This past memorial day, I had the immense pleasure of spending a slow, wandering kind of weekend at a summer camp in Wisconsin owned by some new friends of ours. They invited us up for a “friends and family” weekend with little more structure than some loosely scoped meals and a band on Saturday. The rest was up to us — which meant plenty of walking around, swimming, yard sale and antique shop scouring — and plenty of lakeside drinking. This is Camp Wandawega, and it’s a vision of perfection.
On Saturday, sitting on the pier, I cracked open a growler of Solemn Oath Klöros, which I nabbed at the recent launch at Standard Market, an impressive farm-sized market in Westmont. With a bar and outdoor patio, the market caters to a growing craft beer audience in the area, and on this occasion, the boys from Solemn Oath were making tons of new friends in just there second week of brewing. I was there as a co-host, sharing prints, postcards and Mash Tun journals with our suburban brethren.
Then I headed north toward Elkhorn, WI where Wandawega waited. Every time I cross into Wisconsin, I mutter to myself “this is New Glarus country.” In 2002, New Glarus pulled back distribution in Illinois, so now it shines from Wisconsin’s greener pastures, inviting an old fashioned run to the border. There, you can pick up Spotted Cow, a cask-conditioned farmhouse that drinks like a blonde (in fact, they sweeten it with a little local corn) and Fat Squirrel, a nut brown ale, at almost every grocery and liquor store.
But if you start poking around, you quickly realize that there’s no shortage to the styles and flavors of New Glarus. On this trip, I packed the car with the Thumbprint Series IIPA, an imperial, and Black Top, a black IPA, both of which served us well in the 97 degree heat on Sunday. Alongside a bloddy mary, I was in heaven. Turns out, Wandawega is the kind of place where you can start drinking at 10am, play fetch with a dog, swing out into the lake, shoot a few arrows, and start a bonfire. And then do it all again after lunch.
On the way home, back down Fox River Road just north of Fox Lake, I scouted out a small liquor store / log cabin advertising wines and micros. Fox River Spirits seemed like a last possible stop for New Glarus before crossing back into Illinois. Inside, we found a hunters’ lodge atmosphere and some locals buzzing around the coolers.
Blair, a retired fire chief and owner of the place was popping bottles and pouring tasters of everything from Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, a thinner-than-expected, vanilla-sweet ale from Lexington, to some regional brews like Oso’s Night Train porter full of crystal and chocolate malts. This was clearly a local gathering place for newly minted beer geeks. As one regular put it: “a few years ago, we used to have to drive 30 minutes just to get basic imports. Now we walk down the street and have our choice of 300 different micro bottles, and a ton of local stuff. Hell, you’ don’t ever have to drink anything from outside Wisconsin now!”
Only a few years old as a craft beer geek himself, Blair’s got some stories about starting a liquor store. He recalls the first time he got some beers in from Belgium and thought they were spoiled. “Tasted real odd, real tart.” he said. He gave them to the neighbor to get rid of them. A couple weeks later, someone came in looking for Belgian sours. “What’s that?” Blair thought, “you mean beer that’s supposed to taste sour? Well, shit.”
Blair has plans for a much larger tasting room. He’s already knocked out the back wall to expand, and has a small bar tucked into the back corner where he currently sets up to share. It’s as much for his own education and for his customers. “I had a hard time selling the more obscure stuff until I started letting people taste it” he said, “but once they had a taste of something, they found out they loved all kinds of beer.”