New Glarus Brewery Is Hell Bent On Not Taking Over the World

Drink Features

New Glarus Brewing Company is, in some respects, the country’s most enigmatic brewery—not because they conduct business behind some veil of secrecy or proprietary technique, but because their steadfast shunning of world domination is so out of whack with their potential to do just that. Their beers, masterminded by Diploma Master Brewer Dan Carey, are highly sought-after by collectors around the world, but are so plentiful in their native Wisconsin that you can find them on the shelf at the local supermarket. And that’s as true of Spotted Cow, the brewery’s flagship farmhouse/cream ale, as it is for their more boutique-level fruit beers like Serendipity and Strawberry Rhubarb.

Don’t take the phrase “world domination” as hyperbole, either; they could do it. The Careys—Dan brews, while President and founder Deb handles the business side of operations—have had numerous offers from out-of-state distributors, but are determined to keep it local. Part of that decision boils down to quality control: it’s tougher to keep tabs on larger stocks, especially those that would be headed to more far-flung accounts. More importantly, however, the capital saved by foregoing wider distribution can be invested back into New Glarus Brewing in the form of passion projects, like the much bandied-about Wild Fruit Cave, where Dan brews and ages traditional lambics and sour ales.

New Glarus the town was founded in 1845 by immigrants from Glarus, Switzerland. In so naming their new Wisconsin home, they sought to pay tribute to their past, while simultaneously looking toward the future, and the implications of such a history are not lost on the Careys. There are clean, true-to-style lagers aplenty in the New Glarus Brewing portfolio—Hometown Blonde, a pilsner, and Staghorn Oktoberfest are especially fine—but Dan takes a slightly more left-of-center approach elsewhere. For his Berliner Weisse, a tart, old-world German wheat beer, he re-fermented with Riesling grapes; more recently, he unleashed a batch of fruited lambic aged on cranberries (Cran-Bic, natch) instead of the more traditional kriek or framboise.

By operating largely according to tradition, New Glarus Brewing has stayed ahead of the craft beer curve. As the mania for monstrously-hopped IPAs and hugely alcoholic imperial stouts has, for now, leveled out, Americans are turning to lagers and sours to slake their thirst, sate their curiosity, and treat their palate fatigue. These are beers born of historical chance, kept alive by a few committed artisans whose fastidious devotion borders on monk-like. Indeed, Dan Carey’s roots run deep, but his branches extend outward, infinitely.

dan carey int.jpg
Dan Carey brewing

Paste: How long had the idea for New Glarus Brewing been germinating prior to the brewery’s actual date of establishment?

Dan Carey: New Glarus has been in business for 21 years, and I’ve been working in professional breweries since 1980. I’m more a technician, an operations guy—a brewer!—than an entrepreneur. I was working for Anheuser-Busch, and Deb was not particularly enthralled with being a corporate wife. I’m originally from San Francisco, but she’s from Wisconsin, so we moved back here to start the business.

Paste: You used to be a supervisor at Anheuser-Busch. How did that job prepare you for your current position?

DC: Brewing is, of course, an artistic endeavor. It’s being adventurous, and not compromising. And that, of course, is NOT something that you find in the corporate world. However, brewing is also about consistency, and nuances of quality. What I mean by that, a lot of what is in beer is very unpredictable, unstable…you can make the world’s greatest beer in the tank, but by the time it hits the shelves, it may be stale. What you learn at a large brewery is how to make consistent beer, and how to make beer that is relatively robust against aging and staling. And that is as equally important as quality of flavor.

Lots of people in the craft beer business were trained by large producers. Just because you’re a classically trained musician doesn’t mean you can’t play rock!

Paste: No one in the country is releasing better classic-style German lagers than New Glarus. Where did you study in Germany, and for how long?

DC: I was an apprentice brewer near Munich. I was at the Ayinger brewery, for three months.

Side note: I mentioned to Dan that, before I even knew he had worked at Ayinger, I’d named New Glarus Staghorn and Ayinger Oktoberfest as my two favorite marzen lagers. He described this as “spooky.”

Paste: You’re one of only a handful of American brewers working with a traditional koelschip. How long has it been in operation, and which of your sour/funky beers have come out of its use?

DC: That’s a complex question! We’ve made sour beers for going on 20 years, and we initially used our lauter tun as a koelschip. We probably had some of the first foeders (massive oak casks used for aging sour red/brown ales), in the country; those were actually wine tanks from the Rodney Strong winery in Napa Valley.

We built our Wild Fruit Cave, about 5000 square feet, exclusively to make sour beers, and there’s a 100-bbl coolship, probably the biggest one in the country, which we used to ferment our lambic-style beers—we can’t technically call them lambics, since they have to be made in Belgium. We also make sour brown ales, which are my favorite beers, next to pilsners. We brewed our first batch out of the coolship in February, but we did release the Cran-Bic and an Oud Bruin from the cellar so far, and all of our fruit beers are now being brewed there as well.

We only just started in on our second round of production last week, since you can’t brew these beers during the warmer part of the year.

Paste: With production of your fruit beers being moved to the Cave, do you anticipate any change in the beers’ profile?

DC: Good question. We had a small room with our foeders, almost since we first opened. We just took them out, and moved them into the cellar. The bottling line was moved into the room, and all of our sour beer is in the Wild Cave. Only the location changed, so the beer should remain consistent. The first batch of fruit beer that came out of the cave was October, so you can find out for yourself!

Paste: On a related note, describe the Wild Sour Cave. I heard something about a grass ceiling…?

DC: That’s kind of a long story, but to make it simple, this cave is buried back into a hill. We wanted to take advantage of the natural cooling; a grass roof is a good insulator. There’s no natural cooling with this kind of beer…also, my wife has always wanted to do a grass roof on our brewery, for green reasons. But we’ve always had problems with architects or contractors, because they don’t want to, or didn’t understand it. You could do it with air conditioning, sure, but you’d lose some of the efficiency.

Paste: And what can we expect next out of the Cave?

DC: We are probably going to make another sour brown-type beer, and we’ll also do our blond lambic-style beer, when it’s ready. We’re constantly tasting and monitoring those barrels, making sure we can get the blend right, and allow time in the bottle for conditioning.

Paste: As a brewer, how obligated do you feel to educate your customers? Is it something that comes about organically, or is it a response to people’s confusion regarding a certain beer?

DC: Well, I would say it’s a combination of both. But the majority comes from people’s confusion. For example, some people might taste our Berliner Weisse and, assuming that a typical “weisse” is, say Honey Weisse, they may think the beer is bad. Why is it so highly carbonated? Why is it so sour? We have to explain that to people, and the easiest way is through the website. People are generally well-educated, though, and it’s getting better and better. I think next year we’ll make it not so highly carbonated.

Paste: Your biggest success story this year has definitely been Scream IIPA. You’ve made double IPAs before, so what do you attribute to the frenzied reaction to this one?

DC: It’s made with whole-cone Cascade this time; that’s a huge difference. Last time, we used lesser amounts, and we used pellet hops. But this time, it’s just a lot of whole-cone Cascade. And of course, we changed the labels, we changed the design of the Thumbprint Series—and that helps—but the main flavor change was the use of whole-cone hops.

Paste: What are some currently retired beers you’re itching to bring back?

DC: Usually in the fall, we do voting on our website, and ask people what beers they want to come back. A big one this year was Enigma, so we’ll definitely have to bring that one back at some point. Also, people love beers aged in bourbon barrels, so we’re going to be working on those in the future too. I always say, we don’t do marketing; whatever sells, we make. We brew it, we make a batch, and whatever sells, we make more. People vote with their pocketbooks, and we listen. There’s no plan or agenda; I always say that, in marketing, big breweries pull you in. But we’re pushed by our customers, and it’s very simple and democratic.

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