Fearful Symmetries

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18 December, 2015

A Beer CAMRA Could Love?: Madagascar Vanilla Mild Ale by 3rd Sign Brewery



Waunakee's (the only Waunakee in the world, don’t forget) Octopi Brewing opened its door back in October. The brewery is the brain-child of Isaac Showaki, co-founder and former co-owner of Chicago's 5 Rabbit Cervecería. When that situation went south, Showaki headed north to the Madison area. His experiences with contract brewing while at 5 Rabbit left something of sour taste in his mouth and he was determined not to let other brewers suffer as he did. Hence Octopi which aims to be there for brewers who need extra capacity yet don’t' want to sacrifice quality.

3rd Sign Brewery is Octopi's house brand which demonstrates the brewer's abilities to prospective customers while also establishing a foot hold in the microbrew market. 3rd Sign refers to the third sign in the Zodiac, Gemini. With a twins motif, 3rd Sign brews beer in pairs and so their initial releases were a brace of IPAs and one of English mild ales, each with a slightly different twist than its sibling.

I give Showaki, brewmaster Michael Krause, and marketing director Adam Vavrick credit for brewing a style, the mild ale, that very few in Madison seem to give a rat's ass about. Indeed, the only person I know that gets really excited at the mention of English beers is a friend who spent a year in the UK during college. (You can lead him around by the nose with the mere promise of London Pride.)

My ignorance of English brewing history and tradition far outweighs my knowledge of it. For a primer on the mild check out Ron Pattinson's blog post "A Short History of the Mild". On my to-read list is Martyn Cornell's Amber, Gold, & Black: The History of Britain's Great Beers. While Messrs. Pattinson and Cornell can give you the straight dope on the style, I think of the mild as a low-alcohol dark beer that emphasizes maltiness but with enough hop bitterness and flavor to remind you that there are indeed hops in the brew.

Madagascar features vanilla from the eponymous island nation while it's sibling, Sumatra, is instilled with coffee from its island nation. My wife has taken a shine to Madagascar so we've had bottles of the stuff around the house since it was introduced last month. I finally got around to trying one relatively recently.

The beer pours a dark amber color, so dark, that it was close to being opaque. Putting my glass up to the light it appeared to be clear. I got maybe one finger's worth of khaki froth atop the beer. It didn't seem to be particular effervescent as I observed no bubbles inside. But, as I have mentioned, the beer is very dark.

My nose caught a pungent whiff of vanilla at first sniff. I became a bit worried that this was going to be the equivalent of a DIPA with Madagascar scoring above 100 on the International Vanilla Units scale. Subsequent inhalations revealed some nutty aromas and woody ones too. Bringing up the rear was a hint of toffee.

On my first sip the vanilla was quite pronounced but it mellowed as I drank more. I was surprised at the body which was heavier than I expected. Then I read the label which said that lactose sugar had been added. In addition to body, I think the lactose had a large hand in giving Madagascar its very smooth mouthfeel. On the other hand, it didn't seem to add much sweetness to the flavor. There were some toothsome toffee and apple flavors, however. Grain provided roastiness plus there was oaky flavor too. Despite not seeing much effervescence inside the glass, the carbonation was evident on the tongue. Hoppiness was mild with some faint strains of grassy flavors and little attendant bitterness.

Those hops built up on the finish as the vanilla faded. Never assertive, there was just enough hops to add that nice grassy flavor along with some dryness. The lacing on my glass was wonderful with webbing all over the place.

Madagascar is 4.5% A.B.V. which makes it rather heady for the style. I would have loved to have seen 3rd Sign produce a mild at 3.5-4% to A) see how much flavor could be packed in there and B) just to go against the prevailing attitude in craft beer which is that more is more. (650+ I.B.U.s! Double! Imperial!) My dashed hopes aside, Madagascar is very tasty.

I cannot recommend to prospective drinkers enough to let this beer warm a bit after you pull it out of the refrigerator because it transmogrifies into one pukka brew. The vanilla, while sticking out like a sore thumb initially, eventually integrated itself into the woody and roasted grain flavors of the malt. Those malt flavors become more pronounced while the milk sugar softens and smooths the beer's body. The hops perk up too but never oust the vanilla from pride of place.

Junk food pairing: Despite the vanilla, Madagascar is still something of an unassuming beer. Thusly I recommend less ostentatious accompaniment. Go with some plain potato or corn chips. Dips should be kept at bay, if possible, though guacamole might work.

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|| Palmer, 6:26 PM

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