Brewed Awakenings

The number of small-batch, artisan breweries in the Madison area has exploded over the past couple of years, adding a dynamic new element to the local food movement that is collaborative, sophisticated and totally cheers-worthy

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PHOTOS BY (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT) NOAH WILLMAN, NICOLE PEASLEE, SUE MOEN, SARAH SMILEY, NICOLE PEASLEE, NICOLE PEASLEE 

Otto Dilba and Dean Coffey of Ale Asylum; Rob LoBreglio of the Great Dane; Deb and Dan Carey of New Glarus Brewing, Ryan Koga of Karben4; Carl Nolen and Kirby Nelson of Wisconsin Brewing Co.; Tom Porter of Lake Louie Brewing. 

Zabel of Dexter’s certainly sees it in his customers’ beer-buying habits. “For the first time in a long time, people are treating beer like wine,” he says. “People have gotten to the point where they’ll pay ten dollars for a beer—and enjoy it.”

You see the same kind of behavior in the explosion of beer pairing events. Some of the city’s most beloved restaurants—from gastropubs like Graze to neighborhood eateries like 8 Seasons Grille to upscale spots like Restaurant Muramoto and Sardine—have initiated beer dinners, matching craft brews with everything from artisan cheeses to braised pork shoulder to chocolate cake.

“The status of beer is definitely on the rise,” says chef Tory Miller of Graze and L’Etoile. Similar to Zabel’s take on the shrinking divide between beer and wine, Miller says he increasingly sees beer as competition for wine, even in fine dining. When planning a beer dinner, which he does frequently for Graze, Miller loves picking up on the subtleties and the nuances, noting ingredients like coriander and clove and orange in each sip.           

And the choice between showcasing Madison-area brews versus craft beers from other regions? “Our local guys are killing it,” he says. “[They] are real artists.”

ROOM TO GROW

If it seems like the craft beer phenomenon has come into its own these past few years, well, as always, a little perspective is useful. It was actually only two years ago that the number of breweries in America, craft or otherwise, finally reached pre-Prohibition numbers. The countrywide brewery count dipped as low as eighty-nine—eighty-nine!—in the late 1970s. It’s just above 2,500 now.

Of that 2,500, a whopping ninety-seven percent are craft breweries. Yet compared to the beer bigwigs—Miller, Anheuser-Busch, Pabst—craft breweries still represent a tiny (but growing) portion of the overall beer market. Craft beer sales accounted for just 7.8 percent of total beer volume in 2013, up from 6.5 percent in 2012. According to Brewers Association economist Bart Watson, craft beer has now averaged almost eleven percent growth over the last decade.

PHOTO BY SHARON VANORNY

MOB RULES: MobCraft Beer founders (left to right) Andrew Gierczak, Henry Schwartz and Giotto Troia turned to crowdsourcing for their beer recipes.

And locally? Surely a state such as Wisconsin, with its strong beer tradition and growing demand for artisan products, bears stronger craft beer numbers. Yet in America’s Dairyland, craft beers account for only—hang onto your jaws for a moment—between five and 7.5 percent of the beer consumed annually, depending on who you ask. “Which is funny, because the perception is that it’s thirty to fifty percent,” says WBC’s Nolen. Things look better in Dane County, where Nolen pegs the percentage north of twenty. It’s tough to pinpoint an exact number, he says. Breweries keep their data close.

Compare Madison to a city like Portland, widely considered one of the several Pacific Northwest cities that served as ground zero for the craft beer explosion, and you can see a potential trajectory. Portland’s just short of three times the size of Madison and sports an impressive fifty-two breweries in its downtown area alone (Madison’s at eight, but notches up to double digits when you include nearby communities). Several of the traits that fueled the legendary craft beer boom in Portland are also evident here—things like a strong agricultural and Germanic tradition and a strong sense of local. Several of Madison’s craft brewers are hopeful Wisconsin will emulate Oregon in another way: capitalizing on the craft beer phenomenon to promote beer tourism. 

While the future looks bright, there are potential pitfalls. Some brewers, like Lake Louie’s Tom Porter, are concerned that competition from larger-scale breweries, the ones marketing their own faux-craft beers to capitalize on the trend (think brews like Blue Moon, Shock Top and Goose Island), could begin to fracture the local fellowship, forcing people to fight among themselves for market share. 

“How does that culture of bohemian brewing—the ‘We don’t care who gets the tapline as long as it’s one of us’—last?” he asks. “As we grow out of this, it could turn into ‘I got mine, you stay off.’”

Changes in state legislation could also hamper the scene’s continued growth. While Wisconsin craft brewers still enjoy self-distribution rights in the Badger State—a benefit brewers in Illinois don’t—newer Wisconsin laws make it illegal for small breweries to band together and form distribution systems of their own. 

WBC’s Nelson is a little more optimistic about the craft beer scene’s potential to continue booming. “Can it sustain itself? Why not?” he asks. Like New Glarus’s Carey, he thinks Wisconsin and Madison are middle-of-the-pack places in terms of brewery and brewpub density, nowhere near saturation.

No matter what happens, one thing’s clear: We’re happy to enjoy the malt and hoppy ride. As Ale Asylum brewmaster Dean Coffey is fond of saying: “Good beer always wins.” As beer drinkers in Madison, at least for the foreseeable future, so do we.

 

MAP: CRAFT BREWERIES AND BREWPUBS IN THE MADISON AREA

 

MORE BEER: 9 BEERS YOU GOTTA TRY IN 2014 >>

 

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