Big personalities vying for the top prize, staring one another down, and constantly unleashing new shots across one another's bows. Another rap feud? No. But the differences between brewers on the left and right coasts could not be more pronounced.
In the debate over who can go bigger, or produce the hoppiest or most Ringwood-influenced beer, a trend that seems to command control over brewers on the coasts, the creative and solid offerings produced by brewers of the middle coast go much overlooked.
This is not to say that the Midwest does not produce an overwhelming share of uninspired beers. In the land where lager reigns, the locus of brewing power clearly lies in Saint Louis and Milwaukee. Drawn by the great caches of available ice in the Great Lakes, early German immigrant brewers fled the East Coast for the Midwest. The ice supply was very helpful to a lager brewer who needed to keep his beer in cold conditioning.
A little more than a century later, the nascent craft beer movement began to take root on the far American coasts. Despite its great brewing history, or perhaps because of it, the movement failed to take off in the Midwest as it did elsewhere. While brewpubs exploded across California, Oregon and Washington State in the west, and throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, the Midwest was slow to respond. In cities throughout the region, brewpubs and small, fledgling microbreweries cautiously began to follow the examples of their coastal brethren.
While some West Coast cities boasted a half dozen or more brewpubs and a flood of competing microbreweries, most Midwestern cities offered one or two brewpubs and one stand-alone microbrewery. According to statistics compiled by the Association of Brewers' Institute for Brewing Studies, by mid-1989, California offered 33 brewpubs, while all Midwestern states combined had only four. In Chicago, for example, non-chain based brewpubs hardly ever opened, even through to the present day.
The result of this cautious approach to development was that Midwestern breweries better weathered the industry shakeout in the late nineties. The brewpubs and microbreweries that opened often remain strong, and each Midwestern city offers a small handful of solid selections.
When beer geeks think of exciting beer, rarely, if ever, do their minds drift to Midwestern breweries. Their daydreams consist of the hop-monster breweries of the West Coast, or the creative stylings of East Coast breweries. And for a while, this was a fairly accurate portrayal of Midwestern beer - solid, but uninspired products which commanded respect but failed to arouse frenzied support. The beer geek's paradigm, however, is beginning to change in industry-shaking ways. Where the rest of the brewing community sees fit to play its one note symphony of over-the-top hops or abusively exaggerated alcohol levels, present day Midwestern brewers are producing some of the most experimental and interesting beer available to consumers.
According to president Larry Bell, the Kalamazoo Brewing Company is the oldest craft-brewer east of Boulder, Colorado. Initially founded as a home-brewing supply shop in 1983, KBC, better known as "Bell's" after its owner, sold its first beer in 1985. In his first year, Bell brewed a miniscule 135 barrels in a 15-gallon soup kettle. Through tough financial straits, including a time when Bell lucked into a silo full of brewing grain that he could not otherwise afford, the brewery continued to steadily grow its production. In 2002, the company produced 31,500 barrels and expanded its operations to a new plant with a 60,000 barrel capacity.
While the production numbers increased, it was Bell's flair for brewing dramatic, powerful beers that fueled the company's reputation among craft beer enthusiasts. To reaffirm his commitment to the craft brewing movement, Bell decided to release his "Ten Stouts of November". In this innovative move, Bell timed the production and release of ten different stout varieties, making for a very happy holiday tasting season. Among the ten were a java stout, an imperial stout, a cherry stout, a sweet stout, a rye stout, and a double cream stout. Bell's Cherry Stout pours with a slight head and a distinct sour note in the aroma. The nose also produces a slight spiciness, with a mix of mild cherry hints and lactic acidity. The first sip is a powerful punch as this is no fruit-flavored sweet beer. Like many of the beers in this series, the cherry stout is hugely sour, like a mouth-puckering lambic. There is a slight creamy flavor deep within this beer, and roasted hints of malt fight against the lactic sourness.
After brewing its 5000th batch, Bells decided to celebrate by producing a special smoked beer. With its 6000th batch, the brewery decided to celebrate again by producing an utterly sublime and wonderful beer. Put plainly, Batch 6000 is the best beer I sampled during 2003. It is a phenomenal barleywine-style ale, with deep, rich malt notes and an incredible balance of hops and alcohol. The flavor continues strong throughout the brew, finishing with some sizable malt notes and some tinges of hoppiness. After sampling the first bottle of this expensive six-pack, I had grand plans to cellar the rest of these brews to enjoy their developing complexity with age. Unfortunately, Batch 6000s smooth flavor and wonderful blend of alcohol and hops proved too great an enticement and sadly I'll never know what the future holds for an aged version of this product.
CAPITAL BREWING COMPANY
As the capital city of Wisconsin, Madison has always been an attention-drawing place. Home to the main campus of the University of Wisconsin, Madison is one of the last true bastions of left-leaning collegiate radicalism. A few years back, a group of UW students campaigned for control of the student government by promising to bring the Statue of Liberty to Madison. After securing its election victory, the group did just that. One cold, winter morning, local residents woke up to find the head and torch of an enormous, and impressively detailed, rendition of the green giant hovering just barely above the frigid, iced surface of Lake Monona.
Wisconsin is also known in brewing circles as America's keeper of the lagering tradition. Home to many transplanted German brewmasters in the 19th century, Wisconsin once offered many dozens of breweries dedicated to making fine lager style beers. In bridging the spirit of "Madtown" and Wisconsin's lagering heritage, the Capital Brewing Company was founded on March 14, 1984. Kirby Nelson has been the brewmaster at Capital since 1986, and he is considered so central to what Capital is about that he is often the focus of its ad campaigns. Kirby normally sports a trimmed goatee and a long, gray pony-tail. In Capital's print ads, a seriously dishelved Kirby sports a snarling look and warns readers that if they try and put a lime in his beers, he'll kick their ass.
On the day I visited Capital a few years ago, Nelson made an extra special trip out to the brewery to show me around. He led a tour of Capital's facility on crutches after having busted his ankle a few weeks previous. In keeping with its Midwestern roots, the brewery is housed in a former egg processing plant. The brewing is done in two old German copper brewing kettles, which Kirby describes as "sexy as hell". As he gazes upon the dual beauties, Kirby proclaims confidently that "copper makes better beer", and that while stainless steel systems remain popular, they lack any "soul".
The brewery, located just outside of the capital city in the suburb of Middleton, produces around 15,000 barrels a year, and distributes in six Midwestern states. Adding an extra dash of life to the facility, Nelson named each of the lagering tanks after different Frank Zappa albums.
Nelson strives for one thing above all else in the crafting of his fine lagers - drinkability. It's a phrase he often uses to describe his products and the goal he is seeking to attain. Though Capital is primarily a brewer of lagers, it does offer the occasional top-fermented alternative for ale fans, including Capital's Brown Ale. All but three of his beers - the Brown Ale, Wild Rice lager, and the Kloster Weizen - are produced in strict accordance with the "Reinheitsgebot", or German Purity Law of 1516. Capital brews fifteen beers in all, heavy on the lagers: seven annuals, four seasonals and four limited releases. The flagship beer is the Capital Amber, a popular version of the style that remains a lager.
In a sea of ale-heavy microbreweries, Capital stands out not only because it focuses on lagers, but due to its creativity within this category. Capital does not produce a copycat of mass-produced Midwestern lagers. Instead, Nelson brews a series of lager styles too often neglected by American craft brewers. His maibock is simply one of America's best lager offerings, and his pre-prohibition lager, the Capital 1900, is the perfect summer beverage.
When you talk about Capital, however, you inevitably must discuss its most impressive fermented achievements: the series of limited release doppelbock. Capital's highly regarded Blonde Doppelbock is so popular that during my visit, Kirby was lamenting the fact there was none left over for him to take home. The Blonde Doppelbock has a striking, unbelievable smoothness for such a powerful beer. It is deep gold in color and possesses a full mouthfeel enhanced by a sweet malt flavor. Like so many of Capital's brews, the Blonde Doppelbock remains eminently drinkable in the face of its sizable 8.5 percent alcohol by volume.
Perhaps the biggest story in Midwestern brewing right now is found in a small, unassuming warehouse in Hammond, Indiana. Founded in 1996 by brothers Nick, Simon, and Mike Floyd, the eponymously-named Three Floyds Brewing Company made a name for itself with the release of its powerfully hoppy Alpha King Pale Ale. This beer quickly became a standard for ultra-hoppy beers and influenced brewers from coast-to-coast to up the antes with their bitterness levels. So influential was this beer that it gave its name to the Alpha King Challenge, an annual event held during the Great American Beer Festival. In this contest, a dozen brewers fight it out to be crowned America's hoppiest beer.
While the brewery only produces a scant 4000 barrels per year, its cult following is growing everyday. In 2002, the brewery unleashed two beers that sent tremors of pleasure throughout the craft brewing community. One of these beers, the impossibly thick Dark Lord Imperial Stout, was the feature of my recent article on imperial stouts. The other release, the Dreadnaught Imperial India Pale Ale, remains among the highest echelon of so-called "extreme" beers. Weighing in at 9.5 percent abv, and possessing an unknown bitterness level, the Dreadnaught is truly something to behold. The beer's aroma is pure heaven - a near-perfect mix of malt, hops and alcohol. It gently wafts through any room in which its opened, and attracts immediate attention. The nose offers such an array of different aromas, from fruit to earth to distinct hops and sweet, inviting malt, it's easy to forget that you are actually supposed to drink this product. While it remains strongly hoppy, the Dreadnaught easily distinguishes itself from its crushingly powerful and artless competitors, whose extreme offerings mostly leave the consumer with an unbridled, undrinkable alcohol or hop bomb. The Dreadnaught, however, possesses a gifted brewer's touch, artfully balancing the hops, alcohol and malt to result in a sane and fully approachable hop masterpiece. This beer is in a class with few others, including Dogfish Head's 90 Minute IPA and Stone's Double Bastard.
The final Midwestern focal point is not an actual brewery, but a specific brewer. For years, Todd Ashman produced a line of experimental beers at a small pub on the outskirts of Chicago. As the brewer for the Flossmoor Station Brewing Company, Ashman was the Brett Favre of Brewing - you could never count him out. At the annual Great American Beer Festival, he had a near lock on medals. It never mattered that he was down to his last beer in competition, or that some of his seemingly perennial winners failed to place. He would scoop up a gold medal at the last moment.
Ashman recently moved his trade to the Titletown Brewing Company in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In his brewing, Ashman has helped lead the move towards barrel-aging and the use of other experimental techniques and ingredients. While Packers fans may be shedding a tear for their hometown team, the addition of Ashman should help ease their pain.