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Why I Love New Glarus Brewing Company

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Rohit Naimpally

Pol Sci, Econ and Cricket geek who loves a good pint

New Glarus Brewing Co. might just be one of my favorite breweries. They make a number of excellent beers including, but not limited to, the Raspberry Tart, Belgian Red, Dancing Man Wheat, Yokel and pretty much every beer in the Unplugged series. Although their beers aren't available in Chicago, it is but a short drive up to New Glarus-rich Wisconsin. Indeed, the town of New Glarus is a mere three hours' drive from Chicago, so the lady friend and I decided to make a long overdue trip up there this past Saturday (more after the slideshow).
Getting to New Glarus is relatively simple: I-90 to Rockford, IL-20 to IL-26 and then its a straight shot up along WI-69. Easy as pie. In a bid to make an entire day out of the trip, the lady friend and I decided to make a brief stop over at the Japanese Tea Gardens in Rockford and still made it to the brewery with ample time to spare.

The new Hilltop brewhouse nuzzles amongst hillocks opposite the New Glarus Woods, in bucolic settings that have come to be associated with the area's Swiss legacy. A narrow dirt road winds off the 69 to take visitors the 300 odd feet to the main brewery building. What was in reality less than a minute seemed like an eternity, as we parked and bounded up the stairs to the gift shop and tap room. The gift shop is a cozy little place, with a lot more New Glarus Brewing merchandise than I would have expected: branded glasses of every shape and size, t-shirts, hoodies, posters, bottle openers, wall hangings et al. A little line of people runs through the center, winding its way up towards the taps where a group of friendly New Glarus employees pour out the brewery's tasty beers.

We began with a flight each- while I had had most of the beers on tap, I was curious about the R & D Golden Ale. The Golden Ale is pitched as a tribute to Trappist Orval. Along with the Two Women Lager (a Bavarian Pilsner that is about as fine an exemplar of the style as you are likely to find in the US), the Golden Ale is one of only two beers to be sold exclusively at the brewery. It comes in tasteful 500 ml. bottles, one of which the bartenders opened up for my sample. Chicago-area beer drinkers will be familiar with Goose Island's Matilda, another beer that markets itself as a tribute to Orval. As nice as the Matilda is, I have always found myself disappointed in so far as it does not really put me in mind of Orval (beyond the claims of the beer's description). The Golden Ale did not disappoint: lively in the mouth, this beer captures the funky Brett flavors perfectly, yet does not drown out the initial floral notes at all. Maris Otter malts are used to perfection, with a light sweetness balanced out by a slight salty tang, all ending in a wonderfully dry finish. I have enjoyed Orval on the few occasions that I have had it and this beer measured up in no uncertain terms: beautiful.

Part of the reason I love New Glarus is its focus on sour ales and fruit beers. Along with its flagship Spotted Cow cream ale, New Glarus sells two fruit beers year round: a framboise called the Raspberry Tart (straight up, unabashed raspberries in this one) and a kriek called the Belgian Red. The Belgian Red is fermented with pounds and pounds of Door County cherries and has a distinct marzipan and cherry bouquet that leads into sweet cherry flavors, with just a hint of tartness. Beer drinkers that find the Belgian Red just a tad too sweet would be well advised to seek out the Cherry Stout, part of the Unplugged series. While not as "stout-like" as say the Bell's Cherry Stout, this is one tasty beer: it tastes like a toned down version of the Belgian Red in some ways, with an added backbone of malt and woodiness. The deep ruby hue of the Belgian Red also gives way to a brown in the Cherry Stout. Other great fruit beers from New Glarus include the Wisconsin Cran-bic (a Cranberry lambic that was brewed under the Unplugged banner) and an occasional Apple Ale.

As great as the fruit beers are, New Glarus has oftentimes upped the ante with its sour ales. One of the more recent triumphs was the Unplugged Old English Porter, a beer that reportedly polarized opinion. I frankly loved it, but I love sour ales of all sorts (Flemish Browns, Flemish Reds, sour ales with fruit et al.) The bottle carried a clear description of the brewer's intent in making a porter that does not conform to standard expectations for a robust porter, but a surprisingly large number of people failed to read the description and consequently hated the beer. I was recently called a Three Floyds apologist and in keeping with my purported reputation, I think it only fair to defend New Glarus on this count. Here's the description of the Old English Porter from the website:

An intense vinegar-like sourness is correct for this beer style. This was what Porters tasted like in the 1870's. Our beer is based on the research of the Beer Historian, Graham Wheeler (a noted English Beer Historian). Mr. Wheeler describes the original Porters as:

"... the least understood of the old British beers. The subject (of the Porter Beer Style) is complicated and confused because porter's heyday lasted from about 1700 to the pale ale revolution of the mid 1800's. During that time it passed through many transformations. Porter was simply a mixture of two brown beers. The only characteristic that set the porter apart from any other beer of the day was that porter was deliberately soured by adding a percentage of sour beer to freshly brewed beer. The original porters were not, as is commonly supposed, jet-black in colour, but a translucent brown. They had a rich, smoky flavor derived from the use of brown malt and a winey aftertang produced by the deliberate souring, highly regarded by Londoners."

Our interpretation is a Brown Porter based on the style popular in 1870's London. It was brewed with mostly floor malted English malts including the famed pale ale malt, Maris Otter. A touch of smoked malt produced by Briess Malting Company of Chilton Wisconsin was also used. Half of the batch went through a souring fermentation, in the traditional way, to promote the characteristic wine-like acidity. Lastly the beer was aged on wood to extract sweetness from toasted oak.

If you are interested in further information on this, you might want to read 'Wheeler's Porter'.

This is a historic beer style. So in the early 1900's when men still unloaded train cars they wanted something thirst-quenching, and beer is generally rather sweet. This was before soda was generally available and fruit juice required squeezing. The Porters (those hard-workers!) really enjoyed the sour aspects of this beer style and that is why this beer style is referred to as a 'Porter' and it is definitely sour.
So there you have it- in my view, Dan Carey executed his brewing plan extremely well, creating a lovely, historically interesting, brew. On the subject of sour ales, New Glarus released the Unplugged Enigma, another sour ale that Dan Carey has brewed in the past (to rave reviews). I had only had the opportunity to try this on one occasion in the past, courtesy a kindly gentleman at Dark Lord Day '09. Matt and I were struck by the strong vanilla notes impart by the oak aging, along with distinct notes of coconut, smoke, cherries and some funkiness from the use of wild yeasts. Matt feels that New Glarus' oak-aging always imparts a strong house character of vanilla, an assessment that I can only agree with. Needless to say, we were very excited about the re-release of the Enigma and I picked up a number of 4-packs on our visit up to the brewery; having opened up a bottle already, I can confirm that this year's batch is fantastic and measures up to all our expectations. In addition, how often can you get a tasty sour ale 4-pack for a mere $10?

As the weather improves, drinkers will no doubt be drawn to New Glarus' arsenal of summer beers. Right at the top of the list would be the Yokel ("buy local, drink Yokel"), an immensely quaffable Zwickl (unfiltered lager). Careful though: you could go through a six-pack of this before you know it. New Glarus also has a great line-up of wheat beers, including the Black Wheat (a winter wheat beer), the Crack'd Wheat (an imperial hefeweissen if you will) and my favorite, the Dancing Man (one of the better hefeweissens around). With both the Dancing Man and the Yokel on the horizon, I can't wait for my next trip up to Wisconsin.

I could wax on about New Glarus Brewing forever. New Glarus town isn't half bad either: the lady friend and I found that it makes for a very pleasant day trip, especially when the weather is nice. Other attractions include a drive-in theater in nearby Monroe, WI, various establishments that serve Swiss food in the town and a venerable old Swiss bakery. I would suggest going up there with some friends and a grill, spending some quality time in the State Woods and the brewery, before strolling through the town and stopping in at the cheese and sausage establishments. Round it off with an open-air double feature in Monroe (the lady friend and I took in 'Iron Man 2' and 'How to Train Your Dragon') and you have quite the fun-packed day. Thanks to Dan and Deb Carey: they represent a lot of what is right with the craft beer industry in the United States.  

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