When you have friends or family stay with you, the pro move is to fill the guest room with simple amenities that they might have forgotten: good magazines, a bottle of water, an iPhone charger.
Score even more hosting points by giving your guests a taste of something they can’t get anywhere else. The Midwest is home to some superlative craft beers that don’t make it out of our region, and you might want to show them off. Small batches mean small businesses and limited distribution.
It’s your responsibility as host, then, to know what’s unique to the area, what best represents this place we live in, and its place in the big beer picture. It’s nice to have a head start on the answer to the question, “Hey, I’ll be in town in a couple weeks, what are we drinking?”
Let’s start with Madison-area brewers. When I have friends in town, there are two breweries we hit first, Karben4 and Ale Asylum. If you yourself are new to Madison, get on their level.
Karben4 is probably my favorite area brewery, for its ability to create balanced beers with just a touch of kookiness. Fantasy Factory is a straightforward citrusy Midwestern IPA, neither too bitter nor absurdly cloudy, with a great label. Lady Luck is a superb, slightly hopped Irish red, and Deep Winter is a seasonal coffee stout with no hops at all. While Karben4 is worth checking out for the novelty alone, the quality there runs deeper than that.
Karben4’s happy-go-lucky ’tude is the perfect flipside to Ale Asylum’s seriousness of purpose. If these brewers don’t abide by the beer purity law all the time, they come pretty close. But with the diversity of hops at its disposal, the brewery can turn out some wildly varying flavor profiles. Bedlam! is my favorite Belgian IPA, hands down, and the recent Hu$h Money handled the idiosyncratic Hallertau Blanc hops variety with impressive deftness.
Expand your geographical boundaries a bit, and you’ll find New Glarus. New Glarus Brewing Company is THE ONE, the brewery everyone who knows anything about beer will aim to drink at when visiting Wisconsin. Encourage a little exploration beyond Spotted Cow — itself a perfectly fine beer. Check out Staghorn, an Oktoberfest-style beer, or the classically perfect Zwickel, if you can make it down to the brewery. Lots of folks know Belgian Red; pick up a bottle of Serendipity for a tart, fruity beer that has even more complexity.
Central Waters’ barrel-aged beers are a nationally recognized treat, whether in the 12-ounce bottles (the Brewers Reserve series) or 22-ouncers like Rye Barrel Chocolate Porter or Headless Heron, the Amherst brewery’s annual barrel-aged pumpkin release.
Impress friends by telling them O’so Brewing won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in Colorado for The Big O, a wheat beer we can drink all the dang time up here in Wisconsin.
Or if you’re fortunate enough to have one in your cellar, bust out a bottle of O’so’s collaboration beers with Funk Factory here in Madison for a friend who really digs sour beers.
I encourage friends who are only in town on their way elsewhere, but who want to stop and grab a few bottles to take home, to find Black Husky, originally from Pembine way up in Marinette County, now open with a new Riverwest taproom in Milwaukee. Its beers aren’t found on tap as easily as they are in bottles, but if you come across the Sproose double IPA with spruce tips, order it.
Other beers unique to Wisconsin that I’m likely to encourage visiting friends to sample include Lake Louie Brewing’s Kiss the Lips IPA, Potosi’s Czech-style Pilsener, Door County Brewing Company’s Polka King Porter and Capital Brewery’s Winter Skal. They’re all solid, everyday-drinkin’ beers that stand to impress any guest.
If your guests aren’t from Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky or Ohio, they’re going to want to drink some Gumballhead, a hoppy wheat beer, and some Arctic Panzer Wolf, a double IPA, and the legendary Zombie Dust, the whaliest of Midwest IPA whales. Both are made by 3 Floyds, those bad boys out of Munster, Indiana, and are available in only five states.
And then your guests are going to realize that Wisconsin gets Toppling Goliath, because Decorah, Iowa, is just a hop, skip and a jump from the Wisconsin border. Wisconsin is one of only three states to which Toppling Goliath distributes (along with Iowa and Minnesota).
Be sure to sample some PseudoSue, which is every bit the pale ale that Zombie Dust is. And then grab some bottles of whatever other hoppy Toppling Goliath gem you can find, whether it’s an entry in the XHOPS series or the stupendously crushable Pompeii.
Surly Brewing out of Minneapolis has slightly broader distribution than Toppling Goliath, but it’s still a decidedly Midwestern beer. When your sour-loving friends find out how relatively easy it is to find Pentagram on shelves and even occasionally on tap in Madison, they’ll flip. Local draft lines are full of Furious, Surly’s flagship IPA, and the smooth Coffee Bender too.
Even Bell’s, which produces more than 300,000 barrels of beer per year, barely distributes west of Minnesota. So crack open a rich, chocolatey Expedition Stout with your buddy from Colorado, or order a pint of Two Hearted IPA for your cousin from Oregon, and feel the warmth of making someone’s beer day.