I have a new litmus test for beer geekdom.
Flip through the Madison Craft Beer Week event guide and just try not to make beer-related plans for the 10 days from May 2-11.
This, the run-up to Beer Week, is the Advent to Christmas — if Christmas lasted 10 days and the presents were chocolate chipotle porters and beer breakfasts.
In its fourth year, it’s clear that the venues — there are about 85 so far, and counting — and breweries have figured out what works, not just for hard-core beer fans but also for anyone ready to wade a little deeper into the beer pool than they normally might.
There are brewer meet-and-greets, a chance to pick the brains of the masters of mash, many of whom regard Beer Week as a very big deal, and nearly all of whom are fascinating characters. There are brewing rock stars like Wisconsin Brewing’s Kirby Nelson, literal rock stars like Lake Louie’s Tom Porter, passionate nice guys like O’so’s Marc Buttera and endearing geeks like Vintage’s Scott Manning. If you liked their beer before, just wait til you meet them.
There are special releases, beers pouring one night only. And there is beer swag — so much swag: glassware, bottle openers, stickers.
Beer Week is exactly what you want to make it, so take a few minutes and pore over the event guide, because my highlights will touch on a few big themes in the event but won’t be exactly your highlights, in the same way that I imbibe IPAs and you prefer porters. At the top of my list, though, is an event that embodies a lot of what Beer Week is all about, in a place you might not expect.
Tex Tubb’s Taco Palace has as many salsas available — four — as it does tap lines, but that hasn’t stopped bar manager Will Mueller from building a strong beer niche there.
Last year during Beer Week, it hosted the release of House of Brews’ excellent Death Star agave ale. This year Tex Tubb’s is taking that idea — an exclusive brew made with key ingredients of the fancy taqueria’s food and drink — and running with it. Six custom brews from five different breweries will debut during Beer Week. Check these out:
Rey Rye: This Next Door Brewing creation is an imperial version of the Vienna beer, a style born in Europe but quite popular in Mexico. Samuel Adams Boston Lager is the most famous American version, but Negra Modelo and Dos Equis Amber are both well known here, too. Rey doesn’t have a Mexican ingredient per se, but does use spicy rye malt. It debuts from 3-5 p.m. on Beer Week’s opening Friday and returns for brunch on its final day.
Enrique Sucio: If you’ve ever wondered what an imperial India pale ale would taste like if it were aged with mezcal-soaked oak chips, be sure to stop in for the tapping of this Dirty Harry-themed House of Brews beer at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 3.
Templo: Remember the mystic from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” who ripped a follower’s heart out and held it, flaming, over his head? That, in beer form, is the second part of a House of Brews double feature. Templo, a chipotle cacao porter, is tapped at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 3.
Pancho: The out-of-town entry in the Tex Tubb’s series comes from Hydro Street Brewing in Columbus, a brewpub that has been selling bombers in Madison liquor stores since last fall. Brewmaster Aaron Adams put together this IPA with a Mexican twist courtesy of zested lime peel. Try it from 5-10 p.m. Monday, May 5.
Barrigon Barril Cafe: There’s a fun twist to the release of this imperial coffee brown ale made by One Barrel Brewing, two doors down from Tex Tubb’s. It’s being released simultaneously at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 8, though with slight variations, at both locations: Tex Tubb’s firkin is aged with maple wood and Bolivian cacao, while One Barrel’s firkin features oak and differently sourced cacao. Tasting notes are a must.
Saison de Cilantroctus: The crowdsourcing brewers at MobCraft Beer take this Belgian-French farmhouse style on a detour through the desert with the addition of cactus paddles and cilantro, which sounds like a perfect pairing to a taco. It’s tapped at 5 p.m. Saturday, May 10.
The first 100 customers to buy pints of these custom brews will take home a custom pint glass emblazoned with the beer’s logo, crafted by Beth Czech, a designer with Food Fight. I love the bottle/Magnum-wielding Enrique Sucio.
The first day of Beer Week brings dozens of kickoff events at bars and restaurants, but perhaps the most anticipated of those will feature the release of Common Thread, a collaboration beer made by local breweries that’s now in its third year.
This year’s iteration is a Bohemian pilsner crafted by representatives from 10 different breweries at Wisconsin Brewing in Verona in mid-March.
The inaugural version of Common Thread was a California common, while last year’s was a funky, malty biere de garde that probably challenged Beer Weekers to step outside their comfort zones a bit more than this year’s will. I wasn’t able to sample the pilsner, made with Sterling hops grown by Gorst Valley Hops, before its release this year, but it figures to be a smooth, balanced easy-drinker.
It drops Friday, May 2 at many Beer Week venues, including brewing participants Great Dane, Grumpy Troll and One Barrel.
Only during Beer Week
There are a handful of breweries who normally don’t sell their beer in Madison who are bringing kegs to town for Beer Week.
The big daddy of these brings an extraordinary amount of buzz to Beer Week’s opening day: Surly Brewing.
For the last few years this brewery had been seen as the New Glarus of Minnesota because of the combination of its popularity among out-of-state beer fans and its refusal to sell to them. That changed last fall when, thanks to expanded capacity due to a new brewery, it resumed sales in Chicago after a hiatus of more than three years.
Madison likes its beer — and is located directly between the Twin Cities and Chicago — so reports of 2014 being the year Surly arrives here and in Milwaukee seem plausible. Surly’s first appearances at Milwaukee’s and Madison’s beer weeks this year seem strategic.
So we can see what all buzz is about at twin events on Friday, May 2: an all-day affair at the Tipsy Cow and an early evening event at Next Door Brewing that pairs four Surly beers with house-made small bites.
But Surly isn’t the only brewery to make a Beer Week cameo at Next Door. The following day Chicago’s Atlas Brewing joins a tap takeover with Port Huron Brewing from Wisconsin Dells. Among the beers on tap that night will be a collaboration between all three brewers.
[Update: The Wednesday, May 7 event at Next Door Brewing featuring Saugatuck Brewing of Michigan has been canceled; instead, Next Door will be pouring the gluten-free farmhouse ale from Madison-based Greenview Brewing.]