Wisconsin. Land of the cheeseheads. New Hampshire of the Midwest. The Drunk Uncle State. Home of cranberries and alleged butt-dweller Scott Walker.
While Minnesota maintains a mutually antagonistic relationship with our frequent sparring partner to the east, the North Star State is fraternally tied to Wisconsin. It's is the Romulus to our Remus. The Australia to our New Zealand. The Vegeta to our Goku. We are destined to struggle with and against each other forever.
Though I did once write "Fuck Wisconsin" in a City Pages cover story, leading one of Our Beloved Readers from Dairyland to threaten to break my fingers and sic Jeff Dahmer on me, I hold no actual contempt for the Badger State. The majority of my friends in the Twin Cities are relocated from Wisco, and I always have a good time when I drive out there. Shit, my beloved, beautiful, articulate dog was born in Somerset. But I love me a good blood feud, so for the sake of kindred agitation, I've bought in. Wholesale. Packers suck — go Vikes.
I try to not let this get the best of me as I head to my pup's hometown for the annual Border Battle Weekend. I'd been selected to judge the Border Battle Beer Fest, and that meant being impartial. The Golden Firkin demands objectivity, goddamn it. The Somerset Amphitheater wasn't dolled up much for the Border Battle Weekend, which according to organizers, hosted far fewer attendees in 2015 than in past years. No one even verified my identity as I drove in, which was an unsettling ego check. The whole event was held together with little more than redneck ingenuity and the sheer will to get drunk in a dusty field. Still, 25 breweries (13 from Wisconsin, 11 from Minnesota, and one, American Sky Brewing, competing for Wisconsin despite recently being sold to Lucid and relocated to Mankato) showed to knuckle up for their home state in the circus tent at Somerset Amphitheater.
Everyone, including me, got goddamn hammered.
Running with the shorter bench, Minnesota went with the faithful go-tos to do the work for them. Summit and Schell's brought their not-quite-craft lineup to prove that factory brewing isn't solely a Wisconsin birthright, Indeed represented Northeast with their flagships pouring steadily, sentient boner joke Big Wood blew their load on standards Big Wood and Amigo Grande, and Lift Bridge left a mostly forgettable footprint from just across the border.
Overall, the dearth of imagination from the western side of the border was disheartening, as even Surly, one of the most inventive brewhouses operating in the Land of 10,000, phoned it in by bringing Cynic, Hell, and Bender, a trio that rounds out their bottom tier of offerings. It was enough to make a card-carrying Minnesota supremacist want to trade purple for green and gold. And, with every drop that filtered through my liver, I lost the ability to even distinguish what was being offered.On the other side of the aisle, Wisconsin was stoutly represented by New Glarus — who proved for the umpteenth time that their taplines run deeper than Spotted Cow — Oliphant, and Ale Asylum, all of whom featured a wide swath of beers from stouts to session ales that challenged Minnesota's blasé run of everyday brews. Sprecher, an adventurous Milwaukee alchemy operation, uncorked malted root beer, ginger beer, and cider so uniquely delicious that they could not fairly be considered in competition alongside the other beers. The home team was squarely leading in creativity, but as the Wisco sun burned down on the thirsty campground, that seemed to matter less and less.
Regardless of what state you were born in, drinking at 1 p.m. on a sunny Saturday is all about indulgence. Even though Wisconsin's Good Ass Beer poured what was essentially craft Bud Light, the Minnesota roster quickly won over the lubricating crowd for its ease of consumption. As bachelorettes in pastel sashes reached new decibels with their drunkenness and shirtless dingbats in bucket hats lost their shoes to the bleary afternoon, drinkability became the chief concern. Even the reps giving out samples — most of whom were not actually affiliated with the brewery they bartended for — were getting in on the action, slurring descriptors more as the afternoon went on. One sample glass at a time, the tent transformed into a blotto frat party, the boundary between Minnesota and Wisconsin blurring with every emptied glass. Despite my best efforts to take half pours and keep my judging wits intact, the volume of beer sabotaged me. Wisconsin, Minnesota, it didn't matter.
Luckily enough for Minnesota, Dane Breimhorst of Burning Brothers Brewing pulled me out of the fog with his incomparable Parched Shandy. The lime radler, which he distributed in rubber gloves like some sort of gluten-intolerant Walter White, was far and away the best beer sampled that afternoon, or so my slushy mind deduced. And I barely had time to pick the citrus filaments from my teeth before Breimhorst — in the intoxicating spirit of the brawl — stuck a coffee ale in my palm. Though diametrically opposed to the Parched and really unfit for the binge I was sweating through, the beer was enlighteningly good. The four other judges tasked with maintaining their equilibrium must've felt the same, because when judging time came, it was Breimhorst who was hoisting the Golden Firkin for the St. Paul beermaker.
It seemed almost cheap, but in their red-faced belligerence, the North Star locals hurrahed and chided. I beamed to see the superior state claim the blue ribbon, even if it was on wonky merits, because, in the end, objectivity had been utterly conceded. Uber-local weirdos Oliphant — brewing right down the street in Somerset — won over the general public to claim the People's Choice, and though this seemed fair given Minnesota's piss-poor field of competition, the raging Minneapolitan in me grimaced at the thought of losing the clean sweep.
Wisconsin. Sons of bitches.
As the crowd filtered out and prepared itself for the inevitable 8 p.m. hangover, it was uncertain who had really won. It definitely wasn't the collective sobriety, nor was it the prudence of an impartial judge. Regardless of who took home the faux-gold keg and who democracy elected as champion, it was the rivalry itself that stumbled away with the victory.
Never mind how we really felt about the border war, the most important thing was that the two states will continue to quarrel.
Border Battle Brew Fest ballot, unedited:
1) Burning Brothers Parched Lime Shandy
2) Flat Earth Angry Planet Pale Ale
3) Big Wood Jack Savage American Pale Ale
1) Lucette Double Dawn Belgian Strong Ale
2) Oliphant Party on Garth Black Ale
3) Door County Barebottom Pale Ale