With roots almost two centuries deep entangled amongst art and architecture, Madison is a tree from which many have found a branch to trust and a fruit to savor. Restaurants, galleries, the state capital, and a top university to boot, there isn’t much missing if you know where to look. That’s why it shouldn’t be too surprising to learn that the Madison area has over 20 breweries putting out some of the greatest beers Wisconsin has to offer. Who in their right mind would think to put their dog in this fight?
Sara and Phil Hoechst, that’s who. But why? “My husband, Phil, and I are both from this area. I was born in Madison and raised in Verona, and he was actually born in Germany, but raised in Fitchburg.” I could only nod to Sara’s words, as the all-too-common urge to stay put sung in the air. “He and I met at the UW [Madison]…” Ah, of course. “…and then we decided that we wanted to move out to Colorado for a while.”
Wait, Colorado? Where the microbrew industry has been a guiding light for states that cast their eyes to its ridges afore the setting sun? It turns out that in the fall of 2010, Phil was bit by the brew bug in Denver, Colorado. The bug must’ve traveled some distance to inspire Hop Haus’ brewmaster to make his first beer ever a Belgian. “We moved to Denver, and I would say at that time Denver was kinda where the Madison area is now with craft-beer stuff and how it’s just everywhere.”
The two had a five-year plan to stay in Colorado before moving back to Madison, but the plan was soon halved. That isn’t to say they were eager to leave. “We love Denver,” Sara says. “The weather’s amazing, there’s so much to do, but then we had our first son, and my family is in and around Madison. Phil’s family, all of them that are here—there’s some back in Germany—is pretty much in Fitchburg.”
To beer drinkers in the area, I think there is reason to celebrate their return. Hop Haus Brewing Co. brings something familiar to resident indulgers while putting itself in a position to do things a little bit different. The Colorado influence is present in Sara and Phil’s leanings toward the hoppier beers, and the bug that bit Phil leaves intrigue toward Belgian styles.
So what makes this brewery stand out? Phil and Sara are able to do more experimental batches than some of their larger competition, even though they only brew on a three-barrel system. As I’m writing this article, a Barley Wine and Imperial Stout are licking up the flavors in their temporary bourbon barrel homes. Pants Off, Dance Off and Pocket Rocket, respectively, will be available in time for the holidays.
Such practices were often left to homebrewers to create and their friends to enjoy, but the times they are a changing. “It’s an exciting time with all the beers and breweries. It’s an exciting time to be in it,” says Sara. This is evidenced in their winter seasonal lineup. Speaking of lineup, let’s start with their Milk Stout, Fat Eddie, named after a lumbering version of the running back who changed the Packers offensive game two seasons ago, but I imagine he’s back to his old self by now, plowing through linemen and knocking over linebackers. Then there’s an Old English Ale, Old Teabagger; a Red IPA, Hoppy Hour Hero; and a Robust Porter, BrickHAUS.
It’s unfortunate I couldn’t taste these beers before this article, but the year-round beers are more than enough to put Hop Haus on my radar. First we have their Scotch Ale, Plaid Panther. The maltiness is there, no question, but it’s made a little less sweet with a hint of smokiness. Then there’s Peace Train, a Pale Ale that Cat Stevens can drink while thinking about the good things to come. Light in color, subtle hops, and no real bitterness to leave you scratching your tongue. Compare that to their flagship IPA, Super Big Time. Here we get a bit more of that hoppy flavor behind an orange-colored veil. Double down on that, and taste Magic Dragon, the Double IPA. Some brewers favor the malts in their doubles, but Hop Haus lays on the citrus in their aromatics. A more intriguing choice for a year-round beer is the Spandex Bandit, a Belgian Grand Cru. Orange peel and coriander offer a faint spice that’s just sweet enough. If you’re new to the Belgian style, start here. Last, but not least, we have Sweet Sunglasses, a Blonde Ale. Not to be confused with “Cheap Sunglasses,” this ale is designed for someone looking for something easy to drink. It’s crisp, refreshing, and great on a hot summer day—though that doesn’t stop people from drinking it in the winter.
If the beer doesn’t get you to Verona, which is often perceived as far away—it’s not—maybe what they stand for will. Sara acknowledges everything the city has done for her and Phil’s business. “We’ve had an amazing response from Verona. It’s really nice that they support us.” And the brewery gives back, often working with local businesses. Just this past July, Hop Haus joined forces with Fraboni’s to somehow combine beer, pizza, and music in an effort to bring awareness to MS, raising $3,300 for research in the process.
They don’t always need a great cause to throw a party. Keep an eye out for the Ugly Sweater Party in December, where you might not have the heart of Fred Rogers, but you can dress like him and sing “It’s a beautiful day in the brewery.” While there, pick up a gift basket featuring affairs from local restaurants. Expect to see bombers of Pocket Rocket and Pants off, Dance off, and don’t forget to grab a hat, shirt, and growler for that special someone.
There’s never a bad reason to check out a new brewery, and Sara and Phil are “always doing something new.” So come on down and have a pint, you deserve it.
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials and writer living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.