Thursday, March 6, 2014

Capital Brewery-The Home of Real Wisconsin Beer

The beer culture of Wisconsin can be traced back to the 1800s as a great wave of German settlers invaded the Badger State. Those settlers brought old world beer recipes that kept with the traditional brewing practice of “purity." As the population of the state boomed, so did the number of local breweries in Wisconsin. Practically every town had its own brewery and Milwaukee itself became one of the great beer towns of the world. Prohibition shut all of those beer making operations down. After the repeal of prohibition, the global export economy of the US exploded and only a few of the larger brewery operations re-opened. The small hometown brewer was no match for large scale mass marketing and large distribution channels tied to one or two breweries. For many decades fans of beer in Wisconsin were left with over produced, underwhelming “beer."

The brewing process displayed at Cap Brewery
In the early 1980s, thanks to local Madison entrepreneur Ed Janus, Wisconsinites were re-introduced to real beer. Janus’s idea was to bring traditional pre-prohibition German style lagers with Wisconsin love and craftsmanship to market. With the craft beer boom still far off,  this idea sounded crazy to potential market investors. With this in mind Janus took his idea to the beer drinkers of Wisconsin in a series of town hall meetings and advertisements (much like a politician) looking to raise enough money to start his brewery.  His efforts were rewarded by those great beer drinkers and enthusiasts in Wisconsin (which to this day makes Capital Brewery unique)  and in 1986 Capital Brewery of Middleton, Wisconsin produced its first pure German style lagers. We were lucky enough to tour and taste Ed’s creation and pay homage to one of the original heroes of craft brewing in America.

Summertime means beer in the garden
Our tour of this former egg factory turned brewery began outside before the official tour kicked off. One of the gems of Capital Brewery is its outdoor Bier Garden. Though it wasn’t operational on the frigid January day we were there we were able to take a look around. Standing there you could imagine a great bunch of people sitting out on a warm Wisconsin summer day enjoying great beer and great company. 

From the Bier Garden we moved on to pick up our tour tickets in the gift house. On that particular day the brewery had an extra buzz to it as it was the official first day to pick up tickets to Capital Bockfest. Bockfest is the annual celebration of the limited release return of Capital’s two highly decorated beers the Blond Dopplebock and Maibock for around 2500 lucky beer lovers. To say the mood was festive inside the brewery that day would be selling the mood short.

Start the tour surrounded by beer
After receiving our tour tickets, which were a new flight glass and 4 bottle caps which equaled a free flight after the tour, we moved to the packaging room for our Capital Brewery history lesson. What I loved about the lesson at Capital was the passion and pride that you could feel from our guide. We learned that Capital is one of the few craft brewers to be a majority lager brewery. This fact went back to the story of Ed Janus and why he started the brewery. Capital Brewery set out to be the flavor of Wisconsin, and even though they produce some wonderful ales, the base of the German blood of Wisconsinites is golden lager. And everyone that works there was proud of that heritage.

We moved on through a bottling room and into the brew house. At one end of the brew house were large milk storage tanks. Capital’s beer is stored in these tanks before being shipped offsite to Stevens Point Brewery 90 miles north of Middleton in a partnership with them for bottling and packaging as the Capital site does not have the room for that operation. In an effort to bring that all in house though, Capital Brewery is opening a new larger capacity brewery about 30 minutes outside of Madison. Not only will this bring the bottling and packaging under Capital’s control, it will also expand capacity by three times and leave the original brewery we toured available for more small batch experimentation and limited release beers to have their own home.

Fantastic copper kettles
For me the brew house also offered a glimpse at one of my favorite things in breweries, the copper kettles. I have a real love for the old world kettles. For many new breweries used copper kettles are not worth the cost and aren't very easy to get to the US. As luck would have it though, Capital had constructed their operation around a couple of beautiful kettles from German brewery Hoxter. This gave the brewery tour a real authentic finish.

With the tour of the brewery completed we  migrated to the Bier Stube to enjoy our flights of some of Capital’s finest. Our group was made up of fans of very distinctive beers which gave our tasting a real mix. This allowed us to sample a whole host of what the brewery had to offer. Since Capital Brewery has been so highly decorated around the world including being awarded Grand National Champion at the US Open Beer Championships, we couldn’t go wrong.

The Bier Stube, a fine place to grab a few of Capital's best
One of the flagship brews at Capital is the Wisconsin Amber. It may sound dumb or cliché, but Wisconsin Amber tastes like what beer is supposed to taste like. It’s a rich malty lager with just a bit of a hit of hops at the end. Wisconsin Amber has a moderate ABV and should be drinkable to all palates. I started there and moved on to Capital Jobu, which had just been tapped that day so we were lucky. The Jobu is a Rum Barrel Aged Brown Ale. The beer was dark brown but fairly clear in color. The rum gave this brown a very sweet aroma and taste. For a brown Ale with a decently high ABV , the Jobu was easily drinkable and almost light. With so many flavors and lack of overwhelming “brown” taste I had to grab another Jobu while I could.

As for everyone else in our group, there was a mix of the Capital Island Wheat, Mutiny IPA, Winter Skaal, and Supper Club. The Island Wheat gets its name from Washington Island where, like Death’s Door Distillery, the wheat is grown. The Island Wheat is a smooth American wheat beer easily drinkable in any setting. The Mutiny IPA is Capital’s first IPA and a very recent addition to the lineup. Unlike the IPAs of the coast, Mutiny does not have the bitterness that many IPA junkies crave. For fans of a lighter style of beer Mutiny still has a hop kick to it, yet is still very drinkable with some very nice citrus notes to it.

Support local brewers like Capital at the brewery and at home
From an IPO made up of tavern owners and patrons to a new 100,000 barrel facility there has always been one constant with this brewery. Capital has stuck to their core as a traditional brewer with a degree in craft ingenuity. They make great beer in a place filled with beer lovers. The Madison area and Wisconsin in general are filled with activities all year long.  A stop at Capital Brewery for a look at their kettles and a few of their beers should be one of your activities when you make it to the area. You'll be glad you did.