Wisconsin is a really cool state, and I swear I'm not being a condescending Northeast elitist about it. This isn't like when some loathsome New York City resident praises Chicago as a "nice little town." I don't mean "Wisconsin is really cool, for an upper Midwestern state that Prince isn't from," or "Wisconsin is really cool, if you like cheese, and who in their right mind doesn't like cheese," or even "Wisconsin is a really cool state that I wasted a pleasant week in while tagging along on my wife's recent work trip."
Well, yes, sort of that last one, I guess. The weather was great, and my computer was first broken and then "broken," and I managed to cobble together four perfect days in Madison without a single responsibility other than trying as many new beers as possible every day while staying sober enough not to cause a scene at dinner (went three for four). But my personal experience in one city during one week aside, Wisconsin is an objectively great state. And not just because of the beer—there's also the lakes, the people, the meats and cheeses—but we're here today to talk mostly about the beer.
First though, a bit about the brown liquor: In Wisconsin, they put brandy where the bourbon's supposed to go. It's the damndest thing. At a place called the Old Fashioned ("Where Wisconsin Is King"), there is a drink called the Bourbon Old-Fashioned, listed on the menu right beneath the regular Old Fashioned, which is made with Korbel brandy. They'll give you bourbon if you ask—hell, they put it right there on the menu for you—but it'll cost an extra $1.50 and also be heretical. I'm a big fan of brandy. And if there's one thing I like more than brandy, it's a quirky local drinking custom. (If there's another thing I like more than brandy, it's bourbon, but let's not wreck the vibe.) They do their own thing in Wisconsin, and I admire them for it.
Now for the beer. Good gravy, is there a lot of excellent beer being made in Wisconsin these days. The state that gave us Schlitz, Pabst, and Blatz isn't resting on those laurels. Madison alone is home to several outstanding new (and newish) breweries, including Ale Asylum, Karben4, and One Barrel. It's also just a couple dozen miles down the road from New Glarus Brewing, a relatively mature operation (it turned drinking age this year) that produces the iconic modern Wisconsin beer, Spotted Cow.
Wisconsinites are justifiably proud of their beers, but they've picked a curious one to carry the flag. Spotted Cow is perfectly fine, but it's nothing special. Ale Asylum Bedlam and Karben4 Tokyo Sauna are spectacular beers, and Capital Brewery Oktoberfest just won gold at the Great American Beer Festival. I had at least 10 other Wisconsin brews that were superior to Spotted Cow, including New Glarus's own Moon Man, Two Women, and Serendipity; New Glarus is a very good brewery. Spotted Cow, though, is just some cream ale.
It's yellow, with a very slight haze and a nice, thick head. It smells like lemon and sweet grain; there's a little bit of corn in there, which is A-OK by me—no reason good corn can't make a positive contribution to a well-made beer—but it might be the factor that nudges this a little too far over to the sweet side.
Wisconsin brewing tradition, both ancient and modern, is less hop-reliant than you'll find in most of the rest of the country, and cream ales are not hoppy beers to begin with, so I wouldn't dream of asking Spotted Cow to cheat across the finish line with a little late hopping just to keep the philistines interested. But it would be a better beer with something to balance the one-note fruity grain flavor. Cheddar, maybe, or cherries. (I'd probably go with hops.) It's not bad. But such a cool state deserves a better beer of record.
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Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter@WillGordonAgain. Image by Jim Cooke.
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