Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | March 15, 2011

Beer in Madison, Wisconsin

I was in Madison, Wisconsin this past weekend for work – I’d never been to Wisconsin before (other than passing through the Milwaukee and Appleton airports a few times). It didn’t take long for me to get why Milwaukee’s baseball team is called the Brewers. While I’m obviously familiar with Milwaukee as the home of Miller and their associated brands, my familiarity with Wisconsin’s microbrews was limited. Thanks to a rare shipment to Ace Beverage, I was able to try New Glarus Spotted Cow a couple years ago. I’d heard good things from friends who’d gone to school at UW-Madison and ended up really enjoying it.

The first thing that I can say about Madison is that there are a lot of bars. It’s a college town, as well as the state capital, and being Wisconsin, there’s a strong appreciation for good beer. Bars tend to have huge selections of Wisconsin microbrews, at very low cost. Most pints are $3-4. It’s hard to get a High Life in DC at that price, let alone a high-end craft brew.

When I travel and go to a craft cocktail bar, I often have the experience of being overwhelmed by the size and scope of a joint’s menu of original cocktails (Smuggler’s Cove is a perfect example of this). Rarely do I have that experience when going to a bar that has a wide selection of beer, in part because I got into drinking fine spirits at the (now defunct) Brickskeller in DC, with their 800+ beer list. But things were different in Madison. The lists of brews were dominated by tiny Wisconsin microbrews from breweries I’d never heard of.

Starting off at The Old Fashioned, right on the Capitol Square, I was met with a 30 beer tap list. The choices were overwhelming, so I had a New Glarus Spotted Cow. Sure, I wasn’t breaking new ground, but I needed more time to process the beer list before I’d be able to forge into virgin territory. The Spotted Cow is a light and fruity farmhouse ale. It’s dominated by it’s yeast, which isn’t filtered out and adds a lot of layers. As much as I enjoyed Spotted Cow, it turned out to be one of the less interesting beers I had in Madison, simply because it sort of pulls its punches, to quote Erik Ellestad in the comments, is “an uncomplicated beer for days”. That wasn’t the case when  I tried the Evil Doppleganger Double Mai Bock by Pearl Street Brewery in La Crosse. This beer doesn’t pull any punches, with an 8% alcohol content and a lot more hops than I’d expected from a maibock. Still, it’s rich and has a nice sweetness and was a great example of a Wisconsin beer that wasn’t fooling around with flavor.

The next night I had dinner with friends at a great bar and restaurant, The Weary Traveler. There I got to try another offering by New Glarus – a Belgian-style ale called Stone Soup. I thought this was as great an example of an Abbey ale I’ve ever had that wasn’t actually from Belgium. Clean and refreshing, with a nice maltiness and light spice, it paired really well with the infamous Bad Breath Burger (featuring cream cheese, roasted garlic, and other fun things). After dinner we moved to The Paradise Lounge, a dive bar in the truest sense, yet still packed with good craft beer offerings. I found a beer I liked there and stuck with it all night: Capital Brewery’s Maibock. Despite it’s 6.2% ABV, it tasted light and was an easy-drinker, putting malt and a light hint of hops fruitiness on the finish. I really liked the complexity of this Maibock.

The Washington Post is currently running their annual Beer Madness bracket. It’s interesting to see their choices, which are heavily tilted towards breweries in the Mid-Atlantic. There are some great beers in the contest, but after this last weekend in Madison, I could imagine Wisconsin dominating a final four given a few of the entries I had this weekend. The WaPo bracket is interesting, though, for their openness to user voting, which is then fully ignored as their panel makes the decisions about who advances each round. Oh well, at some point I’m sure the Post will get this contest right and find a way to have a really well rounded field and genuine user input. I’d suggest they have a much wider field that helps determine which 64 beers make it into the tournament, then allot at least 30% of the votes for each match-up to the majority choice of users. That would make the whole thing more inclusive of audience participation for something other than wracking up page views.

But I digress… As you can tell, I had a great weekend enjoying fine beers in Madison. Between the daunting selection of Wisconsin microbreweries, the quality of the beers they’re making, and the rock-bottom price point for drafts at bars and restaurants, I will definitely look forward to visiting Madison again.



  1. […] Cross posted at A Jigger of Blog […]

  2. Excellent! Sounds like you had a great time! I grew up near Madison and often get back to visit friends. Still have a soft spot for the town!

    I wouldn’t classify Spotted Cow so much as “pulling its punches” as being an uncomplicated beer for days when you don’t feel like being challenged. It’s great on a hot day or when you don’t feel a need to get wasted after 2 8% craft beers.

    Madison still has a ways to go in the cocktail realm, but for a relatively small town in the Midwest it is right up there on beer and food.

    • Good point Erik, perhaps I was a bit unfair. I think your description is pretty spot-on.

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