January 23, 2017 Robin Shepard  Isthmus Beer and Cheese Festival

The Best of the Fest 2017: Greatest Hits of the 8th Isthmus Beer and Cheese Festival

The eighth annual Isthmus Beer and Cheese Festival on Jan. 21 at the Alliant Energy Center Exhibition Hall featured 110 beer makers and about two dozen cheesemakers. That’s a lot of booths to visit. It was nice to see that among this year’s many memorable beers were some from first-time brewery attendees. “We’ve been waiting for the Isthmus Beer and Cheese Festival. We figured we’d start here to get some attention before we launch our beer into Madison,” says Will Glass, owner of The Brewing Projekt a new production brewery in Eau Claire. Glass was pouring samples of about a half-dozen of his beers. His Midnight Oil cold-pressed coffee stout was among his most popular festival taps.

In the booth right beside Glass was another new company, Third Space Brewing from Milwaukee. “This is a great festival. A lot of brewers from all over the state come here, so it’s good to get our name out here,” says Andy Gehl the brewery’s co-founder. Third Space generated some buzz among the festival’s hop-lovers with Happy Place pale ale.

Also attending the festival for the first time as a brewer was Nate Warnke, who opened Rockhound Brewing in Madison less than a year ago. Warnke brought along one of his most limited beers, Glowing Embers, a pale ale made with smoked hops and aged in rum and brandy barrels. This was a unique treat with its subtle toffee and caramel sweetness and just a touch of roastedness and smoke.

The festival also drew many returning well-established breweries and well-known brewmasters. Kirby Nelson from Wisconsin Brewing Company in Verona was touting a pilot brew called Cupid’s Envy. It’s a version of WBC’s Porter Joe that’s made with espresso and aged for a year in bourbon barrels. It had a chocolate milk sweetness, with a touch of coconut and a warm boozy finish.

I always make a point to stop by the booth of Madison’s Vintage Brewing Company to see what brewmaster Scott Manning taps just for the occasion. His High Plains Drifter was brewed with sage for a spicy twist on the IPA style. It ended up as one of my favorites among hoppy brews. Vintage always seems to give festgoers a little something extra, especially in presentation. This year Manning offered a kissing beer booth, above which a sign read “Love Beer? Prove It!” and where drinkers could put on costumes and display their affection for their favorite brew. Manning himself got into the act on more than one occasion, puckering up with a glass of his Scaredy Cat oatmeal stout.

Madison’s Ale Asylum also didn’t disappoint with hops either. The festival offered the first taste in the brewery’s experimental line of beers known as the Spawn Series. Batch #020 (also called Steampunk IPA) features Nugget and Polaris hops along with alcoholic warmth at 7.3 percent ABV. Polaris is a new variety of hops that lends hints of mint and pineapple. One of the most welcome and unexpected surprises came when I matched this hoppy beer with the sea salt caramels from Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier. I was amazed at how those fruity hops melted into the sweetness of caramel and chocolate.

An expanded element to this year’s festival was the special room containing cask ales — those beers served right from the keg, slightly warmer and under less carbonation than tap beers. Over 20 of these were offered, ranging from brown ales to IPAs. Many also featured infused ingredients like fruits, spices and coffee. Among the standouts was 3 Sheeps Brewing, which served up a special version of Really Cool Waterslides IPA, made with lemon peel and basil.

Another fest newcomer, Good City of Milwaukee, poured its Risk IPA infused with orange peel. Good City is so new its beers haven’t been seen very much in Madison; however, the brewery is making plans to enter the local market in earnest within the next few months. Also among the cask-conditioned ales that stood out was the Brewing Projekt’s Gunpowder IPA, which created my best pairing of the day when enjoyed next to Marieke Gouda honey clover. The sweetness of the cheese blended well with this beer’s light mixture of Earl Grey tea and spicy hops.

On my list of lighter beer favorites was Leaping Lemur Cream Ale from Hillsboro Brewing, flavorful and balanced. Alt Brew’s gluten-free Kickback Kölsch was just as memorable, with its crisp, bubbly body and dry finish. It proved to be so popular it ran out early.

Among my overall favorites from this year’s festival were dark, bold, full-bodied beers. Red Eye Brewing’s Winter Grand Cru was earthy, yeasty, warm and spicy at 7.6 percent ABV. Door County Brewing’s Perdition Quadruple with its vanilla and cinnamon (and nearly 11 percent ABV) warmed me up.

And what I consider the best of the fest came from Potosi Brewing, which brought a few bomber bottles of this year’s vintage of its Grand Amber, a brandy barrel-aged barleywine. This beer is extremely limited; in years past it has only been offered in the brewery’s gift shop. Grand Amber was an unannounced beer that brewer Jonathan Gentry was keeping in a box underneath the booth for those who happened to be curious and/or knowledgeable enough about Potosi’s barrel-aging program to ask for it. However, it didn’t take long for word (via social media) of it being served to make its way throughout the festival floor.