I’m a fairly lazy beer drinker. I’m not into the trading scene, and I’m not going to pay black market prices for whales. If a tick-list beer makes its way to my fridge, I’ll cherish it and wait for a special occasion to crack it open. I light some candles and put on some Enya, giving the beer the respect it deserves, but I’m not going to sleep on a curb in line to get a few sips of some imperial stout that’s supposed to be the path to enlightenment. I do, however, get to travel occasionally so I get the opportunity to try some special beers in their natural environment. Spotted Cow is one of those beers I’ve always wanted to drink, but have never had the chance because I’ve never been to Wisconsin. No offense to the Cheese State, I’m sure it’s lovely. We’ve just never crossed paths, so it took a while before I had the chance to drink the super-hyped farmhouse ale from New Glarus.
Spotted Cow isn’t exactly a whale, because it’s distributed year round throughout its home state. You can walk into any decent bottle shop or bar and grab one. But it’s only available in Wisconsin, and it’s so revered that it’s the kind of beer people smuggle across state lines to sell illegally. Because of the beer’s reputation and geographic scarcity, Spotted Cow has been on my “to drink” list for quite a while. And I finally had the chance to crack open a bottle recently, thanks to a buddy who brought one back for me after his business trip to Madison. All of a sudden, after years of anticipation, I was staring down this beer that had developed near-legendary status in my mind.
And that’s a recipe for disappointment. No beer, no matter how great, can live up to the expectations I had built for it.
I’m going to do something here that I almost never get to do—quote the Gin Blossoms. I doubt the lackluster band from the ‘90s gets quoted often. They’re certainly no Bob Dylan. Hell, they’re not even Jakob Dylan. But the band delivered a gem of wisdom in their hit, “Hey Jealousy,” and here it is:
“If you don’t expect too much from me, you might not be let down.”
Oh, Gin Blossoms. So wise. I don’t think the alt rockers meant to do this, but they pretty much gave me my life’s motto. If I had a family crest, those would be the words spelled out in Latin below a bitchin’ picture of a naked woman fighting a dragon. Because all family crests should have a dragon.
Temper your expectations, people. Real life probably isn’t going to be as awesome as you pictured it. Obviously, that’s not true all the time. Having kids is way better than I thought it would be. Sometimes, the Falcons win when I rarely expect them to. But by and large, things that tend to get hyped—movies, superstar athletes, the new appetizer at Chilis—these things tend to disappoint. Anyone remember prom? Or any DC superhero movie in the last 10 years?
I know this, and yet, I can’t help but get caught up in the buzz surrounding certain beers. I was literally giddy the first time I found Heady Topper in a store during a trip to Vermont. Yeah, it was great, but honestly, not as great as some of the other double IPAs I found on that same trip. Or maybe it was just as good, but because I had certain expectations, the beer seemed to fall short, while these other beers that carried with them no expectations whatsoever seemed downright outstanding.
I know this when I crack open my Spotted Cow, but I can’t help but think I’m about to drink one of the finest farmhouse ales in America when I take my first sip. And then…
And then, the beer is good.
There’s some funk on the nose, and it dries on your tongue at the back end of the sip, almost like a vacuum pulling the moisture out of your mouth. It’s bright and effervescent with some grassy notes, maybe a little lemon. It’s only vaguely yeasty, which is a good thing in my book. It’s good. Maybe great. Probably great, but because I’ve put Spotted Cow on such a high pedestal, there’s no way I can judge it fairly.
Don’t get me wrong; I’d be psyched to drink Spotted Cow again. I’d seek this beer out if I ever make it to Wisconsin. I think what I like most about this beer, is that it’s not precious. It’s not sealed with wax with a price tag of $19 per 22-ounce bomber. The label is simple, almost to the point of being silly. It’s an easy drinking beer. You can pour it in a fancy glass, sure, but it’s also the kind of beer that’s just fine right out of the bottle.
But unfortunately for Spotted Cow, no beer could live up to the expectations I developed for it. I thought I would drink this beer and my palate would burst open with all kinds of nuanced flavors. I thought I’d see unicorns and grow an inch taller. But it turns out Spotted Cow is just a really, really, good, probably great beer. Like a lot of other really, really good, probably great beers out there.
But wait, New Glarus recently started releasing Spotted Cow in cans, so maybe this is the sort of beer that’s better out of an ice cold can. Maybe the packaging of this farmhouse ale will transform it from great into a unicorn-inducing experience. So the hunt begins again. And the expectations build again. Maybe this time, I’ll pay more attention to the Gin Blossoms when I finally track down the elusive Spotted Cow in aluminum.
Graham Averill is Paste’s drink editor. You can follow him on twitter.