Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Rethinking Capital Brewery

My relationship to Capital Brewery is a long-documented one. It's been full of ups and downs. As we sit here today, I have to admit that, to my own surprise, I am a fan of Capital Brewery; or, should I say, to the extent that the two are not one and the same, I am a fan of Kirby Nelson, the gruff, yet lovable Brewmaster at Capital Brewery.

Kirby Nelson throwing fish off the roof at Capital Brewery during Bockfest 2012.

Of course, as has become abundantly clear to me over the years, the two are one and the same and Capital Brewery is merely the marketing device for Kirby's beer. Kirby wants to brew a doppelbock based on a Marzen recipe? Universally adored beer results. Kirby wants to brew a Blonde Doppelbock? Universal adoration. Kirby wants to brew an Imperial Dopplebock and age it in wood barrels? Geek adoration. Corn-based American Lager to go with your fish fry? The marketing machine goes into motion and it's instantly in every supper club in the area. Wheat beer made with local, Wisconsin, ingredients? The press releases flood the business wire.

Like any brewery, Capital, Kirby, has had his misses. Rustic, anyone? Prairie whatever that was? Even Island Wheat and Supper Club are, at least to me and despite what appears to be commercial success, misses.

But, really, what brewery doesn't miss on occassion? Even Craft Beer heroes Stone Brewing Company (Cali-Belique?) and Dogfish Head (Apricot Berliner Weisse?) have had their misses.

Admittedly, it is Capital's ouevre that prevents much of the knob-slobbering. They don't, haven't, played in the food area - no weird fruit beers. They haven't gone overboard on sour beer. They haven't made an undrinkably hoppy IPA. Their misses, and successes, are firmly in the everyday: Munich Dark, Maibock, Amber, Wheat, and American Lagers. Not to mention cornering the market on craft Doppelbocks.

Which is why, I think, Capital has resisted being fully embraced by the Beer Geek. The beer snob that can accurately differentiate the qualities of various Maibocks or Kolschs are few and far between. The beer cognoscenti drink Pilsner and Amber to get away from bombarding their palette with the Russian Imperial Stouts, Double IPAs, and Flanders Sours that get the hushed and whispered adoration. While we love every American Porter that tastes exactly like Edmund Fitzgerald, for some reason we can't embrace a Munich Dark or Doppelbock.

Yet, Capital's Pils and Amber are two of the best of their style. I've said before that Augustiner (one of the 5 classic Munich breweries) and Capital make the two best Doppelbocks in the world. And, quietly, if you've been paying attention, you would notice that Kirby has been getting in touch with his more adventurous side. Imperial Doppelbock aged in oak barrels. Single-hop (Tettnang) Doppelbock. Wild Rice Lager and Doppelbock. Single-hop Cream Ale (Nuggets, if you were wondering). The hugely overlooked Eternal Flame which is a process innovation and experimentation that most beer geeks can't get their head around and simply choose to ignore; if Sam Calagione had done it instead of Kirby everyone in the universe would be making beer with saved wort.

Even some of Capital's misses have been turned around. For example, US Pale Ale, after its re-imagination two years ago, remains criminally underrated and ten-times better than Moon Man could ever hope to be (sorry Dan).

So, why does Capital remain so unappreciated and actively ignored by the craft beer cellar-dwellers? Because Capital has been around since 1984? Because your grandfather drinks Capital? Because Island Wheat is on every golf course in the state? Because the graphic design and marketing are so cloyingly obvious (Supper Club? Pander much?) and disjointed (no two designs are the same)? Because Capital stubbornly resists trends?

Who knows, to be honest. Maybe we'll see a smoked dark. Maybe we'll see more single-hop doppelbocks.  Maybe we'll see a whiskey-barrel-aged Imperial Pilsner drawn through a coffee-infused Randall and served on fresh hops. Maybe. But that's up to Kirby; and he doesn't really care what you, or I, think he should do.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Interview with Angel's Envy Master Distiller Lincoln Henderson


It’s no exaggeration to say that Lincoln Henderson is a living legend in the world of American whiskey. A member of the Bourbon Hall of Fame, Henderson spent nearly 40 years as Master Distiller and Research Fellow at spirits giant Brown-Forman, makers of Jack Daniels, Old Forrester and Woodford Reserve. During his time there he was a pioneer in the American premium whiskey market, creating small batch products like Gentleman Jack, Jack Daniels Single Barrel, and Woodford Reserve bourbon. His new project is Angel’s Envy bourbon, which after debuting last April is just being released in Wisconsin. I had a chance to speak with Henderson at last Saturday’s Distill America event to find out more about Angel’s Envy.

Madison Beer Review:
For people who might not know your history and what you’ve done in the bourbon industry, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background and what led you up to Angel’s Envy.

Lincoln Henderson: I was very fortunate to work for one of the major spirit companies in the world, Brown-Forman. I worked their for 39 years and I had the opportunity to develop products like Woodford Reserve and Gentleman Jack, and all these different products that were new products, but I was also responsible for the whiskeys that Brown-Forman had been making for years like Old Forrester and Early Times. I retired from Brown-Forman in 2004, having just created Woodford Reserve, and I started working for Suntory International as a US spokesperson for their Japanese Whisky.

Then my son approached me about seven years ago and said “Dad, I’d like to get into the business.” And I said, “Son, I thought you had more sense than that.” But he kept at it and got investors together to get the money to start making whiskey. So we started making our bourbon about five years ago. We got a friend of mine to do our production for us with our yeast, our grain mash. So we’re here today with a bourbon we started making close to five years ago. But then we did something a little different. We put the bourbon, after it came out of the bourbon barrels, into port wine barrels for about six months, which is what we have today, Angel’s Envy. The port finish totally changes the mouthfeel of the bourbon, makes it much more acceptable to a lot more people than a typical bourbon.

MBR: You mentioned using your own yeast, your own mash bill. So you guys conceived this from mash to bottle, it wasn’t just sourcing other whisky to finish in port barrels?

LH: All the way through we designed it. In the beginning, we had to produce a whiskey that was very subtle, not very aggressive, in all aspects. You can modify your yeast, modify your fermentation, and especially your maturation in the barrel. So we controlled the yeast, we have a special yeast, the grain mash was different, the distillation was different, the maturation was different. We looked at this whiskey as it’s maturing and made sure we took it out of the barrel before it started picking up these woody components that you expect in a typical bourbon, so we would have something very subtle. Really, it’s so light, we were in between a typical whiskey mash and a vodka, it’s very light. So then you put it in the barrel and you have to watch it very carefully because if it’s in there too long it becomes woody, more astringent, which you typically expect in a bourbon. So it came out very nice, and after the port finish, it came out nicer.

MBR: So, I’m going to geek out for a second, I’m guessing it’s pretty close to the 160 proof limit for bourbon? (Editors Note: the distillation proof coming off of the still is a major determination of the body and flavor of a whiskey. The higher the distillation proof, the more “neutral” the flavor. Bourbon, by law, must be distilled under 160 proof, though in practice it is typically closer to 140 proof. A grain mash distilled to 190 proof is considered completely neutral and is the base for vodka.)

LH: Yeah. That’s true. 80 percent alcohol is the top distillation for bourbon. We’re actually a little closer to 70 percent. Take Woodford Reserve for example. When we started distilling Woodford, we did three distillations. Well, if you stopped at two distillations your fine, but when you went to three then you’re right on the limit of going over what bourbon should be. So we are very safe at what we are doing.

MBR: Just a little higher than maybe Beam or something like that?

LH: Well, probably not a whole lot. The major factor in making your whiskey different form anybody else’s is your yeast. Yeast are like your children. You have to raise these yeast and cultivate them to keep the same profile every time. If you don’t, than your whiskey is going to go all over the place. And then the barrel. When we had the barrels made for us, specifically, the toasting level was very important to us because we know what that does to the finished product. So all these things put together, we came up with Angel’s Envy.

MBR: Do you disclose who is distilling it for you?

We can’t do that.

MBR: I figured, but I thought I’d ask.

LH: But if you come to Louisville in the fall, we’ll be set up to start distilling.

MBR: Oh, ok, so you are starting up your own place.

LH: It’s on what was called “Whiskey Row” on Main Street in Louisville. From the west part of Main Street to the east part, that’s where a lot of the distillery offices were located in the 1800’s. So we are going to be putting our distillery right in that area. It’s going to be unbelievable.

MBR: Awesome. Correct me if I’m wrong but I thought I heard that Mitcher’s was going down there too?

LH: Mitcher’s is, though they are not going to be distilling, just putting an office and a museum in there. And that’s great, we are really 100 percent behind anybody that wants to come in there, and the city of Louisville is the same way because that will be a place where people can come enjoy the heritage of bourbon and not have to go 80 miles away.

MBR: I’ve been through. It’s a lot of driving.

LH: And it’s a wonderful experience, but people can start in Louisville and then go on to the others.

MBR: Well that’s a great idea, very cool. The other question I had was do you foresee a lot of competition popping up in terms of people sourcing and finishing whiskey?

Oh, sure. I think we will. But it’s not…we’re not worried about it. There’s so much room in this business for the artisan people and the small batches. What’s going to happen is the major players are going to start looking at it and saying “wait a minute now, this is not good for us.” With Woodford, I told Brown-Forman in… you know I worked on Woodford starting in 1992, in 1996 we started distilling, I’m thinking, we should go ahead and start doing something else, not just Woodford.

MBR: And Daniels, and Old Forrester…

Right, Because Jack Daniels actually drives Brown-Forman. And I can understand that. But any time you put…like all these people here, put something on a shelf, we put something on the shelf, they put something on the shelf, well the shelf space is limited. But we know we’ve got something that tastes good, and people can enjoy it, so we’re not really worried. And we have a great marketing department, a great sales team. For me, the easiest thing is making whiskey.

Hardest thing is getting it out there?

That’s right. Developing the bottle, which incidentally I thought was the dumbest looking bottle. But then after a year or so, it feels good.

MBR: Is there anything else we should know about Angel’s Envy before I let you explore around here?

LH: Well I think an important thing is, I really want to stress the fact that my son, who is the chief operating officer, Wes, and my oldest grandson, and myself, we’re in the business together. It’s the only...you have Booker Noe and Freddy Noe, and the Beams, Craig and Parker, but there aren’t any three generations, which I didn’t realize. And my oldest grandson, Kyle, is actually responsible for bottling. So if anything doesn’t look right I can call him up and say “you dumb ass, what’d you do this for.” So he’s a young guy, he’s 22 years old. And my son is a very good businessman, and he’s taking care of all the overhead stuff.

So we’re very happy. I think today’s consumer of premium spirits is very knowledgeable. I mean it’s unbelievable. Like you, you ask questions that I would not have expected people to ask, you know, 20 years ago. The bartenders, the mixologists, are much more knowledgeable. And the consumer, our target group, they will ask us questions like you are. And that’s great, I love it. I mean, I lie a lot, but I try to say a little bit of the truth.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Let Me See If I Understand This Correctly

Article here about Ocalala Indian Tribe suing A-B, Miller, et al for selling beer near their reservation.

The facts are these: Ocalala Indian Reservation, in South Dakota is a dry reservation. Yet, despite the ban of alcohol on the reservation, alcohol (namely beer) is destroying the Tribe. According to health reports the reservation has the lowest expectancy of anywhere in North America except Haiti. One in four children born on the reservation has fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The reservation comprises the third poorest county in the United States with a median household income of only $27,300. The reservation has been dry since 1832. Yet, liquor stores near the reservation have been selling alcohol (beer) far in excess of a reasonably proportional amount for the community in which they reside.

In other words, the only conclusion is that people are coming from the dry reservation to purchase alcohol, and take it back to the dry reservation. Therefore, the stores are knowingly serving people from the dry reservation. And, by extension, A-B, Miller, Coors, et al should have known that beer was going to the dry reservation in violation of reservation law because their distributors were selling beer to the stores in quantities far in excess to the number of people in the non-dry communities.

What do you think?

I think it would set a very dangerous precedent. Moreover, it leads to absurd results. Could the US sue the Netherlands for allowing American tourists to smoke weed? It's illegal here and the Dutch know it is illegal here, yet they allow American tourists to take part in an activity that they know is illegal in their home country. Can the US sue Canada because the drinking age there is lower and 19-year olds from Detroit go to Canada and drink, then come back to the US.

How could the remedy (sale of alcohol to someone from a dry community/reservation) possibly be enforced? How far away do you have to be? And, can you not sell to anyone from any dry community, or just dry communities that are nearby that you know are dry? Moreover, how are the distributors to know that their product is going someplace where it shouldn't be? All the distributor is doing is fulfilling orders for a store that is legally permitted to purchase their product. Can distributors be sued for supplying Colt 45 and other malt liquors or cheap alcohol to urban communities where consumption is far in excess of a regional average?

On the other hand, these groups are taking part and actively encouraging the downfall of a blighted community. In light of successful tobacco lawsuits, is this really that different? We have known health damages to a community and active marketing and distribution to the community suffering under the health condition. The tobacco companies were liable for their failure to warn of the health problems caused by their product and their active marketing to those to whom consumption was illegal (in their case minors, in this case citizens of a dry reservation).

Monday, February 6, 2012

Five Gallons At A Time: Water Chemistry Updates

The content of this page was updated on 9/7/2012.

I'm always trying to better myself as a brewer, and I've gathered a lot of new data about water and mash chemistry over the past year and a half. Some of it significantly affects how brewing water should be treated:

-The target mash pH range of 5.2-5.5 is for room temperature measurements, not mash temperature measurements.
-Some of the pH strips available at homebrew shops report values that are about 0.3 lower than the actual pHs. I was using them, which made me believe my mashes were within the target pH range when they weren't.
-Kohlbach's claim that each mEq/L of residual alkalinity will raise pH by 0.084 was for 12-Plato kettle wort, not mashes.
-Water with significant carbonic acid, such as Madison city water, requires additional slaked lime to convert carbonic acid into bicarbonate ions.
-Lactic acid does not fully dissociate at common brewery pHs

Armed with new information, I updated the series on water chemistry and consolidated it from six parts to five (woohoo!). Here are the links to the articles:

Part I (introduction)
Part II (ballpark water treatments)
Part III (factors that affect mash pH)
Part IV (bulk water treatment)
Part V (mash water treatment)

I rewrote the old articles instead of writing new ones because leaving up the old stuff, some of which was valid and some of which was outdated, would have been confusing. In addition, I wanted to leave the original web addresses intact so people who use them as references would be able to find the new information as easily as possible. I included latest revision date in the body of each post so people will know when the content has changed since the publishing dates.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Text of Emergency Rule Found

Here's the text of the Emergency Rule (thanks Phillip!). It turns out that I was right. It doesn't just "waive the fee" like the Journal Sentinel article implied. Rather, it creates a new class of "Brewer" called "Recipe Brewer". So, Buffalo Water, Furthermore, etc. are no longer wholesalers, but instead will distribute under a state Brewers License as a Recipe Brewer. It's not entirely clear how this plays with the fact that these "breweries" can't get federally licensed as breweries, but can be Brewers in the State. 723 Proposed Order (Emergency - V2)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Wisconsin Beer Law Update

Two fun, new, and exciting developments in Wisconsin law.

The first exciting development is that the new legislation forced on craft brewers over the summer is already being revised because it was poorly written and hastily passed. Here's the catch though: I can't find the text of this "Emergency Rule", so I can't really comment on its contents. Maybe one of my readers who is more adroit at searching obscure legislative acts, will have better luck than I. The Journal Sentinel article states: "
... [A] new emergency rule that takes effect Friday will eliminate that requirement for recipe brewers [to pay the $2500 state wholesaler fee], said Stephanie Marquis, Department of Revenue spokeswoman. ... The new rule, which Gov. Scott Walker has signed, allows recipe brewers to self-distribute their beer without being defined as beer wholesalers, Marquis said. That exempts them from paying for the wholesaler's permit, she said. ... The new regulations prohibit brewers from buying wholesale distributorships, while allowing brewers that produce up to 300,000 barrels annually to do their own wholesale distribution - which requires brewers to pay for the state wholesaling permit.
But, this doesn't make any sense. At all. First, the statute doesn't have something called a "Recipe Brewer". Buffalo Water and Furthermore are Distributors, not Brewers - they don't have brewers' licenses or permits. But, according the article, the rule would alter the law to make them not wholesalers, but brewers. This is a far bigger change than merely waiving fees. Moreover, even Brewers that self-distribute have to comply with the Wholesale rules - which would still be onerous on both Buffalo Water and Furthermore. In other words, it sucks that I don't have a copy of the Rule because there's no way that this is simply a fee correction.

Second, there's a law making its way through the legislature that would change the law as it relates to homebrewers. Currently, the problem is this: the law says homebrewers can only serve homebrew in their homes. This may seem obvious, but it's also quite draconian: they can't serve it at their friends' homes, they can't have homebrew competitions, they can't do homebrew demonstrations at festivals or part of Madison Craft Beer Week.

Known as SB 395, the proposed new law would cap homebrewing at 200 gallons per household per year (or roughly 40 5-gallon batches per year). But, the good news is that homebrew could be "used" for "exhibition, demonstration, judging, tasting, or sampling or as part of a contest or competition." I'm not sure what it means to "use" homebrew; presumably "use" would include drinking, does it include service to the general public?

One final thought would be to consider how this affects server/host liability. Say a minor goes to a homebrew competition (because, you know, the fake IDs are pretty good these days), gets legally drunk on someone else's homebrew, and wrecks a car killing a person. Who is liable? Typically in this situation, the bar/vendor is liable because the person is a minor (and it's strict liability, so it doesn't matter if they showed a fake ID and had a beard). Is the homebrewer also liable? Probably not, but they might be considered a "vendor" and pulled into liability anyway.