Beer, Beer, & Better Beer | HopCat

Beer, Beer, & Better Beer

Unicorn beers to try at HopCat Madison's Wood & Wild festival
Kyle Montgomery, HopCat Madison Beer Manager | October 11, 2017
Wood & Wild

As we continue the countdown to our Wood & Wild Festival -- taking place Oct. 22 at every HopCat location -- we're checking in with our expert beer managers for suggestions about beers to try at each of our restaurants. Here, HopCat Madison's Kyle Montgomery suggests a few "unicorns" (beers so epic and legendary they defy comprehension) that will be featured at Madison's W&W event:

Victory Brewing Co. – Java Cask 

As a Pennsylvania native very proud of the PA beer scene, including this 14.3% ABV bourbon barrel-aged behemoth of an imperial stout in my list was a no brainer. If you haven’t heard of it, that’s because it very seldom makes it out into the market. It’s big, it’s bold, and it’s loaded with coffee. RateBeer Score: 99%. 

Upland Brewing Co. (Prairie Artisan Ales Collab) – Cursed Kettles

This beautiful little collab makes my list for several reasons. For one, Prairie Artisan Ales makes some pretty sought after stuff (Prairie Bomb! anyone?) and is not distributed to the state of Wisconsin, so collaborations like this are the only way we can get our hands on it for the time being. Also, if you haven’t heard, Upland has one of the most highly acclaimed sour programs in the country. At 6.3% ABV, this fig & black cherry-infused American sour ale is sure to quench your thirst without putting you on your back.

Hoppin’ Frog Brewery – Barrel Aged B.O.R.I.S. 

Not many people picture Akron, Ohio as a hotbed for craft brewing, but thanks to Hoppin’ Frog and a handful of other small breweries in the area, that is starting to change. Known for their big & boundary pushing brews, Hoppin’ Frog knocks it out of the park with this bourbon barrel-aged imperial oatmeal stout. RateBeer Score: 100%. 

Oskar Blues Brewery – Barrel-Aged Ten Fidy ‘16 & ’17 

Okay, so technically this is two beers, but that’s part of the appeal. Trying two beers of different vintages side by side (also known as a vertical tasting), can be a fun & rewarding experience. You can taste how the beer changes over time, and often how the brewer has tweaked a recipe from one year to the next. Oh, and I suppose it doesn’t hurt that they’re two vintages of one of the best bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout in the world. RateBeer Score: 100%. 

Lagunitas Brewing Co. – High West-ified

When it comes to the craft beer scene, a beer’s perceived value is derived in part from its quality and in part from its exclusiveness. When we talk about Lagunitas’ High West-ified, we’re dealing with a whole lot of both. Not only is it an incredibly smooth and full-flavored imperial coffee stout, but due a dispute with the producer of the bourbon barrels it was aged in, it is no longer produced. Drink it while you can, because once it’s gone, it’s gone. RateBeer Score: 100%. 

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Fall beer tips from HopCat Chicago's beer expert
Doug Wise, HopCat Chicago Beer Program Manager | October 5, 2017
Fall Beer, Oktoberfest

HopCat hires an in-house beer expert at each of its locations to keep the tap list up to date with regional favorites, hard-to-find gems from around the world and exclusive collaborative brews. From time to time, we like to pick their brains for tips on how navigate their extensive beer menus. Here are some fall beer recommendations from our beer program manager in Chicago, Doug Wise:

Revolution Oktoberfest - This is one of the best Oktoberfest beers made in the states, and in Chicago it is local! This beer is toasty and earthy, and would pair great with our pizza rolls!

2 Towns Nice & Naughty - Nice & Naughty is an imperial cider, registering at 10.5%, with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and honey!

Tighthead Scarlet > Fire - Part of our Local 30, Scarlet > Fire pairs sweet and roasted malt to create a balanced Irish-Style Red Ale. The name is an homage to the transition between Grateful Dead's Scarlet Begonias and Fire on the Mountain. Try pairing this brew with our Madtown Grilled Cheese!



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Contract Brewing: A Commonly Concealed Practice Playing a Big Role in the Craft Beer Industry
By Kyle Montgomery, HopCat Madison Beer Manager | October 3, 2017

In the 1980s and ‘90s, the American beer landscape was fairly simple. You had your Davids, and you had your Goliaths. It was clear who the good guys were and who the bad guys were.

The small, independent brewer was the hero, fighting for the integrity of beer and American entrepreneurship. The large, corporate, mega brewery was the villain, standing in direct opposition to the small brewer, prioritizing marketing over quality, and unabashedly insulting the American beer drinker’s palate by releasing a string of increasingly dull and decreasingly flavorful products.

Things now are a little more complex, however. Today, in an era of beer marked by myriad corporate buyouts, partnerships, and faux “craft” breweries launched by massive industrial brewers, discerning who the good guys are and who the bad guys are has become increasingly difficult.

The contractor commeth

Adding to this complexity is the increasingly common practice of contract brewing. The Brewers Association defines a contract brewing company as a business that hires another brewery, (which for simplicity, we will refer to as the brewery), to produce its beer. These arrangements can occur for a number of reasons, but generally, they are all are similar in at least one aspect. Namely, the contract brewing company possesses demand which exceeds its capacity, and the brewery has capacity that exceeds its demand.

Some of these breweries that contract brew for others are well-established brands with excess capacity (i.e. Abita Brewing Co.), whereas others are facilities with the primary purpose of contract brewing (i.e. the FX Matt Brewery in Utica, New York).

Sometimes, the term “contract brewing” carries a negative connotation, and in some instances, it’s warranted. Contract brewing isn’t innately bad, however. In fact, arguably two of the most exciting, boundary-pushing brewers in the country, Evil Twin Brewing and Stillwater Artisanal Ales are exclusively contract, or more accurately, “gypsy,” brewers. Neither of these brewing companies have their own breweries at all, (not yet, anyway). Rather, they are brewers using the brewing space of other breweries to turn their ideas into a tangible, drinkable product.

An informed consumer

What’s more important to you? The brewer who transforms his or her idea into reality, or the physical space in which that transformation occurs? If the latter is important to you, you may be wise to take a closer look at the label or conduct a quick google search the next time you’re enjoying your favorite brew. You may be surprised at what you find.

Maybe none of this matters to you. Maybe you feel content sitting in your local Baltimore hipster bar, drinking Baltimore’s most iconic beer, National Bohemian, which hadn’t even seen the inside of the state of Maryland until it showed up on a pallet sent from a MillerCoors production facility. That’s quite all right. But maybe you’re inquisitive. Maybe you want to be an informed consumer. Maybe you do want to know where your beer is made, and why it’s made there. When it comes to contract brewing, there are a number of reasons your beer might be made somewhere other than where you think.

For instance, if you’re a small brewer, and demand for your product has quickly outgrown the limited capacity of your 3-barrel system, it may make sense to contract brew to satisfy demand and avoid creating a disgruntled customer until you can expand your own facility. An instance in which this would not be okay, is when a contract brewer never has plans to one day open its own facility, and brews exclusively under contract indefinitely. If you, as a brewer, have no intention of one day having your own brewing space, can you really call yourself a brewery?

Keeping it symbiotic

When examining the association between contract brewers and breweries, another facet to consider is whether this relationship is one of symbiosis, or if the contract brewer merely serves as a band-aid for a faltering brewery. Instead of working to build demand for their own brands, are these breweries relying too heavily on the contract brewers to fill their capacity and pay their bills? After all, there is often a reason that many of these breweries have excess capacity in the first place. Perhaps they were built too big from the start, or maybe demand for their product has simply declined with the dynamic tastes of the American craft beer consumer.

Another thing to be mindful of is the method of contract brewing. For example, does the contract brewer have one of their own brewers on site, brewing the beer themselves? This is the case with many breweries, including the Brooklyn Brewery, who employs its own brewers to produce its beers at the FX Matt brewery in Utica, NY. Or, alternatively, do they simply have the contract brewery brew the beer for them according to specific specifications? Both are common.

When it becomes deceptive

Considering these factors, is contract brewing a necessary tool for growth? Or does it only further obscure an already convoluted craft beer landscape?

When it comes to contract brewing, honesty is key. There’s no shame in contract brewing as a means to meet the demand of eager craft beer enthusiasts until a brewery can undergo an expensive and laborious expansion. What is unacceptable, however, is hiding the fact that a brewing company brews their beer under contract from the consumer. This isn’t the business practice of a small craft brewer. This is the business practice of an AB InBev or a MillerCoors, who convinces you that one of their brands is a small-town brewing company, “hand-crafting” ales with a “pinch of this and a touch of that.” It’s deceptive, and it’s unethical.

In today’s complex landscape of craft beer, there is a place for contract brewing, but to preserve the integrity of the craft brewing industry, it must be characterized by absolute transparency and openness.  

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