Fearful Symmetries

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25 July, 2011

Capital's Ex-President Turns Corporate Raider

First came the news that Capital Brewery's president Carl Nolen had been given his walking papers. Then just a few days later it is announced that Nolen has transformed into T. Boone Pickens and is leading a group of investors seeking to take Capital over.

The proposed purchase, along with a new infusion of money into the 25-year-old business, is designed to double or even triple the brewery’s annual production of 25,000 barrels of beer and increase the size of the Middleton brewery.

In an interview with Nolen last year as he and the brewery were basking in the glow of Supper Club's success, expansion was a big issue, namely moving into Minnesota and Iowa. Also discussed was how the brewery was changing.

Q: The brewery began making traditional German lagers. Has the success of Supper Club and Island Wheat changed the profile of the brewery?

A: I think so, a little bit. Kirby (Nelson, brewmaster) said something a couple months ago that really hit home and that is that we’re really a traditional Wisconsin brewer. That’s who we are. When we started, it made a lot of sense that we were making German-style beers because that’s what this movement was all about a long time ago. It’s been a great learning experience with (Island Wheat and Supper Club). It’s helped us understand the full package of what it takes to be a player with innovation and product introduction.

So perhaps moving away from being a "traditional Wisconsin" brewery and German styles is the issue here. I sure hope not because the Special Pilsner and Munich Dark are my standard beers – the brews I try to always have on hand – and I'm sure they'd be the first to go if new owners reshuffle things and attempt to reorient the brewery. Like Nolen said, German-style beers are what the craft brew movement was all about a long time ago which implies that it's not what it is about now.

Over the past few years Capital has seemed ambivalent about its reputation as a brewer of lagers. On the one hand, it has put out some very tasty bocks. In addition to its usual Maibock and Blonde Doppelbock, the Capital Square Series has given us the Tett and Weizen Doppelbocks. Plus there was the Hop Bock, a test brew. But on the other we've had U.S. Pale Ale, Rustic Ale, and Island Wheat move into the annual line-up. A Belgian, Prairie Gold, became the summer seasonal for a year as well. On the R&D side, there was that batch of Island Wheat handed over to Belgian yeast and now you can find Hop Cream "A" on tap at the biergarten. (Or at least you could. I'm not sure if it's gone or not.) From the Capital newsletter:

This is the first trial of a Cream Ale that has an infusion of hops added to it in the lagering stage. We are trying to create a beer where the aroma and flavor are very hop forward, yet the finish remains smooth and non-bitter.

Trail "A: utilizes Northern Brewer as the infused hop. This hop contributes a flavor that is different than the hops used in the majority of the Pale Ales and IPA's you may be accustomed to.

My hope is that if the brewery, for whatever reason, decides to change things up, it won't abandon German beer styles. There are many that Capital hasn't tried – the Kölsch, alt, gose, schwarzbier, kellerbier, Berliner weisse, et al. I saw a photo recently of the beer menu at a German brewery and it had a roggenbier (rye ale) and a schwarzbier made with smoked malt. Capital has already ventured into the bourbon barrel aging trend with Autumnal Fire and Imperial Doppelbock getting the treatment. And there's the "vertical beer" thing.

Metropolitan down in Chicago brews German styles yet they experiment. They added a lot more hops to a pilsner and called it an India Pale Lager. Their alt has had been infused with ginger and peppercorns (though not at the same time) for something unique. Besides, lagers are staging something of a comeback in the craft brew world. Look at what Coney Island is doing.

Que Sera, Sera.
|| Palmer, 10:54 AM


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