STOUGHTON — Vik Malling cashed out his Air Force retirement plan and turned it into a giant smoke-breathing dragon.
The dragon head rises some 12 feet from the prow of the wooden ship-shaped bar that’s the centerpiece of Viking Brewpub, which opened mid-month in downtown Stoughton because Malling and his family figured it was about time that Stoughton had its own brewery.
The idea started years ago, before it was really an idea, as Malling traveled around America and the world as a tanker pilot and later a commander in the Air Force. He would make a point to sample the local beer wherever he went.
Years later back home, Malling’s interest in beer blossomed as he and his father-in-law, now 83-year-old Duane Brickson, made frequent visits to the Madison area’s brewpubs and brewery tap rooms. It was a visit to One Barrel Brewing, which opened two years ago on Madison’s East Side, that really got Malling thinking about getting into the business.
He said he was struck by One Barrel’s streamlined concept and focus on local food vendors. It reminded him of the KISS principle — “keep it simple, stupid” — that was a constant refrain during his time in the military.
“Someone’s going to have a brewpub in Stoughton,” Brickson recalled earlier this month. “We won’t have to drive so far. We’re gonna have our 5 o’clock somewhere.”
So he and his wife, Lori, began rounding up recipes and settled on a space in a former bank and, most recently, a longtime stationery store on Main Street. Work to transform it into the sleek but cozy space it is now has been underway since February. The Viking-style ship that’s the physical and thematic center of the brewpub is a tour de force of woodworking, crafted by Lori’s brother Mitchell Brickson.
The dragon head at the center snorts smoke — water vapor, actually — to celebrate touchdowns, home runs or just to impress what Malling calls any curious “looky-loos” passing on Main Street.
It’s just one piece of the Nordic theme. Norwegian coats of arms hang in windows, while Scandinavian and local Stoughton artifacts emblazoned with rosemaling decorate the space. The Viking imagery is more than just pandering to a town rich in Norwegian blood. Though he grudgingly admits to having primarily Danish blood, Malling’s first name really is Vik, pronounced just like the first syllable in “Viking.”
For now, Viking’s three house beers are being made at House of Brews under the steady hand of Page Buchanan. Keith Symonds, the recently departed brewmaster at Next Door Brewing, is consulting with Malling on setting up his brewery, which will feature a 3.5-barrel brewhouse and seven-barrel fermenting and bright tanks. Malling plans to hire a brewmaster to take over the brewing operation once it’s ready to roll, which he said would be in November. The goal is to have six to seven house beers pouring most of the time, with “guest beers” rounding out the 12 taps. A full kitchen should be operational by the end of September.
When brewing begins on Main Street, Malling says it’ll be a first in town.
“Once we get this thing up here and we start brewing our first beer, I’ll go down in history as being the first brewery in the city,” Malling says, noting the ample opportunity in a metro area thirsty for local craft beer. “Hopefully I’m getting into it at the right time, so we can ride the wave here.”
But how’s the beer, right?
I’m happy to say, so far so good.
My favorite was Nordic Blonde, a crisp, easy lager with an interesting spicy kick from Falconer’s Flight hops. It’s still well balanced and is highly repeatable at 4 percent ABV. Another clean yellow beer is Midnite Sun, a cream ale that’s a little grainier and has a fuller body at 5.9 percent ABV. It’s tasty without being a drinking experience.
But Viking’s flagship — the one in the glass, not in the center of the brewpub — is on the other side of the spectrum. Dark and mysterious, it draws its name form Malling’s affable difficulty pronouncing the Norwegian constitution holiday and annual Stoughton celebration Syttende Mai.
Soot in My Eye
Style: Black India pale ale
Brewed by: Viking Brewpub, 211 E. Main St., Stoughton, under contract at House of Brews, Madison.
What it’s like: Since I wrote last winter that this style was relatively uncommon in Wisconsin, so many of them have debuted that this is now my fourth black IPA review in nine months. Amid this crowded field, I’d say the closest comparison to Soot in My Eye is Capital’s Dark Voyage.
Where, how much: Soot in My Eye can only be found at Viking, for $4.75 a pint.
The beer: Soot pours a deep chestnut-brown with thick, creamy tan head and mild floral-citrus aroma. It has a robust flavor with coffee- and dark chocolate-character that’s commonly found in American porters. The resiny bitterness from Chinook hops starts out modest and in balance at first but builds as the pint drains. The medium body holds up all that flavor well.
Booze factor: Soot rings the bell at 7.25 percent ABV, on the high end of the IPA spectrum.
The buzz: There are a lot of factors that play into a brewpub’s success, and Viking has not been open long enough to get anything but an incomplete grade on many of those. Food is a big one. Quality and variety of beer is another big one.
I have no problem endorsing the Viking beers brewed so far by Buchanan. They’re fresh, tasty and well executed, even if I’d like to see a little less overlap if you’re starting out with only three beers. While Soot, Midnite Sun and Nordic Blonde will all be part of the Viking mix down the road, it’s hard to say what a new brewer and new brewery will bring. I’ll be curious to return to Stoughton early this winter to check in.
But one factor that’s not in question is Viking’s uniqueness and unmistakable sense of place. There are a lot of brewpubs that could be in any of Sioux Falls or Chattanooga or Santa Fe. Viking is not like that; there’s only one place in the world it could be, and that’s the Norwegian enclave just a short drive south of Madison. That it’s filled with friendly people on both sides of the bar helps, too. “I think a bar develops a personality,” Malling said, “and the personality of the people who have been coming in here has just been marvelous.”
Bottom line: 3½ stars (out of five)