Recently I was lucky enough to spend a long weekend in the Minneapolis/ St. Paul area to attend the Northern Lights Rare Beer Fest. While the festival was certainly a blast, the beauty of the Twin Cities is that you can visit any time and experience world class beer.
There are so many bars and breweries in the area. From intimate neighborhood bars to the modern (and huge) new Surly facility, there is truly something for everyone. I saw a little bit of everything, and took notes to share with you. Here are my thoughts on a few places to go…
Town Hall Brewery, www.townhallbrewery.com
Downtown Minneapolis brewpub with above average food choices and good beer. Town Hall produces it’s own beer and maintains a few guest taps. The whiskey selection is a nice bonus. Great place to stop during happy hour for a beer and appetizer. Try their Masala Mama IPA.
Lake Monster Brewing, www.lakemonsterbrewing.com
St. Paul brewery located under a water tower. This newer brewery is starting out with a hip-feeling facility and a line-up of solid beers. If you are in the mood for food, there is usually a food truck right outside. I enjoyed the Empty Rowboat IPA.
This brewery in Robbinsdale is unique in that all the beer seems to be lower abv. The Geno Stout was solid, and only 3.6% (really!). The tap room has bit of a night club feel, which I did not enjoy. If you are having dinner nearby at Travail, it is worth stopping in for a quick drink.
Surly Brewing Company, www.surlybrewing.com
Modern and shiny, Surly’s new Minneapolis facility is absolutely huge. There is a downstairs beer hall featuring 20+ taps, an upstairs Brewer’s Table restaurant, and over an acre of outdoor space to hang out with your beer. If you are the type that likes brewery merchandise, the store is well stocked with lots of cool gear. Try any beer that appeals to you, it’s all good.
Indeed Brewing, www.indeedbrewing.com
This brewery is home to one of my favorite Minneapolis beers, Let It Ride IPA. The taproom is fairly small, the service was great and felt personal. Taps change frequently, try the Wooden Soul series if you get a chance.
Able Seedhouse + Brewery, www.ablebeer.com
It’s simply cool. The Minneapolis tap room has a clean, hip vibe that somehow still feels warm and welcoming. The beer is good, really good, especially the Blk Wlf stout that I was able to try. If I hadn’t been to two other breweries before this, I could have spent the whole evening here. Dogs and kids are welcome (kids until 9pm, but the dogs can stay late).
Dangerous Man Brewing, www.dangerousmanbrewing.com
Located in NE Minneapolis, this brewery was the surprise of the trip. This taproom has the feel of a neighborhood bar and the beer of a great brewery. If you don’t want beer they have cold press coffee on nitro, soda, and Kombucha too. The Big Watt Coffee Porter was my favorite, but mad props to the Black Kolsch and Calypso’s Promise IPA. Go around back to the growler shop for a crowler or three to go. You will want more later.
The Happy Gnome, www.thehappygnome.com
Located in the Cathedral Hill area of St. Paul, this refined neighborhood bar is usually packed with good reason. With 89 craft drafts, you are bound to find something you like. It has an upscale food menu to compliment your beer choices. I enjoyed the steak tartare and ramen bowl. They hold lots of beer events and even host weddings too.
Many thanks to my friend Ben, the “beer guy” at Lakeridge Liquors in Vadnais Heights for showing me around his hometown. You can find him @Ben_TheBeerGuy on twitter if you’d like to learn more about Minnesota beers.
On my first night in Traverse City, I planned a visit to Brewery Ferment, who reached the Final Four in our Mitten Madness competition. I discovered a small, cozy tasting room and was immediately welcomed by Kirsten, who is one of three co-owners. I introduced myself and ordered a sampler of each of their offerings, which was served to me on a paddle. Brewery Ferment may not be the largest brewery, but I immediately discovered that they have great pride and passion for brewing, as Kirsten described the various beers to me.
The taproom is small and intimate, with several tables and an assortment of games available. There is no kitchen, but a small assortment of snacks is available, including hummus, cheese, and crackers. Visitors are more than welcome to bring in outside food to enjoy with their beers.
I began with two single-hopped session IPA’s, Lil’ Nug, brewed with nugget hops, and Lil’ Rillo, made with Amarillo hops. To my amazement, I preferred the Lil’ Nug, which was excellent and full of flavor. Lil’ Rillo tasted slightly milder and lighter with a more subtle hop bitterness factor. As a homebrewer, I have always favored Amarillo, but after tasting these two brews, I believe I have a new favorite, and can’t wait to try brewing my next batch of Pale Ale with Nugget hops. Kirsten explained that the grain bill in these recipes is very basic. Proof that brewing process and technique are more important than a complex recipe.
I proceeded to try the next brew, Worker’s Daily, a 5% cream ale. Sweet and malty, with low hop bitterness and a subtle fruity finish, this brew would be perfect for a hot summer day or after mowing the lawn. It is a bit light for my taste, but representative of its style.
Next up, Bookstore Bitter, a 5.5% ESB. I’m a big fan of English bitters and this did not disappoint. A nice mild malt base that finishes with just the right balance of subtle hop bitterness. I then moved on to Old Town Brown. Full flavored and easy to drink at 6% abv, with a bready malt backbone and tones of hazelnuts, caramel. I really enjoyed both of these British style beers!
I saved the hoppiest beer for last in the hopes of preserving my pallet, 45th Parallel Pale Ale. A nice pungent, hoppy aroma, followed by grapefruit, pine, and herbal tones. Kirsten explained to me that while it is a pale ale, it tastes like an IPA as it is served through fresh hops on tap at the brewery. I really enjoyed this beer, so much that I purchased a howler to go.
As I was making my purchase, I noticed two 12 oz. bottles for sale, Café a l’Orange, an English mild with coffee and orange. I bought one to take home along with my howler of 45th Parallel and a tasting glass. As I was about to leave, Kirsten told me she would be right back, and disappeared into the cellar. She returned with small samples of three specialty beers, and asked me to try them. The first was a sour Imperial Witbier, followed by a Tart Sour that was made with a special blend of local fruits. I’m not a big fan of sours, but found this to be delicious in every way. Kirsten would not tell me the secret ingredient of the last sample at first, and after several missed guesses she revealed that it was made with mushrooms. It was strong and malty with a 9% abv. I don’t like mushrooms at all, but again, this beer won me over.
I have learned to keep an open mind when trying styles of beer that I don’t necessarily care for. I truly believe that by expanding your horizons, you eventually will find a beer in every style that you enjoy. My visit to Brewery Ferment was a true testament to this. The tart sour is the first sour beer I have every truly enjoyed, and I probably would never have tried the mushroom beer sample had Kirsten not blind tasted me on it. It was truly an enjoyable evening at Brewery Ferment, thanks to a small but knowledgeable staff with the dedication and passion for brewing to make it truly a special place.
Spring Break arrived late on the calendar this year, and my family and I decided that our goal for traveling this year is to visit all five of the Great Lakes. For the first leg of our trip, we decided to start with a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and then on to Lake Ontario, Niagara Falls, and south to Lake Erie. So naturally, I planned a few brewery stops on our way through upstate New York. My first stop was at Southern Tier Brewing Co. in Lakewood, NY. The tasting room and gift shop at the brewery, The Empty Pint, has limited hours and is only open Thursday-Sunday with tours available only on Saturdays, so I planned accordingly. We departed Michigan on Friday morning and arrived at our hotel in nearby Jamestown, NY on Friday evening after covering about 300 miles in five hours.
I worked up quite a thirst after the long drive, so I stopped by a local convenience store and picked up a fresh six-pack of Phin and Matt’s Extraordinary Ale, an American Pale Ale brewed with three types of malts and three types of hops. This brew is very easy to drink, with a moderate 5.7% abv, nicely balanced with healthy carbonation and plenty of hop flavor. It served as the perfect nightcap, and a nice prelude to my brewery visit on Saturday.
The brewery’s web site indicates that brewery tours are limited to twenty people, and suggests early arrival on Saturdays, since this is the only day they offer tours. I arrived at 11:30, 30 minutes before they opened. There were about six people already hanging out by the front door, and several others waiting in their cars or walking their dogs. The setting was rustic and peaceful, a beautiful wooded area with lots of pine trees. I noticed a really neat looking outdoor pavilion to the right of the entrance, and the entire facility was built out of wood creating a sort of large cabin feel. Thirty minutes passed quickly as I chatted with a couple visiting from Pittsburgh who were visiting relatives that lived nearby. Finally the doors opened, and a line of about two dozen of us entered the brewery.
I joined the throng of thirsty visitors at the bar, and purchased my ticket for the first tour of the day at 12:15. I instinctively ordered a Creme Brûlée, which seemed appropriate for the first brew of the day, which was effectively my breakfast. It was served to me in a glass that I would get to keep and drink from before, during and after the tour. I’ve enjoyed their Creme Brûlée before as it is readily available in Michigan. It is very tasty, thick, rich and dark. Sugary vanilla bliss, albeit very sweet. I savored every drop until my glass was empty. Just as I walked up and ordered a 2X Stout, our tour guide showed up and announced that the first tour was about to begin. I was last in line, but unlike most of the others in our tour group, I had a full tasty brew ready to enjoy as we headed into the brewery! My 2X Stout was a delightful creamy milk stout, perfectly poured from a nitro tap.
As we gathered around a fermentation tank, our guide introduced himself to us. He just started with the brewery in November as a recent graduate from the prestigious Siebel Institute of Technology World Brewing Academy. My guess is that as a newbie, he got stuck working Easter weekend. However, he did not seem to mind, as he was fully engaged in educating our group and exhibited pride and passion in his craft. After a brief introduction he began explaining the brewing process and paused to ask how many in the group were homebrewers. I was surprised to discover that I was the only zymurgist in our group of 20. He informed us that the brewery produced 2,000 cases in 2002, and exceeded all sales projections last year, with over 88,000 cases produced. Output is expecting to eclipse 110,000 cases in 2014, and business is booming. When I asked if they were planning additional expansion, he did not hesitate to confirm this affirmatively. We were told that once bottled or kegged, all finished product leaves the facility within just a few days. Everything they make gets shipped out to fulfill orders quickly, as it is a challenge to meet demand.
As our guide showed as the various vessels and walked us through the brewing process, he explained that one of the smaller tanks was for test batches. He went on to tell us that one of the benefits employees enjoy is that they often get to take home cases of the test brews for further evaluation. I get the feeling that everyone at Southern Tier has an affinity for that particular fermenter!
As we wrapped up the tour, I noticed several giant fans on the top floor above the fermentation tanks. Our host explained that during a brew day it can get very hot up there, especially in the summer time, which can make one very thirsty. On that note, we all beelined for the tasting room, where each of us were entitled to sample four beer selections to conclude our tour. I proceeded to the bar and promptly ordered a Goat Boy Imperial Weizenbock. It poured very dark reddish-brown with a healthy two finger head. It was not at all what I expected, with the classic banana-clove flavor that one would expect from a lighter German Hefeweissen, but not from a beer so dark and malty. I grew fonder of this with each sip, it had characteristics that I would have identified with a Belgian Style Dark Ale, which no doubt comes from the yeast strain.
For my next selection, I selected a brewery-only offering called “Steve”, a Belgian-style pale ale. It was very light in both appearance and body, with a distinct belgian yeast influence characterized by hints of cloves, lemon and mango. Perfect for a hot summer day. Moving on to my third sample, I chose a stronger brew, UnEarthly Imperial IPA. This delightful brew was loaded with intense hop aroma, with a strong piney, grassy flavor followed by a nice strong peppery hop bitterness on the back end, which masked the potent 9.5% abv quite well. Hop-heads, this beer is for you!
Last, but not least, I opted for an Old Man Winter Ale, a seasonal offering. I’m a big fan of Old Ales, and this did not disappoint. A nice spicy aroma, well balanced with a strong roasted malt base followed by hints of bittersweet chocolate, toffee and nuts, and a surprisingly strong but well balanced hop finish. As I finished with my tasting notes, our tour guide approached me and asked me what styles of beer I enjoy brewing and drinking. I enjoyed a nice chat with him, and took him up on his recommendation to buy some Mokah to take home. While it was not available for sale in the tasting room, there were some fresh bombers available in the brewery store. I bought a few of these along with some Grand Arbor, a Belgian Style Ale brewed with Maple Syrup. Look for reviews on these beers in the near future.
All in all, a fantastic visit to Southern Tier, and a big thank you to the staff at The Empty Pint and especially our tour guide who provided great insight as to the styles that the brewery favors and their brewing methods. They are known for the liberal use of hops in many of their brews, both in quantity and quality. They feature a nice portfolio of seasonal and year around brews and are always trying new innovations and recipes. I see a great future for this thriving brewery as they continue to grow and prosper. If there is one complaint, it is the limited hours at the tasting room, but in a way it is refreshing to see a brewery focus more on brewing and packaging than on being a restaurant/pub, as I’ve certainly been to many breweries whose priorities are just the opposite. Clearly the priority of this brewery is on brewing quality beer, and they are certainly doing that very well. Cheers to Southern Tier Brewing!
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