“It’s five o’clock somewhere,” declared University of Wisconsin professor Robin Shepard as he kicked off a virtual worldwide “happy hour” on the first Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA) enrichment live-stream. People from across the country and around the world sipped along with four UW alumni craft brewers as they sampled various brews.
They started with Octoberfest from Capital Brewery, founded in 1986. Capital is the oldest established craft brewery in the Madison area. Ashley Kinart-Short is the brewmaster at the Middleton-based operation. She learned her craft in Munich, so the German tradition of Octoberfest beer is special for her.
“Getting to Capital felt like a really natural transition from school,” said Kinart-Short. “Their focus on German-Style lagers is a big part of my training.” Her take on Octoberfest is, “It’s a party beer, it tends to be a little higher alcohol than your average lagers. It’s a good, easy-drinking beer, and it tastes great and reminds me that fall is just around the corner.”
The tasting then shifted to a newer beer style which is more hoppy and cloudy, with citrus, orange, or tangerine flavors. Phil Hoechst, owner and brewmaster of Hop Haus Brewing Company, shared his Hashtag Hazy beer.
“It’s a departure from traditional IPA. I just think it’s fun,” he said.
Hoechst was a successful physical therapist before switching to brewing. He experimented with a backyard brewery in Denver and decide to open a brew pub when he and his wife moved back to Verona.
“Apparently people like the beer and it’s certainly a whole lot of fun to make it. I guess you only live once, so you might as well let it rip,” sHoechst said.
Gluten-free beer is making inroads. This style is personal for Trevor Easton, owner and brewmaster of ALT Brew. He was inspired to pursue gluten-free brewing when his wife was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance. It took a lot of failed experiments to find the right formula.
“I think I appeased the beer gods because I dumped so much beer down the drain,” said Easton. “We finally were able to get a product that our friends and family had no idea it was gluten free.”
The tasting featured ALT Brew’s Rustic Badger farmhouse ale. It is an ale that uses Belgian yeast and has a crisp apple flavor with a dry, peppery finish.
The final tasting was ‘Dedication,’ a Belgian dubbel from Vintage Brewing Company. Scott Manning, Vintage’s cofounder and brewmaster, said he didn’t want to replicate what other local brewers were already producing. That’s why this big, bold Belgian was one of his first offerings.
“It’s all about the yeast and malt, there are hops in it but only as an accent,” said Manning. “First of all I’m going to smell a little hint of ginger and banana. Coupled with that there are some spice notes you can’t put your finger on.”
Vintage Brewing Company was first established in 2010 and has locations in Madison and Sauk City.
All of the brewers said they are in it for the love of the craft. There is, of course, a serious side to craft brewing. These businesses contribute $5.3 million to Wisconsin’s economy. Although overall beer sales are down, craft brew sales in 2019 continued to grow, making up 13.6 percent of all beer sales in the U.S.
Like so many other businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting breweries hard. Kinart-Short said Capital’s outdoor beer garden provided a safe space to serve customers. They’re also selling bottles and cans in grocery stores.
“We’re actually going to be firing up a teeny, tiny, little canning line to get some of those (beers) that are only available on draft out into people’s hands to take home from the brewery,” Kinart-Short said.
Hoechst added, “The name of the game was being able to pivot, being able to shift, and being kind of nimble.”