Lucette Brewing of Menomonie served a bourbon barrel-aged version of Slow Hand Stout fortified with coconuts.
The sixth annual edition of Isthmus Beer and Cheese Fest served up a menu of some 320 beers from more than 75 breweries. That's close to one hundred more beers than was served at last year's festival, an increase that highlights its growing size and scope.
With tickets selling out a couple of days in advance, a crowd of over 5,000 people gathered at the Alliant Energy Center Exhibition Hall on Saturday, January 17 for this culinary celebration of Wisconsin. Alongside the breweries serving their creations were around two dozen cheesemakers who offered samples of over 100 different cheeses. This pairing makes the fest a signature event for a state that bills itself as the place to be for both beer and cheese.
But the vision of the festival is expanding too, and for the first year it hosted breweries from neighboring states. This made for an even broader range of tastes to explore, from regular releases to one-of-a-kind brews.
Here are some of my favorite finds served at this year's Isthmus Beer and Cheese Fest.
New Brewery to Watch
Oliphant Brewing of Somerset, Wisconsin
This small brewery in St. Croix County just opened about five months ago. Oliphant brought four beers to the fest, all of which pushed style boundaries and created a lot of buzz on the festival floor, perhaps none more than Ant Ray Cow Pants, a spiced red ale made with red curry, ginger and kaffir lime leaves.
Bone Orchard IPA from Second Salem Brewing of Whitewater, Wisconsin
Opening in late 2014, this new brewpub debuted its Bone Orchard IPA at the festival. The hoppy beer features three hops: Centennial, Citra and Mosaic. Solidly bitter and offering an earthy-dryness that lingers, this brew is worth a visit to Whitewater.
This full-bodied stout delivers lots of chocolate malt and roasted flavors.
Wild and Sour
Two sours really stood out at the festival, and each was served by a brewery that's making a mark among those who appreciate these wild beers. Sweet Mullets bewmaster Mark Duchow is certainly no stranger to making sours, and his latest didn’t disappoint. Light-golden in color, Funk has bright sharp sourness. MobCraft is a brewery to watch for fans of the style. It's Sour Safari, a red ale made with Lactobacillus, offers memorable sharp and acidic sourness.
Light and Refreshing
Grisette from Door County Brewing of Baileys Harbor, Wisconsin
A lighter version of a saison, this beer has hints of sourness from Brettanomycess. It's crisp, slightly sour and very sessionable at 3.9% ABV. Introduced last year during Madison Craft Beer Week, this was one of my top beers of 2014.
Sessionable and Memorable
This beer is well-balanced with a pleasant combination of bitterness and malty breadiness. It's made with 30% rye in the grist, and features Styrian Aurora hops. This is one easy-drinking amber.
Bourbon Barrel-Aged Coconut Slow Hand Stout from Lucette Brewing of Menomonie, Wisconsin
The brewery brought a special firkin of this wonderfully rich, sweet, stout. With a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it would be the perfect nightcap!
Belgian Tripel from Wisconsin Brewing Company of Verona, Wisconsin
This trial batch of a new Wisconsin Brewing Company tripel was made by brewer Rochelle Francois. A bright yellow-golden color, thick off-white head and lots of yeasty-fruity sweetness with a hint of light dryness in the finish made this among my favorites of the day. Served from a pitcher, it didn't last long -- in part because I went back for seconds. This tripel was a prelude to what local craft beer fans can expect to see for the 2015 edition of Common Thread, a collaborative brew that gets released for Madison Craft Beer Week in May. This year's collaboration is being led by a team of women brewers.
Homebrew Best in Show
Imperial IPA from Kyle Markmann
Isthmus Beer and Cheese Fest hosted a homebrew competition for a second consecutive year. Festival-goers and a panel of judges voted for their favorite of three selections, all of which were variations on an India pale Ale. Imperial IPA from Kyle Markmann took home the honors over the other two competitors, 3 Seas IPA from Nick Balazs and Hop Salad from Dan Hedtcke. As a way of equalizing the production challenges, all three homebrewers used the one-barrel pilot system at Wisconsin Brewing Company to produce their final entry. This system was on display at the festival.
Road Trip Inspiration: Wisconsin
Appleton Beer Factory of Appleton, Wisconsin
This brewpub opened in November 2013. Its beers are made on a hand-fabricated 20-barrel brewing system constructed by the father-and-son team of Jeff and Ben Fogle, and Ben's wife Mairi. The brewpub brought its Oktoberfest, Hefeweizen, Black ale and Blonde ale to the festival.
Road Trip Inspiration: Illinois
Lena Brewing Company of Lena, Illinois
Located across the Illinois border about 30 miles south of Monroe, Wisconsin, this brewery has yet to open its doors! Lena offered a sneak peek of its beers at the festival, though, bringing its Póg Mo Thóin (amber ale), Uncle Tyson's Dunkelweizen, Thrashing Oats (oatmeal stout) and Scrap Iron (black IPA).
From Illinois to Wisconsin
Une Année from Chicago, Illinois
This Illinois brewery brought an interesting line up to Madison that included Esquisse (American wild ale), Enkel (Belgian-style single with Brettanomyces, Oort (Belgian-style porter) and Hopsurd (imperial IPA). The smooth porter was my favorite of these brews, but all were tasty.
Beer and Food Pairing
Okay, this festival is about beer and cheese, so with some reservations my best pairing of the day was sausage with an IPA. This most Wisconsin of hors d'oeuvres was made with Berkshire pork from Black Earth Meats of Black Earth, aged cheddar fromOtter Creek Organic Farm of Avoca, and Bourbon Barrel Cherry Stout from Central Waters Brewing of Amherst. It paired perfectly with an imperial IPA made with ultra-hot ghost peppers; the spicy head of the beer was simply excellent with the pork sausage.
Beer and Chocolate Pairing
Mint Chocolate Cookie & Cup of Coffee from Red Eye Brewing of Wausau, Wisconsin
Though this isn't really a pairing, this beer offers a wealth of chocolate all on its own. It's an imperial stout made with cocoa nibs, mint, and cold pressed java from New Roots Coffee of Ringle, Wisconsin. It's become customary for brewmaster Kevin Eichelburger to offer wonderful dessert beer -- his Snow Bunny milk stout stood out at last year's festival.
Best of the Best Beer
InAbsinthia from Vintage Brewing of Madison, Wisconsin
One of the most limited beers offered at the festival, InAbsinthia was also one of the most talked-about beers of the day, at least among those who got a chance to taste it. I was surprised to learn about this beer when brewmaster Scot Manning pulled a couple of growlers out of a cooler, and it wasn't long before I became amazed by it. The brewpub's Milestone Barley Wine is at the heart of this beer, which is also blended with a small amount of Dedication, Vintage's well-made and malleable Belgian Dubbel. What really made InAbsinthia special, though, was extended aging in an absinthe barrel. Its nose offers a strong aroma of anise that combines with a rich, sweet maltiness and hints of dark fruits, and it finishes with smooth and soft tones of vanilla and oak from the barrel aging. Granted, this beer's licorice flavor isn't for everyone, but it was a very special find, which is really what a beer festival should be all about. It was a special treat.
Isthmus Beer and Cheese Fest has seen sell-out crowds for the last several years, so when it returns for 2016, make sure to make plans well in advance!