Only in Wisconsin: the Mystique of New Glarus Beer

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on October 10, 2018

“Only in Wisconsin” reads the label on the New Glarus bottle, the six-packs, the coasters and the swag available in the gift shop.  The Octoberfest hat I found in the gift shop has the Wisconsin map and their logo, “Drink Indigenous” on the front. Even the distribution trucks have the map and logo! Want to drink New Glarus? Go to Wisconsin.

What’s so great about New Glarus beer that it merits a road trip to Wisconsin? The short answer is that their beers really are that good.

Guilty as charged. I couldn’t resist bringing a few six-packs back to Chicago on a recent visit to Wisconsin. My favorites are aged sours: —Wisconsin Belgian Red, a Wisconsin cherry ale brewed with more than a pound of Door County cherries per (22 oz.) bottle, Serendipity, and Raspberry Tart. No surprise that RateBeer.com named these among the 20 best beers in the world in 2015. I opened a bottle of Belgian Red and confirmed it was as good as it was when I tried it 3 years ago. As you can see in the picture below, it pours a deep red with balanced sour and cherry taste, no yeasty overtones. It is refreshing and drinkable, only 4.5% ABV, like their other fruit sours.

Their newest limited release, 2018 Wild Sour, is a sour brown ale fermented with wild yeasts and aged in oak casks for a year and a half before the final addition of Wisconsin-sourced malts. This is a world-class beer strongly reminiscent of the red-brown Flemish ale, Duchesse De Bourgogne, but with the terroir of Wisconsin. And don’t forget Spotted Cow, which is the most highly rated beer in Wisconsin, a low alcohol farmhouse-style ale. It never makes the national lists, probably because it’s too hard to categorize, but it is the most popular craft beer in the state.    

As you can see, New Glarus doesn’t make one flagship beer–it makes quite a few. And most of them are unique styles that are hard to produce and rare to find in a craft brewery. Clearly, New Glarus has a remarkable way with wild yeasts, sours, and barrel aging, and they can turn out these remarkably complex brews consistently, year after year. Their brewer, Dan Carey is well-trained, having studied at UC Davis and at the Seibel Institute in Chicago, and passing his Master Brewing Examination. He is also extremely talented. Each new beer that he creates is superb, while the old favorites remain consistent.

Beer lovers will go to great lengths to get good beer. The boomers among us will remember those beer runs to Colorado to pick up cases of Coors in the 70’s, when it was a Colorado brewery with a limited distribution and a cult following. This tradition was immortalized in the 1977 movie, “Smokey and the Bandit,” in which truck driver Burt Reynolds (aka Bandit) drove a truck full of Coors, trying to outrun the sheriff. Today, pilgrimages are made to such places as Stowe, VT, to get cases of Alchemist’s Heady Topper. And Pliny the Elder, by Russian River Brewing, is another draw which is produced in limited release, and distributed only in California, Oregon, Colorado and the Philadelphia area.

One little known fact that contributes to New Glarus’ out-of-state demand is that they inadvertently developed market loyalty in Illinois when they distributed there from 1998 to 2002, mostly in the Chicago area. But the brewery couldn’t make enough Spotted Cowto satisfy their Wisconsin customers, so they pulled it from Illinois shelves. They haven’t distributed out of state since then, and have no intention of doing so. But Chicagoans developed a taste for Spotted Cow, and were willing to travel to get it. It doesn’t require a trip to the brewery however, because most of the gas stations and convenience stores located at the Illinois-Wisconsin border are well-stocked with most of the seasonal and year-round New Glarus offerings.

Wisconsin is a tourist destination, with year-round outdoor and indoor activities to draw the crowds, which mostly come from the Chicago metro area, with its population of 9 million. New Glarus is only about 2 hours from Chicago, but it’s worth the trip if you have the time to spare. The Town of New Glarus, from which the brewery takes its name, is a small town set in the hills of southern Wisconsin. It was founded by immigrants from Glarus, Switzerland, which gave the town its name. We stopped in the little town with its quaint Swiss-German buildings, shops and restaurants. Oktoberfest was about to start, giving it a festive air. We shared a Swiss fondue, washed down with some New Glarus draft beer, and poked around a few shops before heading to the brewery.

Dan Carey, the brewer, and his wife Deborah, who manages the business side of things, founded the brewery in 1993. It was designed to look like a Bavarian village, and it’s a beautiful place to visit, especially the weather is nice and you can sit in the extensive gardens, overlooking the rolling hills of the area. The brewery, too, was planning a big Oktoberfest celebration.

The tasting room and gift shop are fun to visit, but the brewery tour is a little disappointing because it is self-guided. But beer depot is well-stocked, and an aficionadocan find all the standards as well as limited releases from previous years. The showpiece of this facility are the copper brewing kettles that Dan Carey procured in 1997 from a German brewery that was slated to be demolished, while the barrels and wild yeasts are at the satellite facility, also in New Glarus nearby.

Today, New Glarus produces over 200,000 barrels of beer per year, making it 16th in volume among the craft breweries of the US–out of 6,000!  In spite of this, they are still brewer-owner operated, and maintain a small town, local feel. To maintain quality and continuity, the Careys have begun an Employee Stock Ownership Plan; currently employees own 10 percent of the company and eventually will own 100 percent.

As Deb Carey explained in an interview at the 2018 Craft Brewers Conference, “This brewery is part of the economy here, and we’re not going anywhere, so it was an option that works in case we get hit by a truck next week. It means that we don’t have to sell out. I want this brewery to be around for 300 years.” Clearly New Glarus loves Wisconsin, and Wisconsin loves them back.

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