The His­tory of Spot­ted Cow

How a trip to a mu­seum in­spired a mod­ern clas­sic and the best-sell­ing beer in Wis­con­sin.

Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine - - Contents: Feb-mar 2019 - By John Holl

How a trip to a mu­seum in­spired a mod­ern clas­sic and the best-sell­ing beer in Wis­con­sin.

SPOT­TED COW IS UBIQ­UI­TOUS in Wis­con­sin and the stuff of leg­end for beer fans who live out of state. Im­me­di­ately rec­og­niz­able by its friendly greentrimmed la­bel with a jump­ing cow, the flag­ship beer from New Glarus Brew­ing Co. is a lot of things, in­clud­ing just a plea­sure to drink.

But, what is it ex­actly? Dan Carey, the brew­mas­ter of New Glarus and cre­ator of the beer, has been asked this count­less times over the brew­ery’s 25-year his­tory, and hon­estly, he would like peo­ple to stop try­ing to as­sign la­bels to it.

“On the one hand, I have em­pa­thy for the ques­tion; on the other hand, it’s mod­er­ately an­noy­ing be­cause it doesn’t mat­ter,” he says. “It’s like try­ing to cat­e­go­rize mu­sic. There’s a hu­man need for cat­e­go­riz­ing, and that’s a hu­man weak­ness. We never imag­ined it as a cat­e­gory, and I know that homebrew judges have an is­sue with that.”

As a brewer, Carey spent time work­ing for larger brew­eries. When he and his wife, Deb, started New Glarus Brew­ing Co., he wanted to break away from that men­tal­ity and try some­thing dif­fer­ent. That’s cer­tainly ev­i­dent in the mul­ti­tude of beers that the brew­ery turns out af­ter they are wood-aged, blended with fruit, and ex­pertly soured.

Some peo­ple call Spot­ted Cow a cream ale, but it doesn’t fit into those style guide­lines be­cause it’s un­fil­tered, Carey says. At they brew­ery, they call it a farm­house ale, but so long as peo­ple drink it, they don’t much mind what you call it.

The farm­house plays a role in the over­all his­tory of the beer. While tour­ing an open-air mu­seum and walk­ing around farm­houses that had been re-cre­ated from var­i­ous pe­ri­ods of Wis­con­sin’s his­tory and

rep­re­sent­ing var­i­ous im­mi­grants, Carey stopped into the Ger­man farm­house and dis­cov­ered beer bub­bling on the stove, cov­ered in cheese­cloth.

It got him think­ing about the 1850s and the im­mi­grants who came from Ger­many and their likely de­sire for beer. At the time, he says, lagers and Pil­sners were be­com­ing vogue, but it was more likely those im­mi­grants were mak­ing ale. And even if it was top-fer­mented, it was al­most cer­tainly un­fil­tered. If they were savvy farm­ers, they might have been able to get ship­ments of Saaz hops.

So he went to work to cre­ate some­thing that those farm­ers would have en­joyed. He never imag­ined that it would be­come a flag­ship beer. But they started mak­ing it, and peo­ple started drink­ing it, so they made more and peo­ple drank more. That con­tin­ues to to­day.

When Carey first made Spot­ted Cow, the beer fea­tured about 10 per­cent corn in the grain bill as “a nod to what the farm­ers might have used. And I live in Wis­con­sin, and we’re sur­rounded by corn.” Know­ing it can some­times be a con­tro­ver­sial in­gre­di­ent in beer, he of­fers this: “If Ger­many had been chest deep in corn crops, corn would have been part of the Rein­heits­ge­bot.”

Still, a few years back, when wor­ries about GMOS started creep­ing up, Carey re-eval­u­ated the recipe. Since he couldn’t guar­an­tee that GMO corn wasn’t blended with the nat­u­ral prod­uct, he took the recipe all malt. The only thing they did to alert peo­ple was take a ref­er­ence to corn off the la­bel copy. Very few peo­ple no­ticed. This may be due in part to the fact that the brew­ery moved to a low-pro­tein malt, since corn, over­all, di­lutes the pro­tein of the mash. So, mak­ing this swap kept the beer within its ex­ist­ing pa­ram­e­ters.

As for what makes up Spot­ted Cow, it’s a blend of Pil­sner malt, white wheat, and caramel malt. The wa­ter comes from a well on the brew­ery prop­erty and has a hard char­ac­ter to it. Hops are the finest Saaz he can get dur­ing se­lec­tion each year in Europe, and it’s fer­mented with a Ger­man ale yeast.

Carey no­tices “a sub­tle fruiti­ness of peach, or­ange, apri­cot, and banana. It’s mildly sweet with a some­what sour twang at the end. And, of course, it has to have a mild haze. Not too much haze, but a good con­sis­tent one. Most Amer­i­cans are not com­fort­able with haze, you know.”

At 5.1 per­cent ABV, it’s “em­i­nently quaf­fa­ble.” And while beer fans and nerds might go nuts for the beer be­cause of its

lim­ited foot­print or just be­cause of its place in the craft-beer Hall of Fame, it’s the drink­ing part and that it’s ap­proach­able for ev­ery beer drinker, that makes Carey most proud.

He re­mem­bers early on en­coun­ter­ing farm­ers and res­i­dents who would drink only lager by brand, so they couldn’t un­der­stand what he was do­ing. As the beer caught on, he still had to fight stereo­types, both be­cause of the haze and the style. One cus­tomer, Carey says, would drink the beer when he was in the mood for some­thing dark. Still, they keep com­ing back, and these days you’re hard-pressed to find a place that doesn’t serve it, and it’s been the best-sell­ing beer in the state—across all cat­e­gories, not just craft—for the past sev­eral years.

“The rea­son we’re suc­cess­ful is that nor­mal peo­ple drink our beer,” he says. “We don’t push it; we’re pulled by our cus­tomers. They like it.”

Maybe cus­tomers are pulled by it in part be­cause it re­minds them of where they are and what once was. The name for the beer came af­ter the Careys were trav­el­ing in Eng­land and no­ticed fields and fields of sheep in the farm­lands they were vis­it­ing. It re­minded Deb of the Hol­stein cows back at home, and she re­marked that it’d be funny to have a cow on a beer la­bel and maybe even name a beer af­ter the an­i­mal’s ap­pear­ance. The rest, as they say, is his­tory.

And while some might love the name—as is ev­i­dent from all the logo mer­chan­dise that goes fly­ing off the shelves daily at the brew­ery’s gift shop, Carey re­mem­bers one visit, years ago, from a re­tired beer sales­man. This gen­tle­man had worked for a ma­jor beer com­pany and was hop­ping mad.

“He came in ask­ing what the hell we were do­ing, say­ing beers are sup­posed to have a real name, like Coors, and that he couldn’t fig­ure out what our name meant,” says Carey. “This was 1995 or 1996, and that thought re­flected the times, but we were on our own trail and it re­ally wasn’t easy at first.”

The his­tory books have al­ready been writ­ten, and this beer, no mat­ter what peo­ple want to call it, is firmly in the mem­ory of all beer drinkers—all thanks to a creative brewer who looked to the past for in­spi­ra­tion and then for­ward in search of cus­tomers.

“I’m brew­ing a beer that is not loud,” he says, “but is beau­ti­ful in its sub­tlety.”

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