True, Madison never was the beer capital of Wisconsin, but it is the state’s capital. You can’t miss the strikingly beautiful Capitol Building that squats in the center of town. Go inside to view the spectacular rotunda. On Saturday mornings, the Dane County Farmers’ Market sets up on Capital Square. Over 300 local purveyors provide Wisconsin seasonal produce, meat, poultry, fish, sausage, baked goods, plants, cheese (lots of cheese), flowers and much more. Customers are encouraged to walk counter-clockwise, and, amazingly, they do.
The only Wisconsin specialty not sold at the outdoor market is beer. But as for independent and craft beers, Madison has a surprisingly large number of businesses. Here are a few of the best:
Capital Brewery was the first company to introduce a quality malt beverage to the citizens of Madison who had been lost in what Capital’s brew master, Kirby Nelson, calls “a beer desert.” So 25 years ago, the company made Capital Pilsner, fashioned after the pilsners of Bavaria and Bohemia, and Capital Dark, that’s made from four different malts. They still make these beers and have no plans to stop. But for their silver anniversary, they created Eternal Flame. Among their wheat beers is the competitive Door County Lager that’s clean and pleasantly nutty.
Otto Dilba had the good sense to open the Ale Asylum in 2006. In five short years, his production has gone from 850 barrels that first year to 10,000 in 2011. As a beer purist, Dilba uses four basic ingredients: malt, hops, yeast and water – no corn or rice. He says, “I make bold flavorful beers that are approachable, but that (sic) connoisseurs can enjoy.” Although his beers are distributed statewide, you can partake in the Ale Asylum’s large taproom.
Try one or more of their superb ales. Sticky McDoogle is a medium-bodied Scotch ale with a hint of hops; Gold Digger Blonde has a perfect blend of hops and malt; discover coffee and chocolate as you guzzle Contorter, a dark Porter ale; and Hopalicious contains 11 kinds of hops, and is the highest selling pale ale in Wisconsin.
In 1994, college buddies Eliot Butler and Rob LoBreglio founded Madison’s first brewpub, Great Dane Pub and Brewery Company. The tavern, that’s located within steps of the capitol, began its life in a mid-19th century hotel, and soon spread to the adjoining old antique store. The classic pub interior includes a restaurant, a bar and a billiards parlor.
The brewery has 16 beers on tap, including the gold medal-winner German Pilsner. Its inventory highlights many international selections, such as Czech Pilsner, American Pale Ale, German Wheat Beer, Scotch Ale, English Extra Pale Ale and Emerald Isle Stout. Tours of the on-site brewery can be arranged by appointment.
Their hearty pub fare features man-sized sandwiches and platters alongside Wisconsin specialties. Face it — you can’t visit a place without consuming at least one of its iconic dishes. Great Dane Pub serves several: Brats and Mash, starring a juicy Wisconsin bratwurst banger (sausage); Wisconsin Style Cheddar Mac, a twist on the traditional macaroni dish that’s oozing with a creamy combination of Wisconsin cheese and Great Dane’s Pilsner; and Beer Battered Cheese Curds, a beer-infused version of the deep-fried Wisconsin favorite. Join the Madison tradition to feast at Friday night’s Fish Fry, and Great Dane Pub goes one step further with its New London Bridge Fish Fry. According to legend, during the establishment’s renovation, workers discovered King William IV’s recipe for frying fish. Whatever… this English-inspired version offers a crunchy crust on haddock filets, which are accompanied by homemade Tartar sauce, Kohl slaw and pub fries.
Madison is keeping up Wisconsin’s reputation as the home of exceptional beer.
(This is an excerpt from my article in Pathfinders Travel Magazine.)