The Great Dane is marking two decades of craft beer with its new 20th Anniversary Ale, and one might say the idea for it has been fermenting for just as long. "We based it on the fun factor of trying to play off the number 20," says Rob LoBreglio, brewmaster and co-founder for the group of brewpubs. He and his team of brewers created a beer with 20 different malts, 20 different hops, 20 different yeasts and 20 different waters to mark this major milestone.
"We've done so many beer styles over the years,” notes LoBreglio, "we were like, 'Where could we go from here, what could we do to celebrate?'" Over its two decades in business, he estimates all five Great Danes have made at least 7,000 batches of over 200 different beers. So this latest brew required some outside-of-the-box thinking.
"We had a lot of parameters," says LoBreglio. "Even though we were making what could be seen as a schizophrenic kind of beer, we wanted to make sure it didn't come across that way."
The Great Dane opened in downtown Madison on November 14, 1994. Since then it's launched sister locations in Fitchburg, at Hilldale Mall on Madison's west side, on Madison's far east side, and in Wausau. To mark the original brewpub's birthday, all five locations are tapping 20th Anniversary Ale for a week of celebrations.
What is it? 20th Anniversary Ale from the Great Dane Pub of Madison, Fitchburg and Wausau, Wisconsin. This beer was brewed at the Great Dane-Hilldale in Madison.
Style: With its 20 malts, 20 hops, 20 yeasts and 20 waters, Great Dane 20th Anniversary Ale is best described as an experimental beer. That's a term actually used by the Brewers Association to describe beers that are unique in how they are made, the ingredients used, and the creativity demonstrated in brewing them. This beer's combination of 20 "of everything" certainly reflects uncharted territory for the experienced brewers of the Great Dane. Its ultimate flavor profile loosely fits into a catch-all category of beers known as a Strong American Ale. These are beers that are often amber or darker in color, with flavor characteristics that vary wildly, and typically exceed 7% ABV.
Background: Almost every child has taken crayons and mixed them together to come up with black. That's basically the challenge Rob LoBreglio and the Great Dane brewers were confronted by when they used four score total malts, hops, yeasts and waters to make their 20th Anniversary Ale.
"We're not just talking about swirling all the colors together and getting black as far as the malt goes, or with the hops, or the yeast; we're talking about doing it on all three of those levels," explains LoBreglio. "Each of those can cause that effect on their own, let along doing it with all three."
Brewing this beer was a science project. It's one of the most complicated beers the Great Dane has ever made. "We did a lot of fretting and wondering what has to be wrought," explains LoBreglio.
The brewhouse at the Great Dane-Hilldale was the site of this experiment. However, this location did not have all the raw materials needed to make the beer, so it became a combined effort among the sister brewpubs. "Between all of the Great Danes, we had the hops, malts, and yeast we needed. But the water was me driving around on brew day to all these different stores and breweries filling up jugs," laughs LoBreglio.
The malts that went into the beer included American, English, and German varieties. The hops were primarily American and European. And the yeasts were American ale strains, with a Champagne yeast that LoBreglio added just for fun. Selecting 20 different waters was more of a nod to each of the Danes and their brewers. "I brought water from my house, we brought water from other Great Danes, and we got some waters off local store shelves," says LoBreglio, "so we have waters from Fiji, Germany, Italy and Finland."
Of all the things that could go wrong with such an unusual recipe, the hops are what worried LoBreglio the most. "To me, beers get eccentric when you even have three different hops, so dealing with 20 different varieties was very challenging," he notes.
In the end, the experiment was a success. "It was fun to push ourselves outside of our normal comfort zone, and to just offer it up to the beer gods and see whatever happens, happens," says LoBreglio.
The Great Dane plans to age some of its 20th Anniversary Ale, possibly for vertical tastings during future anniversaries. The beer finishes at 9% ABV, and is sold for $5.50 per pint and $20 per growler refill.
Through November 16, the Great Dane will mark its twentieth anniversary with special beer and food prices, including a burger-and-a-pint for $5 and many of its standard brews for $2 per pint. On Friday, November 14, the brewpub will be offering a pub crawl on a double-decker bus for tours and tastings at all four locations around Madison.
- Aroma: A light floral hoppiness.
- Appearance: A slight haziness with an amber-copper color and a bubbly tan head.
- Texture: The level of alcohol hints at full-bodied beer, but this beer is deceiving with a light dryness in the background and a finish that leaves a lighter, medium-bodied impression.
- Taste: There is a firm, yet crisp hoppy start, similar to a light American barley wine. The malty caramel and biscuit tones blend with the hops to lend a complex spicy body. The dryness is found in the background of the main flavor, and it lingers into the finish.
- Finish/Aftertaste: The dryness is firm, not at all overwhelming, just enough to for a clean and warm (from the 9% ABV) ending.
Glassware: Great Dane 20th Anniversary Ale is served in an imperial pint over the bar at the brewpubs. That's a pretty generous glass for such a strong beer, so be careful with this one. When taking home a grower, try it in a small wine glass or chalice to encourage sipping and appreciation of the layers of malt and the pleasant dry finish.
Pairs well with: Try Great Dane 20th Anniversary Ale on its own to appreciate the beer's spicy-complexity and dry tones. Then, consider a sandwich featuring rye bread to compliment its dryness. From the Great Dane's menus both the California Turkey Club and Irish Road Reuben are good choices. The Reuben is especially nice with its corned beef and sauerkraut that call attention to the spicy side of the beer.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: Great Dane 20th Anniversary Ale has the personality of a light barley wine. However, this beer commands respect at 9% ABV. It has plenty of flavor, with a dryness that makes it seem lighter and crisper than what one might expect for its strength. The score of hops offer firm bitterness that comes off as spicy and complex as they blend with the varying roasted and biscuit tones of another score of malts. That bitterness is not overpowering, but rather a firm, solid accent.
I like this beer a lot! Okay, I give it extra credit because the homebrewer in me is impressed with adding all this stuff into a beer and getting something that tastes very good!
LoBreglio allowed me to take a peek at the recipe so I could get a better understanding of what goes into this beer, which in algebraic terms is 20 to the fourth power! (That's 160,000 potential pairings.) For a 15-barrel batch of beer, individual amounts of malt varied from a few pounds to hundreds of pounds, while hops ranged from homebrewing amounts to several pounds. Then all 20 different yeasts were introduced.
Dealing with such exponential variability fascinates me in terms of what could happen, and in how the Great Dane avoided making what could have become a brewer's mash of mud. It all works, and its 20th Anniversary Ale ends up being a crisp, clean, and dry barley wine-like brew. There's nothing that seems off or distracting in the flavor profile. Now that's math and science at their best!
LoBreglio also allowed me an early taste of this beer so I could get a better idea how it remains work in progress. Great Dane 20th Anniversary Ale will change in character over the period it's on tap at the brewpubs. LoBreglio himself has been caught up in watching and tasting how it has been transforming over the week leading up to its debut. Something similar happened earlier this year with Great Dane Heavy Head Imperial Pilsner; during each return visit over the several weeks it was on tap, that beer improved as I discovered a flavor or sensation that I hadn't noticed previously.
Big beers like Great Dane 20th Anniversary Ale will continue to evolve and mellow as its malts and hops continue to meld, though it's hard to predict just what might happen given all of the ingredients that went into the recipe. It will be interesting to see what happens with any of this brew that the Dane holds back for future anniversaries. This all adds to why I like the beer, and I'm looking forward to a follow-up visit or two to see how it changes and offer more toasts to the Great Dane's first and next 20 years.