Fearful Symmetries

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04 March, 2014

Fanning the Spark Kindled by the Whispering Embers: A Rauch Oktoberfest by Valkyrie Brewing

Back in January I first noticed that Valkyrie Brewing (formerly Viking) was distributing down here in Madison again when I saw a lone bottle of their Rubee red lager in the singles section at Woodman's East. The following week I saw four-packs there of two or three flavors. Then I discovered that Riley's carried a beer that Woodman's didn't - Whispering Embers. A quick trip to Riley's and I was hope with a four-pack.

Whispering Embers is a smoked Oktoberfest and, if the brewery's webpage is to be believed, it is released in September when it should be instead of in July when most other breweries are switching from their fall to winter seasonals. A rauch Märzen seems like a splendid idea to my mind. Märzen is the German word for March which was when many beers were brewed there back in the dim and distant past before modern refrigeration. After March it became too cold to brew so these beers were held in cold storage over the warmer months and thusly had a bit more alcohol in them than other brews. The emphasis is on the malt here.

When I poured this beer, I was rather surprised at the color. Don't get me wrong, it's a gorgeous gold but Märzens are usually darker and more copper in color. It was clear as glass with a smattering of large bubbles making their way up to the rather small head which lingered for a while. (I poured fairly aggressively to get a bigger head but failed.) Ooh, the aroma. That ham-like smoky goodness was most prominent and came first. It was joined by a bit of sweetness which reminded me of apricot.

That smokiness in the nose was also on full display in the taste. Despite the color I found that the beer had bready sweetness and stone fruit flavors which were in harmonious balance with the smoke. Valkyrie says they get the smoked malt in Whispering Embers from Bamberg, Germany, home of the rauchbier. The only German rauchbiers I've had come from Schlenkerla who also have a rauch märzen. Valkyrie's take on the style isn't as smoky as Schlenkerla's but the flavor is still much more prominent than you find in – using a local example – Karben4's smoked porter, NightCall.

The light color of the beer did translate into a lighter mouthfeel than your normal Oktoberfest and slightly less alcohol as well – only 5% A.B.V. It still had plenty of malt flavor but it lacks the toffee flavors of many Märzens and so went down more easily. You get a bit of herbal hop flavor as the beer reaches the back of your tongue which becomes more grassy and more prominent in the dry finish. These hop flavors at the end make a nice contrast to all the smoke and sweetness.

Whispering Embers is a fantastic brew. A tasty twist on the conventional Oktoberfest and even more positive alliterations. Wonderful on a chilly winter night, the beer's relatively light body would no doubt go well during the other seasons as well.It's malt forward and has plenty of smoky goodness. Plus there's a bit of hops for contrast and dryness in the finish. The only thing that could make it better would be some rye in the grain bill.

Junk food pairing: Whispering Embers pairs well with processed cheese food products with either salami or bacon.

As I mentioned above, Valkyrie used to be Viking Brewing. I toured the brewery a few years ago and you can read about that adventure here.

A couple weeks ago Robin Shepard of Isthmus wrote about the return of Valkyrie to Madison's shelves. (Riley's has a wonderful selection, including bombers.) Reading this:

Lee still makes beer on nearly the same system that he self-fabricated from used dairy equipment in 1994... Valkyrie Brewing is located in a century-old building that's almost entirely concrete and brick, so all seasons present heating or cooling challenges, and that dictates Lee's brewing schedule. "Summers are hard because you have to fight the building; in the winter it's too cold to make ales," says Lee. Therefore, Lee focuses on lagers in the winter and ales in the summer.

...made me think that it's time to bring back the terms "microbrew" and "microbrewer". Why use the presence of adjuncts in your flagship beer to determine whether you're craft or not? If you built your own brewing equipment and brew lagers in the winter and ales in the summer because your building doesn't have modern HVAC to compensate, I think you are a "craft" brewer in a way that, say, Kirby Nelson at Wisconsin Brewing Company isn't.

Here's Valkyrie's brewmaster Randy Lee standing by one of his brewing vessels.

And here's Kirby doing the same.

This isn't to disparage Kirby. I have been drinking and enjoying his beers for well over 20 years now.

However, there are connotations associated with the word "craft" that I think most people would agree don't apply to a table made of particle board and glue in a mega-factory in China. But what is more "craft-like": A) a table made out of solid wood in a small factory with robotic arms that move and cut all the wood with precision or B) an Amish carpenter with a workshop full of handsaws and a foot-operated table router where no two biscuit joints are exactly alike?

Randy Lee may be a craft brewer in my eyes while Kirby Nelson is a microbrewer, but they both make some great beer.

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|| Palmer, 3:08 PM


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