January 19, 2006 Written by Oakes
Vancouver, CANADA -
Wisconsin rose to brewing fame as a result of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. To that point, the state’s German and Eastern European population had sustained a successful brewing industry, but the fire opened up the Chicago market and Wisconsin never looked back.
As the Germanic brewing tradition gradually faded into an American one over the course of the 20th century, so too did the state’s brewing fame. When microbrewing brought life back to Wisconsin’s beer scene, it was no surprise that some of the new brewers picked up on the state’s old traditions and decided to make Germanic styles rather than English, American or Belgian.
Of those, Capital enjoys an exceptional reputation. The story of Capital Brewing actually starts with another Wisconsin brewer, the regional-turned-national player G. Heileman. Capital brewmaster Kirby Nelson started with Heileman in 1978. At the time, they were in the midst of buying up breweries all across the country. Nelson was sent to one in Florida. “It was really fucked up. I was hanging out with rats and cockroaches down there. But I learned very quickly how to make good beer by fixing the place up.”
After Heileman, Nelson worked for a brewery in the Philippines. By then, he’d heard about microbreweries in the US and wanted to get involved in that. So he moved back to Madison and quickly got hired at Capital.
Things at Capital weren’t always rosy, however. The local population is conservative by nature and the brewery had to prove itself. Nelson credits this with driving the brewery to be the best. But the proving stage was a long one. The brewery was focused on making great beer, but they were hurting. By 1991 the original investors were long gone, and some new investors came on board. Around that time, Capital received a contract to brew for Sprecher, who had maxed-out capacity at their small Milwaukee brewery. This helped stabilize the business.
Eventually some serious, experienced beer people were brought into the management team and Capital was finally able to realize its potential. Growth is now picking up and they are brewing around 19,000 bbl/year.
As for the beer, as befits a German-style brewery, the focus is on producing well-balanced, drinkable products with personality. The beers have a malt accent for the simple reason that Nelson likes the taste of malted barley. Capital is also not a brewery about brash, standout products. The lineup is viewed as a whole, rather than a loose collection of individual brews. The result of this is that the brewery has now earned a reputation for making killer beers across the board.