Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Prairie Gold

Capital Brewery
Middleton, WI

Style: Belgian Ale
ABV: 6.7%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Recommended)

Pair With:
Nigel loves movies.

I’m sure you’re probably all thinking, “Jeez, Nigel, what other earth-shattering confessions do you have?” I’m fully aware that my love of cinema is shared by 99 percent of the country (excluding my father, who hasn’t seen a movie since 1962), but what is not shared nearly as often is the type of movie I prefer. While I do enjoy the occasional mindless diversion, from Judd Apatow comedies to Steven Spielberg’s incoherent droll, I tend to stick with indie films, foreign flicks, and yes … documentaries. I believe in the art of cinema, using film as a way to convey important messages and feelings; spending millions of dollars on cheesy special effects is not terribly artistic or meaningful in my opinion (neither is spending $20 million for untalented drones like Tom Cruise, Adam Sandler, and Matthew McConaughey). This summer, Nigel plans on seeing movies such as Before the Rains, Iron Man, Mongol, and The Visitor, while skipping big budget offerings like Indiana Jones, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Get Smart, The Love Guru, and Hancock (not to mention Sex and the City, but that goes without saying).

What on earth does this have to do with my latest review? Not much, other than the current path of one of Wisconsin’s oldest craft brewers, Middleton’s Capital Brewing, reminds me of a movie that left an impression years ago. Since it was one of those rare movies that combined a big budget and big stars but remained meaningful and mildly artistic, 2000’s Cast Away, with Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt, is one of my guilty pleasures. The famous scene at the end has Hank’s character, fresh off a few years on a deserted Pacific island as the only survivor of a FedEx plane crash, standing on rural roadway in Texas. The world he returned to was different and daunting and he had lost the love of his life, who remarried after he had been presumed dead. So there he is, standing in the west Texas dust, smack-dab in the middle of a crossroads, both literally and figuratively. Perhaps it’s too much visual punctuation, a bit over-done if you will, but it spoke to young Nigel, and I’m thinking it may speak to the folks at Capital as well in this new climate of craft brewing.

Capital’s roots have been referenced in a number of reviews here previously. As a German-inspired brewery that was on the cusp of the craft beer boom, until recently Capital stayed true to that German heritage. This seems to have changed with a vengeance, however, and I’m a bit confused as to what direction Capital is looking to take. Retired in the past couple of years are former staples that helped establish them as one of the jewels of the Midwest: Capital 1900, Klöster Weizen, and Fest Beer, as well as the lesser-known Eisphyre, Dark Doppelbock, and Weizen Doppelbock. In their place have emerged new, non-German brews: Island Wheat, U.S. Pale Ale, Rustic Ale (a new amber selection), Prairie Gold, and Capital Square Series brews Vintage Ale (since retired) and Baltic Porter. While the acclaimed seasonal bocks still remain (Autumnal Fire, Maibock, and Blonde Doppelbock), as do seasonals Winter Skäl and Oktoberfest, this once-proud German brewery seems to have lost its way. Hell, even the label art has undergone a major overhaul that was completely unnecessary.

I wouldn’t be as critical of this shift in philosophy on Capital’s part if it wasn’t for the fact that some of the discontinued brews were fantastic (Klöster Weizen was a summer favorite for Nigel) and the replacements have been far from spectacular (Island Wheat, U.S. Pale Ale, Vintage Ale, and Baltic Porter all disappointed Nigel, though only U.S. Pale Ale falls into the category of unacceptable). It seems as if Capital hired one of those fancy New York-based consulting firms who know absolutely nothing about the market, and they instructed them to stop what their doing and copy everyone else. In an industry that eats the uninspired for lunch, this does not bode well for Capital. While their close neighbors New Glarus, Tyranena, and Furthermore continue to push the envelope, Capital seems lost. While Nigel wishes this Wisconsin staple continued success, I’m not terribly optimistic that they have the proper plan to prosper in this ultra-competitive marketplace. Perhaps they shouldn’t have abandoned their niche.

With that backdrop, lets see what the newest seasonal, Prairie Gold has to offer. Admittedly, I’m intrigued by this. Prairie Gold replaces Fest Beer, which was an Oktoberfest offering that previously held the summer slot. Fest Beer, while German in origin, was not one of “old school” Capital’s better offerings; needless to say, Prairie Gold doesn’t have much to live up to. Described as a Belgian blonde ale with moderate body and a light, somewhat spicy flavor, the goal was to create a light, refreshing summer brew that still packs a punch (6.7% ABV … I was shocked to hear that). It sounds like a great concept … let’s hope they finally pulled off the execution.

Prairie Gold pours with a moderate one inch head that settles to a mild, creamy lace. The color leaves me a bit leery: it’s a crystal-clear golden brown, without any hint of sedimentation and large amounts of bubbles cascading from bottom to top. While it indeed puts the “golden” in Belgian golden ale, I’m surprised it lacks the overall life typically found in the style. The aroma leaves me even more leery: it’s a somewhat stale, generic beer aroma, one that is heavy on the grains rather than the spicy yeast you hope for in a Belgian ale. Pale and caramel malt comes through in abundance, with only a slight hint of banana-clove-coriander spiciness in the background. Not to be outdone, there is a distinct zip of alcohol as well.

The taste redeems Prairie Gold a bit, but it remains firmly entrenched in the “average” category, particularly when compared to other Belgian ales. Initial flavors are heavier on the spice than I was expecting given the timid aroma, with noticeable hints of banana and clove quickly coming to the fore. The spice is quickly tempered by the overwhelming graininess provided by the pale and caramel malt, as well as the earthy tinge of yeast. Something that really stands out is the sting, as Prairie Gold literally bites your tongue. While this isn’t necessarily a bad sensation, unfortunately it isn’t due to a pleasant spiciness or overwhelming hoppiness; rather, the 6.7 percent alcohol is very poorly hidden, and makes its presence felt with every sip. Ultimately this levels off to a mildly tasty, somewhat refreshing brew with lots of malt, some spice, and too much alcohol. Not bad, but it should be better. Medium bodied, Prairie Gold goes down a bit rough, particularly for a summer brew, and leaves a moderate aftertaste.

Before we roll the credits, lets all take a moment to remember Capital as they used to be. While not all of their German-inspired brews were world-class, they at least occupied a unique corner of the marketplace. On a personal level, I’m hoping they succeed in whatever avenue they choose to take, but I miss the old days. Prairie Gold is another step in the Capital transformation, and while it’s more enjoyable than some of its predecessors, it still leaves a lot to be desired. To Capital, a reminder: it’s never too late to turn back.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on July 9, 2008.
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