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.


  1. To me, all their beers taste the same. I think (and this is nit-picky) - I get turned off because their bottles are screw off :)

  2. Capital is good at what they do...no question about that. The make damn fine lagers. A lot of beer snobs aren't lager drinks...and don't get the styles...too caught up in trends to enjoy quality beer. Is Capital going to market (or pander as you say) to the folks most likely to buy their beer? Well, yeah. They are unapologetic with their product and marketing...just like most craft brewers who are successful.
    One thing I have to question though...their pale ale better than Moon Man?? Most beer geeks I know..Moon man is one of their go to session/afternoon/mellow beers...so fresh, clean and balanced.

  3. I prefer US Pale to Moon Man. I know, amongst beer geeks it's practically heresy. But, I'm not a fan of Moon Man. I think it's too timid (yes, I know, session beer, blah, blah). Over the past year, I have noticed myself drinking way more Capital Amber and US Pale than Spotted Cow and Moon Man. Admittedly, purely preference. Maybe "10 times better" was a bit of an exaggeration ;)

  4. I unabashedly love Capital and US Pale is one of my summer standards (a good number of those golf courses with Island Wheat also have US Pale, much to my appreciation). I also love Moon Man, possibly a little more so but both in the same range of adoration. As a long-time Middleton resident that also grew up near New Glarus picking between the two breweries is like choosing which parent I love more. Not going to do it.

    When I think of Capital I think of a steady local brewery that rarely disappoints, much like New Glarus. I totally agree they make the best doppelbocks in the Western Hemisphere but these aren't trendy beers despite the nuance and booze factor present in them. I don't think they get the buzz from the craft beer community because of their lager-first approach, and to be honest I've never been a huge fan of some of their ales. But having just tried the new Manoomator Wild Rice Doppelbock I could not say Kirby isn't as inventive as anyone else.

  5. Jeff, I feel like you articulated what I have been thinking about Capital for a while. Thanks.


    Yes - manoomator is very clever beer.

  6. Capital is a hobby shop for its 2 beer drinking majority stockholders. For a company that is 25 years old, they are still a baby. They changed management, again. They changed their packaging, again and again. They said they have 3 profit centers, again. The only thing that hasn't changed in the last 10 years is the 2 majority stockholders. And that explains the problems at Capital Brewery.


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