local brew

note:  this is the third of a three-part series chronicling a recent romp around Green County in southwestern Wisconsin, aka “Baja Wisconsin” to my family


The Wine:   (actually, it’s beer) New Glarus Two Women Lager

The Grapes:  Malted barley, lager yeast, hops, water – none of these are grapes

The Region:   Southern Wisconsin

Pairs Well With:  Almost anything (lager is extremely versatile), but shows best with difficult pairings including spicy food, Asian-inspired dishes, salads, and seafood

Stay Away From:  Extremely mild fare – the lager’s subtle cleanliness will be lost

You Will Like It If:  You like beer on the crisp, clean, mildly malt-driven side

Stay Away If:  You think you are drinking wine.  This is in fact a beer.  Also forego if you want a huge rich beer

Cellar Potential:  Best consumed early

Marriages don’t go smoothly all the time, and with the groceries laid out in front of me I started considering my options.

Of course, these were more akin to small treasures than simple groceries.  One-by-one J unpacked each morsel and presented it for inspection.  Small-batch cheddar cheese curds, handmade European-style pastries, specialty cured meats, gourmet sausages.  Visible salivation is something generally limited to Saturday morning cartoons, but as the food passed before my eyes I was sheepishly aware I had to dry my mouth.

This was the good stuff all right, brought back from J’s annual family excursion to southern Wisconsin, where artisanal producers and small grocery vendors put their inventories to the test against the wrath of J’s credit card (or hopefully debit card these days – in theory at least, we’re trying to be smarter).  But the food, certainly impressive, was only the foreplay.  Where was the beer?

I learned about New Glarus brewery from a book I bought on “the world’s best beers.”  Beer, which up to that point I had taken as wine’s retarded cousin – a fizzy yellow, neutral-tasting concoction best suited to frat parties and weekend tailgates (both customs I admittedly embrace but you get the point) – was never something I had taken very seriously.  As it turns out, people take beer (I mean real beer but we’ll get to that in a minute) at least as seriously as wine, and customers of the small wine shop where I worked were burying me in difficult brew-related questions.  I sought Michael Jackson’s Ultimate Beer for an education, and my fancy new book claimed this strange brewed beverage could be at least as complex as wine.  And New Glarus was referenced as one of the best.

New Glarus, Wisconsin and its eponymous brewery are nestled in a picturesque hamlet about 45 minutes north of Rockford, IL.  A couple years ago, per Jackson’s ever-valuable advice I asked to make New Glarus part of the trip.  It turns out the brewery makes an impressive lineup of top-quality brews, including its flagship Spotted Cow and Fat Squirrel ales and a number of smaller batch offerings (it was actually the brewery’s take on Lambic – a traditional Belgian beer brewed with natural yeast and often fruit – that graced Jackson’s pages).  A stop at the brewery has become tradition, and a staggering amount of beer always accompanies us home from our travels.

But for this year’s trip there was tragedy.  My office asked me to be available to work over the weekend (yes, I have to work to pay for all this tasty stuff), so J was left without a chaperone.  It was with sadness over missed Spotted Cow (and fear at what J might do without someone to keep her American Express in check) that I watched her leave for Wisconsin.

Fortunately, she was not travelling alone.  Her sister allowed her to carpool, in exchange for my watching her two puppies – ruthlessly jolly terriers of five and twenty pounds each, there was no limit to the face-licking, shadow-barking, ball-retrieving insanity they were prepared to unleash on my peaceful abode (especially when joined by their co-conspirator, our own little Yorkshire Terrier, who I’m convinced managed the insanity through secret messages via obligatory hind-quarter sniffing).  Resigned to my three-day role as canine jungle-gym, I tolerated a face-full of scratchy paws and drooly mouths on the promise of a fridge-full of New Glarus beer.

So it was, when J came home (I was convinced she was hidden somewhere behind the forest of shopping bags), my dismay was twofold.  Primarily, I could actually feel my wallet sweating.  Considering the financial acrobatics her spending spree no-doubt entailed, the only consolation was the idea New Glarus would erect some sort of statue in my honor. 

But closer to my heart (or beer belly as it were), I was more concerned about the beverage selection.  Even as the beer bounty was revealed (an acceptably hedonistic two full cases of Spotted Cow and Fat Squirrel), I was dubious.  Half the point of going to the brewery is to get something unique, something I had never seen.  But when J revealed the “Two Women” lager, what was to be this year’s unique brew, my marriage teetered on the brink.

We the hop-loving, alcohol-thirsty, intensity-craving American beer drinking public (at least those of us who know to stay away from the large domestic breweries spewing out oceans of yellow fizz only mislabeled “beer”) tend to shy away from lagers.  Lagers rely on finesse and transparency to show their quality.  Ales, their older brothers, are typically richer, bolder, and more robust.  And considering the domestic love for rock-n-roll and muscle cars, it’s maybe no surprise most top-quality domestic beer is ale.

And lager’s biggest problem is its connection to those juggernaut American breweries (you know which ones I mean – I told you we’d get there).  It’s at great risk of family feud that I tell you most large-scale American “lagers” are terrible.  Thankfully (and lucky for those of us that know better), they bear little resemblance to the true style.  In the words of brewmaster Garrett Oliver is his amazing The Brewmaster’s Table (242), “American mass-market (lager) presents a watery beer that is quickly produced out of a half-malt mash, with virtually no hops at all….The beer is then filtered to within an inch of its already pallid life…You’d need a laboratory and millions of dollars of equipment to achieve such a remarkably bland creation.”

How did American lager come to this?  A little history lesson illustrates it best.  Be it German-Czechoslovakian lager or English ale, quality beer was big business until prohibition threw everything out of whack.  When the Vollstead Act was finally repealed, the domestic market had been without beer for several years.   American tastes now gravitated toward flavored cocktails and soft-drinks, and the depression-ridden market wanted its booze cheap.  Weaker beer, dumbed down by rice and corn additives (and, rumor has it, other controversial chemicals) helped keep prices low and flavors inert.  Sales became driven by sophisticated and extraordinarily successful marketing campaigns, rather than flavor or quality, to the point where today we are left with bloated domestic production no longer even pretending to make real beer (trust me, “triple hops” brewing and “cold filtering” mean essentially nothing, and don’t get me started on “drinkability”).

So it was when J unwrapped this nondescript little lager from New Glarus, I started envying the bachelor life.  In fact, if J hadn’t kept pestering me about trying the darn thing, it probably would have sat on a shelf for some time as more fashionable brews found their way to my belly. 

But as usual, the wife was onto something.  The Two Women lager, marketed as Bavarian in style but reminiscent of a Pilsner for its clean pale malt crispness and mild hop bitterness, is a tasty if understated brew.  On the nose, flowers, baking bread and a little bit of sea foam give way to a firm, slightly hoppy midpalate and finish.  It’s a thirst-quencher all-right, and superbly mild malty character (the beer is marketed as a special collaboration of the female leadership behind New Glarus and local Weyermann malting) stays modest and lets bright, bitter hops cleanse the palate.  True to its Pilsner roots, it’s not an overpowering beer, designed for the Bohemian practice of consuming several pints in a sitting. 

And in a similar tradition, the clean profile and crisp carbonation scream out for just about any dish one could think of.  Beer’s bubbles predispose it to food friendliness, but this lager’s crisp, gentle demeanor leave it ready for almost any fare.  This is a beer meant to be enjoyed with food.

One major problem is its packaging and marketing.  The 500mL bottle, sold as singles only, isn’t really what one expects from an easy-drinking lager, and I was left wishing we had another bottle to wash down our cheeseburgers.  Also disappointing, only a vague description and no mention of alcohol on the label, leaves one guessing as to the beer’s style.

But in general, New Glarus’s Two Women lager is testament to what domestic lager can be when breweries take it seriously.  And it’s another example of why southern Wisconsin is worth the trip.


All content and photographs © 2010 jb’s pour house

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