As I mentioned on Monday, we have a lot of Brewpubs here in Wisconsin. I can't possibly get to them all - but you can. So, we throw open the voting for best Brewpub in the state to you, the readers of Madison Beer Review. The voting usually runs from January 1 through end of February. For the last three years, The Grumpy Troll has won - often by a landslide, but last year they barely eeked out a win against Red Eye. This year has seen a number of brewpubs showing off some stellar chops including The Grumpy Troll, but also Red Eye, Potosi Brewing, and Milwaukee Ale House - not to mention the twin killing in Green Bay, Titletown and Hinterland.
The voting started out close with Vintage and Potosi running neck and neck into February. And, then, as quickly as it started, it was over. With more than 1400 total votes, Vintage Brewing Company managed to garner over half. So, with the results in, I had a chance to get some feedback from Vintage Head Brewer Scott Manning:
MBR: I'm sure the first year went exactly as expected when you were first agreed to come to Vintage. What were some of the ways that your expectations were or were not met?
Scott Manning: Yes, of course, everything has gone exactly to plan! But seriously, one of our strengths as a family partnership is that we've been flexible and open minded about what we should and could become. We take little steps, see what works, and constantly refine our operating model in little ways. That being said, the first year for any company starting up, and most notoriously for a new restaurant, is going to be a struggle. We expected business to be modest at the start, and it was. We knew it would be an uphill battle to win the hearts, minds and palates of our potential patrons, and it has been, especially in the early days. But for the year as a whole, we've done better than anticipated, and I'm pleased that lots of people now know of us and seem to like our brewpub.
As far as brewery-specific objectives, you can't ask for a more simple and enticing set of expectations than: "Make great beer". For me it's a joy working in a freely creative and uninhibited manner, and it has been very gratifying this last year to begin with an open canvas and be allowed to sketch out our beers and our beer culture. You can't ask for a better, more enthusiastic and supportive work environment, and I'm convinced happy brewers make better beer. I didn't expect to be able to indulge in the awesome variety and the sometimes outlandish beers I get to make. Madison beer drinkers are second to none: hoppy beers- check!, big Belgians- you betcha!, casks with lavender or mint- well, OK we'll give it a try! It's truly great.
MBR: What's the hardest thing about working in a brewpub as opposed to a packaging facility?
SM: I'm reminded daily of the physical rigors of brewing on a small scale. There's so much labor, manual cleaning, heavy lifting, time on your feet, and extremely long hours- it's difficult to convey to those who haven't felt it firsthand. The American concept of work has evolved into a largely stationary proposition, where we've gone to great lengths to minimize physical strain and activity in the workplace. In direct contrast, pub brewing is an old-fashioned daily beat-down. It's hard work, but it's good honest work, and I wouldn't have it any other way. It's not every job you can feel exhausted yet satisfied from a day well-spent.
MBR: What was the best beer you made last year and what was the worst?
SM: Best: Clearly the most difficult question...there's the cliche answer, that they're like our children and we love them all equally ... [ed note: Scott knows that there's no way I'd let him get away with that answer] My beer tastes change from day to day, so I have personal favorites that shift. One way to answer is that our Pale Ale, Palindrome, has spent the most time on tap in the kegerator at home over the past year. Pumpkin Disorderly was a beer that became more perfect in reality than I could have imagined in the planning stages: the balance of abbey yeast flavors with pumpkin and spice flavors with malt flavors...the end result bordered on magical. And I'm not a guy who seeks out spiced beers regularly.
Worst: Our first brew ever. Several things went wrong on brewday, despite having tested the equipment and process flow with a cleaning chemical pre-brew and hot water trials. Plus, there may have been some ghosts in the machine, if you believe in that sort of thing. What kind of beer? A pale ale. How did it taste? Wrong wrong wrong! Obviously infected. It was never put on tap.
MBR: What are you most looking forward to for the coming year and what challenges are you looking forward to taking on?
SM: There's so much to look forward to, but I'm especially eager to have Vintage Brewing Co. take part in this year's GABF. The Great American Beer Festival in Denver is the biggest competition and festival for craft beer brewers in the US, and though I've been several times, I'm excited to bring my wife and my VBC partners and share the experience of The Big Show with them.
The biggest challenge will hopefully be the expansion of our little brewery. We're discussing adding cold storage space, finished beer tanks, and fermenting vessels, to potentially increase our beer production capacity by 50%. With both Vintage locations and a handful of great draft accounts, it has been a struggle to maintain the kind of beer variety we've built our reputation on. An expansion would help support our biggest selling beers out in the field, and enable more fun creative offerings on tap at Vintage Brewing Co.