The History of Spotted Cow | Craft Beer & Brewing

The History of Spotted Cow

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

John Holl 2 months ago

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Spotted Cow is ubiquitous in Wisconsin and the stuff of legend for beer fans who live out of state. Immediately recognizable by its friendly green-trimmed 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.

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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.

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“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."

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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.”

John Holl is the Senior Editor of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®. Email tips and story suggestions to [email protected].

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