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.
Contact Eddie»
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.

That's not fair! I have to wait to get my hands on the Blonde Doppelbock. I'm truly jealous.
posted by Ryan | February 9, 2009, 4:42 PM
Don't feel bad. Kirby's always ticked off about everything.

By his explanation though, shouldn't some of the years be DARKER than others? And, according to your articles, that just didn't happen - they were each successively lighter.
February 10, 2009, 8:49 AM
If the malt is the sole reason, then yes, they COULD be lighter, but not necessarily SHOULD be lighter. The kettle issues/upgrades he talked about could have more effect than the malt differences. The '07 and '08 Autumnal Fires were lighter than the previous two years. Maybe next year's will be darker. We'll see. But only two years out of our four samples doesn't make the most ironclad case.
posted by EddieGlick | February 10, 2009, 11:45 AM
I should have also noted that Kirby gave Jug and I a six-pack of Blonde to take home. On the way home, we stopped at a bar for one last drink, Jug ditched me, took the Blonde, and drank it all himself!
posted by EddieGlick | February 10, 2009, 10:12 PM
That's not entirely true. I shared one Blonde with a red head I know.
posted by Jug | February 11, 2009, 8:54 AM
My only problem is that you seem to have largely abandoned your original thesis after a lecture by the manufacturer of the product, who clearly is going to be biased. I think Capital's products have noticeably suffered in the past few years, especially with continued releases of awful shit like Island Wheat and Rustic Ale. Their bocks are still of high quality, but I too notice subtle changes in Autumnal Fire. While Kirby's explanations may in fact be valid, I think it would be foolish of Eddie and Jug to just dismiss their well thoughtout theories and buy into the company line. Free beer can sway even the staunchest of Beer Dorks!
posted by Nigel | February 17, 2009, 12:02 AM
The original thesis is that the Autumnal Fire recipe changed. The brewer said to my and Jug's face that it did not change and gave valid-sounding reasons why the end product is different. We did, indeed, discuss some of Capital's direction and marketing/production decisions with Kirby, but I decided to focus on Autumnal Fire for this article. Apparently we should have stuck to our theory, rejected the valid-sounding reasons, and told Kirby he was a liar.
posted by EddieGlick | February 17, 2009, 8:31 AM
Precisely. Seriously though, I'm not rejecting his explanations, as they sound plausible to me and are very likely valid. But you have to be careful, because obviously he is going to staunchly defend his product, regardless of the circumstances. You guys had a very valid argument, and shouldn't just buy into his explanations because they sound good to you while sipping Blonde Dopplebock straight from the tap. If the president of GM gives me a new Corvette and then tells me his Mexican-made products are just as good as the ones made 30 years ago by skilled domestic laborers, I'd probably believe him too, despite plenty of evidence saying gtherwise.
posted by Nigel | February 17, 2009, 11:36 PM
Can't we get spell-check on this damn thing??
posted by Nigel | February 17, 2009, 11:47 PM
?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.?
posted by EddieGlick | February 18, 2009, 12:02 PM
Nigel, you're saying his explanations sound logical to you but you're accusing me of copping out at the same time. What is it you know that I don't about what was said, or is it you are just calling me easily swayed or a liar? Perhaps you just know more about brewing than the Kirby, Eddie or myself. Don't get me started.
posted by Jug | February 18, 2009, 11:00 PM
It has nothing to do with what you guys or Kirby know about brewing, and yes, I agree with you guys that his explanations do in fact sound legit and are most likely true. I'm simply saying that you wrote an article that you spent much time and did much research on, came to a solid conclusion, then retracted it after a meeting with the brewer. It's his product... of course he's going to defend it at all costs. That's his job. Legit or not, you guys flip-flopped after his defense and in my opinion, that shoots your credibility. If all it takes to convince you that you were mistaken is a short lecture by the brewer, then you probably shouldn't have written the article without consulting him in the first place. You wrote a detailed article, then 2 weeks later basically said "oops, our bad... I guess there's a simple explanation". You should've researched that potential explanation before doing the article in the first place and avoided the whole need for a "correction".
posted by Nigel | February 22, 2009, 12:07 PM
"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. That was a mistake we shouldn?t have made."
posted by EddieGlick | February 22, 2009, 7:31 PM
To respond to Nigel's comments about preparing for your first article, I have to say that not only is it completely justified from a journalistic standpoint to simply write your opinion about a product tasting without contacting the manufacturer, as someone who covers beer in Wisconsin it is very difficult to get any answers from Capital or Kirby about anything. I'm frankly shocked that you guys got this meeting. We received an angry email from Kirby just for TALKING ABOUT YOUR ORIGINAL POST on Autumnal Fire, not even saying that we believe it to be true. Then when we tried to ask them about another unrelated issue (the fact that they now brew their bottled beer at Stevens Point) he replied that he didn't want to talk to people who didn't care about the truth, referencing our reference to your post. So, Nigel, would it have been better to contact Capital before the post? Sure. But should they be required to contact every brewer whose beer they review? And in this case, even if they did, they likely wouldn't have gotten a response until afterward.

Beer Talk Today
posted by Matt | February 24, 2009, 10:12 AM
Eddie and Jug didn't flip flop. They said that the beer had changed and that they didn't care for the new version. In the original article they said that they thought the recipe had been changed. They got further information that they were wrong, but they never changed from their original opinion that the older stuff was different and better. What they did do was explain why after gathering more information. Their opinion on the beer did not change, what changed was they were able to give a better explanation on why the beer is different. Credibility increases when more facts can be brought to light.
posted by Baby-boy | February 25, 2009, 5:30 PM
First off, to clarify, the article in question was not a review. Reviews are found only here. They represent our opinions about certain beers, and for those we will not apologize.

However, our article stated "the [Autumnal Fire] recipe was, indeed, tweaked between the 2006 and 2007 batches. Hell, not just tweaked, but cranked." It was put forth as though it were not an opinion but fact. As Baby-boy put it in the above comment, once we learned more information—most importantly, that Capital does not strive to make the beer taste exactly the same from year to year—we thought a correction was warranted. Some readers may have viewed Capital in a negative light because of what we had written. And now, regarding that, let me make myself clear about this:

The point of is promote and celebrate Midwest craft beer. We think it is some of the best beer in the world and it deserves accolades as such. We are not in the business of attacking independently owned craft breweries that are committed to making good beer first and money second. We may not agree with their business decisions (I'm still miffed at Founders for putting Black Rye on hiatus). We may not even like or recommend their beers. But as long as they are committed to beer—not just the taste of beer, but the idea of beer—above all else, then we will support them. But if they are not, if they are something like Minhas, which is basically just a bottling plant that calls itself a craft brewery while leeching off of New Glarus's success, or Leinenkugel's, which churns out mostly tasteless swill with multi-million dollar ad campaigns in the quest for market share, then no holds are barred. After sitting down with Kirby and talking for more than an hour and a half, Jug and I were reassured that Capital is one of the former, not the latter. (For those of you who are dense on those terms, the former is committed to craft beer, the latter not.)

If anyone doesn't agree with me or wants to discuss in further detail, contact me. Maybe this will spill over into another article in the future.
posted by EddieGlick | February 25, 2009, 9:17 PM

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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