Madison's craft brewing industry takes crown

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Move over Milwaukee. Madison has tapped into Wisconsin’s craft beer drinkers and currently wears the crown as the Badger State’s most vibrant craft beer producer.

That’s not to say that the Cream City doesn’t deserve kudos for its storied brewing history and for continuing to advance the beer industry. MillerCoors’ massive State Street facility is still the state’s largest brewery, although no longer the site of the company’s corporate headquarters. Milwaukee also is home to a fine craft brewing tradition that includes Sprecher Brewing Co., Lakefront Brewery and others.  In the past few seasons, the city and its neighboring communities have hosted a groundswell of new breweries. From Cedarburg to St. Francis and from Oconomowoc to Kenosha, kettles are boiling and bottles are capping. The beer is flowing.

But Madison may be even more vibrant, as well as more innovative its approach. With a population that’s little more than one-tenth of the Milwaukee metro area’s current 2 million-plus citizens, Madison’s craft brewing scene is pints ahead of Milwaukee from a per capita perspective, and the margin continues to increase.

What follows is an alphabetical field guide of sorts to Madison craft breweries and brewpubs. Drink responsibly, but enjoy the vast and varied craft beer options Mad City has to offer. 

Ale Asylum2002 Pankratz St., Madison, 608-663-3926

Dean Coffey and Otto Dilba, founders of Ale Asylum, might describe themselves as victims of their own success. The pair first met while working at the former Angelic Brewing Co. in downtown Madison. When Angelic closed, Coffey and Dilba created their own brewery in an 8,000-square-foot storefront in an industrial strip mall near Dane County Regional Airport. In 2012 the pair opened a brand new brewery and tasting room near the airport with nearly twice the barrel capacity and five times the floor space. 

Highly hopped and creative Belgian-style beers are Coffey’s specialty, and Hopalicious is Ale Asylum’s flagship brand. Hop lovers should not miss Ballistic, Coffey’s American pale ale, or Satisfaction Jacksin, his double IPA that’s 8.5 percent alcohol by volume. He describes it as “slightly punishing and entirely pleasing.” Indeed!

BluCreek Brewing, 2310 Daniels St., Ste. 148, Madison, 608-204-0868

No doubt more than one UW School of Business student has considered developing a business plan for a brewery. But in 2000, then-students Thomas Moffitt and Runi Hadiprajitno made it work. The pair’s result, BluCreek Brewing, traded on their interest in international business and Japan’s thirst for beer, blended with the restorative powers of blueberries. Thus, BluCreek (Wild) Blueberry Ale was born and exported to the island nation. 

The entrepreneurs, who contract brew at Sand Creek Brewery in Black River Falls, more recently started focusing on domestic palates. Their lineup includes BluCreek (Honey) Herbal Ale, brewed with Wisconsin ginseng, and Zen (Green Tea) IPA, which blends Chinook, Cascade and Centennial hops with English green tea. Restorative or not, there few competitors to this lineup.

Capital Brewery7734 Terrace Ave., Middleton, 608-836-7100

Opened in 1984, Capital Brewery is the Madison area’s oldest craft brewery. Under the direction of former brewmaster Kirby Nelson, Capital built its legacy on lager and made its mark with variants of German styles, including the hopped-up bock beer Autumnal Fire, its early spring sister Blonde Dopplebock and the wildly popular Island Wheat, made from grain grown and harvested on Washington Island.

In 2013, Nelson decamped for hoppier pastures (see Wisconsin Brewing Co.) and new brewmaster Brian Destree began to carve his own path, first by introducing ales and IPAs to the lager lineup and then by creating some truly memorable specialty beers. Destree kicked off the year with Jobu, a high-octane, brown ale aged in oak rum barrels from Jamaica’s Appleton Estates. With 8.5 ABV and a flavor palate that runs from malt to caramel to toffee and back again, Destree and Capital clearly have spirited futures ahead of them.

Esser’s Cross Plains Brewery2109 Hickory St., Cross Plains, 608-798-3911

In 1852, stonemason George Esser emigrated from his native Germany to Wisconsin in search of a new life. By 1863 he had purchased land in Cross Plains, just west of Madison, and begun brewing and distributing Esser’s Best, which reminded the recent immigrant of home. Fast-forward to 1990, when Larry Esser joined his father Wayne to become the sixth-generation owner of one of the state’s oldest family-owned legacy brands.

Wayne and Larry currently contract brew the company’s beers at Point Brewery in Stevens Point, but they keep the name and styles alive to honor their heritage. Esser’s Best Original is a Munich Helles style, making it light and refreshing. The company also brews Esser’s Cross Plains Special, a German pilsner, and Essers Anniversary Ale, an American amber style.

Granite City Food & Brewery72 West Towne Mall, Madison, 608-829-0700

As Madison’s only chain brewery, Granite City is a St. Cloud, Minn., transplant that offers a line of basic beers throughout its 30 different brewpubs in 13 states. Madison is the chain’s only Wisconsin location.

Through a process it calls “fermentus interruptus,” the brewery ships unfinished wort from one of its three Iowa locations to the West Towne Mall restaurant, where it’s put through its final brewing stages. The resulting lineup includes The Duke (Pale Ale), The Bennie (Bock), The Batch (Double IPA), The Northern (American Style Light Lager) and the Stout Seasonal brews (featured throughout the year).

Great Dane Pub, Five locations in Madison and Wausau

When brewmaster Rob LoBreglio decided to abandon his theology degree, his college friend Eliot Butler had an idea. After some serious demographic research of various potential markets, the two decided to brew beer, moving from upstate New York to open the first Great Dane Pub in downtown Madison’s former Fess Hotel in 1994.

The Great Dane has since expanded to five locations, including one in Wausau. The brewpub offers everything from Peck’s
Pilsner to Wooly Mammoth Porter. There are always noncarbonated English-style cask ales to sample and one or two truly experimental beers to try. The recently released Imperial Pilsner, made with all German malts and Hallertau whole-leaf German hops, weighs in at 10 percent ABV, but is well worth the risk.

Gray’s Tied House, 950 Kimball Lane, Verona, (608) 845-2337

Historically, a tied house was a restaurant or tavern owned by a specific brewery and required to buy most or all of its beer from that brewery. The trend originated in England, but post-Prohibition anti-trust laws made tied houses illegal in the United States. In recent years, however, those restrictions have eased — which is good news for Janesville-based Gray’s Brewing Co.

Gray’s Tied House doesn’t brew beer on premise, but it does feature the full line of its beer brewed some 40 miles to the south. On tap you’ll find Gray’s Oatmeal Stout, Honey Ale, Busted Knuckle Irish Ale and others. The bar/eatery, which describes itself as an “American bonfire grill and brewery,” also offers a comprehensive menu and a complete line of Gray’s sodas, also produced by the brewery.

Gray’s Brewery has been producing and bottling beverages since 1856, making it one of the oldest in the state.

House of Brews, 4539 Helgesen Dr., Madison, 608-347-7243

Page Buchanan, one of Madison’s new generation of brewers, has spent several years finding his way. But, by all accounts, he has arrived. His taproom off Stoughton Road isn’t long on charm, but the beers more than make up for the utility of their surroundings. 

Buchanan is making some waves with 22-oz. bomber releases, particularly his Rickhouse Bourbon Barrel Stout, his Standing Stones Scotch Ale and his Kremlin Russian Imperial Stout — all high-alcohol bruisers. Local beer writer Robin Shepherd lauded the brewer’s Snug Oatmeal Stout for its “smooth mouth-feel and chocolate maltiness,” and his Prairie Rye, a Kolsch-style beer that’s not often locally produced. It benefits from the distinct dryness achieved by the addition of rye.

House of Brews is also a community-supported brewery (think community supported agriculture, or CSA, but with beer); subscribers can buy shares and influence production. See for details.

Karben4 Brewery, 3968 Kinsman Blvd., Madison, 608-241-4812

When Ale Asylum moved out of its original facility near Dane County Regional Airport, it wasn’t long before brewmaster Ryan Koga, his brother Zak and Alex Evans moved in. Ryan Koga drew on his past experience as brewmaster at Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co. in Billings, Mont., and almost immediately began producing some marvelous beers of his own unique design.

Koga’s Deep Winter Coffee Stout, a recent award-winner, completely replaces hops with a Guatemalan light-roast coffee, creating a richly satisfying blend of the two beverages. His Silk Scorpion Black IPA, already a local favorite, blends dusky hop and dark malt for a nuanced flavor of citrus and roasted malt that has a unique sting. 

SamuRyePA, a rye-based American pale ale, blends Pilsner malts with three types of rye for a unique experience that’s “like sticking your face into a box of Fruit Loops,” according to the brewery’s website. Not for every taste, perhaps, but undeniably unique.

Mobcraft Beer, c/o House of Brews, 4539 Helgesen Dr., Madison, 608-347-7243

In what may be the state’s — and the industry’s — most unique brewing experiment, the founders of Mobcraft have unleashed what they describe as the world’s first crowd-sourced brewery. Beer lovers can visit the brewers’ web page ( and submit an idea, a recipe or even just a request for an unusual style of beer. The beer idea is shared across social networks and the one that attracts the most votes gets brewed. French Toast and Bacon Brown Ale, anyone? (Yes, they brewed that.)

Founders Henry Schwartz, Giotto Troia and Andrew Gierczak may have stumbled on the next generation of brewing. February’s winner by popular vote was Rabbit’s Bounty Carrot Cake Ale, brewed with walnuts and milk sugar fermented with brown sugar and carrots.

The batch will be ready by mid-March. Reserve your 22-oz. bombers by going to the website, and be ready to submit your own ideas. Or stop by the tasting room, which Mobcraft shares with House of Brews, for a sample.

Next Door Brewing Co., 2439 Atwood Ave., Madison, 608-729-3683

A lot of Madisonians knew Keith Symonds first as a math teacher, homebrewer and certified beer judge, but the founder of Next Door Brewing Co. has a beer pedigree that goes back to his days as head brewer for the New England Brewing Co. in Norwalk, Conn., and then Westchester Brewing Co. in White Plains, N.Y. His most recent enterprise gets good reviews both for its beer and food.

Symonds’ beers offer unique adaptations of traditional styles, including Wilbur!, a cream ale made with a malted oats and tagged with a sly Mr. Ed reference; Sevex, an English stock ale made with traditional floor-malted Maris Otter barley; and WPA, a Wisconsin pale ale made with locally grown malted barley.

Be on the lookout for Wind Chill, a white IPA made with Sorachi Ace Japanese hybrid hops, and Freyja, Symonds’ Valentines Day offering of chocolaty brown ale brewed with tart cherry puree.

One Barrel Brewing Co., 2001 Atwood Ave., Madison, 608-630-9286

Brewer Peter Gentry likes beer so much that he only brews one barrel at a time to make sure he gets it right. Gentry’s aptly named One Barrel Brewing Co. is a nano-brewery, a concept that originated in the United Kingdom and refers to operations that brew very small amounts of beer. Like, say, one barrel at a time.

The small quantities allow Gentry to experiment, but they also limit how much beer is available at any one time. He offers a regular rotating lineup, with a number of beers available each day.

Favorites include Penguin pale ale, Bilbo Baggins Black IPA, the double dry-hopped and cask-aged Carry My Bags Porter and No. 2 Strong Ale, a 2010 U.S. Beer Tasting Championships winner with Belgian strong ale yeast and a 10 percent ABV.

One Barrel also offers a variety of guest taps and bottles and Fraboni’s pizza. (You will need something to eat with No. 2.)

Vintage Brewing Co., 674 S. Whitney Way, Madison, 608-204-2739

By all accounts, brewer Scott Manning was a godsend for Madison’s West Side, which clearly lacked quality local craft brews. He changed that dynamic almost immediately, offering a rich menu of causal dining and an even richer menu of craft beers, some of which were unfamiliar to even the most rabid beer aficionados.

Manning has his Sister Golden Ale kolsch-style beer, his Woodshed Oaked India Pale Ale and the award-winning Scaredy Cat Oatmeal Stout. And he’s added Tippy Toboggan Roggenbier, a German-style rye beer; Trompe Le Monde, an American imperial IPA/French saison blend; and Joulupukki, a Finnish “sahti” juniper/rye beer that is rarely brewed commercially, even in Finland.

The innovative brewer has another Vintage outlet close to the UW campus and recently opened the Woodshed Ale House north of Madison in Sauk City. It must be his mission to spread the word about Joulupukki to as many beer lovers as possible.

Wisconsin Brewing Co., 1079 American Way, Verona, 608-848-1079

Even among the most stalwart brewers, things change. And change happened when Kirby Nelson left Capital Brewery and followed Carl Nolen, Capital’s former president/CEO, to the newly formed Wisconsin Brewing Co.  

Nelson was a lager brewer, first and last, and Amber Lager is the fledgling brewery’s flagship brand. But the new five-brand lineup also includes an American IPA, a Session IPA, a Brown & Robust Porter and a yet-to-be-named Maibock that made its first tap appearance on Feb. 18. At Nelson’s former post, brewer Brian Destree has turned Capital’s lager lineup on its head with a strong emphasis on ales and some very unique beers.

The opening last fall of Wisconsin Brewing Co. was one of the most highly anticipated events in Wisconsin’s brewing industry. Right now, all pint glasses are focused on WBC, at least until Madison’s next craft brewery opens it tap lines. Cheers!

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