A Perfect Pint's Michael Agnew serves up a guide to beer in the upper Midwest
Michael Agnew is a certified Cicerone and describes himself as "a beer tasting/dinner organizer, beer educator, all-round beer evangelist." He also writes about beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Beer Connoisseur. After traversing four states in the upper Midwest, Agnew has published, "A Perfect Pint's Beer Guide to the Heartland."
The large format paperback digs deep into the craft brewing scene in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and, of course, Wisconsin. A look at the maps in the book offer a quick testament to the amount of work Agnew put into the book. It's hard work drinking that much beer – seriously, it is – and we asked him about it.
OnMilwaukee.com: Perhaps this is obvious, but I'd love to hear about how you go about your, ahem, research.
Michael Agnew: At every brewery or brewpub I visited I spent a good deal of time talking with the brewer or owner. Usually an hour or longer. They were very generous with their time and I thank them for it. That gave me an in-depth understanding of the place – history, philosophy, character, etc.
I tasted every beer that was available to sample, often talking through them with the brewer as we chatted. I took the tour to see the facility. I hung out at the place for a bit to get a feel for the space, ambience, clientele. If I happened to be there during taproom hours I chatted up bartenders and customers. That's a great way to learn about a place.
It sounds like whining to some, but this "research," while fun, was actually really exhausting. I was doing three to four breweries a day. While I learned to pace myself, seldom finishing the samples, when you start drinking at 9 or 10 a.m. and don't stop until 7 or 8 p.m., plus traveling from place to place, it wears you out. It would have been nice to sit and have an actual pint at my last stop of the day, but most evenings I was just done.
OMC: How has the growth of the brewpub and microbreweries altered the beer landscape, especially in the upper Midwest?
MA: Well, the main way is the obvious one. There are just so many breweries now. The availability of different beer styles is amazing. Even in tiny towns like Woodman, Wis., population 300, you can find brewers doing crazy stuff, and the locals are drinking it. The proliferation of breweries is also bringing with it an expansion of the types of beer that are available.
When I started my tour in December 2010, the current boom was just getting underway. Most places had the standard brewpub favorites – IPA, Amber, Stout, Golden Ale of some kind, etc. Now we're starting to see more adventurous beers coming out of the region's breweries. While we're seeing a rise in good beer, we're also seeing a rise in not-so-good beer.
More and more people are jumping in without the knowledge and experience needed to make beer commercially. That could ultimately become problematic in the future.
OMC: Is there something of a renaissance, too, among classic brands throughout the area, mimicking the popularity of Schlitz and Pabst here in Milwaukee?
MA: We are seeing breweries, particularly small-town breweries, reviving the brands of long-defunct breweries that once made beer in the town where they are located. The big examples include August Schell making Grain Belt and Hauenstein. In Marinette, the Railhouse has revived the Silver Cream label from the Menominee Brewery. In Red Wing, the Red Wing brewing company researched and reconstructed recipes from two old Red Wing breweries. It's happening all over.
OMC: Have you heard about the push among a group of folks here to bring Pabst ownership back to Milwaukee?
MA: I have heard of this, but don't really know much about it.
OMC: As a well-traveled observer, I'd love to hear about how Milwaukee stacks up these days in terms of breweries and brewpubs. Are we still the beer capital?
MA: Milwaukee still has a great beer culture. In terms of sheer production volume I don't think any other state in the region can compete. Between Miller and City Brewing in La Crosse, Wisconsin has that one hands down. Milwaukee has a good assortment of old-school brewers and brewpubs and new-to-the-scene startups, as well.
The scene is growing at a good clip. I love that most of the breweries in the Milwaukee area are within 10 minutes of each other. That made my job much easier. Is Milwaukee still the beer capital? That's really hard to say these days. Madison is giving it a run for its money. Chicago is huge. The Twin Cities have a thriving scene that is one of the fastest growing in the nation. Des Moines also has a great and growing beer scene.
OMC: Do you have a favorite place here?
MA: Lakefront is probably my favorite place in Milwaukee. Their tour is super-fun. They understand that people are mostly there for the beer, so they give it to you at several points throughout the tour. Tour guides don't get too hung up on esoteric brewing stuff, unless someone asks. They guide with humor.
And I love the beer hall. The Friday fish fry with the two-man polka band is hard to beat for Milwaukee culture. Oh, and the beer is good, too.
OMC: Of course, I want to hear about your absolute favorite place overall in the four states covered in the book, too.
MA: It's hard to say a favorite. So many breweries stand out to me in so many different ways. I suppose if I have to pick a favorite it might be New Glarus. They have consistently high quality beer over an extraordinarily wide range of styles. The place is a marvel of organization and planning. Dan Carey is one of the most fascinating brewers I have interviewed. Things get deep fast when you talk to him.
But really, there were just so many places that I loved in every state for all kinds of different reasons.
OMC: What's your prediction for the next big thing in beer?
MA: Session beers are an upcoming trend – low-alcohol beers meant for consuming several pints in a session without falling out at the end. Just as we have seen imperialized versions of typically sessionable classic styles in the past, we're now starting to see low-alcohol versions of typically high alcohol brews.
The Brewers Association even has a category for this in their competition style guidelines. Sour beers have also been on the rise, but I still think that is more of a niche thing for ultra beer-nerds. They can be an acquired taste for others.
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