Depending on your age or awareness of the national craft beer scene, you might assume that Wisconsin beer is all-Leinenkugel, all-PBR, or all-New Glarus. To which we reply: Wisconsin beer is so, so much more. Nowhere is that more evident than in the capital city of Madison.
Featuring several outstanding breweries, bars, and beer-centric restaurants, all fulfilling their own niche in the local ecosystem, Madison remains a largely unexplored gem for wanderlusty beer hunters. There’s so much beer, and so many places to drink it in Madison, that this article focuses only on the cream of the crop. There are other options definitely worth checking out, but this feature assumes you only have a couple of days.
2002 Pankratz St.
The longest tenured of Madison’s indigenous breweries, Ale Asylum has been churning out solid, beer fridge go-tos for years now. Their reputation—and, largely, their bankroll—is built primarily on the strength of the all-Cascade Hopalicious pale ale, but the entire lineup is tasty and true to style: Big Slick, a strong oatmeal stout, is perhaps their best, and most slept-on beer, with coffee and baker’s chocolate for days. And if you’re in for the long haul, you’ll find few better companions than Demento Session Pale, which packs a ridiculous Cascade/Centennial profile and pillowy mouthfeel into only 4.7% abv. They also offer a full bar, in case you’re not in the mood for beer, and/or you stumbled on this article by accident.
Tips: The brewery and accompanying restaurant are massive, but it can still get a little nuts at peak hours, so either put on your patient pants or hit up the place on a weeknight. Ale Asylum is also starting to experiment with more exotic hops, so keep an eye on their draft-only “Asylum Limited” section.
3698 Kinsman Blvd.
Situated in Ale Asylum’s old space—and about a two minute drive away—is Karben 4 Brewing, who have spent the past two years slowly carving out a niche for themselves in a crowded beer scene. That success has largely come, surprise surprise, by way of a single-beer hype train: Fantasy Factory IPA, a mostly Citra-hopped, just-sweet-enough India pale that walks a fine line between West and East coast iterations. The brewery occasionally releases a tap-only nitro version and, unlike the majority of IPAs served in that manner, Fantasy Factory has a hefty enough malt bill to support the creamier carbonation level.
But every beer is worth digging into here. Deep Winter Coffee Stout eschews any use of hops in favor of coffee, coffee, and more coffee; Nightcall Smoked Porter smartly dials the smokey notes back, instead using it as a means to underscore the rich chocolate flavors of the beer. Lady Luck Irish Red is perhaps the most impressive in Karben 4’s lineup: with a deep malt bill that suggests dark chocolate, caramel, and sweet berries, it does a bang-up job of elevating what is typically a bland style this side of the pond.
The bar also offers a full lineup of liquors and wines, plus a small but satisfying food menu. Take note: the sandwiches are fine, but go for the pretzels and deviled eggs.
The Vintage Brewing Company
674 South Whitney Way
Known as much for its expansive restaurant that houses the brewing system, Vintage is actually one of Wisconsin’s more free-spirited breweries. The interior bar and dining area have more of a classic supper club feel, but there’s some good, weird juju going on in those tanks. Scaredy Cat, a strong-ish oatmeal stout, is a crowd favorite, but go deep into the menu for the weird stuff: Apple Brandy Barrel-Aged Dedication Dubbel, InAbsinthia (a barleywine aged on absinthe barrels, for the love of god), and Bourbon Barrel Cherry Chocolate Tart, a sour cherry ale aged on bourbon casks, have all been on draft in recent weeks. The bar also boasts two cask engines; I always start my visits by asking what’s on. Sometimes they keep it simple, but on other days you might find an IPA with sage, a dry-hopped bock, or—my personal favorite—McLovin’ Irish Red Ale with Jameson-soaked oak chips.
And, oh yeah, two words: Meatloaf. Sandwich.
The Great Dane
Boasting five locations in and around Madison, the Great Dane typically doesn’t go too crazy with its beers, but what they have is generally solid, with the occasional ringer thrown in for good measure. Each location has its own brewing team, so while some flagships can be found across all outposts, the brewers are also free to come up with their own recipes. Favorites include Crop Circle Wheat and Peck’s Pilsner, but take our advice and go for the Black Earth Porter, typically served on either nitro or cask. It’s a rich take on the style, with flavors of chocolate, coffee, and hazelnut. And for the most idiosyncratically “Wisconsin” experience, visit the downtown location, and make your way to the downstairs Rathskeller, a sort of basement bar with it’s own taps and low-lit vibe.
Also check out: One Barrel Brewing, Next Door Brewing
301 North Street
A sort of dive-y sports bar infused with craft sensibilities, Dexter’s seeming identity crisis is actually its greatest strength. The old school tavern-like exterior further belies the beer mecca that resides within, which at any given time features both year-round local favorites like Ale Asylum Hopalicious or New Glarus Moon Man and more esoteric offerings from Green Flash, Bell’s, and Alaskan Brewing Company. The staff and management are fiercely dedicated to creating and maintaining close relationships with the breweries they feature; their frequent Heritage Series events bring in a brewery representative to take patrons on not just a tutored tasting of beers, but also to tell the story of the brewery’s genesis, progression, and possible future. Dexter’s also goes all-in with their tap takeovers, regularly filling every one of their 24 tap lines with beers from a single brewery. That can result in some delightful insanity, like three different vintages of Central Waters Bourbon Barrel Barleywine, or tapping one of the only kegs of Green Flash Black Freak outside of California. Dexter’s is also one of the only places in Madison where you can find Toppling Goliath on draft anymore, but be prepared to throw some ‘bows during their pre-Great Taste event when Morning Delight gets tapped.
1923 Monroe Street
Tucked amid a homebrew supply shop, a fashion boutique, and a convenience outlet on Monroe Street, Brasserie V is owned, run, and staffed by obsessive beer nerds. Of the 26 tap lines, only two are dedicated—to St. Bernardus Abt 12 and Gulden Draak—so chances are you could visit once a month for the rest of your life and try something new every time. Belgian and European imports are heavily represented here, with the full line of St. Bernardus, Westmalle, and Chimay beers available by the bottle, along with fresh and aged Orval, plus a rotating selection of lambics from Tilquin, Boon, and Hanssen’s. All told, the bar offers over 300 beers to go along with its Belgian-centric cuisine, and truly caters to all tastes and pocketbooks. Don’t feel like springing for that $22, 12 oz bottle of Siren Odyssey #1? Go for the excellent Evil Twin I Love You With My Stout for a third of the price. And it’s sometimes literally the only place in town where you can try certain offerings: a firkin of E. Dupont Calvados Barrel-Aged Normandie Cider, for instance, or Cantillon Iris Grand Cru on draft. Brasserie V also hosts themed tastings every month, often featuring beers that don’t make the main menu. And make friends with the bar staff; it’ll pay off. Trust me.
23 North Pinckney Street
If you have to visit a single place in Madison for an all-encompassing food/beer/culture experience, this might be the one. Boasting more than 60 taps is impressive enough, but the fact that all of them are from Wisconsin breweries speaks well of the establishment’s dedication to its home state, and is invaluable for anyone looking to get a complete idea of what the regional beer scene has to offer; hell, they’ve even got a mead from Bos Meadery on draft. I had Central Waters Lac du Bay IPA there before I even knew it was a thing. Oh yeah, their fish fry is pretty dang spot-on and, as you might assume, they make what’s probably the best old-fashioned cocktail—brandy or whiskey, bitters, cherry, orange, and 7-Up, for those of you playing the home game—in the city. One word of warning: they serve every beer—EVERY beer—in a pint glass, and that applies to Spotted Cow as much as it does to Red Eye Charlatan Imperial Stout or to Central Waters Bourbon Barrel Cherry Stout. So, y’know, deductions for style, but on the Bang for Your Buck-o-Meter? Best deal in town.
1980 Atwood Avenue
Not far from Next Door Brewing is Alchemy, a sort of punk-light gastropub offering fairly hearty portions and solid draft selections. The draft list is comparatively small, but well-selected, with Three Floyds and Lagunitas being particular favorites. Truth be told, the beer here acts as more of a thoughtful complement to the stellar food, which includes everything from perch tacos and chile-marinated flank steak to are-you-kidding-me sandwiches like my personal favorite, the House Boat: brined, blackened, grilled chicken breast served on a house roll with habanero basil aoli, jalapeno relish, and gorgonzola. People will smell you coming a block away, but you won’t give a shit, you’re so happy.
117 E. Main Street
Maduro is easy to miss, even if the door is open and cigar smoke is trickling out the front entrance. Make your way about a block up from the corner on East Main Street, though, and train your gaze up and to the left, then wait for the smell of expensive tobacco to hit you. You’re there. It’s a fairly low-key place, both in terms of physical and social media presence: their website hasn’t been touched in at least two years, and the only way to find out what beers they have on draft is to go there. But yeah, you should go there. In addition to their 19 tap lines and cask engine, Maduro boasts an impressive wine list and one of the best whiskey selections in the city. Their crowning jewel event, though, is their traditional pre-Great Taste Bell’s tap takeover: selections vary, but the event in the past has featured Black Note, Batch 9000, Bourbon Barrel Brown Ale, and other rarities on draft. Also, I’m not really a cigar guy, but I know enough to know what Padron 85th Anniversary means. And they have it.
Blue Moon Bar & Grill
2535 University Avenue
As you might expect, this cozy taproom offers Blue Moon on draft. But don’t hold that against them. Their tap list is fairly well-curated, and covers both a broad national and stylistic spectrum: as I write this, their draft lines boast Anderson Valley Holy Gose, Three Floyds Bend the Knee, Une Annee Enthraller, and Metropolitan Copper Lager. As with a few other select bars in Madison, Blue Moon likes to get involved in all aspects of the beer world, and that extends to making the beer itself. For this past Madison Craft Beer Week, the bar collaborated with O’so Brewing on a blueberry sour, a total surprise for many attendees that ended up on more than one highlight retrospective in the ensuing days. Oh, and if you want to head off that inevitable hangover, lay some foundation with their Pile Driver Burger, which is topped with ham, three different cheeses, and fried onions. Either way, you’ll be sleeping something off the next day.
Also check out: Cooper’s Tavern, The Merchant, Side Door, Roast Public House
Steve’s Wine, Beer & Spirits
3618 University Avenue
122 Junction Road
6227 McKee Road
Spread out over three locations across the city, Steve’s is the first choice of many Madison residents, from casual enthusiasts to the hardcore bottle-hunters. And though the stores all exhibit a common vibe and friendly, helpful staff, each one occupies its own sub-niche: the McKee Road location, for example, often holds back stock of particularly sought-after items, not just for preferred customers, but also as random surprises for out-of-towners; at Junction Road, you’ll find a skew towards boutique portfolios, with several different De Molen, Mikkeller, and Trois Dames bottles along the shelf; University Avenue’s store, meanwhile, offers a fair mix of all the above, plus possibly the best-curated wine selection of all three.
Riley’s Wines of the World
402 W. Gorham Street
The name is a little misleading. Riley’s stocks a simply massive array of wine, beer, and spirits, all carefully selected by the store’s knowledgeable and well-connected buyers. Of course they hit all the regional marks—New Glarus, Central Waters, Toppling Goliath, et al are all well-represented—but the store goes far out of its way to bring its customers some downright esoteric selections. In just the past couple of months, I’ve run across: JW Lee’s Harvest Ale (2011 Anniversary Edition), 2005 Schneider Aventinus (which, by the way, is still drinking great), several Freigeist offerings, and several Hanssen’s lambics. The prices are just about what you’d find at most places, so the sheer variety on offer should be your primary motivation to go here. Riley’s also routinely brings out some aged or impossible-to-get gems for special events, so keep your eyes peeled. Or, y’know, follow them on Twitter or whatever.
1209 Williamson Street
The smallest of the stores on this list, Star Liquor has the feel of a neighborhood Mom n’ Pop operation—if, y’know, your neighborhood Mom n’ Pop operation carried, say, Calvados barrel-Aged Mikkeller Beer Geek Brunch Weasel, for instance. Star’s limited space makes for a tightly curated bottle selection, so you know you’ll be getting the best of what each brewery has to offer. The intimate space also makes for a dedicated staff that knows everything about everything on the shelves—and sometimes behind the counter. Doesn’t hurt to ask…
Also check out: Alpine Liquor, Trixie’s Liquor
_Disclaimer: Josh Ruffin works as beer buyer and bartender at Brasserie V, but he’d still drink there, regardless of gainful employment.