MILWAUKEE — There is now a beer that can rightfully claim the crown of Wisconsin’s best India pale ale.
Third Space Brewing in Milwaukee organized and hosted the Wisconsin IPA Fest on Aug. 5, drawing 36 entries from around the state, and nearly as many judges. Many of the breweries that entered a beer also sent a brewer, sales rep or other knowledgeable staffer for the judging panel. A handful of beer-forward bars and retailers were represented as well, and three writers — myself, Kathy Flanigan of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Dan Murphy of Milwaukee Magazine.
Before the first double-blind samples were poured, Third Space co-founder and brewmaster Kevin Wright laid out the rules: Basically, there are no rules. The small panels would pick the beers they wanted to advance to the next round based on whatever criteria they saw fit with the goal of crowning a beer of high quality and balance that best represents the style.
Such discretion gave at least a puncher’s chance to every beer in the widely varied field. There were English, American and New England/Northeast variants, and even some fruited IPAs among the 36. Brewers were well established and new, (relatively) large and small, and from across the state, though southeastern Wisconsin was better represented with smaller breweries.
During judging, I encountered something I didn’t expect: Without packaging, a name or a brewery attached to the beer — only a small plastic cup with a number on the side — I didn’t love most of the beers I sampled.
A few were clear round winners, including the eventual champion, which I advanced in the semis and picked No. 1 of the four finalists. It could have been the (bad?) luck of the draw, but all my groups had at least one beer that was easy to exclude — too malty, too off balance, lackluster aroma, too much gym sock character.
This surprised me because I generally am wont to enjoy a beer unless it has relatively significant flaws. So perhaps I had a more critical hat on during the fest than I do in these reviews — although this column’s subjects are selected as recommendations with very few exceptions. There’s too much good beer out there to write about bad ones.
So, get to the point, right?
The winner of the inaugural Wisconsin IPA Fest was Lakefront Brewery’s Single Hop Centennial, a champion that raised some eyebrows among the judges when it was announced. I don’t think any of us expected a brewery as well established as Lakefront to win, nor for the winner to be single-hopped with a varietal as well established as Centennial — vs. more in-vogue hops like Citra or Mosaic.
The latter is featured in the third-place finisher, Mosasaur from Madison’s own Vintage Brewing. Scott Manning and crew debuted the beer early this month, and it’s worth the trip. The fest’s runner up was Upward Spiral, a bright, clean American IPA from host Third Space that just saw its first canning run released in the Milwaukee area in July.
Single Hop Centennial will be the first beer to grace the six-packs of Lakefront’s new SHOP series of single-hop IPAs, due early next month.
Until then, here are a few beers that have been catching my fancy lately to tide you over.
Dare Mighty Things Mosaic
William Glass has had his name in the State Journal quite a bit lately as the president of the Wisconsin Brewers Guild, first fighting a shadowy proposal that appeared to ban brewery taprooms and more recently backing an official counterproposal that would move regulation of small brewers, wineries and distilleries in the opposite direction.
But Glass’ day job is owner and brewmaster of The Brewing Projekt in Eau Claire, and that endeavor has been gaining attention in the Madison area this summer as well. The Brewing Projekt’s first Madison drop was Dare Mighty Things, a 6.4 percent ABV IPA hopped with Citra, Mosaic, Amarillo and El Dorado. Named after a Teddy Roosevelt quote emphasizing perseverance in the face of difficulty — something Glass knows a bit about — Dare Mighty Things is packaged in a strikingly colorful, beautifully designed 16-ounce can. Early this month, the first single-hop version, featuring just Mosaic, arrived in Madison bottle shops.
The Brewing Projekt has occasionally referred to Dare Mighty Things as a New England IPA, but its deep gold is hazy, not murky. The new single-hop version is bracingly Mosaic, with sizzling dankness on the front, pineapple and mango in the middle and a building bitterness on the finish. I like Mosaic hops, but they’re expressed so clearly and loudly here that I think I like the more balanced mixed-hop original better.
Still, Dare Mighty Things Mosaic is going to have plenty of fans, and having Brewing Projekt’s beers in the mix on Madison shelves is an exciting prospect.
One of the first beers I ever loved — one that straight up blew me away — was New Glarus Belgian Red, the tart cherry bomb in that slender, red wax-topped bottle. I love cherries, and nothing short of Ferrara Pan candies had ever delivered that flavor so singularly and intensely.
So naturally I am pleased that New Glarus Cherry Stout — like Belgian Red, aged in oak vessels — has this same cherry profile. I so loved it when it was last released in 2012 that I stashed a couple bottles for later enjoyment before I was really doing that on a regular basis. (It aged very nicely.)
Cherry Stout pours a deep chestnut brown with ruby highlights and a gentle roasty aroma that belies just a hint of the fruit within. A sip, though, and the cherry takes over, exploding with moderately tart sweetness on a pretty chilled-out bed of the roasty-chocolatey stout.
The beer’s moderate color, medium body and 5.9 percent ABV will have some questioning the stout label. But brewmaster Dan Carey does not always make beers to style but to his liking, and it’s hard to argue with the balance and drinkability of Cherry Stout.
This four-pack Thumbprint release dropped around the first of the month; I immediately bought two four-packs — one for now, one for later — in case stocks dwindle as quickly as they did for the Raspberry Tart and Strawberry Rhubarb releases earlier this summer.
OK, I probably should not dwell on a beer’s can for the second time in a column topped with a blind tasting.
But THESE CANS.
They are BLACK. Not just the printed side but also the matte-black top and pull tab, like black hubcaps on a black sports car.
This look befits WarPigs Brewing, a joint venture of Indiana’s Three Floyds Brewing and Danish gypsy brewer Mikkeller. The two first hooked up in 2015 to open a brewpub in Copenhagen, and in June they began contract-brewing three beers for the American market: Lazurite IPA, Salmon Pants lager and Foggy Geezer hazy IPA. The two IPAs are being made at Wisconsin Brewing in Verona, while the lager is brewed at Great Central Brewing in Chicago.
WarPigs was kind enough to drop off some samples of Lazurite when the brewery began Wisconsin distribution last month, and I’m glad they did. Lazurite is a very modern American IPA, with an assertive grapefruit-orange-pine aroma and a similarly juicy flavor that finishes with a clean, resonant bitterness. Even in a market now saturated with IPAs, it’s an outstanding one.