"I love malt-emphasized beers," says Wisconsin Brewing Company's Kirby Nelson. That's an understatement to those who have followed Nelson's passion for brewing malt-focused German lagers. However, it raises a question. Since opening Wisconsin Brewing in Verona last November, why has he waited so long to make a Maibock? "Kirby has been dreaming about this beer for a long time; the question was timing," says Wisconsin Brewing president Carl Nolen. Wisconsin Brewing has debuted four main styles: the hop-focused American IPA and its Session IPA alongside Amber Lager and Brown Porter. Nelson has intentionally stayed away from bock beers, a style he pretty much defined for local drinkers during his 27 years at Middleton's Capital Brewery.
While his newest brew for Wisconsin Brewing might seem like deja vu to his loyal fans, it's much more of a tribute to Nelson's overall life as a brewmaster, hence the name "Big Sweet Life."
What is it? Big Sweet Life Maibock from Wisconsin Brewing Company.
Style: Maibock is an early springtime version of bock beer. It's a lager that's customarily brewed in the dead of winter and aged until spring. The style tends to be a little lighter in color than traditional bock beers. The Maibock is medium-bodied with deep golden to clear copper color and moderate to strong malty aroma. Maibocks emphasize malt, and while some hoppy bitterness might be evident, it should not be assertive -- just enough to lend crispness to the profile and especially the beer's finish. Maibocks are around 6%-8% ABV.
Background: The timing of this Maibock had a lot of do with Nolen and Nelson leaving Capital Brewery. (Nolen also served there, as brewery president from 2004 to 2011.) "The last thing we wanted to do was cling too closely to our roots. We wanted to start strong with other beers," says Nolen. That's why Big Sweet Life didn't appear until the new brewery's fifth release, six months after opening.
Nelson started working in earnest on the recipe for this Maibock back in January and released a pilot batch at the Great Dane Brewpub in downtown Madison in February. That first batch was simply called WBC #005, in reference to the fifth beer to be released by Wisconsin Brewing Company. "As time goes on I've learned that most beers are a work in progress; they evolve, and that's the fun of it," says Nelson.
The initial trial batch allowed Nelson to play with different malts and in different amounts before scaling up the recipe in the larger Wisconsin Brewing brew house. Big Sweet Life is made with five different malts. Among the most evident in the beer's hints of caramel and biscuit-breadness is Melanoidin malt, which lends reddish-copper coloring and intense malt character. "A little of that malt goes a long way," says Nelson who determined that after the initial batch at the Great Dane he needed to back off, to less than 2% of the total grist. Big Sweet Life doesn't fit into the hoppy beer genre, but Nelson uses just enough Liberty hops to lend balance and a clean finish. "This is 'my' bock and there are different characteristics and different ways to achieve that Maibock personality," says Nelson.
For those wondering about how Big Sweet Life and Capital Maibock might compare side by side: There is a difference, but it's probably slight to even the most discerning drinkers. There's a touch more malty sweetness and just a little more body to Capital Maibock, which is also a little darker in color. Big Sweet Life has firm malty sweetness, yet it's cleaner, with a hint of spicy-earthiness from the Melanoidin malt in the background.
Big Sweet Life is not only the first Maibock from Wisconsin Brewing, it's also the first beer that the brewery has given a name other than a style reference. The name comes from the song "Big Sweet Life," by Austin musician Jon Dee Graham. Nelson says he first heard Graham perform the song in 2012 at Kiki's House of Righteous Music in Madison.
"Big Sweet Life describes our philosophy at Wisconsin Brewing," says Nelson. "We have the privilege of making beer for a living, so how can we not have a big sweet life to enjoy?" When he asked Graham for permission to name his beer "Big Sweet Life," Graham responded, "Sure, it's beautiful symmetry."
Big Sweet Life will be a seasonal brew for Wisconsin Brewing. The beer ends up at around 6.5% ABV. Six-packs sell for $8-$9.
In other news, while Nelson was on a recent vacation to a secluded cabin in Florida, he worked up ideas for a saison. Since returning, he's again teamed up with Great Dane owner and brewmaster Rob LoBreglio at the brewpub's Wausau location to make a trial batch of a farmhouse ale. "One thing I find appealing about saisons is that they are the 'kitchen sink' approach to brewing, you can use a variety of ingredients, and they ultimately fit in to what's been categorized as a saison, and that's fun," he says.
- Aroma: Light biscuit-maltiness.
- Appearance: Bright, brilliant golden-copper color with a medium, soft, tan head.
- Texture: Medium-bodied, with bubbly roundness.
- Taste: A smooth, malty body. A very light spicy-earthy, (somewhat similar to very mild hop bitterness) from the Melanoidin malt, which lends a snappy crispness to the overall flavor.
- Finish/Aftertaste: A light lingering maltiness that doesn't stick around long. A clean finish with just a hint of alcoholic warmth.
Glassware: The Willi Becher is a great glass for this bright golden-copper Maibock. Its inward taper at the top holds the head and gently focuses the biscuit tones under the nose.
Pairs well with: This beer offers a nice solid maltiness that's smooth and balanced. It should go well with rich beefy stews and wild game. Also, there's just the right amount of malty sweetness to pair well with brats on the grill.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four).
The Verdict: Big Sweet Life is has quickly become my favorite Wisconsin Brewing beer. It's been interesting to watch as Nelson and Nolen define their brewery's niche in a burgeoning craft beer market, and this beer will become part of that identity. Big Sweet Life is malt-forward, yet nicely balanced. It has a brilliant golden-copper color, a nice soft head, and firm malty underpinnings that fit well with what one expects from the style. What surprised me most was the spicy bitter-like accent from the Melanoidin malt. It's certainly not assertive and doesn't get in the way of the sweetness, and the overall malt flavors still take center stage with firm, bready-biscuit tones. There's also a slight warmth in the end from the 6.5% ABV. Its mouthfeel is on the lighter-bodied side of Maibocks; however, there's plenty of malty sweetness and alcoholic strength.
I like this beer for its smoothness and drinkability. It's also nice to see Kirby Nelson making the malty beer styles that he's known for.