After visiting Topping Goliath the night before, we left Decorah on Wednesday morning and set out for our next destination—New Glarus Brewing in the small Wisconsin town of the same name. I’ve read a lot about New Glarus and their beers over the years, but since they only distribute within Wisconsin my exposure to their beer has been very limited. A couple of years ago I was driving across northern Wisconsin and I picked up two six packs of their highly acclaimed Hefeweizen, Dancing Man Wheat, which is right up there with Weihenstephaner for the best Hefeweizen on the planet in my book. So given the fact that we were already well into the deep America (and far off the interstate) I thought we might as well continue our journey east by heading over to New Glarus.
The distance from Decorah to New Glarus is only 131 miles, but the two-lane road that cuts through numerous small and medium sized towns does not lend itself to making good time. It took us a good 2.5 hours to make the trip. You cross the Mississippi river and enter Wisconsin at a town called Prairie du Chien. Crossing the Mississippi is always an impressive experience, and this was no exception. For the last 25 miles of the journey, from Dodgeville to New Glarus, you leave what I would describe as a proper two lane highway to travel on a very small, very curvy road that winds through verdant, hilly cow pastures. Think of it as a safari through wild cow country.
Whereas Decorah is a town of 8000 settled by Norwegians, New Glarus is an even smaller town (est. population of roughly 2000) settled by Swiss immigrants. It is named after Glarus, one of the 26 cantons of Switzerland, a fact to which I was previously oblivious. The brewery is set on a hilltop right off of Highway 69 a couple of miles south of the downtown. The design of the building takes its influence from Bavarian architecture.
- Website: http://www.newglarusbrewing.com/
- Address: 2400 State Highway 69, New Glarus, WI 53574
- Hours: 10 am−4 pm every day of the week
- Food: No
- Prices: $3.50 for a flight of three 3 oz tasters (keep the glass), $6 for a pint (keep the glass) and $3 for refills (Fruit beers are $9 for the first pint and $8 for a refill)
The vibe here is totally different than Topping Goliath. This is a big operation with a gift shop, a separate shop for buying bottled beer, a huge outdoor patio, and a large production facility. According to the Brewers Association statistics New Glarus is the 18th largest craft brewery in the country, just a little larger than Ohio’s Great Lakes Brewing. It’s kind of amazing to me that New Glarus is that big, yet they only distribute their beer in Wisconsin.
After having lunch in town (at Sugar River Pizza, which was excellent) we arrived at the brewery at roughly 1:30 pm on a Wednesday in mid-May to find the parking lot well over half full. After a few minutes of wandering around we figured out that the tasting room is located in the gift shop. There is no bar to belly up to, just a counter where you can order a beer or pay for all manner of apparel adorned with spotted cows hurdling the state of Wisconsin. The style of the artwork on their swag gives me the impression they are trying to make a subconscious link to the images found in the classic children’s book “Goodnight Moon.” Unfortunately, Clement Hurd (illustrator of Goodnight Moon) died in 1988 and faced with finding a suitable replacement it appears they held a contest among the elementary school aged children of New Glarus and commissioned the winning entry.
At the tasting counter they sell flights of three beers for $3.50, served one beer at a time. When you order a flight you get a souvenir 3 oz tasting glass adorned with their logo. Once you finish the sample you return to the counter and they fill your glass with the next beer. The selections on the day I visited were three lagers (Totally Naked, Two Women, and Back 40 Bock), two ales (Moon Man No-coast Pale Ale and Spotted Cow), and one of the fruit beers for which they are so well known (Wisconsin Belgian Red). While it’s hard to beat that price, I was a little disappointed to find that there were no taproom only offerings. I could have found a similar selection at any number of liquor and/or beer stores throughout Wisconsin (although it would not be possible to sample 3 beers for $3.50).
While I was drinking my samples we decided to take the “self-guided tour” of the facilities. On the tour you can see the awards the brewery has won and get a sense of the various parts of a large craft brewery. It was kind of interesting to look under the hood, but it would be improved by some signs or placards explaining the various parts of the brewery. I suspect the main purpose is to have someplace for the visitors to go in the winter (when the patio must be closed) while sampling the beer.
Since our visit was to be followed by a drive to Chicago I limited myself to one flight of three tasters, although to be honest the only beer that I passed on that interested me was the Back 40 Bock. I started with the Spotted Cow (5.1% abv). On the tasting sheet New Glarus describes this beer as a cask conditioned, unfiltered Farmhouse Ale, while both RateBeer and BeerAdvocate classify it as a Cream Ale. This strikes me as a little bit odd because Cream Ales are close relatives of American light lagers, usually made with some corn or other adjunct grain in the malt bill, while the term Farmhouse Ale is usually applied to Saisons, where the yeast flavors are much more prominent. Spotted Cow is easy drinking with a little sweetness from the corn. Suffice to say it’s a lot closer to a Cream Ale than a Saison, but for a Cream Ale it was pretty good. The next beer I tried was their No-Coast Pale Ale, Moon Man (5.0% abv). This is a crisp, refreshing pale ale that features citrus and floral notes from the hops. It was a perfectly good beer, but coming in between stops at Topping Goliath and Three Floyds both of which produce fantastic hoppy beers it didn’t stand out for me.
I saved what I anticipated would be the best beer for last, Wisconsin Belgian Red (abv = 4.0%). A visit to the BeerAdvocate website shows that in the category of Fruit/Vegetable beer the top four beers are all brewed by New Glarus, and their Wisconsin Belgian Red is ranked #1. It’s a beer that ends up on a lot of beer bucket lists. Brewed with over a pound of whole Montmorency Cherries per bottle, lagered in oak barrels, and aged for one year before it is released, it is their flagship fruit ale. You can certainly see the influence of the cherries in the translucent red color of the beer. Cherries dominate the smell and the taste as well. It’s a fruit forward beer no question, and while I can appreciate the intent and effort that went into the beer, I did not love it. It was a little too sweet for my tastes, more of a desert beer than anything. In the end it was a little too close to a fruit wine, a Midwest tradition I could live without. I’m glad I tried it but I was satisfied with three ounces.
The Bottle Shop
When it comes to stocking bottled beer for purchase New Glarus was far superior to other stops on my trip, Topping Goliath and Three Floyds. There was a large room containing what appeared to be the entire selection of currently available New Glarus beers. Despite my ambivalence about the Belgian Red I picked up 750 mL bottles of two more of their fruit beers—Serendipity (with apples, cranberries and cherries) and Strawberry-Rhubarb. I also got a four pack of their Berliner Weiss, which is from the Thumbprint series (small batch beers nominally brewed on a one time only basis). When I got home I tried the Berliner Weiss and it was excellent (click here to read my review). I would have happily picked up some Dancing Man Wheat, but it’s a seasonal and we were a couple of weeks too early. Now that I’m back home writing this article I see it is now available. If you stop at New Glarus I highly recommend it.
I had high expectations for New Glarus and to be honest I was a little disappointed. None of the beers I tried lived up to the bar that was set in my previous encounter with Dancing Man Wheat (although the Berliner Weiss that I brought home with me was excellent). On the plus side I did appreciate the availability of the bottled beer that they make, and the prices for beer are very reasonable. If you visit on a nice day I’m sure it would be fun to sit on the patio with some friends and have a few pints. Since the brewery closes at 4 pm and New Glarus is not far from Madison I would recommend staying there rather than in the town of New Glarus itself, unless you are looking for the ideal faux-Switzerland experience.