Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

February 9, 2009

Beer Diary:

Fire, Revisited … Again

Before we close the door on the theory that the Autumnal Fire recipe has been cranked, or even tweaked, let’s hear it from the horse’s patoot.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
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So upon publishing the article Feel The Fire, in which Jug and I tasted side by side by side by side the last four vintages of Capital Brewery’s doppelbock masterpiece Autumnal Fire, we got several comments, a couple of blog posts, and an e-mail regarding our positing. In case you didn’t read the article, and assuming you are too lazy to do so now, let me sum things up: we decided that Capital had changed the recipe over the last four years. All the responses to the article that we saw were either neutral or in agreement to our thesis, except one: that e-mail I mentioned. That e-mail actually came from the brewmaster at Capital, Kirby Nelson. He did not agree with the theories we hatched from the results of our tasting. Not at all.

Kirby and I exchanged a couple of e-mails. He had is own theory: in so many words, we were full of shit. Jug and I stuck to our guns, and maintained our view that there was a huge difference between the older and the younger vintages. So we decided to get together at Kirby’s place—Capital Brewery—and discuss things over a beer.

We ducked into the small offices just off the brewery’s Bier Stube, and introduced ourselves to Kirby. Right off the bat, he, and several other folks working in the brewhouse at Capital, forcefully assured us that the recipe was exactly the same it had been the first time Kirby brewed it at the Great Dane in 1997. He seemed more than a little ticked off about our assumptions. Which, to be honest, he had every right to be. Although we never accused Capital of doing anything wrong—it’s perfectly fine for a brewery to change its recipe—we should have given him a chance to refute our claims before we published them.

Although we never accused Capital of doing anything wrong we should have given them a chance to refute our claims before we published them.
That was a mistake we shouldn’t have made. Even discounting that, Jug and I believed him. Perhaps we’re naive, but we’re going to assume a person we talk to wouldn’t lie to our faces. Unless we’re proven wrong with that person, we’re going to stick to that assumption. After Kirby offered us a couple of pints of Blonde Doppelbock right out of the fermentation tank, we sat down to discuss it further. Despite Kirby and company’s assertions—and the unbelievably delicious, ultra-fresh Blonde—we still maintained there was an easily noticeable difference between the different years of Autumnal Fire that simple aging and oxidation couldn’t explain. So we asked what could have caused these changes, other than a change to the actual recipe. He had several reasons, the first being the differences in malt from year to year, batch to batch.

Which made sense, once he pointed it out. See, Capital doesn’t malt its own barley. In fact, it is the incredibly rare commercial brewery that does. The only ones I can think of off the top of my head are the big ones, Anheuser-Busch or InBev, or whatever the fuck they called themselves now, and their behemoth ilk. And even then the maltings are in specialized facilities separate from where the beer is brewed.

And malting is still far more an art than a science. A very basic recap of what malt is: barley is allowed to germinate, during which it converts stored energy into easily accessible sugar. The maltster then quickly heats the germinated barley, a process known as kilning, to stop germination. This allows the brewer to harvest the barley’s sugars in the mash with which to make beer.

The vast majority of a beer’s flavor—except for maybe unbalanced IPAs—comes from the malt.
The vast majority of a beer’s flavor—except for maybe unbalanced IPAs—comes from the malt. And the intensity of the flavor from the malt depends on the degree and intensity to which the malt is kilned. Darker, roasted malts convey those roasty-toasty flavors you get in porters and stouts, while lightly kilned malts sport subtler flavors in brews such as pale ales and pilsners. But there is no laser gun you can point at malt as it kilns that says, “This is X degress Lovibond.” No, it’s up to the individual maltster to decide what constitutes the adequate kilning of different degrees of malt. Like I said, far more art than science. The same, say, chocolate malt from different maltings may be quite different in flavor and even color. Not to mention what barley was used, where it was grown, and what the weather was like during its growing season.

So, that explanation alone made a lot of sense, especially if you consider how much malt would be in a brew with an original gravity as high as Autumnal Fire has—1.08-plus. And, when we pointed out the exact vintages where our samples diverged, Kirby said they had made some changes/repairs/upgrades during that time period to their kettles that could account for changes in the final product. (I admit I got a little lost during this explanation. If you’ve ever conversed with Kirby, you’ll know that he takes a lot of detours while he’s talking. “I tend to go off on tangents,” he said, interrupting a tangent. “It’s a hobby of mine.”) Even though the kettle explanation was over my head, Jug said it made sense to him, and his brewing knowledge eclipses mine tenfold.

So, let’s set down some definitive answers in digital ink here:

Q: Has the Autumnal Fire recipe been cranked, or even tweaked?

A: No.

Q: Does Autumnal Fire seem different from year to year?

A: Yes. And this is a categorical yes, because there is no way I or Jug can be convinced that Autumnal Fire does not taste different now than it did three, four, five years ago. My memory swears up and down to me that it was a much more intense, challenging beer than it is now. But, these differences are from changes not directly related to the actual recipe. A number of factors could explain even seemingly obvious differences from year to year. In fact, Kirby himself said he’s not all that troubled by said differences, as long as he’s happy with the batch he’s just finished brewing. And as I stated in my very first Autumnal Fire article over a year ago, I don’t see anything wrong with that.

As long as craft brewers continue to strive to create great beer, we’ll be in their corner.
Q: Is Autumnal Fire better or worse in the last couple of years than previous ones?

A: That is for the individual drinker to decide. I like my Fire darker, maltier, and generally bigger. But in my opinion Autumnal Fire is still a phenomenally great beer. Others I’ve talked to said they’ve also noticed a difference from past years, but actually like the newer incarnation better.

Q: You guys make monkeys seem more intelligent in comparison. Or at least better smelling.

A: That isn’t a question, but … we’ll get back to you on that one.

Although it was a blast drinking Blonde Doppelbock (and, later, Maibock) right out of the tank and shooting the shit with Kirby, the whole point of the endeavor was to set the record straight. The reason for the existence of other than the aggrandizement of my and Nigel‘s ego is to celebrate and promote Midwest craft beer, which we think is some of the best in the world. Which means we want Midwest brewers—like Capital—to continue to brew great beer and thrive while doing so. We won’t agree with the methods to their madness 100 percent of the time, and if we think they've done wrong, we won't be afraid to tell them so, but as long as they continue to strive to create great beer, we’ll be in their corner.

Today is the feast day of St. Arnold, patron saint of beer.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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