Monday, August 4, 2008

Big D, Little A, Double L, A, S – Spells Viking (Viking Weathertop Wheat)

I wonder what proportion of the population of the United States carries the title "head brewer." I would be willing to bet it is less than 2 in 604.

But, up in tiny Dallas, Wisconsin (pop. 604), the Lees, Randy and wife Ann, brew about 20 beers and two bracketts (brackett, aka "braggot", is a mead brewed with honey, malts and hops). Mead is probably best associated with the Celtics, though references to mead show up in pre-Hindu teachings dating back to 1700 BC (by the way, completely unrelated and totally interesting, the last wooly mammoths walked the earth in 2000 BC, a mere 300 years before mead was first described in these sacred Vedic hymns – one would think it existed far before anyone bothered recording it, which makes mead an old, old drink). It also plays a significant role in the epic Beowulf where the villainous Gredel, a descendant of Cain (Christianity's first murderer), is attacking (raising Cain in?) the Viking mead halls only to be thwarted by the hero, Beowulf. Anyway, the point is, the explicit link between Vikings and mead go back almost 900 years.

The link between Vikings and Dallas, WI is a bit harder to trace, but probably relates to mead.

Viking Brewing Company is a bit of an enigma to me. The first puzzling thing is availability. With over 20 different beverage choices, including around 12 to 15 seasonal beers, one would expect to see more than four choices in any one retail establishment. Or more particularly, one would expect to find a different selection during different parts of the year. It seems that few retailers in the Madison area, however, carry more than three (of Viking's five) year-round (Blonde, CopperHead, and Vienna Woods – in the winter sometimes the year-round Whole Stein is treated as a seasonal). The fourth shelf-space location is typically one of the dozen or more seasonals that Viking produces. Yet, the seasonal availability bears little relation to the actual season. For instance, the Morketid (a black bier), Invader, Abby Normal, Rauch, or Berserk seem to never be available. Yet the Lime Twist (a May seasonal) and Weathertop Wheat (the March seasonal) are almost always available. My best guess is that this is a product turnover (aka sales velocity) issue. In other words, I'm not entirely sure that Vikings product is exactly flying off the shelves – the result being that March seasonals are still on shelves in August (and possibly September or October or November). This means that if, for example, Star buys the Weathertop Wheat in March and it doesn't sell out until November, we miss April through November's seasonal products.

The other curious thing about Viking is its sale in four-packs instead of six-packs. Typically this four-pack arrangement is reserved for special or limited releases – to wit, New Glarus' Unplugged is packed in four packs, Sprecher's Special Reserve series is in four-packs, Tyranena's Brewer's Gone Wild series is in four-packs, etc. But all of Viking's beers are in the four-packs. This is neither inherently good, nor inherently bad – it is just different.

Finally, it is my experience that while the vast majority of Viking's beer is great – sometimes it seems that it goes bad on the shelf, as I had a pretty brutal run a few months back (maybe last August and the spring before that) of less-than stellar quality. This can be due to any number of reasons – a bad bottling run, oxidation, etc. – none of which are related to actual brewing quality. In that regard, I've found Viking's beers to be creative and fun and I like that they take a unique approach to brewing. Not only is their beer pure, reportedly containing no fining agents, chemicals or preservatives (it is rather common practice even among small brewers to use chemicals to adjust water characteristics and to use fining agents to clear the beer of "floaty bits"), but in many cases each style has its own yeast or yeast blend. But this purity of style and technique can also lead to widely variable quality. For another of example of a high-quality brewery with widely variable quality, one need only to look to the wild yeast breweries of Cantillion and Jolly Pumpkin where even the slightest variations can cause wildly divergent results. Similarly, Viking's dedication to purity of technique is to be applauded and encouraged, but one must also then expect that some batches may just not turn out. Moreover, with as long as these packages seem to sit on shelves, it is just more time for problems to mount. As is to be expected, ratings for Viking beers are all over the map (BA. RB.).

Viking Weathertop WheatViking Weathertop Wheat

Appearance: a deep copper body, and a foamy white head – the head is smaller and denser than your typical weisse beer, but it still gets a good two fingers before falling down
Aroma: caramel malt and soft cloves; a faint scent of wheat dust and slightly musty; no hop aroma detectable – not a strong aroma
Flavor: not a flavor I was expecting at all – not like the aroma in the slightest; an amazing brightness, almost like lemon or lime was added; soft with some banana before the inexplicable citrus hits; the finish lingers with no hop profile to clean it up
Body: lean body with definite build but is undercut and thinned by the flavor sharpness
Drinkability: It takes a little getting used to as it is very different from any wheat beer in recent recollection, but it's an interesting beer to throw into the mix
Summary: I could definitely see people enjoying this beer; I can also see others not enjoying it all. I'll enjoy finishing the four-pack, but I wonder what this would have been like back in March when it was fresh – would there have been any hops? Would the grains have been a little more noticeable? The website marketing material claims that the aroma and flavors are "toffee, (light) honey and dark fruits. Finish is mildly sweet with light bitter hops." I didn't get any of that, except maybe the honey and the mildly sweet finish. But the toffee, fruit and hops definitely did not come through. In any event, certainly more enjoyable than Leinie's Sunset Wheat.

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