Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest returns for its fifth year on Saturday, January 18, and will feature nearly sixty Wisconsin breweries and brewpubs. This number reflects the wild growth of craft brewing in recent years, among both new and long-established breweries. And, as the festival grows, so too do other beer tastings and dinners around Madison during the week surrounding it.
The emergence of this cluster of beer-related events in January is akin to the phenomenon of pre-parties during the week before the Great Taste of the Midwest, though on a far smaller scale -- there were more than 60 events of this type last August. Along with Madison Craft Beer Week in May, they make for three major opportunities in town to celebrate brewing over the course of the year.
Many of these events are related to the anniversary celebrations of several breweries that first opened their doors at the start of a calendar year. This run started last Sunday, when Vintage Brewing threw a fourth anniversary party by releasing its Trepidation Belgian Quad. Isthmus has compiled a list of more events through the week, with information about date, location, starting time, and other elements.
Events coinciding with Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest 2014 include:
Tuedsay, January 14
- Barriques-Monroe Street
Starting at 5 p.m.
Wisconsin Brewing Company opens a week-long series of special events with a tap takeover that will feature all four of the Verona brewery's initial lineup of beers: Amber Lager, American IPA, Session IPA and a special tapping of its Brown Porter that's hop-rocketed with Barriques coffee.
Wednesday, January 15
- The Brass Ring
Starting at 5 p.m.
Wisconsin Brewing Company is holding a meet-and-greet with brewery president Carl Nolen and brewmaster Kirby Nelson, with all four of their debut beers on tap. Tasting flights will also be available.
Thursday, January 16
- Star Bar
Starting at 4 p.m.
Peter Gentry, owner and brewmaster of One Barrel Brewing, and Hawk Sullivan, the owner of Hawk's Bar, Jade Monkey, and Atomic Koi, are debuting their new joint venture: Star Bar. Located on the first floor of the Constellation, the new apartment complex on the 700 block of East Washington Avenue, the bar kicks off with a grand opening weekend. Star Bar will serve One Barrel brews (it is officially licensed with the state as a brewpub, though there be no brewing on premises), more than 100 types of bottled beer, craft cocktails and a broad wine list. For those who can't wait until then, though, the bar hosted a friends-and-family open house on Monday, and announced that its soft open begins on Tuesday. See Facebook for more details and updates.
- Vintage Brewing Company
Starting at 4 p.m.
The west-side brewpub is hosting a release party for its annual "Snowflake" brew. Just like snowflakes, this beer is unlike any made by Vintage. At the beginning of the new year, brewmaster Scott Manning uses up the various leftover malts and hops from the previous 12 months of brewing to create something new. That's the thinking behind Snowflake -- Manning doesn't formulate a recipe, but rather comes up with a unique beer every January. Snowflake 2014 is similar to a Dortmunder Export, but with more pronounced malt characteristics, including a mild smokiness.
Starting at 6 p.m.
All four debut beers from Wisconsin Brewing Company will be paired with a quartet of small plates at this tasting event featuring Kirby Nelson. This combined beer supper/tap takeover will feature a raffle to win a four-person tour of the brewery followed by a three-course dinner in the brew house. Tickets are available through Bluephies.
Friday, January 17
- Karben4 Brewing
Starting at 11 a.m.
It's been one year since Karben4 opened its doors, quickly building a fan-base and reputation for its well-made and inventive brews, including Oaktober Ale, which Isthmus named the 2013 Wisconsin beer of the year. The north-side brewery is marking one year in business with an anniversary party. This celebration will feature a special tapping of NightCall Smoked Porter that's been aged nine months in two pairs of rye whiskey and bourbon barrels, making for four versions of the beer. Flights of this set of beers will come with a Karben4 anniversary tulip glass.
- Wisconsin Brewing Company
Starting at 3 p.m.
Four days of Wisconsin Brewing Company tasting events culminates with an Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest pre-party at the new Verona brewery. This open house will feature tours of the brewhouse and a free first beer for festival ticket-holders. For those who don't have tickets, the brewery will be raffling off a pair for the fest, as well as private tour packages and an opportunity to brew with Kirby Nelson.
- The Tipsy Cow
Starting at 6 p.m.
Keith Villa, the founder and head brewmaster of Blue Moon Brewing Company, is the guest brewer at Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest on Saturday. He will also be hosting this pre-party the night before the festival.
- Tiki Shack and Crabhouse
Starting at 8 p.m.
Kona Brewing Company, based on the Big Island of Hawai'i, is one of several nationally distributed craft beer brands that's landed in Madison recently. The company recently expanded its reach into Wisconsin, Michigan and Kentucky, and is marking its appearance with this release party. Samples of both Longboard Island Lager and Big Wave Golden Ale will be served.
Saturday, January 18
- Alliant Energy Center Exhibition Hall
Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest returns for its fifth year! The festival begins at 1 p.m. for premium ticket holders, and the doors open for general admission at 2 p.m. The festival will feature over 100 breweries, cheesemakers and other vendors, and runs until 6 p.m.
Sunday, January 19
- Tex Tubb's Taco Palace
Starting at 1 p.m.
MobCraft Beer is throwing a release party for its new release, Hazelnut Amber. It's the fourth crowdsourced release from the new Madison brewery, and will be available at this party in single 22-ounce bottles, four-packs of 22-ounce bottles, and on tap. This beer is an ale made with ten pounds of roasted hazelnuts per barrel, and finishes at 6.75% ABV.
Monday, January 20
- The Coopers Tavern
Starting at 6 p.m.
Ale Asylum is putting on a "Hail to the Ale" dinner to mark an off-year Inauguration Day. The meal consists of four courses that will each be paired with a specific Ale Asylum beer: boar ravioli with Ambergeddon, white bean cassoulet with Ballistic IPA, a game bird salad with Mercy Grand Cru, and wild rice pudding with Big Slick Stout. Tickets are available at both Coopers and the brewery, with a free pint accompanying every purchase at the latter's tasting room.
As specific times and menus for these events may be updated, calling ahead to the host venue is advised. More information about Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest may be found in lists of participating breweries and cheesemakers, an introduction to its home brewing competition, and in its schedule of presentations. More big Wisconsin beer events are set for the following weekend, with Karben4 hosting a special release of its Deep Winter Coffee Stout and a special release of four Funk Factory Geuzeria lambic-style sour beers at O'so Brewing in Plover on Friday, January 24, as well as a Karben4 beer dinner at Stalzy's Deli and a 16th anniversary party at Central Waters Brewing in Amherst on Saturday, January 25.
It's certainly going to be another memorable year for Wisconsin beer.
Robin Shepard contributed to this article.
[Editor's note: This preview was updated through Friday, January 17 with additional information about events.]