Thursday, June 5, 2014

Tracking Down the Legend of the Spotted Cow in New Glarus, Wisconsin

Throughout history the world has been obsessed with legends and mythical creatures. From the Lochness Monster, to Big Foot, to the legend of the big lake they called “Gitche Gumee” (that’s right, I just quoted Gordon Lightfoot) people have always chased things that are elusive and mysterious. The craft beer universe has a legend of its own—a fabled brewery. The beer from this brewery can only be purchased in one state in the U.S., and yet, the brewery is the 32nd largest in the United States. The mention alone of this brewery’s most well-known beer sparks wonder and stories of pilgrimage. The brewery is New Glarus Brewery. And, unless you’re lucky enough to know someone from Wisconsin, you’ve probably only been able to hear about the famous Spotted Cow.

Little Switzerland in America
New Glarus Brewing Company is nestled in the rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin, just 20 minutes south of Madison, in the village of New Glarus.  New Glarus, like the brewery that bears its name, is very unique. Since its founding in 1845, by immigrants from Glarus, Switzerland searching for a place to a void poverty back home, New Glarus has been America’s “Little Switzerland”. The village itself is a mix of chalet style buildings, cobblestone streets, and blossoming flowerboxes that really make you feel like you are in a small Swiss village (minus the towering Alps). 

One of the things I think is so great about New Glarus is that it’s not overdone. When you drive into town you aren’t greeted by gaudy billboards directing you to the best Swiss chocolate west of Bern. What you find are tastefully decorated shops, taverns, and bakeries that have a Swiss feel and a friendly small town Wisconsin attitude. (Tip: travel to New Glarus during one of its many festivals that involve cheese, chocolate, or Swiss culture to enhance your experience.)

Drink Indigenous in Wisconsin
The ultimate purpose of my most recent New Glarus experience was to visit the celebrated and legendary New Glarus Brewing Company. With slogans such as “Only in Wisconsin”, “Drink Indigenous” and “Buy Local…Drink Yokel”, I was giddy to make a trip to the brewery. It’s the Wisconsin spirit that makes New Glarus Brewing Company extra special in my mind. Founders Deb and Dan Carey have never wavered (and I’m sure they’ve had a million opportunities to distribute regionally or nationally) on keeping their beer local to Wisconsin. It’s what gives New Glarus its mystique, and it also brings extra tourism dollars to the area (and the state as a whole) from those looking to find the mythical Spotted Cow.

Part of the Hilltop Brewery
After making a few stops in town for a bite of cheese and a search for the perfect urban cowbell, I headed up to the New Glarus Hilltop Brewery. New Glarus Brewing Company has been in operation since 1993, but the brewery on the hill has only been operating since 2008. The brewery, which is wonderfully perched on a hilltop just south of town, overlooks the rolling hills of Green County and the village of New Glarus itself. Like the rest of the village, the façade of the brewery has a contemporary old world feel. It is also—in comparison to many small town breweries—pretty big. 

My first stop at the brewery was the tasting room to pick up (for a reasonable $3.50) my souvenir flight glass that allowed me to sample three different brews. This was perfect for me since I was there to try a few flavors and really wanted to see the brewery with a beer in hand. The beer that I chose as my tour beer was the Back 40 Bock. This seasonal bock has a dark-copper, unclouded color to it. It’s a smooth, ever so slightly sweet lager that has a lot of flavor. With the bock in my glass I was ready to walk the hallowed halls of the brewery.

The Back 40 Bock and landscape    
From the tasting room I walked through the Biergarten on my way to the actual brew house. The outdoor seating area (like everything else about the brewery) is tastefully put together. Picnic tables sit aligned with great views of the area in a very well-kept, landscaped stone area. It is a relaxing area for sitting down and enjoying a great beer with friends. It’s not covered, so sunlight splashes down on the whole area adding to the enjoyment of the Biergarten. Paths extend down the hill and offer wonderful views of the area. They’re dotted with little stopping points to sip your beer in a very natural setting. I give the brewery a big “thumbs up” for the outdoor area.

I must not cross that line!
After catching a few rays in the Biergarten, I proceeded to the house where the magic happens. The gift shop was actually first, but if I’d have stopped I would’ve finished my beer in there and then been empty, so I decided to leave the shop for the end. I proceeded along and checked out some of the awards the brewery has won for its beer and many contributions to the community. Then I moved into the guts of the brewery where I found my favorite site, (something every brewery doesn’t have the space for) the copper kettles. There they were, four shiny German beauties. If I didn’t still have two beers to sample I probably would have crossed the line and given them a quick rub for good luck. I’m not advocating that behavior and respect the sanitary nature of the brewery, but I do love a kettle.

Stairway to heaven
From the kettles I continued on through what I contend is one of the most state of the art brewers paradises I’ve ever stepped foot in. The brewery is lined with different fermenting tanks (not in just a solid boring row but artfully set up), rooms for brew testing, and a pilot brewery set for 30 litre testing. It was all designed for more than just brewing though, it was created with a love for the entire process in mind. Walking through the brewery I really got the sense from the employees I spoke with that this is a place they love very much. There is a lot of passion in the whole process, and that passion is not only evident in the great beer that is produced, but also by how the whole brewery complex was built. My last stop in the brew house was the bottling line. Like the rest of the brewery, this area is not just a boring old assembly line cranking out bottles, but an open and bright area where the final place of the craft of brewing takes place. 

The Spotted Cow comes home!
After seeing a bunch of bottles get branded with New Glarus’ unique labels, I realized that I was empty and thirsty. I headed back to the tap room for a sample of that mythical beer, the one and only Spotted Cow. As someone who grew up in Wisconsin—and still has family there—I have been lucky enough to enjoy a few (I will not define “few”) Spotted Cows in my day. The cloudy farmhouse ale has a very unique fruity taste with a hint in the aroma of the local corn used to make it so special. Spotted Cow never disappoints and is the perfect go-to beer for any occasion. I frequently get requests from people to bring them some Spotted Cow when I travel to and from Wisconsin. Spotted Cow is a very special beer that deserves the legendary status it receives. Mine tasted pretty darn good that day and I was happy to enjoy it while relaxing in the warm New Glarus sun. 

The last drink I had at the brewery was the Moon Man Session Ale. Moon Man is described on the bottle as a “No Coast Pale Ale”. It’s brewed with five different hops and has a nice malty back end. There is not an overly “hoppy” flavor to this pale ale which is why I’m assuming they gave it the “No Coast” moniker. It’s not in your face just for the sake of being hip, though there is still a lot of bold flavor to it. This is another solid offering from the brewery and it adds to the legacy of wonderful beers in their line.

Though I didn’t have time to continue down the line of beers on the menu that day, I have had most every beer that New Glarus produces. Beyond Spotted Cow I am a gigantic fan of Fat Squirrel and I was so happy to hear that it came back to the seasonal rotation. Fat Squirrel is a hazelnut brown ale that is unfiltered and hearty. Toasted caramel notes arise from the local malts used, and the hazelnut sets it apart from traditional brown ales. One other must find, especially if you enjoy a fruit beer, is the Wisconsin Belgian Red. It is brewed with whole Door County Cherries and Wisconsin wheat. The beer is described as having a whole pound of cherries in every 750 ml bottle and I can say from experience it is an explosion of flavor.


I don’t live in Wisconsin anymore, so getting an opportunity to stop by New Glarus was a real treat. From the Swiss bakery, to the Swiss imports store, and finally the one of a kind brewery, the whole town is a perfect getaway. If you’ve heard of Spotted Cow but never tasted it, do whatever you can to get your hands on some. If you’ve had beer from the famed New Glarus Brewing Company but never made the pilgrimage, head down to Green County because you are in for a treat.