adventures in craft beer and real food

Thursday, December 28, 2006

First Taste: Capital Vintage Ale

The Capital Brewery (Middleton, WI) made some waves this year by releasing a beer that's just begging to be aged. As an experiment, I want to drink my "Capital Square" four-pack over the next year and trace its development. To achieve a baseline, however, I needed to open one now. Tentatively, I'm going to label the remainder of my bottles as follows:
Bottle 2: open first day of spring 2007
Bottle 3: open first day of autumn 2007
Bottle 4: open January 1, 2008

It's true that most beers do not develop with age beyond a certain point, but then again most wines don't either. What makes strong ales so well suited to aging is their above-average alcohol content and aggressive hopping. Weighing in at 8.5% alcohol, this beer is definitely within style norms for this high gravity ale.

The twist-off bottle opened with a hiss bursting with Kent goldings and cascade hop aroma, nuanced by some yeasty and mineral notes. When poured vigorously into a glass, the nose demonstrated extreme restraint. Only a decided yeast and faint hop aroma was detectable.

The ale had a rich, warm copper color that was perfectly clear. Many small bubbles rose to the surface, but the carbonation was understated as is appropriate for the style. This lead to a small head of about 2 mm that disappeared almost instantly. The color was unexpectedly light, given the style, but this fact made the beer more surprising and interesting given the stiff hopping and malty backbone.

The flavors are dominated by a progression of complex malt flavors that progress across the mouth like a parade. The first taste is bready like childhood memories of grandma's house. This flavor morphs into a more biscuity maltiness before fading into a warm, generic malt flavor. The hopping is up-front, but not dominating, resulting in a beer that is quite bitter with little hop flavor or aroma. There are hints of vanilla, orange juice, and the tart quality of grapefruit as the beer warmed in the glass. The flavor experience is intense as the beer is slightly viscous and the flavor seems to concentrate on the back of the tongue and on the roof of the mouth, possessing a tannic quality I would normally associate with a red wine. There is also a fair amount of residual sugar in the flavor that gives me high hopes for the continued development of this ale. The beer is almost immediately warming, and is strong enough to demand sipping. This more rewarding than it sounds, however, as the taste persists in the mouth for several minutes.

I don't want to make this beer sound like a brute that would knife you in a dark alley or steal your wallet. It's not that. The flavor demonstrates an admirable level of restraint, which makes the flavor experience very precise and controlled despite the strength. The beer has a great ale-ish character, a certain wildness to the flavor that isn't too clean, that wasn't reined in by the brewer to make it more polite and docile. Even the carbonation attested to that, as more carbonation would certainly have made it overly bitter and astringent on the palate. It would have been easy to push this beer too far and wind up with a barley wine. The very fact that the Capital Brewery instead got Vintage Ale is a remarkable feat of craftsmanship.

With any luck, this craftsmanship with shine for some time to come.