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A Good Vintage

June 17, 2010

My fondest memories of the old J.T. Whitney’s brewpub on Madison’s west side revolve around the time we were having dinner and a young man sat down uninvited at our table, a deck of cards in his hands. He looked like he had wandered in off the street, which in a way he had, but he introduced himself as a magician whose job it was to entertain diners. We watched while the generally pleasant fellow performed a few reasonably good card tricks and charmed us with his patter. It was an odd experience, but not at all unpleasant.

Suddenly the owner came over and wrestled him away from the table. Apparently, this was not something he was supposed to do and he was quickly shown the door. Shortly thereafter, an antique tin beer tray jumped of the wall with a loud SPLANG and hit the infant sitting below it in the head. The child set up a loud yowl and the same manager came back and escorted the upset family into a private dining room. Some time later, they all emerged smiling, which meant someone got at least a free dinner that night.

All in all, it was a memorable evening. In fact, it’s the only fond memory I have of the former brewpub.

All the more reason, it seemed, to fear the new Vintage Brewing Co., which has occupied the space at 674 S. Whitney Way since late last year. This had been a property unkind to its occupants, so there was no reason to assume Vintage would survive any better. But it turns out we may be wrong. Whereas its predecessor had fair beer and not very good food, Vintage boasts good beer – some very good – and food that may be even better.

Bar service was slow on a recent Monday night, perhaps due to the fact that pints of the house beers are half price ($2.50) from 4 p.m. until close. That’s often reason enough to visit. Now that we’ve tasted some of brewmaster Scott Manning’s handiwork, we’ll be back.

Our favorite was the Scaredy Cat Oatmeal Stout, so named for the admonition “Don’t be afraid of the dark (beer).” The beer, like much of Manning’s work, seems a little thin at first, but nevertheless has a soft palate, good notes of caramel and espresso with a rich, frothy head, and is generally very satisfying. The same can be said for the Butternut Road Brown Ale, which at 34 IBUs, has a little more snap from the Willamette hops, which added at three different stages during the brew. The beer has a reasonable malt backbone and an earthy character, which makes it more interesting than most brown ales.

I was looking for something a little more hop-hearty and tried the India Pale Ale, which weighed in at 6.9% ABV and 60 IBUs, the highest level on the menu. Again, the body was light, but the Galena, Nugget and Simcoe hops influence crisp and bright. While there always is room for improvement, this one went down way too easily.

For a change of pace, I tried Trepidation, Manning’s Belgian strong ale with 10.4% ABV. The bar was out of the Rochambeau Belgian pale ale and the Dedication, its Belgian abby dubbel. It was all or nothing and, given the 12-oz. snifter in which it arrived, I was prepared for a lot of “all.” However, it seemed too smooth and slick, quite probably the byproduct of a mammoth dose of fermentable sugars. The citrus struggle to emerge and the balance didn’t seem to be quite what it could have been, but that may just have been me. I found it intriguing enough to promise myself all three Belgians on my next visit.

Oh, I almost forgot about the food.  Hold the Beef ($7.50) was a grilled black bean burger with guacamole and pepperjack cheese that was rich and flavorful, a veggie burger even for those who don’t like veggie burgers. The BBQ Pulled Pork Sloppy Joe ($7.25) was even more intriguing, with a hint of fire from red peppers that had been included in the mix that made the beer an even more welcome addition to the meal.

Both sandwiches came with chips, but one of us opted for a green salad ($2.75 extra) and the other French fries ($1.75 extra.) The fries won out, a huge pile of crisp potato slims better than most restaurant fries I’ve tasted. I’d order those again, too.

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