A wooden dragon holds court at the end of the bar. His snout is a good 10 feet off the ground. Long nostrils the size of cucumbers exhale plumes of smoke. He might be a little menacing, but the atmosphere of Viking Brew Pub in Stoughton is immediately lightened as Vik Malling, its owner, bounds from behind the bar with a smile and an outstretched hand.
Viking, which opened in mid-August, is Stoughton’s first brewpub. And, as soon as its 3.5 barrel brewing system is up and running, it’ll be the first brewery as well. The brewpub is in the process of hiring a brewmaster and hopes to get brews rolling out by mid-March.
“One of the most common things people say, especially people from Stoughton, is that Stoughton really needed something like this downtown,” said Malling. He thinks the neighborhood has experienced a “renaissance” of late, with a peppering of new farm-to-table restaurants, a coffee shop, and the continued success of the Stoughton Opera House, which is just about a block away.
Launching a brewpub was a brave venture for Malling and his wife, Lori, who had no restaurant or bar management experience. Vik is a retired Air Force pilot.
“My dad and Vik used to go every week, if not every couple weeks, to a brewpub around the area. And it involved some traveling. And my dad said, ‘Well, maybe one day we won’t have to travel so far because somebody will open in Stoughton,’ and then their minds just started going,” Lori said.
Viking has three of their signature beers on tap. They’re brewed by Page Buchanan, owner and brewmaster of House of Brews in Madison.
The most popular is Nordic Blonde, a 4 percent ABV lager that the Wisconsin State Journal's "Beer Baron" (Chris Drosner) called “perfect” and “crisp and refreshing but with plenty of flavor.”
“It’s real drinkable, people really like it,” Lori said.
On the lager's coattails is the cheekily named Soot in My Eye, a black India pale ale. The name is a riff on Vik’s difficulty pronouncing Syttende Mai (SOOT-en-deh MY, with the first syllable like "soot," not "suit"), the Norwegian constitution holiday that inspires an annual celebration in Stoughton.
Soot in My Eye is a robust, substantial beer, with notes of dark chocolate and coffee.
The final beer on tap is a Midnite Sun, a cream ale with flaked maize.
The Mallings are hoping to have six or seven of their own beers on tap when the brewhouse is operational. The remaining five or six on the line will be guest beers from other local breweries.
Keith Symonds, former brewmaster at Madison’s Next Door Brewing Company, is working with the Viking team to hire their brewmaster. Interviews are under way.
On the food front, the brewpub kitchen became fully operational about a month ago. (Previously, they served pizzas and some appetizers.) The fare is what you’d expect from a traditional pub: burgers, chicken fingers, soups. The 12-inch pretzels with beer cheese are very popular, Lori said.
They’re hoping to add a Friday night fish fry, eventually. And they’re working on adding cheese curds to the menu — sampling different renditions to see how they want to present them has been an arduous process.
Lori says she’s still searching for the right tone for the menu.
“You want one signature type thing, and I’m not sure that I feel that we have that yet,” she said.
She would like to have at least one Scandinavian dish on the menu, to complement the namesake and other décor (including the dragon, of course). Norwegian meatballs are currently a front-runner under consideration.
As it enters its sixth month of existence, smoke is still settling at the brewpub (literally and figuratively). Wherever it lands, Viking has cemented its position as a pioneer in a small town just south of Madison.
“Things are starting to happen," Vik said. "Stoughton is alive and well.”