Why you should care
Because people have been charged for trying to smuggle these suds.
When a friend recently returned from a visit to our home state of Wisconsin and told me she had some contraband in her Brooklyn apartment, I knew it could only mean one thing: New Glarus Spotted Cow.
Few things inspire more nostalgia among expat Wisconsinites than this subtly cloudy, grassy, fruity farmhouse-style cream ale. The brew, which is complex but approachable — an option for craft beer fans who want a break from hops — is a mainstay at bars, weddings, birthdays and funerals in the Dairy State. It’s so ubiquitous that some locals joke Wisconsin law requires bars and restaurants to carry it on tap.
But good luck finding it beyond state lines. Spotted Cow and the rest of the lagers, IPAs and sour ales made by New Glarus Brewing Company, named for its hometown 30 miles southwest of Madison, are only sold in Wisconsin. Dan and Deborah Carey, who opened their brewery in 1993, say they decided to keep sales local to avoid out-of-state sales regulations, spend more time close to home and focus on the Wisconsin market. Deborah says the company’s motto, “Drink Indigenous,” refers to the state’s rich culinary heritage and the brewery’s use of locally sourced ingredients, like cherries from Door County.
In 2009, New York authorities confiscated 50 cases of Spotted Cow from a Manhattan bar.
Though its illegal to sell unlicensed beer outside the state, a few daring souls have tried. In 2009, New York authorities confiscated 50 cases of Spotted Cow from a Manhattan bar and filed noncriminal charges against its owner for selling the stuff without a permit. And in 2015, two Minnesota men were charged with felonies for illegally transporting the beer across the border (the charges were dropped after the men entered a diversion program).
So, are New Glarus beers feloniously tasty? “Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and New Glarus holds a special place in Wisconsinites’ hearts,” says Robin Shepard, a professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison and regional beer writer. Shepard says that when he travels to meet with brewers outside the state, he often packs New Glarus’ Wisconsin Belgian Red, a sour cherry ale. “It’s like currency in the beer world. It’ll bring a smile — or create an awesome trade,” he says.
Even if you do have a Spotted Cow hookup, the brewery is worth a visit. Perched on a hill overlooking acres of farmland, it’s styled to look like a classical Bavarian village — the town (population 2,172), which was settled by Swiss immigrants in the 19th century, dubs itself “America’s Little Switzerland.”
Visitors are encouraged to guide themselves through the brewing room with beer in hand and roam the grounds, which are dotted with structures meant to look like ruins. Servers offer up flights of brews with quirky names like Moon Man and Serendipity — many of the beers are seasonal, which means there’s usually something new to sample (on my last visit, I tried the Strawberry Rhubarb fruit ale, a sweet-and-sour gose-style blend that evokes the popular eponymous summer pie).
The brewery receives nearly 300,000 visitors from all over the world annually, Deborah says, and with annual sales reaching close to a quarter-million barrels, “Why would I sell beer anywhere else?”
Plus, it gives expat Wisconsinites and the beer-curious an excuse for a road trip.
GO THERE: New Glarus Brewing Company
- Directions: A 35-mile drive from Madison’s Dane County Regional Airport. (Address: 2400 State Hwy 69 New Glarus, WI 53574)
- Cost: There is no charge to visit the brewery; tasting room sample flights (three beers) are $8.
- Timing: Visitors may take self-guided tours Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Guided “hard hat” tours take place every Friday at 1 p.m. and cost $30.
- Contact: (608) 527-5850