Wisconsin Brewing Company
He finally went out and did it! That's the sentiment about the latest creation by brewmaster Kirby Nelson, who's renowned for his talent at making German lagers. For those who know and appreciate his long-standing love of these beers, it was clear that it was only a matter of time before he put his signature on a Munich Helles. That's just what Nelson has done with Ol' Reliable, the new release from Wisconsin Brewing Company. It's the eighth official release from the brewery, which opened nearly a year ago.
What is it? Ol' Reliable Munich Helles Lager from Wisconsin Brewing Company of Verona, Wisconsin.
Style: The Münchner (Munich) Helles is a light golden to straw-colored German lager known for being medium-bodied with an emphasis on malt character and low hoppy bitterness. The maltiness is soft and smooth, with a bready or toasted quality. As a Helles ("light" in German), it should be very clear and bright. This style ranges in alcohol content from 4.5% to 5.5%.
Background: Ol' Reliable, which bears a release designation of #008, was gradually introduced in Wisconsin Brewing's taproom over the summer. There it quickly established a following and became the brewery's best-seller in its beer garden.
"It's mean to be a very pleasant, palate-pleasing beer," says brewmaster Kirby Nelson.
Ol' Reliable is made with a large percentage of Scarlett malt. That's a brewer's base-malt made with barley grown and malted solely in Wisconsin. It's known for a clean biscuit and caramel sweetness. The beer is also lightly bittered with Liberty hops.
Nelson says he developed the recipe to showcase a firm depth of malt character. "I wanted to be rich, but very easy to drink -- solid, pleasant, with a flavor you can depend on," he says. That's what make the name so appropriate. "It needed to be something that keeps saying, 'Come on and have some more!'" Nelson adds with a laugh.
The name came about after the brewery asked its patrons for suggestions. As one might expect, the submissions ranged from creative, smart, and insightful to wildly imaginative to simply wacky. Names like "Shaved Sheep," "Wisconsin Wowwy," and "Cowabunga" were fun, but they didn't really capture the beer's essence. But Nelson eventually hit on "Ol' Reliable" because it fits the beer's personality, as well as how beer enthusiasts think about the Munich Helles style.
"If you look at the balanced beers of the world, I believe those are the reasons beer became so popular, because this type of lager is such a pleasant companion," says Nelson.
Ol' Reliable is very similar to what one finds in the beer halls of Germany. It's a drinking beer, and both allows and invites more than one in a sitting. There's no better time to unveil a Helles than when Oktoberfest kicks off in Munich. Coincidence? I think not.
In Germany, the Helles Lager emerged as a straightforward, flavorful and carefully crafted beer that eventually became one of the most regularly consumed styles. That early heritage wasn't lost among the Bavarian brewers who emigrated to Wisconsin, who made the biggest U.S. breweries that dominated the 20th century.
For those familiar with Wisconsin Brewing releases, Ol' Reliable is lighter in color and offers more clean crispness in flavor than its Amber Lager and Big Sweet Life Maibock. While some might see this trio as similar, and they are in some ways, all three have an individual place in Nelson's lager-brewing playbook. It's worth tasting them side-by-side to compare their characteristics.
Even though Nelson says he's waiting to see how its received, Ol' Reliable is destined to become a core beer in Wisconsin Brewing Company's portfolio. It ends up at around 4.8% ABV and 16 IBUs. Ol' Reliable found on tap in many bar and restaurants around the Madison region, and six-packs sell for $8-$9.
- Aroma: Light malty.
- Appearance: Bright, clear, golden color, with a slightly tan but closer to white soft head.
- Texture: Medium bodied, soft and round.
- Taste: A smooth, malty start that becomes the backbone of the beer. There also very light herbal hoppiness in the background that adds crispness.
- Finish/Aftertaste: A light maltiness; however its light hoppines is just enough that Ol Reliable ends up crisp and clean. Nothing lingers in this beer.
Glassware: Even though I'm tempted to pour this in the standard bar pilsner, the Willi Becher is a great glass for Ol' Reliable. Its inward taper at the top holds the head and gently focuses the light aroma of malt under the nose.
Pairs well with: The Munich Helles, when done to perfection, is a very versatile meal beer. That's because it complements many cuisines and doesn't try to compete with food, yet is crisp enough to cleanse the palate between bites. This helles is especially nice with Friday fish fries.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: Ol' Reliable lives up to its name as an exemplar of a Munich Helles. In full disclosure, this is not a style that I'm overly crazy about; however, Kirby Nelson does what he does well and that is setting the standard for Wisconsin lagers. His use of Wisconsin Scarlett malt at just the right amount imparts a light bread-like core to this beer, just as it should. The Liberty hops, meanwhile, are nothing too extravagant, with just a light amount to the bitterness low-key, though maybe a little lower than fans of Munich Helles might like. If there's any tweaking of Ol' Reliable, a few more IBUs would be welcome. Regardless, there's balance, body and a vivid-clear golden color.
Ol' Reliable is crisp, clean and great with meals or just on the table among a group of friends talking. This beer is supposed to have session-like qualities and it does. It's there to support whatever you're doing.