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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Beer Here: Square Pig Ale from Vintage Brewing

Credit:Robin Shepard

"This is a beer for me," says brewmaster Scott Manning about one of his latest brews to go on tap at Vintage Brewing. This is the time of year that he starts looking for a break from the heavier, fuller-bodied beers of winter. And when you're a brewmaster you can address such dilemmas firsthand. That's why Manning created Square Pig Ale, a flavorful rye beer with the bitterness of a pale ale but without the big body that hoppy beers often have.

Square Pig is hard to classify. It doesn't fit neatly into a specific style, but that can make it a fun beer to try, especially for those looking for something special to usher in spring.

What is it? Square Pig Ale from Vintage Brewing Company of Madison, Wisconsin

Style: The name Square Pig refers to the beer not fitting into a judged style, such as those recognized by groups like the Beer Judge Certification Program or the Brewers Association. While it does share some of the bitter flavor and aromatics of the hoppy American Pale Ale and the India Pale Ale, its recipe is designed to produce a lighter-bodied beer than either of those. What really makes this beer different is that it's a ramped-up version of an American Rye Ale, which the World Beer Cup recognizes as a beer made with least 20% rye. Square Pig boasts a hefty amount of rye, with it reaching nearly 40% of the total malt-grist.

Background: Manning was in the middle of making a big, full-bodied Double India Pale Ale when "something just happened," he says. "I had enough, so I stopped adding malt and looked around the room where the rye was just sitting, so I added that and stopped." Rye, as opposed to barley malt, can make a beer with a less heavy mouthfeel while also adding distinctive spicy and dry qualities.

Square Pig is hopped with a special custom blend varieties, adding plenty of sharp citrus-like bitterness to its flavor. Manning intended this beer to be hoppy and dry, explaining that he "wanted to brew a beer that I can drink a couple of at a time." While that might imply Square Pig is a session beer, it's really not, because it still offers a respectable 5.9% ABV and 64 IBUs (International Bitterness Units). Yet it's lighter in alcohol and body than many double IPAs and malt-heavy winter beers,making it easier to drink more than one at a meal without feeling full or overwhelmed by its strength.

Square Pig sells for $4.50/pint and $10/growler (refill). So far, Manning has brewed only one 10-barrel batch, but he's likely to make it again as summer approaches.

Tasting notes:

  • Aroma: Medium, but firm hoppy aromatics; also, a touch of spicy-earthy rye in the nose.
  • Appearance: Hazy to cloudy bright yellow golden, with a medium, soft off-white head.
  • Texture: Medium-bodied and bubbly.
  • Taste: A sharp citrus bitterness, hints of grapefruit and tangerine.
  • Finish/Aftertaste: The bitterness continues and lingers into firm, long-lasting dryness.

Glassware: Vintage serves Square Pig in the basic bar pint. However, if taking home a growler, this is a nice beer to enjoy in a Willi Becher glass, as its inward flare near the lip will focus the citrus notes in the nose of the beer and brings out those hoppy qualities even more.

Pairs well with: From Vintage's menu, the buffalo chicken sandwich with its pepper jack cheese and spicy heat is a nice companion for the bitterness of this beer. A strong second choice is the Reuben, because there's nothing like corned beef and rye bread.

Rating: Three Bottle Openers (out of four)

The Consensus: Square Pig has not received enough ratings to be evaluated at BeerAdvocate or RateBeer.

The Verdict: Square Pig typifies one of the reasons that fans of Vintage Brewing enjoy making repeat visits. You never quite know what will be on the beer menu at the west side brewpub, and Manning's "wild hare" approach to making Square Pig seems to indicate he's not that sure either. Kidding aside, Manning's ability to adjust or make up a recipe on the fly and still produce a drinkable beer is one example of why he's earned praise from many local beer enthusiasts. That makes a constantly changing beer menu possible, and fun for those who constantly look for new brews to try.

I like Manning's use of rye malt, especially to the level of the spicy character you might find in a good German Roggenbier, like Vintage's Tippy Toboggan. In Square Pig, the rye works well as an accent to the aggressive blend of hops. Bitter beer lovers will enjoy it, particularly if they're looking for something a bit more seasonable than an in-your-face hop monster. And while Square Pig does have less body than many pale ales and IPAs, it's still just as assertive in its grapefruit and tangerine-like bitterness.

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