Epic was one of those stops that sets itself apart with the unique beers they make. There are a handful of breweries we’ve visited that make such original beers, and they’ll be remembered for quite some time. These guys have basically a garage that they call a brewery. One of the guys is a self-taught forager, and uses many ingredients he finds in the woods for their beers. Mushrooms is one of them. They had three on tap – a beet lambic, a belgian brown with spruce tips, and a red ale. Each was served in a beautiful tulip glass to be enjoyed on one of the two picnic tables they set up. Both guys were friendly, and eager to talk about the beer. The beet lambic, apart from the two or three other beet beers we’ve had, actually had a beet flavor to go along with the tartness that defines the lambic style. And the brown easily allowed the spruce to come through, while keeping it mild and a bit fruity. We also picked up bottles of the mushroom sour, and two farmhouse ales – one made with a few grains, and one made with ginger and chamomile. Can’t wait to try them! Probably if we went back in a couple months, they’d have entirely different beers. These guys clearly love what they’re doing, and they’re a big reason we can’t get enough brewery visits.
Bayern rounded out the top two breweries in Missoula, along with Kettle House. The taproom here was even more inviting, and as always, a conversation with the brewmaster is a big plus. The other big plus here was that they distinguish themselves by brewing only authentic German styles. Breweries this focused on one beer niche are rare, and are a nice departure from the IPA, porter, amber, pale, etc. that the vast majority of breweries adhere to. The only comparable German breweries we’ve visited were Grimm Brothers (although they went with more obscure styles) and Bierwerks, both in Colorado. Especially up here where the IPA reigns supreme, it seems like a big deal to rebuke all the citrusy American hops. German beers generally feature the malts and the yeast. The yeast is what gives these beers their characteristic banana-clove flavor. European hops are earthier and more mild than our American hops, and balance out the sweet malts. Here we had a pilsener, amber, unfiltered organic amber, dark wheat, hefeweizen, schwartzbier (dark lager), dark hefeweizen, bock, and an eisbock (a bock that’s frozen to remove some ice to increase the alcohol content). Some other versions of weizens as well. There are lots of other German styles out there, so hopefully this guy keeps exploring. But for the moment, plenty of variety. The one that really blew our socks off was the organic amber. Not sure how it was different than the first amber, but it stood out as being more fresh, and an up-front but not too sweet bready malt flavor. But every other beer was great as well. It would be nice to have these change-of-pace breweries more in the northwest, if for nothing else than to give the palate a break from all the hops. Our next visit to Missoula will certainly include Bayern.
We were excited to sample beers in Missoula, what we’ve heard is an awesome little town. It’s the type of place that you can just stumble upon a brewery, as we did with Kettlehouse. The closest comparison I have of Missoula is Asheville. Both are small, artsy, vibrant communities, and both have people that think their town has the most breweries per capita. And both have 2 or 3 excellent breweries, and several mediocre ones. Kettlehouse is one of the good ones in Missoula. They have an expansive taproom, and no food available. The highlight here was a flight of their porters, one each brewed in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. That was a definite first! Each was fantastic, and the age brought about a sweet smoothness. That’s a great way to sample beers. We also had a smoked scotch ale and a barrel-aged IPA. They mass-produce the scotch in cans, and I hope they taste as good in the can as it did on tap. The IPA was another home run, the very fresh hops smelling oddly of papaya, and the high alcohol content providing a subtle warmth.
We walked into a sprawling beer garden and were excited to have some great beers to match the ambiance. What we had was decent, but the list of available beers burst our bubble a little bit. A wheat, doppelbock, amber, pale, maybe one or two more. The doppelbock was made with some wild rice; probably just enough to be able to say that and make it sound interesting. It was fine, and the wheat was fine. The best beer from there we bought and took with us. The autumnal fire is another version of a doppelbock that was way better. Not my favorite style of beer, but a really good example of the style. Caramel, sweet, alcohol, with the clean finish of a lager. Worth a stop I suppose, but I think there are some other great things going on in Madison.
This is one of those monstrous prewpub/restaurants that are common in downtown areas. And like a lot of them, the focus of making great beers has gone by the wayside. Bad, heavy bar food, and bad beers. I think we tried a tripel and a porter, and I don’t remember a thing about them. No character, no freshness, no joy in drinking them. Next please!
Lake Mills, WI
After a couple so-so breweries in Madison, it was time for Wisconsin to pick up its game a little. So Tyranena came at the perfect time. We walked into an inviting taproom, complete with families and regulars that belonged to the mug club. They had a great mix of offerings, including a honey blonde, bourbon brown, pale, *lambic*, scottish, ipa, ipa w/ orange peel, oatmeal stout, barrel-aged rye porter, and an amber. They were correct in calling the lambic an ‘almost’ lambic, because the only similarity it had with a kriek was a cherry flavor. The flight really came alive with the three porter/stouts. Each had its own character, and a different focus on the sweet, alcohol of the barrels, the roasty of the malts, and the silk of the oats. No food here, just some pretzels. Solid stop all around.
This one took a little finding, being tucked away in a business park far from any downtown area. On the surface, that seems a little discouraging, but in our travels, those out-of-the-way breweries have made the best beer. Tightwad followed suit, with about 12 very nice, fresh offerings. The taproom is brand new, and clean and spacious. We were treated to samples of a blonde, red, pale, IPA, maibock, schwartzbier, barleywine, and an English pale (tap and cask). We all agreed on the IPA and blonde being wonderful, citrusy, and fresh. One of us thought the schwartzbier was phenomenal, mixing the roasty coffee flavors of a stout with the cleanliness of a lager, and one of us enjoyed the barleywine. We thought the maibock was nice and true to form, but it tends to be a little sweet for our taste. With the arrival of Tighthead, the Chicago suburbs are arriving on the scene as host to some great breweries. Congrats, Tighthead!