Friday, March 18, 2011

2011 Brewpub of the Year - Vintage Brewing Company

It's probably accurate to say that Madison Beer Review and Vintage Brewing Company did not exactly start out on the best terms. Since then I have been back quite often, written about the place a lot, and named one of their beers 2010 Best Experimental Beer (not mention the other awards that other MBR writers heaped on them including Best New Release and Best Brewery).

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.


  1. I like vintage the best over potosi because they have a larger selection of beers and they are very tasty.

  2. Are you KIDDING ME? Vintage has serious issues. First, and most importantly, the beer. A small improvement over Great Dane style beer, something is clearly lacking: proper textures. Ever get that feeling that the water and the beer content 'feel' separated? For me, its a non-starter.

    Then the food. While Grumpy Troll lacks kitchen quality control that you expect out of a quality brew pub, nothing compares to what I say on my plate at Vintage.

    Plate comes out, I think it was a beef roast with carrots and mashed potatoes (nothing terribly difficult). As garnish for my carrots, I got a HUGE jurassic park sized mosquito mashed on top.

    i can understand a line cook moving quickly just didn't see the GIANT bloodsucking bug as serving spoon smashed it in with my veg.

    What I can't understand is how someone working the pass would just say, fuck it, send it. Thats really bad management. Thats seriously undisciplined.

    So when the waitress also misses this ENORMOUS bug on my food, I flag her and ask for a new plate. The bug had clearly been killed on my plate. Smashed. Its thorax filled with other mammals blood.

    What do they do? Instead of preparing a new piece of meat and new veg, they scraped the carrots off the plate. Put new ones on. Never mind my meat and potatoes that are covered in vampire blood.

    Absolutely disgusting.

    The roast had cooled so much by this point, that when i tasted the congealed gravy, all I could taste was heavy salt.

    My complimentary IPA may have smoothed things over with the waitress, but it did nothing for my appetite.

  3. I haven't had a poor experience at the Vintage though there have been a couple of adventures with their shuttle bus to the Kohl Center. They got my vote on the strength of their beers. My go-to favorite is the Better Off Red, and the Palindrome APA is top-notch too. The Derby Girl ESB, the Toboggan Roggin and the McLovin on nitro were all good, and their pumpkin beer was a delicious end to a meal. As a former JT Whitney's mug club member I'm happy that the place has improved so much on the former brewpub.

  4. Interesting the last two MBR blogs, one about water treatment and the other about the place that took over JT Whitneys. At JT's, they never treated the water, as the beer was harsh and astringent. At least Scott (kinda looks like Rich Becker's younger brother) is treating the water and the beer is more drinkable. Congratulations on being MBR's Brewpub of the year!

  5. Interesting that the water treatment series is written by a guy who used to work at JTs (me). We treated the water when I worked there in mid-2005 to early 2007. I would've done it differently, but Rich's method was fairly effective. Astringency due to high mash and/or sparge pH certainly wasn't a problem. My biggest issue with Whitney's was the fact that almost all of our beers were served in shaker pints at ice cold temperatures, which wasn't necessarily Rich's choice. If we served the beer at proper temperatures in appropriate glassware, I would've put JTs beers up against anybody else's (until the company ran out of money, which had little to do with the brewpub's financial viability).

  6. I can't comment firsthand on JT's beer or history, but I've met a few of their former brewers and can vouch for their personal dedication to good beer and the art and science of making it. I haven't met Rich Becker, (he sounds like a handsome devil), but I hear time and again from former JT's regulars that he made great beer, and that he did the best he could with what he was allowed, up to the bitter end.

  7. I have enjoyed the quality and variety of beer at Vintage as well as the food and atmosphere. Really dig checking out the cask varieties too.

    Not sure what Scooter meant when he/she said "Ever get that feeling that the water and the beer content 'feel' separated?". Now, I am no brewer nor professional beer judge, but I am pretty sure that beer contains water anywhere it is made HA HA! And I especially cant wait to get back in to try the "jurassic park sized mosquitoes"! ;D I must say they do have Jurassic sized burgers though, YUM!

  8. Scooters experience sounds like a fluke! I was in Vintage for dinner a week ago Friday and the place was packed. I was in the bar area this Friday and it was packed, because people were waiting to be seated (even with the back room open). Bad restaurants don't have these kind of crowds consistantly.

  9. After three different tries over a period of nine months(and I'm from out of town, so I don't have a lot of time to "waste" when I'm in Madison), I am on Scooter's side with his assessment. I wanted to like Vintage, I really did, but I was disappointed with the beers available (and on each visit, at least one was unavailable). I was even more disappointed with the lackluster service, even disinterest, on the part of the bartenders. Apparently I am missing something based on the positive reviews from others, but I won't make a special trip to that side of town. I'll spend my money and drink great beer at Ale Asylum, the Danes, Alchemy, Dexters, The Malt House, Old Fashioned, etc. where I know I'll be treated well and get great beer and very good food. I tried, but the Vintage just has not been good for me.

  10. Madison has a lot of competition bar-wise. Vintage is the truest brewpub in Madison at this point though, with Ale Asylum stylistically resting on it's laurels and Great Dane and Capital making off flavored crap. Vintage is living the pan-style brewpub dream. Nice Spring Bock!!!!


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