This past year saw many Wisconsin breweries embark on ambitious expansion plans, and others celebrated major milestones. Lake Louie, Sand Creek and Lakefront all added double-digit capacity in their brewhouses with fermenters and new equipment. Ale Asylum is also expanding, and will remain in Madison; earlier this month it broke ground for a 45,000-square-foot building on the north side. And in Middleton, Capital Brewery celebrated 25 years of business, putting it alongside Sprecher as Wisconsin's oldest breweries in the modern age of craft brewing.
Here are a few of my best beer memories of 2011.
Most surprising and memorable find
This Belgian witbier was a new spring seasonal for the Milwaukee Brewing Company. This full-bodied beer is strong at 9.8% ABV. It's made with dried chamomile flowers that are steeped like tea in the cold fermenting beer. Ingredients also include the traditional spices for the style, like coriander, ginger and orange peel.
New in 2011
Black malt and special yeast combine for light fruity hints of cherry. Mosquito Beach first appeared on draught in late April in the Madison area, then in six-packs about a month later, for a summer-long engagement.
Two beers stood out in this category.
This IPA appeared on tap at the downtown Dane last January. Its recipe featured eight varieties of hops, which added a unique spiciness to the beer's bitter character. It left fans of the style pondering what waves of bitterness in a glass can be like.
This new creation from brewmaster Dan Carey arrived just before all those thirsty beer pilgrims descended on Madison for the annual Great Taste of the Midwest. Coincidence? Sharp and piney, the beer is made with all American hops, including Amarillo, Chinook and Citra. Look for it to be back in 2012.
Worth the drive
Whistle Stop Restaurant and Brewery of Woodman, Wisconsin
Woodman Brewery emerged from the homebrewed beer of Dennis Erb. Along with his mother, Leslie, he runs the Whistle Stop Restaurant and Brewery in Woodman. Just finding the place can be a challenge -- follow the Wisconsin River valley for about two hours west of Madison. Erb has been offering his beers at the Whistle Stop for a little more than a year, and by this fall, his selections started turning up in (where else?) Madison-area Woodman's grocery stores. However, it's the trip to Woodman, population 96, that adds to the adventure and charm associated with a small-town tavern that also happens to be a brewery. And post office.
House of Brews of Madison, Wisconsin
In September, the House of Brews started offering its first beer to Madison beer fans. Owner and brewmaster Page Buchanan is well-known among members of the Madison Homebrewers' and Tasters Guild, and has been planning his business venture for over a decade. His first beer, Prairie Rye, was a very respectable German Kölsch.
Biggest beer for flavor, not just high alcohol
Spank Me Baby with Wood from Tyranena Brewing
Brewmaster Rob Larson hauled out from the back of his beer cooler a 2006 vintage of his bourbon barrel-aged Barley Wine for his brewery's tasting room in mid-November. At nearly 9.5% ABV, it has alcoholic warmth and more. Every time a new half-barrel was tapped, each seemed to have a unique combination of bourbon, oaky-vanilla and malty tones, which made every visit to the tasting room special. This beer was in strong contention as my beer of the year. Unfortunately, the very limited quantity of it moved it down on my list of favorites.
Best of the seasonal brews
This unfiltered German hefeweizen has sharp crispness from Czech Saaz hops.
While this is a year-round beer, it was my summer brew of choice in Miller Park and at home while watching the Brewers win the 2011 North Central Division Championship.
This beer may also be available year-round, but its smooth and sweet flavors are well-suited to the cool damp weather of fall. It is partially aged in bourbon barrels from the Heaven Hill Distilleries of Bardstown, Kentucky.
After a year's absence, this wonderful smooth and malty stout reappeared in 2011. It's a beer with incredible soft, smooth and wonderful malty tones.
Best beer for a nightcap
Incredibly sweet tones from European dark chocolate with English Maris Otter malts are an aphrodisiac for the chocolate lover. This is a wonderful dessert beer, ideal for sipping in front of a fire.
Reliable old friend
First made in 1995, this beer hasn't changed since. It's deceptively smooth and strong at 8% ABV. The annual batch is always released first in the brewery's beer garden during Capital Bockfest, held on the last Saturday of February.
Best beer venue of 2011
This brewpub opened up in January 2010 in the space previously was home to JT Whitney's on Madison's west side, and quickly became a west-side oasis for quality beer, earning this same recognition last year. Over the last 12 months, brewmaster Scott Manning has continued to excel. On any night of the week the place is packed with the after work crowd looking for a good local beer. The solidly hopped Better Off Red has become a favorite of Badger sports fans, while special brews such as Hibiscus Saison show off the creativity that now flows from the Vintage brewhouse. Patrons can expect 10-12 of Manning's own beers on tap for any visit, and he also provides as many as a dozen brews from other beermakers on a series of guest taps.
Best beer of 2011: Honorable mention
Beer enthusiasts can't help but give credit to a brewer who can age a beer in oak for over a year and a half. Exodus is a bourbon-barrel-aged sour beer made with Door County Montmorency cherries. It sits in barrels with those cherries for 18 months, then is bottle-conditioned for another 1-2 months before getting released in 750 mL hand-corked bottles. The initial batch arrived in very limited quantities in early December and sold out quickly. The next batch isn't expected until 2013.
Best beer of 2011
The Czech Pilsner is credited with inspiring the lager brewing revolution of the 19th century. Potosi's version deserves world-class status. Brewmaster Steve Buszka makes his Czech Style Pilsner with Saaz hops to give it an authenticity that many imitations fail to achieve. It is a crisp, bubbly and clean lager with 35 IBUs (International Bitterness Units) and 6% ABV. This deserves a place in the refrigerator of any beer drinker.