Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

November 26, 2007

Beer Diary:

Everlasting Fire

Taste testing three years of Capital Brewing’s Autumnal Fire side by side by side.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
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You could say Capital Brewing has pretty much perfected the art of the dopplebock. Their Blonde Dopplebock is so damn good that the simple fact of its yearly release is enough of an occasion to get hundreds of people to gather outside for six hours at the end of February in Wisconsin, no matter how cold it is (average temperature in Middleton at this time: 23°) or how much snow has fallen (this past year they got about a foot). Their Dark Dopplebock is one of those beers that you get up in the middle of the night to take out of the beer fridge and pet just for reassurance that it is actually real (I’ve never done this, I swear). But the crown jewel of Capital’s dopplebock family is their highly esteemed fall seasonal, Autumnal Fire. This is, without a doubt, one fantastic beer: an opulently dark, fiery red in the pour, with a heavy malt sweetness balanced out by a shot of subtle hop assertiveness.

And I am convinced, without any tangible evidence other than my memory and palate, that Capital tweaks the recipe of this phenomenal beer from year to year.

Of course, this is pretty easy to claim and equally difficult to prove. Over time palates change and memories fade, and barring the invention of a time machine—or an admission from Capital’s brewmaster—there’s no way to empirically say if this is indeed the case. So, being a rather resourceful monkey, I did the next best thing: for the last three falls I’ve grabbed an extra six-pack of Autumnal Fire and stashed it away in the ol’ beer closet. Now, after two years of hoarding, I’m going to sit down and sample three vintages of Autumnal Fire side by side by side to see if I can decipher any differences in consistency.

But first, a word on consistency. A lot of lip service has been paid to the merits of consistency when it comes to beer, especially when folks are talking about the macro producers. Macro apologists will take great pains to point out the extreme difficulty a brewer faces in order to make a beer look and taste the same across multiple batches. This is undeniably true. The problem is these people go so far as to use the word “consistency” interchangably with “quality.” Highly consistent crap doesn’t mean the crap is any less crappy. In fact, it makes the producer look like that much more of an idiot for expending so much effort on something so mediocre—or, in the case of macro producers, downright shitty.

In fact, I see nothing wrong with a craft brewer tweaking a recipe from batch to batch, especially if it’s a seasonal. Radical changes would, of course, be misleading and a bit of a turnoff, but sitting around the table with other beer dorks discussing whether this year’s Autumnal Fire is a bit maltier than last year’s, or has more of a hop bite to it than past batches—I really can’t see anything wrong with that.

Purists may decry this practice as some sort of revisionist history, or maybe even ruining what they considered to be a perfect beer. I’m sorry to break these people’s hearts, but there is no such thing as a “perfect” beer. Besides, this whole concept of consistency is basically trying to enforce rigidity and anal-retentiveness on a process that is anathema to such constraints. The big X factor in consistent beer is yeast. And like the best craft brewers, yeast are independent-thinking little beasts. They really bridle when you try to tell them what they can and can’t do. They want to evolve and probe the edges of their boundaries. And trying to force them into some sort of lock-stepped consistency is, well, unnatural.

Enough on consistency. On to the beers. I kept these six packs in a dark place (the beer closet) that hovered around 72° during their entire stay. I don’t want this article to turn into a treatise on cellaring beer, but the conditions the older Autumnal Fires were stored under were admittedly not ideal, but roughly acceptable. In any event, the dopplebock is a good candidate for aging, what with its heavy maltiness and high ABV.

Let’s light this fire.

The ’05 pours a deep, cloudy ruby underneath a thin, almost non-existent head. The ’06 is similar, but even cloudier, with a little bigger head that sticks around for a minute or two after the pour. This year’s vintage enters the glass much lighter, a translucent, gorgeous deep crimson without a hint of cloudiness. The head is about a finger high and relatively thick. It hangs around for the tasting.

In the nose, the two older releases are as different to the ’07 as night and day. Both the ’05 and ’06 exhibit massive amounts of malt aromas literally wafting off the top of the glass, the ’05 moreso than the ’06. This year’s Fire has definite malt notes—big malt, compared to most beers—but nothing compared to the older versions. There’s also some hints of tinny spiciness, maybe from the hops.

Not surprisingly, the two older brews are heavy and sweet on the palate. The ’05 sips with tons of syrupy malt without anything to hold that thick, honey-like sweetness in check, ending with a shot of alcohol to coat the tongue. The ’06 is a bit more oxidized, and the maltiness, while heavy and thick, isn’t nearly as intense as ’05’s and not enough to mask the off flavors of the oxidation. This year’s vintage is much brighter and sharp, with a malty but clean palate. There is some alcoholic warmth at the end as well as some hoppiness to balance things out.

So after all that, what’s the verdict? The answer is a bit more complex than I had anticipated when embarking upon this little experiment. You could say I didn’t see any evidence contradicting my theory that the recipes had been tweaked, at least between the ’06 and ’07 vintages. But what this experiment really did was highlight the effects of aging on beer. Again, not to go into an essay on the topic, but aging beers basically dulls hoppiness while accentuating malt and alcohol. Which is exactly what I found to be the case with the Autumnal Fire—that mammoth malty sweetness in the two older beers.

This year’s beer was without a doubt the more drinkable of the three, with a perfect malt/hop balance and a much lighter and cleaner body. But personally I like the ’05 version better. It was heavy and thick and warming, with an almost overwhelming maltiness, transforming it into a challenging beer to finish. And it reminds me most closely of the first time I tried Autumnal Fire, probably six or seven years ago. At the time I thought it was a complex malt monster not for the uninitiated, but with a big hop presence that would have been wiped out by the aging process.

But does that mean the recipe has, indeed, been tweaked, or is that marked difference between the ’06 and ’07 solely from one year of cellaring? I’m going to push the former, mainly because I don’t think you’re going to see that kind of difference in just one year of aging, but also because it’s the conclusion that best helps my argument. I guess we’ll figure it out for sure when I taste test the ’05, ’06, ’07, and ’08 vintages next year …

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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