with the seasons and made with locally grown hops and grains were on tap in virtually every town and hamlet in Wisconsin. The state boasted over three hundred breweries--forty eight just in Milwaukee, as Jerry Apps tells in Breweries of Wisconsin.
But by the mid-1980s, only six Wisconsin brewers remained: national concerns Pabst, G. Heileman and Miller (purchased by Philip Morris in 1969), and small-timers Huber, Point and Leinenkugel (purchased by Miller in 1988). Nationwide, the tremendous range of beermaking techniques and seasonal varieties developed over the course of human history was being whittled down to regular and Lite.
Fortunately, independent brewmasters and entrepreneurs have managed to bring back small-scale specialty brewing to the US. In Wisconsin alone, more than fifty microbreweries and brewpubs have sprouted up over the past fifteen years, reviving our tasty tradition of distinctive hometown beers. Madison is superbly set to enjoy this renaissance, with three brewpubs inside the city limits, and several breweries close by.
Freshly made and locally prepared in small quantities, our area beers are artisanal gems made by inspired craftmasters. Many of these beers are specially made for the summer only--and sometimes just for a one-time limited release.
What makes a beer a summer beer? In general, the same qualities that mark any other summer treat: lightness and delicacy. As with food, drink that's not as heavy is more appealing in summer's swelter. Also, some say that a lower alcohol content is preferable, because the body can't store alcohol, and must burn it up right away--thus making you feel hotter.
For many beer lovers, summer is synonymous with the gentle ales known as Weizens, or Bavarian-style wheat beers. Instead of all barley malt, Weizens are made with 40%-70% wheat malt. Special yeasts produce subtle notes reminiscent of fruits and sweet spices. The result is light, frothy and flavorful.
Before the microbrew revolution, Weizens were nearly impossible to find in America. Now, there are several local varieties. Capital Brewery's Kloster Weizen, brewed year-round, and New Glarus Brewing Company's Solstice Weiss, brewed in summer only, are two outstanding beers in this category. Both are Hefe Weizens, meaning that the yeast (Hefe) is not filtered out of the finished product. This yeast, which is visibly cloudy, feels silky-smooth on the tongue. Of the two, the cinnamony Solstice Weiss is especially luxuriant, with a warm, languorous finish that my husband describes as "the taste of summer sunshine" (really). Kloster Weizen, on the other hand, is crisper and more citrusy--"a spicy bubble gum flavor," says Capital's brewmaster, Kirby Nelson.
Rob Larson, founder and one of two brewers at the months-old Tyranena Brewing Company in Lake Mills, describes their clovey, banana-undertoned Fargo Brothers Hefeweizen as “effervescent.” “It dances around on your tongue,” he says. So far, it’s only available at the brewery’s tasting room and summer beer garden, but it might show up on tap at Madison bars this summer.
On the brewpub scene, J.T. Whitney's Pub and Brewery makes its Heartland Weiss with a relatively dark wheat malt. Another house Weizen, the filtered Krystal Weiss, is a lighter beverage overall, says brewmaster Richard Becker: "Filtering takes the heaviness out." Also, Krystal uses less malt than Heartland, and the wheat itself is lighter.
Becker prides himself on using 70% wheat in his Weizens, even though he says wheat is "a pain to work with" compared to barley. Barley hulls are stiffer and allow the wort--the brewed liquid that will ferment into beer--to seep through more quickly. But it's worth the extra effort, because "the wheat works with the yeast to get that citrusy, clovey flavor. And the more wheat, the greater the foam head. You get a better, more stable foam."
The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company brews its Crop Circle Wheat Beer all year, but it's most popular during the summer months, says Kevin Eichelberger, who works as a brewer there. "It's very refreshing, with a banana character," he says. On tap at Angelic Brewing Company is Harvest Moon Hefe Weizen. "It's a terrific summer beer," says general manager Tom Woodford, "Light and fruity, with a clove bouquet. We serve it with a lemon, the American way."
Fruit beers are another popular choice for summer. New Glarus makes two: Raspberry Tart and Wisconsin Belgian Red. Touted as "a marriage of wine and beer," they're fermented in eight-foot-tall Yugoslavian oak vats once used to age California merlot, then packaged and sold in single 25-ounce bottles. Though most breweries use fruit extracts to flavor their beers, New Glarus uses 1.4 pounds of raspberries for each bottle of Raspberry Tart, and a full pound of cherries for each bottle of Belgian Red. The payoff is evident in Belgian Red's striking, vivid cherry flavor and brilliant ruby hue.
For fruity beer on tap through the summertime only, try J.T. Whitney's Raspberry Weiss, which is also made with fresh berries. Beckman adds ninety pounds to a 310 gallon batch of brew for the final three days of fermenting. "It has a nice light raspberry aroma, not extremely sweet."
Though it's not a Weizen, another yeasty beer that goes down easy in the hot months is Spotted Cow from New Glarus. "It's hot and humid in Wisconsin in the summertime, so we try to make things a little lighter and easy to drink," says brewery co-owner Deb Carey. Spotted Cow's complex flavor is rich and graceful: "I would describe it as apricot, with a bready quality from the yeast," says Carey. "It's a pretty approachable beer, our biggest seller."
Carey conceived of Spotted Cow as the quintessential local beer. "This is our interpretation of a traditional farmhouse ale--something we thought would be brewed at a Wisconsin farm before Prohibition. We use some corn, because they would have used what was available. And we leave it unfiltered, because that's how they would have had it."
In mid-June, New Glarus introduced a genial new brew, Totally Naked Extra Pale. "It's a very mild-tasting blond beer, the palest beer we've ever made," says brewmaster Dan Carey, Deb's husband. "It has a lot of Czech and German hop aroma."
Hops are fragrant green pinecone-shaped blossoms used to flavor beer. They also act as a natural preservative, since they halt the growth of bacteria and fungus. Hop tastes vary widely. These, he says, are a centuries-old European variety, and they're particularly delicate: "spicy, sweet, and earthy."
Usually, hops are boiled along with the wort, but in making Totally Naked, Dan adds them later, during the aging process. That way, their tender flavors can infuse gently into the beer, like tea.
The barley for Totally Naked is malted (that is, the grains are sprouted, then dried) in Sheboygan. Not much barley is grown in Wisconsin anymore, Dan says, but because of our brewing history, "This is where the maltsers are."
This particular grain produces "a low-protein pilsner malt," says Dan. "Low protein means less haze, less filling, less satiating. It's crisp." But high quality beermaking barleys are increasingly hard to get, because they're bred with an eye to big yields and disease resistance, not flavor. To get the grains they want, New Glarus Brewing pays farmers a premium to grow older, better-tasting varieties of barley.
Capital Brewery in Middleton also rolled out a new barrel this June, but theirs is on the opposite end of the mild-to-wild spectrum: Weizen Doppelbock, which combines the dainty spiciness of a Weizen with the intensely sweet, malty beeriness of a Doppelbock. "It's a very amplified Weizen," says brewmaster Kirby Nelson. "We start with more ingredients. It has higher concentrations of everything, and that includes alcohol as well as flavor--more overall beer impact." More impact is right: less than a bottle set me reeling. This honey-colored brew delivers a wallop of bubbly sweetness that's almost syrupy, like grape juice. It's a turbo-charged beer adventure.
Nelson disagrees that summer is prime time for lighter, more delicate refreshment. Take Summer Fest, Capital's official summer seasonal. "It's not based on making a mild, light beer--it's stronger," says Nelson. "Our Summer Fest is a version of a German festival beer, the kind they serve at fairgrounds all summer. It's solid, malty and clean, with a nice floral essence."
Moreover, while most summer-billed brews are ales (yeast floats on top during fermentation), Summer Fest is a lager (yeast sinks to the bottom). Once upon a time, lagers could only be made during winter. The wort must be brought to 45° quickly, then kept at cold temperatures for months.
The process of making lager is extremely complicated—"highly inefficient," in Nelson's words—and was developed only about two hundred years ago. In that time, however, lagers have become "the most popular beer on the planet," says Nelson. "They're crisp. I love 'em." Weizen Doppelbock and New Glarus's Totally Naked Extra Pale are both hybrids, made with elements of ale and lagering ingredients and techniques.
For the homiest brew of all, visit the Wine and Hop Shop. They've got everything you need to concoct your own summer beer. The "Winsome Wheat" kit ($29), assembled in-house, includes malted barley and wheat, priming mixture, and the special yeast and hops that give wheat beer its characteristic lilt--enough for five gallons of beer. Another $40 will set you up with reusable equipment: bottles, a fermentation container and a lock, a siphon tube and a capper, plus some single-use caps.
Proprietor David Mitchell compares it to cooking, "except extended over time. It takes about an hour and half to brew, then ten to fourteen days later, another two hours to bottle it." Then you wait again, about another ten days. "You need patience to wait for the carbonation to develop," says Mitchell. Like cooking, making beer is tricky the first time or two. The fun comes in varying your recipes. "When you bottle it, you can put honey in one gallon. You can add strawberries or raspberries to another." With different types of yeasts, hops, malted grains, there are "billions" of combinations, he says.
With practice, Mitchell claims, it's even possible to come up with a brew as good as a micro-brewery's product. But, he adds, "I seldom make the same thing twice. Sometimes it works, sometimes, maybe, not so much." Coming back to the cooking analogy, Mitchell points out that sometimes you want to go to a restaurant, and sometimes you want to cook for yourself.
Tyranena’s Rob Larson got his start with a home brew kit, a Christmas present from his wife eight years ago. After sampling the results of his first effort—“I absolutely loved it,” he says—Larson gave up mainstream beer for good and delved into the study of small-scale beermaking, eventually enrolling in a Chicago brewing school.
The most successful startups in the new wave of small breweries, he says, are the ones that have “really keyed in on their local markets. I think that’s what microbreweries are all about—staying local.” Larson doesn’t hope to ever distribute his beer beyond southern Wisconsin. “We want people to think of our beer when they think of our area.” In that spirit, Tyranena’s beers are all named after characters and events from Jefferson County’s past, and the labels are loaded with colorful stories of local history.
While you're waiting for your home brew to carbonate, remember that this summer Madison is bubbling over with the fruits of summer: lyrical Weizens, robust German festival lagers, beers loaded with fresh berry flavor, easy-drinking thirst-quenchers, strong, head-buzzing brews. All summer specials, and all made close to home.
Beer Basics: A Zymurgical Lexicon
A grain beverage flavored with aromatic herbs and fermented with yeast, first brewed by the Sumerians 10,000 years ago.
Barley that’s been sprouted (to make it sweeter, so it can ferment), then dried. It can be roasted to produce flavors like coffee, chocolate, caramel or licorice. Wheat malt is also used in Weizen beer. Typically, the grain used in craft beers is all malt. Mainstream beers are made largely of (unmalted) corn and rice, which are cheaper and less labor intensive.
These little green blossoms are to beer what herbs are to cooking. They’re also a natural preservative. Hops can taste “bitter, grapefruity, grassy, piney, lemony, earthy, or resiny,” says New Glarus’s Dan Carr.
The sweet soup of malt and water to which hops and yeast are added. Wort ferments into beer.
A fungus that eats the malt’s sugars. Alcohol and carbon dioxide are left behind after this fermentation. Yeasts with varying, distinctive flavors have been cultivated for centuries.
Ale and Lager
Most beers fall into one of these two categories, though some beers are made with a combination of methods and ingredients.
Ales are fermented at relatively warm temperatures (60°-70°), using yeasts that float on top. Weizen, stout and porter are all ales.
Lagers are fermented at cold temperatures, using yeasts that sink. Bock and Oktoberfest are lagers. Most mainstream beer, from Bud to Heineken, is a toned-down rendition of the crisp, tangy lager known as pilsner.
Want to learn more? For homebrew how-to, visit The Brewery (www.brewery.org) or The Real Beer Page (realbeer.com). The latter also features information about microbreweries, brewpubs, and the brewing industry. The Beverage Testing Institute (www.tastings.com) rates beers and breweries worldwide, with lively, helpful articles that make it all meaningful. And don’t miss the Sumerian hymn to the goddess of brewing at www.coopsmaps.com/beer/ninkasa.html.