Great art and great porter: Karben4's taproom features both.
Since opening two years ago, Karben4 has made a strong impression with Madison hoppy beer fans with beers like Fantasy Factory IPA and Idiot Farm double IPA. However, the Karben4 brew that stands out most as a testament to how much hard work goes into making a brewery successful is its NightCall Smoked Porter. NightCall was Karben4's first beer when the brewery opened in 2012.
What is it? NightCall from Karben4 Brewing of Madison.
Style: Porters are brown to deep black in color. The origins of the style are traced to the 1700s, when it was a favorite beer of the porters who worked the shipyards in London. For smoked porters, expect mild to assertive smoke from the malt, and aroma in balance with other elements of the beer. Porters range from 4% to 7% ABV.
Background: NightCall was the first beer to make its way through the brewhouse when Karben4 opened its doors in December 2012. While it's available year-round, brewmaster Ryan Koga says its sales slow down in summer. That's because as a dark black beer, it gets unfairly labeled as a heavy winter beer. Actually it's quite versatile -- its rich malty flavor isn't heavy, and it has a medium body with a clean, balanced finish from East Kent Golding hops.
Koga describes NightCall as a hodgepodge of seven different malts. At its core is German beechwood-smoked malt, which lends roasted hints to the aroma, background and finish. Yet this really isn't a smoky beer. "We take pride in that a lot of people will try it and say 'Wow, I've finally found a smoked porter I can enjoy,'" says Koga. Fans of intense smoky porters often point to Alaskan Brewing's Smoked Porter as the beer that defines all others. Its fans will seek it out by vintage year. Karben4's NightCall is smoother, much less campfire-smoky, and easier on the palate.
NightCall finishes at 6.5% ABV. It sells in the brewery's taproom for $4.75/glass and $12/growler (refill). NightCall is not bottled, but Koga says it may enter his packaged lineup in 2016. It will occasionally turn up on a nitrogen tap line in the brewery tasting room, and when that happens, it's even more special.
Aroma: Malty, mostly firm chocolate malts, with a hint of roast.
Appearance: Dark black color, with a marbled brown head.
Taste: Lots of smooth chocolate maltiness.
Finish/Aftertaste: Malty with mild roasted flavor.
Glassware: The English pint makes for a nice presentation of NightCall while giving a nod to the traditional English porter.
Pairs well with: This, like many porters, is a great meal beer, especially with hearty meat entrees like grilled steaks and barbecued ribs. NightCall also has great cheese pairing potential. Its roasted-chocolate tones are a great match for the plum-like sweetness of Sartori Reserve Merlot Bellavitano. Or take it a step further with Henning's Blueberry Cobbler.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers.
The Verdict: NightCall is my go-to all-around Karben4 favorite. It's just so drinkable, and it's great with food; it's not a beer you have to think too deeply about to appreciate. Giving too much attention to the "smoked" part of this beer's description might scare some drinkers off. But what smoke is there is in the realm of light roasted coffee. NightCall's malty backbone is smooth and sweet. This is a very well-made porter; I hope to see it in bottles before Karben4 celebrates its third anniversary.