Wee Heavy at Vintage Brewing Company
If you're looking to toast St. Paddy's Day with a beer, try Scotch ale, sometimes called the Wee Heavy. It's a beer style that with a profile similar to that of the Irish reds and stouts that traditionally get tapped this time of year, only maltier. Vintage brewmaster Scott Manning is bringing back his Wee Heavy, a silver medal winner at the 2011 Great American Beer Festival, just in time to celebrate.
What is it? Wee Heavy from Vintage Brewing Company of Madison, Wisconsin.
Style: Scottish-style beers tend to emphasize malt. The Wee Heavy, or Scotch ale, is the boldest of Scottish brews, with a rich bronze color, malty sweetness and strength that ranges from 6% to 8% ABV. A Scotch ale may also be made with peat-smoked malt, which adds smoky and earthy tones to the aroma and flavor profile.
Background: Serving Wee Heavy has become a March tradition at Vintage Brewing. Because of its maltiness, it can be a tricky beer to make. Good ones should not be too sweet or sticky, yet will offer a smooth caramel flavor with a hint of roastedness or light smokiness. Scott Manning uses traditional English Maris Otter and caramel malts, with a tough of roasted barley to give his Wee Heavy firm caramel flavor.
Manning has given a lot of thought to how different steps in the brewing process allow different flavors to arise from malts. Midway through the brewing process, he removes a small portion of the initial wort and boils it for several more hours to concentrate and caramelize the malts before adding it back to the main wort. The process brings out unfermentable sugars within concentrated wort, which is part of the secret to the beer's sweetness, body and mouthfeel.
Vintage Wee Heavy ferments for about three weeks before it's tapped just in time for St. Patrick's Day. It should last well into April. The beer finishes at 7.9% ABV. It sells for $4.50/10-ounce tulip glass and $17/growler (refill). You'll find it only at Vintage's west-side brewpub location.
It's a beer that ages well, and the judges at last fall's Great American Beer Festival in Denver must have agreed; that beer was Manning's first batch of Wee Heavy, a brew that he'd made nearly eight months earlier. He says that allowing the beer to mature makes the flavor even smoother in flavor and softens the alcoholic warmth.
Following his Wee Heavy, Manning is planning an April release of a spiced strong golden ale he's calling "Jinja Ninja." It's sure to have spicy ginger qualities.
- Aroma: Subtle maltiness.
- Appearance: A reddish-bronze color, and a soft, off-white head.
- Texture: Medium- to full-bodied and soft.
- Taste: Smooth, caramel flavor with a lightly roasted background.
- Finish/Aftertaste: The light roastedness continues with modest warmth from the alcohol.
Glassware: Vintage serves Wee Heavy in the stemmed tulip glass, which shows off the color and encourages sipping slowly to appreciate the caramel tones that make up the body of the flavor.
Pairs well with: This is a great beer for comfort foods. My choice from the Vintage menu is to match the caramel and malty tones of the beer with the meatloaf sandwich topped with provolone cheese, fried onions and served on the brewpub's beer bread.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: The concentrated flavors of the Maris Otter and caramel malts, with a light smoky accent from the roasted barley, make Vintage Wee Heavy smooth and inviting. It has a deep solid caramel maltiness, without being thick or sticky. The mouthfeel is deceptively lighter than one expects from nearly 8% ABV, so sip it slowly. While the flavors are alluring, the alcohol content can sneak up on you.