I have wanted to do a beer column for quite a while now, and have been threatening as much. This state and especially this town, as you well know, are considered by local and visitor alike to be centered on one major thing -- beer.
Milwaukee didn't garner the moniker "Brew City" for just any old reason; the history and saturation of the beer market is a huge part of the city culture. It started way back in the day with, breweries such as Pabst and Schlitz and Blatz. Those smaller outfits eventually faded and gave way to what (up until a couple years ago when South African Brewing bought them out) became "Miller Town."
But Wisconsin isn't just known for its mass produced remedial brews, it has been host to a number of excellent micro-breweries whose number and quality are ever increasing.
With many good, and maybe even great, producers in this state, I wanted to find the one that stood out. The one that sets the benchmark for quality and consistency. The one that has been doing it better for longer than just about anyone else.
That brewery, in my estimation, is Sprecher Brewery.
The brewery has been owned and operated by Randy Sprecher since 1985, but the beermaking began long before that -- all the way back to 1971, when Randy was enrolled at UC-Davis. Even though he studied oceanography, engineering, chemistry, biology and fermentation science, he was, all the while, home brewing and pursuing a brewer's license. The inspiration to make his own beer came from spending 18 months in Hamburg, Germany while in the military. Once he came back to the states, Sprecher realized that, at the time, Americans were making beer that tasted like water compared to the quality brew he had been drinking in Germany for the last year and a half.
In 1980, he moved back to Milwaukee and worked for Pabst for four years as a brewery supervisor. After working seven days and more than 80 hours a week, Randy decided that if he was going to work that hard, he might as well work for himself. He leased a space in Walker's Point to begin crafting Sprecher Beer. The first 10 years saw consistent growth as Randy focused on one thing - making high quality craft beer in the Reinheitsgebot tradition. Reinheitsgebot (which has now been replaced by the "Vorläufiges Deutsches Biergesetz" or "Provisional German Beer Law") is an extremely strict code of standards for making the highest quality German beer; standards which had been in place since the 1500's. Basically, it breaks down to water, hops, malt and yeast as the only allowed ingredients -- no artificial additives whatsoever.
In 1994, Sprecher outgrew its first location and moved to the current facility at 701 W. Glendale Ave., where workers make more than 22 different craft beers and eight different sodas including their famous Sprecher Root Beer.
So, with all the breweries in Wisconsin, what makes Sprecher the best?
1. The finest ingredients and skillful craftsmanship. Sprecher imports the majority of its ingredients from Germany. The brewery secures the highest quality hops, malt and barley and fashion each beer in the traditional Reinheitsgebot method. Randy Sprecher even crafted his own cast iron fermentation tanks. Year after year, the consistency of the products is unsurpassed. Considering that Sprecher registered as one of the first craft brewers in the state almost 25 years ago, two decades worth of consistent high quality is no small feat. Sprecher continues to develop and grow, winning countless awards from around the world, including a gold medal at the 2007 Australian International Beer Festival for their Imperial Stout, and six gold medals at the L.A. County Fair National Beer competition.
3. Ageability. When you think beer you typically think "born on" dates and all kinds of other gimmicky declarations of freshness. The purpose is that these beers have a very limited shelf life. Not so with Sprecher Beer. The thing I enjoy most about the quality and character of their beer, is its unbelievable ageing potential and incredible food pairing capability. Yes they have dates listed on the bottle, but that's so you can tell how long it's been ageing.
Because of the care and skill with which they are brewed, most of the Sprecher line is not only capable of ageing, but actually increases in character with a few years in the bottle. I have had two-year-old Dopplebock, three-year-old Barley Wine, and four-year-old Generations Porter. Coming from a wine guy, let me tell you, these brews exhibit some of the same characteristics that great wines demonstrate as they age.
The subtlety and nuance that comprise the delicate, but complex flavors only deepen with age. One of the best beer/food pairings I have ever had was a three-year-old Imperial Stout with glazed short ribs and a four-year- old Dopplebock with Foie Gras. Don't get me wrong, they are certainly terrific right out of the bottle, but if you have the patience to let a few bottles of Bourbon Barrel Aged Scotch Ale sit for a couple years in your wine cellar or refrigerator, you will be greatly rewarded.
If you haven't had much experience with the Sprecher lineup, you should really go and see them at the Brewery. Not only can you get a tour for $3 which includes an etched glass, four samples of Beer and unlimited soda, but you can check out the gift shop which has the entire lineup of beer for sale (some seasonal products may not always be available). You can mix and match cases if you like as well. Because their portfolio is so big, it can be difficult to find more than a couple of selections at your local retailer. But just like with wine, if you find you can't live without the Czar Brew (a Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout), then let your retailer know and they are usually most accommodating to carry it or get it in for you.
Sprecher also hosts a number of great events at the Brewery. They offer private tours and do food and beer tastings, and cheese and beer tasting events all year long.
Keep an eye out for a new product which will technically be registered under a separate brewery called Chameleon. In this lineup, Randy has already created Hop on Top, an extra pale ale, has several new "secret" things in the works that have not been registered yet, and continues to do contract brews, that is, special brews for individual establishments in either keg format or custom bottle.
Again, I really enjoy a number of different quality brews from Wisconsin. There are quite a few products that are just outstanding.
But, I challenge you to find a higher quality, consistent brewery with a diverse portfolio that meets every palate and has the depth of character to get better with time.