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Feature Thu Aug 14 2008
It should come as no surprise that some of the best beer in the country (and arguably in the world) can be found in Wisconsin and that some of the best beer in the Badger State can be procured just a few hours from Chicago.
I don't mean Milwaukee and its giant beer factories - I'm talking about the capitol city of Madison and the towns around it, an area which many small breweries call home.
The Great Dane Pub & Brewery has three locations: one in downtown Madison, one in the Hilldale neighborhood and one in the nearby town of Fitchburg. The downtown brew pub, at 123 East Doty Street, was packed on a recent Tuesday night, and seating on its patio required a 20-minute wait. Ten to twelve beers are served regularly, in addition to four to five seasonal brews, which are posted on chalkboards around the bar and dining areas.
In order to get a true feel for the place, we ordered an eight-beer sampler, which featured eight four ounce pours served on trays that were lined with laminated mats on which the names of each beer were scrawled in grease pen. (Sampler portions can be ordered in any quantity for $1.50 each.) Our favorites were Potter's Run IPA, made with hops imported from England, and Crop Circle Wheat, which lived up to its description as a "refreshing and somewhat spicy brew."
The food menu was even more varied than the beer menu, and after much debate, we finally settled on the teriyaki tuna burger and the famous brat and bacon pretzel burger. What meat lover could resist a burger for which a quarter-pound bratwurst patty and several slices of applewood smoked bacon serve as the condiments for the 1/3 lb. beef patty underneath? Certainly not the one I was dining with that night.
Meanwhile, just outside of Madison, within 20-30 minutes driving distance, a slew of microbreweries can be found. The New Glarus Brewing Company has spawned a cult following of loyal customers, a phenomenon generated partially by the management's decision to distribute only in the state of Wisconsin, despite the company's growing popularity.
The brewery, located in what is know as "Swisstown," is undergoing a major expansion project, and the current gift shop and tasting room will be moved next year to a newer facility located nearby. Meanwhile, the original buildings are open for free tours, which are self-guided and conducted through an audio device. Numbers posted on the wall can be punched in to the handset on the device, which plays recordings of detailed explanations of the brewing process and the brewery's history. After 47 or so of these recordings, we started to run out of patience with the audio portion of the tour, but we still enjoyed peeking into the brewery's yeast lab and actually tasting various types of barley used in the making of different beers.
The two original giant copper brew houses, which the owners acquired and had shipped from Germany in the '90's, are perhaps the most impressive features of the brewery. Once you finish your tour (or if you decide to skip it entirely), the gift shop doubles as a tasting room, and for $3.50, you can taste the three beers they are offering that day and go home with your own 3 oz. tasting glass. Tee-shirts, bumper stickers, stuffed animals, bars of beer soap and of course, the beer itself, are sold in the gift shop as well. There's even a "make-your-own-six-pack tree" in the middle of the shop. We couldn't really confine ourselves to just a six-pack, though, and ended up leaving with a carton full of Spotted Cow, Fat Squirrel and Organic Revolution, as well as a bottle of one of brewmaster Dan Carey's pet projects (which he refers to as his "Unplugged" series), the Berliner Weiss.
Less heralded is the Grumpy Troll Restaurant and Brewery in Mount Horeb, a small town known for its Norwegian heritage located 24 miles southwest of Madison. Mount Horeb is also the home of the "world famous" Mustard Museum, in which pretty much every type of mustard produced in the United States and many international brands can be obtained. (The museum's founder claims to have been "called" to open the museum one night while wandering the condiment aisle of a local grocery store and hearing a voice say "If you collect us, they will come.") The Grumpy Troll has declared it the "Summer of Belgium," but instead of ordering one of the special offerings we went with a couple of the restaurant's award-winning standard brews: the Amnesia Baltic Porter and the Trailside Wheat.
The Trailside, named for the 40-mile Military Ridge State Bike Trail which runs right by the door of the restaurant, was much sweeter than most Hefeweissens I've had. As promised in its description, it had a slight banana flavor, which wasn't overpowering but still made the overall taste a little funkier than I was expecting. You can avoid ending up with something you don't like by asking for a free taste of a few of the beers before ordering a glass. The restaurant also serves a full menu of appetizers, sandwiches, burgers, salads, and quesadillas in addition to their "fine dining" options, available only after 5 p.m. The chef salad and patty melt we ordered were decent if not remarkable. You don't come here for the food, though; you come for the experience of drinking locally made beer in the "Troll Capitol of the World," which, according to the town website, is Mount Horeb's official title.
The Great Dane, New Glarus, and the Grumpy Troll are only three of the many local breweries in and around Madison. I highly recommend booking a room, packing a bag, and spending a weekend exploring the region around Wisconsin's capital city. If you do go, make sure you arrive hungry and thirsty, because you're in for a few idyllic days of meat, mustard, and beer.