Minocqua: Rice in Beer…That’s Wild!
Apropos of nothing, this stand of wild rice is only about six miles from the site of the dramatic shootout in the film “Public Enemies.”
As I’m writing this, my canoe is gliding and sliding up Rice Creek (pronounced “crick,” unless you want others to know you’re not from around here). The long stems of Zizania palustris aren’t quite ready to harvest yet, but in another month or so you’ll be able to bend them gently over the canoe, whack them with a long pole, and begin the labor-intensive process of turning the results into what we know as wild rice. Native Americans have been doing it for centuries.
Okay, I’m lying. Sort of. I was over there earlier today. I was brave enough to take the camera. I wasn’t brave enough to take the week-old laptop in the canoe. Canoes tip, sometimes. Not when I’m in one by myself, of course, but with this damnable canoe novice in the bow, there’s no telling what dangers I’m exposing myself to.
So what does all this talk about canoes and rice stalks have to do with beer, you may ask. For the answer, just drive about a half hour south from here down US 51, to the somewhat touristy “island city” of Minocqua. (Wisconsinites cringe at the fact that there are so many “Ill-annoy-sians” in Minocqua.) There, in a historic old building on the shore of Lake Minocqua, is Minocqua Brewing Company.
Housed in a 1927 Masonic Temple, Minocqua Brewing rebuilt the interior after a devastating 2004 fire.
They brew a fine Wild Rice Lager.
As you know, for centuries beers have been extended with ingredients other than the classic water, malt, hops and yeast. That megabrew I spotted you with last time was probably loaded with corn or unwild rice – stuff that’s cheaper than malted barley, which is the backbone of almost all good beers. But interesting beers can also be made with ingredients that don’t follow the dogmatic strictures of the Reinheitsgebot. I’ve heard that you can even make an interesting beer using Grape Nuts (which is made from neither grapes nor nuts). So if Grape Nuts can work, wouldn’t wild rice be even better?
I can’t answer that. I’ve never tried Grape Nuts Beer. But Wild Rice Lager can be pretty good stuff. As can a number of the other beers brewed on the shores of Lake Minocqua. It’s an impressive location. Frequently there’s music wafting over from the park next door. And although the interior lacks a true Northwoodsy feel, the large windows overlooking the shimmering blue lake are something you’ll never find at Goose Island.
And the beers?
l to r, front: Whitehaven Wheat, M.P.A. (Minocqua Pale Ale), Wild Bill’s Wild Rice Lager, Road-Kill Red Ale
back: Bear Naked Brown Ale, Pudgy Possum Porter, Brewmaster’s Special Scotch Ale
Wild Bill’s Wild Rice Lager is a beautifully clear, clean-tasting amber beer with a definite nuttiness from the wild rice, which reportedly comes from the nearby Lac du Flambeau tribe. (I’m guessing the Objibwe make a little more money from their casino than they do from selling wild rice.) It’s light on the hops scale, but it has some body to it – suggesting it contains some crystal malt, since the wild rice isn’t going to add anything to the body. It could make a great session beer.
Of course, wild rice beers aren’t that unusual – Capital Brewery just outside Madison makes a good one, and Stevens Point Brewing has made wild rice beers from time to time, both under their Point and James Page brands. But Minocqua’s version is among the best.
The other standout was Minocqua’s take on an IPA. They call it an MPA (Minocqua Pale Ale), and it screams Cascade hops, for a wonderfully citrus-y aroma and a bitterness that makes hop heads like me swoon. And the long finish can help you remember what you’ve had, post-swoon.
Road-Kill Red Ale (road-kill is common in these parts) is Minocqua’s biggest beer, at around 8% ABV. Its caramel flavor could have used a bit more hops, but it’s fine for any of you hop-wusses who like a slightly sweet beer. Like many of the bar’s patrons, it has a nice, full body to it.
Among the other beers, the Whitehaven Wheat is impressively, accurately described by the brewery as “for the novice beer drinker.” ‘Nuff said. The Pudgy Possum Porter is workmanlike, once you get past the name; Bear Naked Brown Ale has a nice balance between hops and caramel malts, but with a slight rancid-nut taste; and the Scotch Ale had a nice sweetness in the aroma, with a creamy mouthfeel, but a bit hoppier than I’d expect from a Scotch Ale (not that that’s a bad thing ….)
Is Minocqua Brewing worth the 6 1/2 hour drive (5 1/2 hours from Chicago if you’ve got Wisconsin plates and a lead foot)? Probably not, unless you also have a personal hankering for being surrounded by lots of trees, clear blue water, fish you can safely eat more than once a year, dirt roads, loons laughing at you for no particular reason, bald eagles (who’ve never even considered an eagle toupee), Indian casinos, cranberry bogs, and hodag hunting. Or the world’s third largest loon.
It’s up US 51 in Mercer.
Minocqua Brewing Co.
238 Lakeshore Dr.
Minocqua, WI 54548-9392