It seems obvious that Wisconsin's brewing industry is undergoing some dramatic changes. Look at how jam-packed local beer shelves have become with Wisconsin-made brews. How many times do you feel information overload when you try to read your favorite brewpub's beer menu?
A decade ago, did you ever think you might be willing to stand in line or buy a ticket that gave you the right to then purchase a single bottle of beer that would cost $10 or more? Now, I'm not complaining -- at least too much -- because this is a great time to be a beer enthusiast. Our choices of locally-made good beers are better than ever, and will be even more so in 2014.
Consider this. In the past five years, the number of barrels of beer produced by Wisconsin craft brewers has grown approximately 40%. Craft brewers, as generally defined by the American Brewers Association, are those with annual productions of less than six million barrels; there are other elements to the definition, but barrelage is the most often cited criteria.
One reason for Wisconsin's growth in the increasing number of brewers that are making more than 15,000 barrels annually. Today there are twice as many breweries of that size as ten years ago. Even more interesting is the number of Wisconsin breweries that are expanding and positioning themselves with brewhouses that are capable of making more than 100,000 barrels per year. Today, five are in this exclusive club -- ten years ago, the club didn't exist.
Moreover, what we perceive as a micro or craft brewery is changing, with a noticeable size difference across the board. It's a difference that seems to be accelerating every time we read about another Wisconsin beer maker that expands, or by the announcement of another brewery holding its grand opening.
On the other side of the growth equation is the emergence of the nano-brewery. Those are very small beer makers, often making beer in rather small batches with glorified home-brewing equipment, often in the kitchen of a bar or restaurant. In some instances they may have their own room for brewing; some are in not much more than a converted storage closet or part of a walk-in cooler. The current nano-brewing model wasn't around even five years ago. Today, those smallest of the small are elusive. These brewers are sometime here today, gone tomorrow, or, conversely, the successful ones quickly convert to the next step up in size.
Madison and the surrounding region are at the epicenter of these trends in Wisconsin, given dramatic expansions at New Glarus Brewing and Ale Asylum, the opening of the new Wisconsin Brewing Company, and the impending move of Capital Brewery to Sauk City. When you add in Lakefront Brewery, Sprecher Brewing and Stevens Point Brewery, you've covered a significant majority of Wisconsin-made craft beer that is sold in the state.
In 2014, this dynamic will continue to play out. But how will it alter the way we look at our favorite breweries? Will size, where the beer is made, or if it's made under contract with another brewery, actually change our love affair with the "local" in craft beer? All are questions to ponder as we watch both large and small beer makers in 2014.
Here is a look at some upcoming beer releases and brewing developments to watch for in 2014 among Wisconsin's largest craft beer makers.
Ale Asylum of Madison
This north-side brewery used the past year to settle into its new facility near the Dane County Regional Airport. Ale Asylum's new expansive location has allowed it to achieve nearly statewide distribution of its brews, while its tasting room has become a destination for beer enthusiasts from all over looking for local beer and a good meal.
Brewery co-owner Otto Dilba addresses the industry's growth directly: "We want to keep riding the wave of craft beer popularity and not get caught in the undertow." That's why Ale Asylum has purchased more fermenters to meet the growing demand for its beer. With more tanks, the brewery is on track to double the initial capacity of its one-year old facility within the next few years.
Coming up in 2014, Ale Asylum's popular Belgian pale ale named Bedlam! will be released in February and from thereon be available as a year-round beer. Its hefeweizen named Unshadowed (formerly Hatha-Weizen) will be out in bottles in April. Expect more limited release one-offs in the tasting room, too. Brewmaster Dean Coffey says if he has time and can open up a fermenter, he would really love to make an imperial stout.
Capital Brewery of Middleton
The expected move of Capital's primary brewing operation to a new facility in Sauk City will likely be among the biggest industry developments in Wisconsin over 2014. Production manager and brewmaster Brian Destree says much of the new equipment that makes up his new 100-barrel brew house was ordered in November. He's hoping that the new brewery will come online by late summer. The new brewery is expected to turn out around 60,000 barrels annually within a year of start-up, which would more than double the Capital's current output. The new brewery has a maximum capacity of around 115,000 barrels.
As for Capital's beers in 2014, the big barrel-aged Jacked Maibock will not be back in January. It's being replaced with a barrel-aged, big-bodied brown ale. Destree is also tweaking the recipe of his IPA with more hops; look for Capsized Again to be out by March. Fans of Pumpkinataur will be happy to know that beer will be back in September, along with a limited amount that has been barrel-aged. And look for its Dark Doppelbock in November.
Lakefront Brewery of Milwaukee
Lakefront expanded nearly 20% over the course of 2013. Its president, Russ Klisch, says the brewery installed a new lauter tun to help improve brewing efficiency of its higher gravity beers like Bridge Burner (which will be moving from 22-ounce bombers into four-packs).
Klisch says to expect four or five beers in the brewery's My Turn series, which will likewise be switching from bombers to four-packs. They're made by various Lakefront employees (not only brewers) who get a chance at designing and developing a beer. The beer's name is simply the first name of the employee that designed it. Up in early 2014 will be John, a beer named for Lakefront tour guide John Zutz that combines cherries with Lakefront's Eastside Dark.
Lakefront will also bring back its Black Friday Imperial India-Style Black Ale in 2014. It's an aggressively hopped and very dark beer that has developed a serious following. The beer is only released at the brewery, on Black Friday after Thanksgiving, and lines start forming overnight to get a chance to purchase some of this very limited brew at aroung $10/bottle.
New Glarus Brewing Company of New Glarus
The brewery's 2014 lineup of year-round, seasonal and Thumbprint beers will be announced soon on its beer schedule. The first of brewmaster Dan Carey's Thumbprint releases will be Spiced Ale, similar to its Winter Warmer release last year. It's expected to be a big beer, gently spiced with ginger, cinnamon and allspice, and then aged on oak.
After months of construction, New Glarus plans to be using the new fermentation cellar at its Hilltop facility by the end of January. That addition to the main brewery will support a doubling of annual production, pointing it towards an annual 250,000-barrel mark. For visitors to New Glarus, a major landscaping effort has been transforming the Hilltop brewery and is scheduled for completion in the spring, making for a picturesque location to quaff a beer.
For those who enjoy Dan Carey's fruit beers, his new Wild Fruit Cave at the brewery's Riverside location (actually the original New Glarus site) is also well into construction. It will employ a coolship for souring wort and add several oak tanks (foeders) for aging. "This will be our playground for experimenting with sour fruit beers," says Randy Thiel, director of quality control at the brewery. That means we should expect some surprises coming out of New Glarus by late 2014.
Sprecher Brewing Company of Glendale
In February, the brewery's seasonal Mai Bock will be released, along with Russian Imperial Stout from its Premium Reserve four-pack series. Anne Sprecher, who handles Sprecher's marketing efforts, says the brewery will undergo some expansion in 2014 with eight new fermentation tanks along with improvements in its bottling line. Sprecher adds that some of the need for growth is due to the popularity of Sprecher Hard Root Beer, a product unveiled to Madison during last year's Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest. It was one of the most interesting and surprising new brews at the festival.
Stevens Point Brewery of Stevens Point
Over the last year, Stevens Point Brewery expanded its capacity by 25%, giving it the ability to produce up to 150,000 barrels annual. Expansion will continue at the brewery in 2014, with plans to invest $1.5 million in equipment and infrastructure upgrades. Much of that will go toward electrical and cooling system updates and three new fermentation tanks. The brewery also anticipates it will add eight new positions in the coming year.
Wisconsin Brewing Company of Verona
A maibock is next on the list of beers to be released by Wisconsin Brewing. That's probably not a huge surprise to those who have followed Kirby Nelson from his days back at Capital Brewery to joining the ownership team of Wisconsin Brewing. The maibock he was in charge of making while brewing for Capital earned more than a half-dozen awards to its credit.
Meanwhile, Nelson keeps saying he hopes to offer small test batches of brews from a pilot brewing system he purchased about a year ago (before scaling up recipes). Understandably, he has been a little busy in recent months getting his brand-new German-designed 80-barrel brewhouse up and running. But as things settle down, I'm hoping he'll find some time for playing around with 1 1/2 barrel batches and releasing them in the brewery's tasting room.