Most of my work supporting, documenting, and participating in Milwaukee’s Craft Beer Renaissance, involves doing new things. Exploring new breweries and new beer, meeting new people, tasting new styles of beer.
But in my rush to embrace and encourage the new beer our city has to offer, I started to wonder, was I guilty of buying-in to the hype-machine? Was I ultimately weighing novelty more than quality, history, or brewing skill?
I think that’s a pretty fair and relevant question, one that maybe more craft beer drinkers need to ask themselves. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with seeking and enjoying hyped beers. The thrill of chasing rare, limited edition beers, or beers that are hard to find on the Milwaukee market is fun, and often these are great beers, but rarity, novelty, and hype ought to be taken with a grain of salt — especially by the craft beer community.
I was actually in the midst of writing about just this question when Jesse Mix of Sprecher brewery invited me to come taste WIPL (rhymes with tipple). A lager made with all Wisconsin ingredients, WIPL is the first in a series of fresh-hop beers Sprecher plans to release between November and January.
A series of fresh-hop beers? From Sprecher? This, I realized, was the perfect chance to taste some beers that could give me real evidence as I thought through how I might balance my opinions of new and old breweries.
Like most people, I tended to think of Sprecher as the doting grandfather of Milwaukee’s craft beer scene. And to a certain extent that reputation is accurate.
I did a little research and learned some interesting tidbits. Sprecher was the first craft brewery founded in Milwaukee after Prohibition, but they were also one of the first 37 craft breweries founded since 1978 when Congress reduced the levy on small production (micro) breweries. More astounding still is the fact that in 1985, the year Sprecher was founded, craft beer’s market share was basically nil.
As I kept researching the brewery ahead of my visit, I realized that they weren’t just venerable, they were decorated. I was dimly aware that Sprecher had picked up a few awards somewhere along the line, but I had no idea that in 2004, Sprecher won Small Brewery of the year at the GABF, picking up gold medals at the same event for their Scotch Ale and their Oktoberfest.
So Sprecher’s heritage was pretty damn strong, and they’ve undeniably produced some great beers, but I still had to ask, what were they making now that people should get excited about drinking?
Enter Jesse Mix and the WIPL. I met Jesse outside Sprecher’s tasting room and soon learned he was all business. The business of drinking beer, that is. Only a few moments after shaking my hand, he uttered four of the most beautiful words in the English language: “Let’s drink some beer.”
Less than a minute later, we stood, short-pours of WIPL in hand, talking about the beer. As a big fan of localism, I was thrilled to hear that the beer was made with hops and grain entirely sourced from Wisconsin: Briesse malts and Cascade hops from Wisconsin Hop Exchange.
The nose was grassy and floral. My first sips were slightly spicy with a light malt backbone interlaid with bubblegum. The fresh hops lifted the beer, enlivening it with the green, floral flavors of freshly harvested hay. WIPL was definitely a lager, clean, crisp, and malty, but I’d never have known. Lagers are the Type A members of the beer family, working best when balanced and organized. WIPL was just that, but it was so lively I might have mistaken it for one of its messier, Type B siblings.
I was totally impressed by the beer, but Jesse’s passion and knowledge struck me too. Talking to Jesse was a bit of an epiphany, a moment of realization akin to when Enlightened’s head brewer, James, expounded on the depth of skill required to produce Bud Light so consistently across the entire world, year after year. Just because Bud Light isn’t a good beer doesn’t mean the brewers who make it aren’t great at what they do. Similarly, I was ignoring the fact Sprecher was making great beer because I let my assumptions about the brewery influence me.
At that moment my walls came down and I saw that while many people in craft beer talk about encouraging people to try new beers, about converting macro drinkers to craft drinkers, we all need to step back and consider our blind-spots and our assumptions. Sometimes that means trying a new beer style, sometimes that means learning to enjoy a style we don’t like, and sometimes it means looking past our assumptions about a brewery and giving their beer a fair shot.
The proof of a brewery should be in their beer.
Try WIPL and I think you’ll agree that the brewers at Sprecher have spent the last three decades honing their craft and quietly producing some of the best beer in the city. When we think of Milwaukee’s Craft Beer Renaissance, and when we bring friends to the city to taste what’s going on with beer, let’s embrace Sprecher as something of a icon, symbolic of Milwaukee’s relationship to beer: a brewery with its roots in the past that produces great, contemporary beers.