by Niko Ivanovic
With so many great Midwest brewers surrounding the state, it can be easy to take for granted the incredible local craft beer scene. However, the truth is that Wisconsin is about more than just crafting good beer. It’s about a small grass-roots, farm fresh mentality that few states can still proudly claim to hold.
With reputations that far exceed their distribution capacities, Wisconsin brewers are often the subject of envy from jealous beer geeks across the country. In fact, many of the award-winning breweries below don’t even distribute outside the state. Instead they tend to focus on quality over quantity, more than happy to rely completely on our business rather than expanding to meet the demand.
And though Wisconsin beer may have been made famous by names like Miller and Pabst, this list below helps us to remember that the heart and soul of our brews remain rooted deeply in the brilliant minds of small craft brewers. The following awards highlight the very best beers that they have to offer.
Best New Beer: New Glarus Serendipity
This past summer set record high temperatures across the state, resulting in a severe drought that devastated the Wisconsin cherry harvest. One consequence of this for beer drinkers was that New Glarus was not able to produce as much of its famous Belgian Red cherry ale as normal. Thankfully, to compensate for the limited supply, the brewery decided to release a new fruit ale that supplemented the shortage of cherries by also adding apple and cranberries to the beer. The result: Serendipity, aptly described by New Glarus as a “Happy Accident Fruit Ale.” Though the flavors don’t deviate too much from Belgian Red, the complex, tart, and incredibly fruity ale may remind more of a complicated holiday cider than a beer.
Runners Up: New Glarus Saison
Best Lager: Capital Oktoberfest
Lagers tend to get a bad reputation amongst craft beer nerds these days, like an aging remnant of a time when light fizzy corn-water beers dominated the industry. And though I am not going to argue that your standard lager can compete with the biggest and boldest ales out there, there is just something about the smooth, clean, toasty and bready malt backbone of a well crafted lager that sometimes hits the spot. Capital Oktoberfest is one of these beers. It has a great fresh baked biscuit profile, with notes of nutmeg and cinnamon that comfort the taste buds on a cold fall or winter night.
Runners Up: New Glarus Totally Naked, New Glarus Two Women
Best Pale Ale: Ale Asylum Hopalicious
Hoplicious is perhaps the best readily accessible beer in Madison, and for that reason it can often be taken for granted. However, when glancing across a row of taps dominated by Miller and Bud Light, spotting this hidden gem can save a beer geek’s night. The Madison based Ale Asylum brewers are absolute masters of the hop, and Hopalicious showcases just that with a balanced profile of citrus, grapefruit, floral herbs, and a perfectly complimenting malt backbone.
Runner Up: New Glarus Moon Man
Best IPA: Tyranena Hop Whore
The fastest growing market in craft beer may just be for the India Pale Ale. In this respect the style has become almost the essence of what craft beer is all about to many new beer enthusiasts: lots of flavor and lots of hops. For those of you not familiar with the style, IPAs tend to be aggressively bitter, often encroaching upon the limit of human taste bud capability. Hop Whore takes a slightly more moderate approach in this respect, as it doesn’t seek to destroy your tongue with hop bombs. Instead, what really makes this beer special is the freshness of flavors. Notes of clean pine, grass, grapefruit and toasty bread dominate.
Runners Up: Ale Asylum Satisfaction Jacksin, New Glarus IIPA
Best Wheat Beer: Furthermore Fatty Boombalatty
One of the lesser known Wisconsin breweries, Furthermore tends to get overlooked, which is a shame considering their unique lineup of beers. Fatty Boombalatty is one of the more flavorful wheat beers out there, and to be honest, takes exactly like bananas foster. The creamy flavors just scream banana, ice cream, and maybe a bit of a cookie like crumble.
Runners Up: New Glarus Dancing Man Wheat, New Glarus Laughing Fox
Best Porter/Stout: Tyranena The Devil Made Me Do It
To be completely honest, Tyranena makes a lot of pretty average beer. However, every single entry to their special limited line up of “Brewers Gone Wild” beers that I have tried has been spectacular. The Devil Made Me Do It is an imperial oatmeal coffee porter, delivering lots of great roasted coffee flavor, grainy and tangy oats, and a hint of creamy banana.
Runners Up: Central Waters Peruvian Morning, Leinenkugel’s Big Eddy Imperial Stout
Best Fruit Beer: New Glarus Belgian Red
New Glarus is maybe the best brewer of fruit ales in the country, and honestly this category is not even a contest. Their ability to absolutely capture every subtly nuance of a particular fruit, like cherry in this case, and transform it into a rich, tart, and complicated ale is astounding.
Runners Up: New Glarus Serendipity, New Glarus Raspberry Tart
Best Belgian Ale: New Glarus Enigma
Enigma is maybe an unconventional choice for best Belgian Ale because it does not match the typical dark fruit, yeast and spices profile that you may be accustomed to from the style. Instead this is a different type of Belgian beer: a sour ale. Expect an extremely tart, borderline salty attack on your taste buds that may be more reminiscent of a complex red wine then a beer.
Runners Up: New Glarus Abt, New Glarus Saison
Brewery of the Year: New Glarus
Simply put, there are few breweries in the entire country, let alone in Wisconsin, that continue to innovate and push the boundaries of what beer can be like New Glarus. Yes there are a lot of other amazing beer crafters on this list, many of which have become experts of a certain style, but none can boast the wide variety of complex, unique and breathtaking beers that fill the New Glarus profile. There really isn’t a style of ale or lager that these guys are afraid to take on, and that is the sort of mentality that craft beer is really all about.
Second Place: Ale Asylum
Third Place: Tyranena
Check out this story in the Winter/Spring issue of MODA, now on newsstands around the UW-Madison campus!