Monday, December 17, 2007

Capital's New Twist

Capital Brewery, based in Middleton, is one of the stalwarts of the Wisconsin craft brewing industry. Brewing since 1986, Brewmaster Kirby Nelson is best known for his skills with dark lagers. The Munich Dark has been winning awards since 1987, only one year after Capital first started brewing. Yet, Capital's best selling beer is the Island Wheat, a wheat ale. Capital has made ales before; an amber and a brown ale have been regulars, while the Vintage Ale and the Kloster Weizen have been in regular rotation. Since the advent of the Island Wheat, however, it appears that the Kloster Weizen has now been retired, leaving only 3 other ales in a lineup of dozens of beers brewed by Capital.

Until now.

Released earlier this fall, Capital Brewery now brews a pale ale, called the US Pale Ale (BA.RB.). So, what distinguishes this from its other beers? Well, it is one ale style without a real lager counterpart. The Amber, Brown and Wheat all have lager equivalents: Oktoberfest, Munich dark/dopplebock, and pilsner (more or less) respectively. What does that mean? Well, more or less, an Amber is substantially similar to an Oktoberfest with the exception of the use of lager yeast and cold fermentation. A wheat ale recipe is very similar to a pilsner yeast, with the exception of wheat (although pilsners will often use some wheat in their recipes) and the lagering process. The same is true for the brown ale.

However, the pale ale has no real lager equivalent. So, what's the difference between a lager and an ale? While I'm sure a master brewer can talk your ear off about the difference, for our purposes today it will suffice to say that it is dependent on the temperature of the fermentation and the position of the yeast during the fermentation.

Lagers are fermented at relatively cold temperatures (about 35F to 60F). As a result, the fermentation times are longer and the yeast is relatively less active and tend to settle to the bottom. Thus, lager yeasts are also called bottom-fermenting yeasts. Because of these cold temperatures and longer fermentations, lagers tend to be clearer (the cold temperatures and longer times provide a better "break" of the particulates which settle during fermentation) with more subtle and complex malt flavors. Also because of the long fermentations and instability of hop aroma and flavors, not to mention more subtle malt flavors, they tend to be low-hopped beers, often relying solely on noble hops for aroma and very little bitterness.

Ales are top-fermenting beers. Instead of fermenting at cold temperatures over the course of months, ales are frequently fermented for about two weeks at room temperature, generally between 65F and 80F. Because of the high temperature and fast fermentation, there is less of a "cold break" of the particulates, thus there is frequently cloudiness associated even with filtered ales. Moreover, the short fermentations allow for more aggressive bitterness hopping. Which, conveniently, can mask or even compliment some of the alcohol-y and metallic tastes that are imparted by some ale yeasts.

So, why is there no lager equivalent to the pale ale? Partially because it would be a really boring beer. Unlike a light lager like a pilsner, a pale ale typically has some body to it, but not an over-abundance of specialty malts that would result in complex flavors (i.e., the Oktoberfest/marzen and darker lagers). For this reason, pale ales rely on hop flavors and aromas to compliment the malt body. Ideally, there should be a strong, equal balance between malt and hops. There is a great diversity in pale ales, from the British-style Bitters (a slightly hopped pale ale) to the uber-hopped and citrusy American Double IPA. It is a very popular style for American breweries, though Capital had, thus far, resisted the temptation.

But, now, Capital has entered the fray with its US Pale Ale.

Appearance: Poured into a Weizen-style glass, it is an attractive pale gold with nice bubbling action and a thick, foamy, two-finger pure white head.
Aroma: Floral and grassy hop aromas, with a soft sweetness lurking just around the corner, there's a citrus punch waiting for you at the end; surprisingly complex hop aromas were captured very well by the oversized weizen glass.
Flavor: Smooth and bitter; in fact, much more bitter than the aromas would have let on; the citrus hops become a little pushy on the finish and just kind of hang around, never really letting go; unfortunately any of the sweetness or complexity in the malts seems to be overshadowed by the hops, though some sweetness from the caramel malts pokes its head through every now and then; an estery/alcoholish taste rounds out the finish.
Body: a medium light body that keeps that the beer from being cloying or overbearing; the finish comes quickly but is not particularly clean and they hop bitterness just lingers for a while.
Drinkability: would compliment a chicken or cream-based pasta meal quite well (maybe chicken pesto linguini?), but probably would not have too many once dinner was over; over the course of the beer, the citrus becomes a little much, asserting itself more and more, while the floral and grassy tones found so pleasantly in the aroma seem to disapper entirely
Summary: A good first effort; the US Pale Ale shows considerable promise as the recipe will likely continue to be tweaked to clean up the finish, bring some of the malts forward a little, and hopefully discover some of the hops that seem to get lost along the way.

1 comment:

  1. Every time I see Kirby I ask him to please please please make a German Alt. He keeps responding that he doesn't like making ales. Then I ask about his Capital Wheat, and he always kind of rolls his eyes. I keep thinking, come on man, you're German, make a classically German beer, you can even lager it!


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