Words by Garth Beyer. Images by Josh Haroldson.
Spotted Cow is a beer, a farmhouse ale from New Glarus Brewing Company, that is prized and praised by Wisconsinites. It’s a local phenomenon with more than 12 million pints consumed annually. And though that puts it on the list of the country’s largest breweries, there’s a caveat: you can only get it in Wisconsin.
New Glarus Brewing Company, located in the town of New Glarus, was founded by Wisconsin-native Deb Carey in 1993, who raised the capital as a gift to her husband Dan. Though Spotted Cow didn’t come around until 1997.
Sometime in the early ’90s, Dan visited Old World Wisconsin, an open-air museum that portrays the life of 19th century Wisconsin settlers, where he watched a beer-brewing demonstration. He was fascinated. He wanted to create something similar for himself, a pre-prohibition ale, something a farmer or small brewery would have made in the 1800s. His tinkering and experimentation with yeasts led to the beer we now call Spotted Cow.
But the name didn’t come until the spring of 1997, when the Careys were driving through Harrogate, England on their way to receive an award for Dan’s Belgian Red (a popular cherry ale) and passed field after field of sheep.
“I was enthralled,” says Deb. “I thought people must come to Wisconsin and feel the same sense of wonder and awe when they turn the corner and see huge fields of cows.”
Spotted Cow took off, but not before facing criticism. Deb thought Spotted Cow was a sure thing – it was an old-world recipe with a Wisconsin-inspired name and a recognizable label, but as she took the beer to market, she said, wholesalers privately expressed their concerns.
“Many took me aside with conversations like ‘Deb, think about this for a minute. Can you imagine a guy at University of Wisconsin ordering a Spotted Cow?’ and I’m like, ‘Yea, I actually can.’”
Some even refused to sell the beer because they thought it was absurd to write a name like Spotted Cow next to Budweiser on an invoice. But the naysayers relented after they saw how much people liked it. Now about half of New Glarus’s production is dedicated to Spotted Cow.
When Spotted Cow came to be, New Glarus was distributing its beer to Chicago. And while Deb would love to say it was Wisconsin pride that kept her beers in-state, it was actually just exhausting to do otherwise.
“I was so tired of getting up at 3 a.m. and on the road for a 4:30 meeting in Chicago only to turn around and drive back and work on the bottling line all day,” Deb says. “That said, Spotted Cow was a big reason why we pulled out of Chicago.” It was difficult to keep up with demand for it and stay true to their roots of experimenting and investing in other products. Plus, Deb says, “It’s nice for me to know the customers, whether they’re retailers or visitors of the brewery.”
But you know what happens when you tell people they can’t have something – they want it that much more. Just because you can’t buy or sell Spotted Cow outside of Wisconsin state lines doesn’t mean people haven’t tried. Two bars in recent years – one in Minnesota and one in New York City – have been busted for illegally selling it.
“You wouldn’t believe the stuff Dan goes through for this beer,” Deb says. “He’s always doing crazy things and on a first-name basis with all the people that deal with this beer. He’ll fly to Europe to make sure he’s bringing back the best hops. He selects Old World style barleys. He’s a brewer’s brewer.”
His efforts show because, while a number of New Glarus beers have received awards, only one holds the title of Top Selling Craft Beer in Wisconsin: Spotted Cow.