Why I love Wisconsin (hint: It’s the unique beers)

July 17, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Why I love Wisconsin

Yes, it’s got great cheese, brats, lakes, cows, ginseng, cranberries, and friendly people, but that’s not the main reason I love Wisconsin.

It’s the beer.

Yes, the beer. Many unique beers not available outside Wisconsin’s borders.

l to r: O’So Brewing’s The Big O, New Glarus’ Wisconsin Belgian Red (made with cherries), Ale Asylum’s Ambergeddon, Tyranena’s Headless Man, Big Bay’s Long Weekend, Tyranena’s Stone Tepee, O’So Brewing’s Lupulin Maximus, Sprecher’s Special Amber

I’m on my annual retreat to a family place in Northern Wisconsin, and I have in front of me a panoply of local Wisconsin brews rarely available outside the state.

Wisconsin is a great state for beer. According to the Brewers’ Association, in 2010 Wisconsin had 72 breweries, or one for every 78,986 residents. Contrast that with Illinois, at 49 breweries (one for every 261,850 residents) or Michigan. Yes, Michigan had more breweries than Wisconsin, at 85, but that’s only one for every 116,278 residents. Clearly, Wisconsinites can get sated more easily than Michiganders.

As I’m writing this, I’m sipping on a Floppin’ Crappie, from Northwoods Brewing in Eau Claire. It’s in a 12 oz. can, which can be a good thing; cans are lighter in weight than bottles, they’re easy recyclable, and they totally protect the beer from light. It’s a wheat beer with rather light character, but very refreshing this hot afternoon.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll try another Big Bay Long Weekend IPA. It’s currently made at the production facility of Milwaukee Brewing (a relatively new venture for the brewpub by the same name in the historic Third Ward, on the river — slogan, “Ale’s what cures ya’.”) As an IPA, it has a nice caramel maltiness not overwhelmed by intense hops. It has a bit of sweetness upfront, with grainy overtones, yielding to a lasting, pleasant bitterness.

I also tried a Lupulin Maximus (2010 vintage) from Plover, Wisconsin’s O’So Brewing (which, among many other beers, makes “The Big O” – don’t ask me about the story I have that goes with that beer). It’s an Imperial IPA. Is it a gimmick to include parts of a hop cone in a beer? Maybe, but if you can sip around them, it’s one serious beer that hopheads should love. My tongue is still tingling. Maybe it’s the hop cone pieces in my mouth. (Lupulin refers to a resin in the hop flower, which contributes flavor and bitterness to beers … in ways that are over the top for Lupulin Maximus.)

Another hoppy discovery was called “Kiss the Lips,” from tiny Lake Louie Brewing (although it prides itself as being “the largest brewery in Arena, WI [OK, the only brewery ever in Arena]”). I’m told some have tried to visit the brewery, but drove right past, since it’s off the road, down a small side road, and doesn’t have the flashy signage of many other breweries. Kiss the Lips is another IPA, but this time with pine and citrus aromas, and a definite malt background. It’s worth seeking out, but the promise of the name may not deliver – at least if it’s being consumed in the presence of the opposite sex.

Ale Asylum has always been a personal favorite, so I was happy to learn that it will be expanding significantly this summer. Although it will still be close to the Madison WI airport, it will have its own building, and will increase its capacity from the current 17,000 barrels to about 50,000. I’m now sipping on an Ambergeddon, a copper-colored, malty brew offset with good citrusy hops. I might need to have another tomorrow.

Yesterday, I quaffed a beer from a grand old Wisconsin name – Potosi, from Potosi Wisconsin. Founded in 1852, Potosi was a mainstay drink in southwestern Wisconsin until it closed in 1972. Rebuilt beginning in 1995, it now houses the National Brewery Museum (it beat out Milwaukee and St. Louis for the honor), and all Potosi profits go to a foundation supporting the museum and the historic brewery, as well as other local causes. Potosi Snake Hollow India Pale Ale is another with a good malt background, and a good amount of hop flavor, without the intense bitterness of some other IPAs.

Another malty treat from just north of Milwaukee was Sprecher’s Special Amber Ale. It’s all about the rich, slightly sweet, caramel-ly flavors. Although started as a brewery, Sprecher now makes more craft soda than it does craft beer. (“There’s less paperwork to make a soda,” I remember one of their reps telling me.)

Ah, there were many other beers, too, like beers from Tyranena, Central Waters, Sand Creek … although those three are available outside of Wisconsin.

New Glarus, though, isn’t. Despite moving to a larger brewery several years ago, they’re still being challenged to meet the demand within the state of Wisconsin. One of their newer brews, Moon Man No Coast Pale Ale, has become a favorite. Made with five different hops, it’s an easy-drinking quaff with great hop aroma. And, as the name suggests, it eschews the clichés that define East Coast and West Coast Pale Ales. It’s its own beer. And anything from New Glarus’ Thumbprint series should be snapped up immediately.

The good news for those of us outside the Cheddar Curtain, though, is that all these beers can be found just over the border, at very good prices. From Chicago, the Woodman’s megamarket just off I-94 at Route 50 is an excellent choice. (From a little further west, the Beloit store might be a better option.)

For a map of many (but not all) of Wisconsin’s craft brewers, click the map link on the lower left of this page.



  1. Matt LaSaine says:

    Thanks for the enlightening posting about some of Wisconsin’s hidden (to this Illinoisan) gems, but please consider editing the picture’s caption from “Lupus Maximus” to “Lupulin Maximus.” –Surely an unintended, yet unfortunate, distraction from an otherwise tasteful article.

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