When I was a grad student in Iowa City, my classmates and I often hung out after our weekly writing workshop at this bar called Martinis. Six days of the week it was a cesspool of underage corn-fed coeds and frat boys looking to screw 'em, but on Tuesdays it became the refuge of several dozen wannabe Hemingways and their bruised egos. There we drowned our dreams thanks to what remains the most incredible beer special I've experienced: $1 domestic draft beers, $2 imports. And domestic meant domestic. Anchor Steam? A buck. Sierra Nevada? One measly greenback. And $2 for a pint of Guinness wasn't too shabby, either.
I was in my early twenties, with a young man's liver and uncultivated tastes, and every now and then, under the sway of the beautiful brunette whom I would eventually marry, I would forego Anchor Steam or Guinness for Blue Moon, the (ostensibly) Belgian-style witbier brewed by Coors. A pint of Blue Moon is often served with a thin orange slice on the rim, which is fitting: The stuff tastes like orange soda and, at $1 a pop, goes down real easy.
Though my taste in beer has evolved considerably since then, and though I now know better than to judge any beer style by a mass-market example, one too many Iowa City Wednesdays that began with me scraping the paste of Orange Crush and bile from my tongue have stopped me from sampling many witbiers.
So with trepidation I ordered the BrightSide Belgian White at Mattingly Brewing Company, which brothers Doug and Michael Mattingly opened just north of the intersection of Arsenal Street and South Jefferson Avenue on the western edge of Benton Park. In case I couldn't get past my aversion (and also, maybe, because it was lunchtime on a Monday), I ordered only a half-pint.
Though its name suggests something pale, a good witbier — and Mattingly's witbier is very good — packs a punch: There is the unmistakable flavor of orange, yes, but to this are added the citric notes of coriander and the zing of ginger. It's a beer both refreshing and complex, and perfect for this season, a bridge between warming winter spices and the verdant edge of spring.
The BrightSide Belgian White is one of several beers (the number is in constant flux; eight were available on my visits) devised by Mattingly's head brewer, Drew Huerter, who has parlayed an avid interest in homebrewing into work at local brewpubs Morgan Street Brewery and Schlafly Tap Room.
You can sample Mattingly's selection in flights of three to six beers. I tried most of the current roster as a half- or full pint — on multiple visits, mind you — and enjoyed all of them. My favorite was the HOPtimal Munition APA (American pale ale), which offers the combination of floral and citrus-fruit flavors typical of the style. In spite of its name, this didn't strike me as an exceptionally hoppy brew, like those "hop bombs" that have become quite popular among beer aficionados in recent years. Instead, it balanced thirst-quenching crispness with approachable flavor — grapefruit, to my palate.
The Cardinal Direction Abbey Dubbel, another Belgian-style beer, offers a warmer, more winter-appropriate combination of fruit and spice than the APA or BrightSide White. The Homeward Brown ale will appeal to those who enjoy malt's sweetness. Though the beer list describes its flavor as "caramelly" and "chocolately," to me its sweetness was more reminiscent of toasted nuts.
Without a doubt the richest beer I tried was one of Mattingly's newest additions, DarkSide Coffee Stout. Here the flavor of dark, dark chocolate was very noticeable — even more so than that of coffee. On the opposite end of the spectrum, and especially for those who couldn't care less about the many different beer styles, the 1984 Golden Ale is a simple, though not simplistic, pilsner-like brew.
Mattingly has been open since June 2008 but only became a full-fledged brewpub at the end of the year. Huerter's beer list (which doesn't even include the weekly "Peek-a-Brew" events, at which small-batch casks of his regular selections and special beers like an imperial pilsner are tapped) ensures Mattingly's place in a discussion of the best local brews. As a brewpub, however, it doesn't quite measure up to the competition.
Indeed, "brewpub" is a misnomer for Mattingly, because the restaurant doesn't offer much in the way of traditional pub cuisine. That alone isn't a criticism. How many more takes on the tried-and-true fish-and-chips/bangers-and-mash model do we need? But what the menu features instead is a scattershot board of crowd pleasers that are, at best, satisfying enough after a couple of beers.
Appetizers are a safe bet. Fried calamari are omnipresent, but here they did manage to be distinctive: cut into larger pieces than usual, very tender and only lightly battered. A trio of dips — hummus, tapenade and pesto — served with freshly baked flatbread was a tasty nosh. As a bonus, my server threw in a sample of the restaurant's new roasted-red-pepper pesto, sweet and piquant.
Pizza is available in both hand-tossed and St. Louis styles. Regular readers of this column know that I opted for the former. The crust is medium-thick, with a decent chew but very little flavor — aside, that is, from a slightly charred note from being left in the oven just a minute too long. I opted for a basic pie: mozzarella and provolone with pepperoni, and these toppings, above an unremarkable sauce, resulted in an OK dish.
The "Brewery Burger" is straightforward: nine ounces of ground beef formed into an evenly shaped patty. My burger was juicy, its beefy flavor on the mild side. The freshly cut French fries that accompanied the burger needed to be crisper.
Calling this the "Brewery Burger" is innocuous by itself but suggests the fundamental problem with Mattingly's menu: It has nothing to do with beer. The menu doesn't make any pairing suggestions, and while certain dishes like grilled steak kebabs obviously go well with something like the 1984 Golden Ale, others like grilled salmon or the pasta primavera do not. That pasta primavera, served in my case with sautéed shrimp, benefits from an abundance of spinach, portobello mushrooms and sun-dried tomato, but then drowns it in much too much butter and olive oil.
Despite what I wrote above, you can order one brewpub staple: fish and chips. The cod is served in small pieces, its breading much thicker — and the finished result much greasier — than the fried calamari. The fish is served atop the French fries, but between the two were very small pieces of fried batter.
"Crunchies," my wife calls them. These might seem tasty after you've knocked back half a dozen Blue Moons. But when the beer is as good as Mattingly's, you just wonder what they're doing there.