Interview with New Glarus' Dan Carey

New Glarus Brewing Company located in the Wisconsin town of the same name is a brewery whose reputation speaks for itself. Founded in 1993 by husband and wife team Dan and Deb Carey, the brewery has evolved from a makeshift dairy farm brewery into a world class operation that is a must visit for true lovers of hand crafted beer. Bolstered by a word of mouth reputation and an unbridled passion for what they do, New Glarus produce a spectrum of beer styles that have garnered the acclaim of the international brewing community. Perhaps most notable of New Glarus’ repertoire are the Belgian and Germanic beers that add to the rich European heritage of the area. The brewery’s Wisconsin Belgian Red is a tart and sweet kriekbier brewed with whole Montmorency cherries, Wisconsin wheat, and Belgian roasted barleys is a little slice of heaven tucked away in the rolling hills of the Dairyland.

The Careys followed their inner calling to produce beers unlike any in North America near the beginning of the most recent craft beer resurgence. Alongside several beer geek favorites, the brewery has found itself inevitably adhering to the Midwestern palate. The household standard known as Spotted Cow, a sessionable farmhouse ale brewed with flaked barley and Wisconsin malt. With a sweet, crisp flavor profile, this brew is today Wisconsin’s #2 most consumed draught beer behind Miller Lite. It is fit for the thirst of the blue collar public after a long day of hard work.

While most folks are encouraged to take advantage of the self-guided tours 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, we were fortunate enough to set up a private tour with Dan himself. A walking brewing encyclopedia, Dan was so down to earth and unpretentious, it was quite refreshing to meet someone so accomplished with such a down to earth approach to people while maintaining the highest standards of his craft. While most folks refer to head brewers as brewmasters, Dan really is that, graduating at the top of his class as the valedictorian of Siebels Institute of Technology‘s brewing program in 1987. He could have used his knowledge and powers for self-adulation, but from talking to others around him and from our own experience, it was evident that his primary focus was to make the best beer possible while bringing people together in the process. His hard work and focus is the reason why New Glarus is so well known around the world despite not being well promoted or sold outside of the state of Wisconsin. He attributes others to his success and humbly strives to expand his palate and the palate of others. If only more brewers were like Dan, the brew public would be a better place.

Here is an interview we conducted with Dan Carey of New Glarus Brewing, a undeniably true American original.

What inspired you to open a brewery in New Glarus, Wisconsin?

Dan Carey: Well, I’ve worked in the food business all my life. I’ve studied brewing at UC Davis. I graduated in 1983 and I’ve worked for other people, and I was working for Anheuser-Busch in Fort Collins, Colorado. My wife (Deb) is originally from Milwaukee and she really wanted to come home to Wisconsin. So, we thought about building a brewery in Wisconsin, and we looked at different areas around the country because in 1993, in your area (Portland, Oregon), there was already a lot of breweries. There was probably twenty breweries in the Portland area, and maybe a handful in Seattle. So, we looked at three areas. We looked at Bellingham, Washington, we looked at Atlanta, Georgia, and Madison, Wisconsin. The reason we looked at all of those places is because there wasn’t a lot of breweries, there was a well educated population with kind of chauvinistic buying tendencies-“buy local, local ingredients, local products.” We thought Madison was a really great market, but we didn’t want to live right in town, so Deb drew a radius around Madison of thirty miles around town and said “Go find somewhere to live.” So I came out here and drove around, and found New Glarus and thought this was a really cool little town. It reminded me of when I was an apprentice brewer in a small town near Munich that was a lot like that. So we packed up like the Beverly Hillbillies and moved to Madison, moved to New Glarus. I am originally from the city of San Francisco, and I really like it here. It’s very peaceful.

How’s the winters treat you being that you are from California?

DC: I like the cold. I like the cold more than the heat. And really, it’s not as bad as people think. Like when it’s really really cold…I think last year the coldest it got was about 4 below at around 5 o’clock in the morning. It’s not really that bad. We used to live in Montana and I remember one day it was like 52 below, no wind, just perfectly still…so, it’s not that bad. I like it. I like the cold weather. Deb says it keeps the whiners out. I don’t mind it at all, it’s a small price to pay.

How did the Belgian style beers like the Wisconsin Belgian Red made with Montmorency cherries and the Raspberry Tart become beer geek staples for New Glarus?

DC: Well, only about three percent of our beers are the fruit beer. We don’t make a lot of it. We’re known out of Wisconsin for our fruit beer, but in Wisconsin, it’s a small part of our business. And where the whole idea for that came from is that I was an apprentice brewer at a small brewery near Munich-the Ayinger Brewery-I think people know that brewery. When we were there, we went on vacation to Belgium and we went to visit breweries around Brussels. I really liked the Liefmans and Lindemans fruit beers. It took about six years of pilot brewing and homebrewing to make a recipe that really worked. It’s a unique process. It’s not really how other people make fruit beer. It kind of all came together, and that was one of the reasons we built the brewery. But it’s not really a huge seller for us. People outside of Wisconsin think about us as fruit beer brewers, but…  We actually have a Lambic beer that we are making. It’s still in the fermenter and we’re going to transfer it. We have two 3,000 gallon oak tanks and we’re going to transfer it into them. We’re thinking about making a gueuze, a framboise, a cherry, and maybe an apple or grape. It’s a traditional spontaneous fermented sour beer. That’s still very young, but we can go out and taste it later. It’s not there yet, but it’s showing potential.

I spoke with Karl Ockert, brewmaster of BridgePort Brewing, during the bottling of Stumptown Tart (Marionberry beer aged in Pinot Noir casks), and he said he had spoken with you about regarding getting ideas for a tart beer. He said “Dan told me ‘You can ask me about anything in the brewhouse, just not about the Belgian Red.'”

DC: It’s true. And as far as brewers, Karl is one of my closest brewer friends. We went to brewing school together about a hundred years ago. So, I’ve known Karl forever. It was funny when he called me about that because the other thing that he did tell you is that when we first started, people in Wisconsin mainly like a sweeter beer, so he used to tease me about the fruit beers saying “oh, you don’t use any hops in your beer.” Now here he is making a fruit beer. Next time you see him, you have to remind him that he used to give me such grief about “oh, you don’t use any hops in your beer.” Now here he is making a fruit beer.

Seems like a lot of people are coming around. It would seem now that you were ahead of the curve as far as Belgian-style beers are concerned. When you were doing it early on, there wasn’t a lot of other brewers doing it.

DC: That’s the funny thing. When I read about such-and-such a brewery being the first to make sour beers in whatever 1996, or 1998…And I am thinking: we were making sour beers in 1993. When we first opened we were doing sour beers. So it goes. We don’t have a marketing wing or whatever.

How far are your beers distributed? Is it Wisconsin only?

DC: Yeah, only Wisconsin. We try to stay small.

How did you develop the yeast for your Belgians?

DC: It’s a blend, a bacterial fermentation. Our yeast is a standard ale yeast but it’s a souring fermentation. So it’s more akin to like a Rodenbach type of a beer. But, like I said, we’ve got a Lambic that’s started with two types of Brettanomyces, an ale yeast and a couple of different bacteria. That’s only going to be sold out of the brewery, though. That will be a kind of secret series where we only do a small amount-200 barrels. We’ll bottle it up and sell it out of the gift shop. That’ll be out this summer probably.

So this new series, this is different from the Unplugged series?

DC: Yeah. It’s a step up from that. It’s called the R+D Series because about a year ago we hired Randy Thiel. He was the brewmaster at Ommegang. He’s now our lab manager. So he and I are working together.

What is your production size?

DC: We’ll go through about 80,000 barrels this year, maybe 85,000.

It was seem evident that you are a destination for craft beer geeks. What is the most unique place a visitor has traveled from to see your brewery?

DC: As you know by now, we are out in the middle of nowhere. We had a guy from Nigeria, a brewer, from Tusker Brewery. That’s pretty wild. Lot’s of people have come from Switzerland because this is a Swiss town. There is a brewing group, they have a master brewer’s class in Madison. They give seminars and there are people from all over the world like Japan, Japanese brewers, Australian, New Zealand. That’s probably the farthest away-guys from New Zealand, Australia.

Being a brewery that only has distribution in Wisconsin, how do you attain worldly acclaim?

DC: I don’t know. Because we don’t really advertise. If you notice, we’re not in the trade journals. We don’t have pictures in…I think you guys must know a lot of that come from press releases. People like me go to or do beer dinners, beer shows or tastings. We really don’t do that. We’ve always just tried really hard to make the best beer that we can and hope that things will follow from that. So…I don’t know why. But I would hope that the beers speak for themselves. Because, one thing that I think we do really well is we make a whole range of beers all the way from a light lager, an American style lager, all the way to a Lambic and everything in between. And we try really hard to make all of them really good. I think that with this age on the Internet that things can travel very quickly. We have two draft horses, two big Fresian draft horses. They are huge, huge horses. They used to live out here, but now they are at the new brewery. When we were wanting to get them here, we had actually bought the horses and didn’t realize that the village would have a problem with it because we’re out in the country. All of a sudden, the village said “You don’t have a permit to keep these horses.” So it was this big fight. These guys in town who make swords, armory in town. They make swords and helmets for…whatever. They are all into kind of medieval things and they thought (the horses) were really cool.  They would come to the meetings. A lot of people were behind us. It was kind of a big fight. Finally we won. They gave us a permit to have horses in the village limits and I was over in Bamberg (Germany) at this little random brewpub. I was sitting there just by myself. It wasn’t a beer festival or nothing. I was just drinking beer, and this guy walked up to me in lederhosen and stops and looks and me and says “I heard the village okayed the horses. Good job.” And he said it in perfect English. This was at this little brewpub with a five hundred year old brewery in Bamberg and it made me laugh because here I am kind of hiding out as far as you can be from New Glarus and somebody recognized me. And I said “How did you know this?” And he said “Oh, I saw it on the Internet.” The power of the Internet-the world is very small.

Do you have a sense of what the microbrew community in Wisconsin is all about? Is there a Wisconsin Guild, club or something of this nature here?

DC: Of course there’s homebrew clubs. The biggest one is in Madison, the Brewers and Tasters Guild, and they put on a beer festival every year that is a lot like the one you guys have in Portland (Oregon Brewers Festival) down by the river. This one is by Lake Monona, which is a big lake by Madison. It’s called The Great Taste of the Midwest. It’s really cool. All of the Midwest breweries are there. There’s…I don’t know…maybe 5,000 people. It’s a one day festival. That’s a big deal and a lot of fun. There is a brewers guild, but they mainly deal with political issues. Wisconsin is changing a lot, a lot like the rest of America. One thing about Wisconsin, it’s this little island and people on the coast don’t really know that much about Wisconsin. It’s flyover country. Everybody’s kind of heavyset. It’s a little bit dull, they eat Velveeta cheese and they’re not very sharp and they vote Republican. But Wisconsin is a little island of progressiveness. In fact, I think Wisconsin had a socialist governor for a really long time. It’s a very progressive state that has been historically progressive. The people in WIsconsin are very highly educated. They’re very well traveled but it’s like this secret little place that nobody knows about. People are very open minded but they are parochial in their buying habits. When we first came here, Miller Lite was by far the biggest seller. Every bar had Miller Lite. But that’s changing. Portland’s been not like that for twenty years. You walk into any pub in Portland and you can pretty much have a whole genre of beers. And that is starting to happen here in Wisconsin. Since we started, we’ve seen people’s palates become much more adventurous. People in Wisconsin have generally liked a sweeter tasting beer, but that’s changing. It’s changing very rapidly. Everybody in Wisconsin is of German ancestry, so one of the problems with having Pilsners is that when people want a Pilsner, they will buy Spaten or Paulaner. When you make a Pilsner here, you’re competing against people’s perceptions of what a beer should be. For example, we make a range of weissbiers-heavy weissbiers-and we’re considered on Ratebeer.com as doing well with our wheat beers. Our wheat beers are a little bit stronger than German wheat beers. When you make a German beer, you don’t start at the starting line, you start about ten yards back because the perception is always a little bit skewed. Let me give you an example. I read an article where someone wrote in to Wine Spectator, I think it was, saying “We were just over in Tuscany and we had this red wine sitting in a veranda overlooking the vineyard and the wine was just absolutely the best wine we’ve ever had.” So we bought a case, and we brought it home, and it’s not that good. So we were wondering if something happened while the beer was in the hold of the airplane. Could the change in altitude have screwed up the wine? Then we realize, “Hello! You’re sitting in a 500 year old vineyard  with a castle in the background eating fresh oven-baked pizza! Of course the wine tasted wonderful! So, you have to deal with people’s perceptions. When you make a Germanic-style beer, you have to be better just to be equal. So, our weissbiers are generally a little bit bigger than what you would find in Bavaria. So then people say “Yeah, that’s just like the beer in Bavaria.” But they don’t realize that it’s about four degrees Plato heavier. But it’s their perception. As another point to that, I had a beer that was a bourbon barrel stout at the Great Taste of the Midwest where someone said “Here, taste this.” I thought “Oh my god. This beer is absolutely the best beer I’ve ever had. It’s just wonderful. Wow.” And the brewer was like “Well, you like it so much, here, take a bottle.” Cool, so I took a twelve ounce bottle home, put it in the refrigerator. Okay, it’s Friday night, I’m gonna drink my beer. I brought it out, let it sit on the counter for thirty minutes. Got it 55 degrees, just perfect, open it. I got about half way through the bottle and I thought “You know I don’t think I can drink any more of this. It’s just too much.” But the one sip was like “Wow!” That’s the other problem with beer-drinkability and complexity. Drinkability is one thing and complexity is one thing. They both have their merits. This stout was eminently complex but lacked drinkability but you go to a beer like Coors Light or Bud Light and I can drink it because it tastes like water but I really don’t want to. In the middle is where, I think, you find the best beers. Often those are the ones that the beer geeks don’t often note. Because to drink beer, you have to be in the environment and there has to be more to it than just drinking beer.

What exactly is the thought behind your Unplugged Series and how did it come about?

DC: In order for a brewery to be a viable entity, it has to be profitable, there’s no question about it. When we brew beers, we don’t particularly push one over another. But some beers sell more than others. That’s not our fault because we don’t advertise. We have like zero advertising budget, I mean, look around. We have none. So, certain beers sell over others and it’s the lighter beers that sell. Most people don’t like the taste of beer. They gravitate toward the lighter beers and they sell. When that happens, you are in danger of losing the respect of the geekdom. Two things happen. One, I like to brew different kinds of beer. I like to brew different beer styles. Beer geeks like different beer styles. So we said, the further we go toward the light styles of beer, we have to bring it back in balance by making beers that are kind of interesting and relevant to the beer geeks. It’s a good learning experience for us because it helps us become better brewers. The idea behind the Unplugged was having no concern for marketability of the beer. So, it’s sort of a personal statement and the term “Unplugged” means like when Neil Young…when you go to a Neil Young concert and hear “Southern Man” and whatever, but if you go and hear him play at a little half moon bay in California in the middle of nowhere, and he’s with thirty people in the audience, he’s playing whatever strikes him. That’s the idea behind the name “Unplugged.” It’s whatever strikes us to make something interesting. When we first started making it, we made the Double IPA and everybody’s making double IPAs. So then we said, “We’re really gonna do our own thing.” So we went off in our own little world and made our own beers. For example, I made a beer called Bohemian Lager, and, well, it’s not double, triple anything. It’s not 400 bitterness units. It’s not 25 degrees Plato. It’s just a beer, but what’s unique about it, we made it will real undermodified Moravian barley and Saaz hops. It’s a triple decoction. It’s fermented in unlined oak tanks. It’s krausened. It’s a real traditional old fashioned Bohemian lager like was brewed before the fall of Communism. That was kind of cool because when you drink it, it’s not like this rush of Cascade hops or alcohol or whatever, but its not something that you normally see. We try to do things that are a little bit different, a little bit weird to shock people. So, to make a Bohemian Lager and say this is an extreme beer, it kind of makes people think “well wait a minute, this is a Pilsner. How can a Pilsner be an extreme beer? It’s not 100 bitterness units. It’s not dry hopped with ten pounds per barrel. Why is it extreme?” Well, nobody makes beer like that anymore. So, in other words, what I am trying to say, it is a way to experiment and really be outside the box. Not the “outside of the box” as defined by…

Extremism.

DC: Exactly.

If you are New Glarus, what is Old Glarus?

DC: Good question. Glarus is a canton of Switzerland. The Swiss are kind of a unique people. They were having hard times in the 1840s and the government of Glarus sponsored some families to move to America because this was the frontier. The set up a homestead this area. So they came over and built the village of New Glarus from Old Glarus, and those families still live here. This has very strong ties to Switzerland. There’s a lot of Swiss people who live here. A lot of immigrants come here from Switzerland. In fact, a lot of the old people still speak and old dialect of Swiss. It used to be that Swiss people would come here to study the language because when they came here, the Swiss that was spoken had sort of stopped growing. So they have that old “Methinks thou ist..” Kind of like a Biblical English type of Swiss. It’s kind of like that town in Central Washington, Leavenworth with that sort of Bavarian look. It’s somewhat like that. These people are the original Swiss families that moved here 150 years ago. They are the great great grandchildren of those people. They came here to start dairy farms.

That’s all the questions for now, Dan.  Thanks so much for the interview!

DC: Okay. Why don’t we go taste some beers and walk around this brewery and then we’ll go over to the new brewery because the new brewery is pretty much state of the art.

Following our sit down question and answer session with Dan and the original Riverside brewhouse, he led us back to the facility’s laboratory where he lined up and impressive assortment of year-round offering, one-offs, and Unplugged series brews. He asked “Which ones do you want to try?” Without hesitation I replied “All of ’em.” Then we went down the line and quaffed away as he graciously described each brew. Here is what he had to say:

Totally Naked: A summertime favorite in Wisconsin. Dan describes it as “a very light beer, but a hard beer to make that shows the whole range. It’s a light American lager, like 8 bitterness units.” As for adjunct, this beer’s malt bill is made up ten percent of corn. Dan says “When this beer comes out in the summer, the Bud Light drinkers take to this beer. It’s for those people who really want to join the microbrew movement but can’t stomach an IPA.”

Spotted Cow:  “Our number one selling beer. It’s unfiltered, light, sweet, kind of fruity ale.” You will find this beer at most taverns in Wisconsin.

Stone Soup: “An abbey single.”

Berliner Weiss: “It’s a Berliner Weiss. Kind of sour, tart, easy drinking beer.”

Dancing Man Wheat: From the Unplugged Series. “This is a summer hefeweiss.”

Cracked Wheat: Also an Unplugged brew, Dan says “I’ve never had (Three Floyds) Gumball(head), but I’ve heard it somewhat compared to Gumball. Brewed in open fermenters, this is about 30 bitterness units and dry-hopped with Amarillo, so it’s pretty wild.”

Fat Squirrel: “A nut brown ale.”

Hearty Hop: A Wisconsin-style IPA if ever there was one. “The West Coast IPAs are very bitter. Ours is purposefully not. It’s dry-hopped and it’s aromatic, but it’s a little bit more malty. People here are like ‘Wow. It’s nice not to be kind of slapped in the face with hops.'”

Coffee Stout: “You know, a coffee stout.”

Imperial Saison: “It’s pretty wild. That’s our new beer that is made with ginger, corriander. It’s a lactic beer made with a special yeast strain from Belgium that is very much like apricot.

After our little tasting session with Dan, we headed up the road to the brand new production facility.It is projected that a tasting room and beer garden will be open to the public some time this summer. There at this one of a kind, state of the art brewery, the friendly, were shown around by Scott Noll, a charismatic facilities manager for the company. Scott informed us that New Glarus is currently cranking out 1,000-1,400 barrels per week, of which about half is kegged and the other half bottled. A new filler acquired from New Belgium of Fort Collins, Colorado fills bottles at an alarming rate and a state of the art automated kegging line fills about 63 kegs per hour. “I was a Bud Drinker” admitted Noll “I’d drink a Spotted Cow here and there. But since being here for the past three years, I’ve become a beer snob.” The attitude and work ethic the Careys exude seems to be infectious. “Everybody here is instilled with the idea of doing the best possible job they can and getting better all the time.” he said. “They really care about their employees and in turn we feel the same way. I make a living wage at New Glarus and can take care of my family.” He continued “It costs less for me to insure my family here than when I was in the army.”

After a spectacular day in the presence of great folks and great beer, we reluctantly headed out of town and left with the kind of feeling that very few breweries can resonate. New Glarus is a one of a kind brewery founded by folks who never forgot where they came from and continually pursue new and inventive directions in which to take their art.  -AD

“He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands, his head and his heart is an artist.”
-St.Francis of Assisi (from the New Glarus website).

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