In its fifth year, Madison Craft Beer Week has grown into an enormous celebration of fine fermentation.
This year there are more than 380 events spread out among 10 days beginning Friday and more than 130 bars, restaurants, breweries, bottle shops, golf courses and libraries. With so much going on — both in quality and quantity — if there’s one focus of Beer Week, it’s Common Thread. The collaborative beer made expressly for Beer Week becomes a communal experience of thousands of people sharing the same flavors and aromas, comparing tasting notes with one another and judging it against previous iterations.
This year, Common Thread has a little extra juice to it: Its concept, development and actual brewing was led by women brewers. It also happens to be the best Common Thread yet, in my view.
In the previous three years, Common Thread has been a collaboration brew in the truest sense. Scott Manning of Vintage Brewing, Rob LoBreglio from the Great Dane and Mark Knoebl from Grumpy Troll have usually led the process, but brewers from nearly every Madison-area brewery have offered recipe tweaks while also taking part in the physical work of brewing the beer.
This year Common Thread speaks in a more singular voice, that of Rochelle Francois, assistant brewer at Wisconsin Brewing Co. in Verona.
During a trip to Great American Beer Festival in Denver last fall, Francois became interested in the Pink Boots Society, a network of women in various aspects of the brewing industry.
She was surprised to find there was no Wisconsin chapter of Pink Boots and set about creating one, connecting with women working in breweries across the state.
Along the way Francois pitched the idea of women leading the 2015 Common Thread, which was well received by Robyn Klinge, Madison Craft Beer Week co-founder and leader of the local beer appreciation group Females Enjoying Microbrews.
Francois made an “executive decision” about the style, Belgian tripel, and a women’s brew day at Wisconsin Brewing in January became the de facto first meeting of Pink Boots Wisconsin and a pilot batch of the final recipe of this year’s Common Thread.
More than a dozen women in the state’s beer industry contributed the usual refinements in recipe, technique and physical labor, including shouldering eight 55-pound sacks of Belgian candi sugar to dump into the brew kettle.
To bring in more women, Common Thread cast a wider net of collaborators this year, bringing in three brewmasters — Allyson Rolph of Thirsty Pagan Brewing in Superior, Jamie Baertsch of Wisconsin Dells Brewing and Ashley Kinart of Capital Brewery in Middleton — as well as beer women from as far as La Crosse, Green Bay and Potosi.
While Common Thread brew day is always a showcase of the tight bonds among local brewers, the March 7 full-scale brew for the 2015 edition had a little extra camaraderie, Francois said, “mostly because I don’t think any of us realized how many women brewers there are in this state.”
Earlier, as Francois weighed style options, she was mindful of how the beer would be perceived, and Klinge said Francois’ suggestion of the Belgian tripel was exactly what she had been thinking.
“I think both of us had in our minds that we didn’t want anything typically perceived as girly,” Klinge said. “Nothing pink, no light lagers, nothing with fruit.”
The tripel is none of that, and this Common Thread is spot-on for the venerable style.
It pours a hazy gold with an enticing aroma of lemony citrus, bubblegum and malty sweetness.
A sip reveals a swirl of flavors, with the Belgian triumvirate of banana, bubblegum and clove-like spiciness enveloping a big, lush sweetness from the malt and candi sugar.
Common Thread is juicy and full-bodied, but a dry finish keeps it highly repeatable. Only a touch of alcohol warmth on the finish belies its sneaky-strong 8.3 percent ABV — an attribute that Francois found appealing as not stereotypically feminine.
The beer — 60 barrels were made this year, less than the 80 barrels of Bohemian pilsner for 2014 — debuts Thursday night at Wisconsin Brewing’s tap room but will be widely available at restaurants and bars participating in Beer Week.
While Francois, Klinge, and Kinart said 2015 Common Thread’s story might elevate its profile and entice some people to try it, they rejected the notion that it was intended to specifically bring more women into craft beer. Tastes don’t follow gender lines, they said.
“I never think that our gender should affect who drinks what beer,” Klinge said. “Who cares? Is the beer good? Drink it.”
The women-led Common Thread is instead a showcase that yes, there are women brewers and yes, they can do exactly what the guys can do — in the brewhouse and elsewhere in the industry.
“I think a lot of women aren’t aware that this is a career option for them,” Klinge said. “So I think the exposure that this beer is getting brings that to the public mindset and makes it a viable option for women to pursue as a career.”