Cheers to Craft Beer!

Your city guide to drinking local

The Rebirth of Brewing in Madison


When Kirby Nelson, Ed Janus and the rest of the Capital Brewery team surveyed the beer scene in 1984, they saw a desolate landscape in the capital city of a state with a deep, rich brewing tradition. Back then Madisonians drank a lot of beer—a lot of beer. Popular brands included the St. Louis, Missouri, phenomenon Budweiser, as well as Milwaukee brands Miller Lite and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Down on campus the beer of choice was anything on sale or Old Milwaukee, for which the phrase “cheap swill” might have been coined (but hey, we liked it). Downtown, on the other side of the Capitol, the Fess Hotel drew large crowds as a high-end bar and restaurant in a historic building on the corner of King and East Doty. Malt House owner Bill Rogers was yet to start his computer programming career at CUNA Mutual, work he would do for nearly 20 years before entering the beer-pulling business.

Meanwhile, a German restaurant called Essen Haus was just getting off the ground in the then-blighted 500 block of East Wilson. At the time, the restaurant shared its front walk with a prostitute who called herself “Bubbles” and offered patrons four beers on tap: Hacker-Pschorr lager, Augsburger light and dark and Miller Lite. There weren’t many bars serving the premium German import Hacker-Pschorr in those days, so Essen Haus found itself on the cutting edge by keeping just a single beer on tap. Augsburger and Miller Lite were not anyone’s definition of “premium.”

In this desolation Madison was not alone. The ho-hum malted beverage market here reflected the beer scene throughout the rest of the nation.

“It was a beer desert,” says Nelson (pictured at left), who wears his white hair in a ponytail and speaks in the kind of loud voice that shouting over large, churning iron brewing kettles forces one to develop. He has been Capital’s brewmaster for all but two of the 25 years it has been brewing beer. “You had forty-some companies in sixty-some buildings making all the beer.”

Dane County had no breweries in 1986 when Capital’s first batch rolled out. Wisconsin, considered the beer capital of the United States at the time, had a total of seven breweries.

Now there are that many brewpubs in Dane County alone. The Great Dane was the first to open, in November 1994, in the space the Fess left when it closed earlier that year. The Dane now has two more breweries at Hilldale and in Fitchburg, and five restaurants, including one in Wausau. Ale Asylum, Granite City, Grumpy Troll and Vintage make seven brewpubs, with House of Brews expected to open on Helgesen Drive on the far east side this summer to bring the total to eight.

Great Dane brewmaster Rob LoBreglio says Madison was the chosen site for this then-experimental brewpub concept partly because of the relative sophistication and affluence of the city’s population. There was also a thriving home brewing culture in the city whose denizens met and communicated often about beer-making techniques and flavors, and this was the base that LoBreglio, his business partner Eliot Butler, and the Dane’s backers built upon. The management team looked at several locations throughout the city before the Fess site opened up.

“Once we found a building we had a good feeling the whole idea would work here,” LoBreglio says.

Tasting Your Beer

The words “craft beer,” “brewpub” and “microbrewery” have become as much a part of the beer-drinking lexicon as “pull tab” and “breaking the seal” were in 1984. The number of breweries and the variety of beers brewed has exploded statewide and nationally. Wisconsin now has fifty-six breweries, fifty-one of which are considered craft breweries: small, independent, traditional breweries like the Great Dane and Capital.

Nelson describes the beer he brews with the sort of detail and affection many people reserve for talking about their children. Capital, which is located just west of downtown Middleton in a space once occupied by an egg factory, started with two traditional German beers, Capital Pilsner and Capital Dark, brewed with more care, precision and patience than mass-produced beers.

“We will never stop making these two beers,” Nelson says, giving his ponytail a tug.

The pilsner, which has the qualities of Bavarian and Bohemian pilsners, is made with German barley and a high amount of hops bitterness relative to the amount of malt it contains. This gives it the dry finish a good pilsner should have. Capital Dark, meanwhile, is made with four distinct malts—caramel, Munich, dark and brewers—that contribute to the depth of its richness. Nelson says Capital Dark has a “smoother bitterness” that makes the beer more enjoyable and easier to drink. He says, “Some beers are too intense and just wear you down—it’s not interesting; it’s a freak show.”

Nationwide and statewide, craft brews claim an estimated 5 percent of all beer sales. In Madison, Nelson and LoBreglio say that figure is about 15 percent and growing. Precise numbers are hard to come by because distributors keep them confidential for fear that competitors will gain advantages over each other by extrapolating the data. In any case, we drink more of the good stuff here.

Essen Haus owner Bob Worm’s (pictured at left) distributors tell him his establishment sells more Hacker-Pschorr than anyone in the United States, and the second-most Spaten. Altogether, Worm says Essen Haus and the Come Back Inn sell 200 barrels of beer per week in the fall and never less than 50 barrels a week. With one barrel of beer containing thirty-one gallons, that means Worm’s bartenders are pouring more than 6,000 gallons in their best weeks. Between the two bars (Essen Haus and Come Back Inn are connected by an inside, unlatched door) they have 42 domestic and imported beers on tap and more than 100 in bottles.

About two miles down the road from Essen Haus, where East Washington Avenue and Milwaukee Street meet, the Malt House is serving up beers like Pauwel Kwak from the Brouwerij Bosteels brewery in Belgium in funky beer glasses. Bill Rogers, a former president of the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild, opened Malt House just three years ago in the old Union House Tavern, but he is already getting national attention for the quality and variety of his bar’s selection. Rogers is also a former chair of Madison’s Great Taste of the Midwest, the Olin-Turville Park beer festival that attracts more than 5,000 beer aficionados and is considered one of the largest and best of its kind in the world. In late April and early May of this year, dozens of bars and restaurants throughout the city unified around the inaugural Madison Craft Beer Week with countless events designed to focus attention on craft beer and food pairings. This is something we just did not do a generation ago.

Nelson, Worm and others believe that as the public becomes more aware of the perils of drinking in excess—alcoholism, binge drinking, and driving under the influence—there is a less-is-more ethic encouraging more people to make every drop count. Dollars once spent on quantity are now spent on quality. Everyone associated with the craft beer industry in the state expects this trend to continue. Capital Brewery’s former president Carl Nolen (pictured at right) says that while it took twenty-five years for craft brewers to capture 15 percent of the market here, it will not be another twenty-five years before it reaches 30 percent, as it already has in the state of Oregon.

“We are drinking better and drinking less,” Nolen says.

Meanwhile, brewmaster Nelson is doing what he does best. And these days he is quite proud of Capital’s Supper Club, its newest beer, which he calls an “American standard lager.” It embodies all of the best qualities of the beers people drank at supper clubs when supper clubs were at the peak of their popularity  in Wisconsin in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is like those beers but also somehow different.

“It has more body and malt feel—more beeriness,” Nelson says.

Dustin Beilke lives in Madison. He is drinking better and drinking less than he did in college.




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