Wisconsin Craft Beer: Madison Embraces Local Brewing

The state's capital city is a haven for local, independent and craft breweries.

Wisconsin has such a wealth of craft offerings that some bars and restaurants offer only beer made in-state.
Wisconsin has such a wealth of craft offerings that some bars and restaurants offer only beer made in-state.

Wisconsin has a storied history of brewing, but these days, craft beer is king. In Madison—the state’s capital and second-largest city—the dominance of craft offerings is particularly striking. The Old Fashioned, a retro-themed gastropub located just a block from the State Capitol, has more than 50 beers on tap and 80 by the bottle. All of them are from Wisconsin. A short distance away at OSS (Old School Sausages), a counter-service restaurant known for modern takes on traditional Wisconsin bratwursts, the draft selection is also Wisconsin-only. OSS offerings are led by New Glarus Brewing Co.’s renowned Spotted Cow, as well as its Staghorn Octoberfest, ($5 a pint; $7 a 24-ounce pour, both served in a Mason jar).

New Glarus Brewing Co., located 25 miles outside of Madison in the town of New Glarus, Wisconsin, is the state’s leading craft player. Its flagship brew, the cask-conditioned farmhouse ale Spotted Cow, is the state’s top-selling craft beer in both the on- and off-premise. New Glarus—which was founded in 1993 and is distributed exclusively in Wisconsin—is the 14th-biggest craft brewer in the United States, according to the Brewers Association.

“We pay the mortgage with Spotted Cow,” jokes Wayne Crokus, a general manager at the three-location Steve’s Wine, Beer & Spirits in Madison. Steve’s offers six-packs of Spotted Cow bottles for $8.49. Local craft beers do well at the retail chain, and even the store’s top-selling macro beer—Leinenkugel’s Original lager ($5.69 a six-pack) from MillerCoors—is made in Wisconsin.

Inspired by New Glarus, a new crop of craft brewers has been making waves in Madison. Ale Asylum, a decade-old company, has grown from production of 837 barrels in its first year to 19,626 in 2014. In 2012, Ale Asylum moved from an 8,000-square-foot brewery to a 45,000-square-foot facility with a tasting room. The brewery’s flagship beer is Hopalicious, an American pale ale made with eleven separate additions of Cascade hops. It sells at Ale Asylum’s brewery for $5 a pint and $9 a six-pack of bottles.

Craft brewers of all sizes are flourishing in Madison and throughout Wisconsin, and it’s a fitting nod to the region’s roots. At The Old Fashioned, the beer lineup includes Ale Asylum, as well as other Madison-area labels like Lake Louie Brewing, Capital Brewery, Wisconsin Brewing Co. and Vintage Brewing Co. At OSS, meanwhile, another brisk seller is Fantasy Factory IPA from Karben4 Brewing. The field might be crowded, but local producers aren’t worried. Hathaway Dilba, Ale Asylum’s director of promotions, sees Madison’s burgeoning market as a boon for local brewers. “People ask if we’re scared of the competition, but we would never want to be the sole craft brewery in town,” she says. “We’re in really good company, and we just want a spot in fridges among all the other great local beers.”