Surly Brewing Company – Todd the Axe Man

I find myself at a rare loss for words. At this moment, I have no stories to relate – no odd ramblings about styles or trends. My mind is preoccupied with other things, so I’ll cut to the chase.

Here’s my notes:

todd-the-axe-man-present-465-x-622Todd the Axe Man
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: American IPA
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
7.2% ABV
65 IBU

Aroma: Hits your nose from a distance as soon as you pour. Hops dominate with little backup – citrus pith and geraniums. Pink grapefruit slices. Low pineapple background notes. Light and airy.

Appearance: Medium gold/orange. Hazy. Moderate, creamy, white head with excellent retention.

Flavor: All about the hops. Bitterness is high and lingers long into the finish with a citrus pith quality. Hop flavor is the main event – citrus, grapefruit, and floral. Low pineapple and tropical fruits come in midway. Lemony highlights. Low garlic note, but not distracting. Low alcohol that gets stronger as the beer warms. Low malt sweetness and background, neutral grainy flavor. Very dry finish with lingering citrus.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. High carbonation. Low astringency.

Overall Impression: Those who know me know that I’m not all about the IPAs. I can’t say that I will drink a ton of this, but if I want an IPA, I could do far worse than this one. It’s light, refreshing, and smooth. Although malt plays a very minor role, the bright hop flavors make up for it. Those flavors are expressed in delicate and clearly articulated layers. It’s really quite well done. If you are a fan of the hops, drink this.

 

Coney Island Hard Root Beer

As long as we’re talking about root beer…

We were talking about root beer, weren’t we? Judging from the response to my Not Your Father’s Root Beer post of a few days ago, apparently we are. We REALLY are.

Well, the Small Town Brewery offering isn’t the only new kid on the block. Coney Island Brewing Company recently released one of its own. The folks at Coney Island were kind enough to send me a sample for tasting.

Coney Island Brewing Company was founded in 2007 by Jeremy Cowan as a spin-off of Shmaltz Brewing Company. You can read my profile of Cowan in the upcoming issue of Beer Connoisseur Magazine. Cowan sold the brand to Alchemy and Science, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Boston Beer Company in 2013. The sale helped finance the expansion of the Shmaltz core lineup of He’brew beers and the construction of its new brewery in New York.

To extend the argument over whether these things are beer or not, the promotional material for Coney Island Hard Root Beer states, “Coney Island Hard Root Beer is a beer made with all natural, traditional root beer flavors. It begins with 2-row malt, caramel malt and European hops. It then undergoes a secondary fermentation with additional sugars and ale yeast, which is filtered to develop the perfect root beer base. From there we add the final all natural flavors from the best ingredients available, including Madagascar vanilla.” Sure sounds like beer, but it’s an FMB.

Here’s my notes:

Coney Island Hard Root BeerConey Island Hard Root Beer
Coney Island Brewing Company, Brooklyn, New York
Style: Hard Root Beer
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
5.8% ABV

Aroma: Wintergreen aromas hit the nose from 18-inches away. Refreshingly minty. Low vanilla. Faint anise background.

Appearance: Stout-like black, opaque. Low, soda-like, tan foam with no retention.

Flavor: Sharp. Peppery. Clove and spice. Wintergreen is still dominant, but with more of the anise and spice balance. Vanilla is low. Brown sugar or molasses. High sweetness, but the spiciness really helps to cut it. Low alcohol. Finish is moderately sweet with strong lingering wintergreen and gentler notes of anise, clove, and pepper. Slight alcohol aftertaste.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. High carbonation. Low warming. A bit cloying, like soda.

Overall Impression: A very botanical beverage. I like the sharper edge than NYFRB. I am a fan of root beer and this tastes like a good one to me. If you like root beer, then I think you will like this. If you don’t like root beer, then drink something else. This tastes like root beer. If you are going to get all pissy about whether or not this is beer, then just get over yourself.

Summit Unchained #19: Make It So

As I sit here typing, I am sipping on a cup of hot, Earl Grey tea. It is one of my greatest pleasures in life. Hot tea in general, actually. I am a person of rituals. Every day I have two cups of coffee in the morning and then drink cup after cup of hot tea through the rest of the day – even in the summer. The first at 10:00am give me a nice mid-morning break from work. Then there is one after lunch, one or two through the afternoon, and finally, one after dinner.

Another great pleasure in my life is English beer. Bitters, porters, and stouts with their earthy/herbal hops, toasted biscuit malt, and funky, buttered-marmalade fermentation flavors are soothing to my soul. German lagers have taken over the top spot in my hierarchy of beer styles, but English beers still hold a place of very high esteem.

I wouldn’t call myself a Star Trek geek, but I have been an avid follower of the show. I watched the original in first run. (I just dated myself?) I hated Deep Space 9. It sucked, admit it. But I watched the others religiously. I dug Data, had a crush on Seven of Nine (who didn’t?), and I do love me some Jean Luc Picard. Wait…that came out wrong.

New Summit Brewer Nick Hempfer has combined all three of these things in the newest Unchained Series beer Make It So. It’s an English Extra Special Bitter brewed with Earl Grey tea, Captain Picard’s favorite sip.

Tea beers aren’t new. There are a few of them out there. Funkwerks Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado had a winner with Leuven, a green tea-infused, brettanomyces-inflected saison. Japanese Green Tea IPA from Stone Brewing is another one worth checking out. They can work quite well if you get the balance right. Star Trek beers have also been done. Stone Brewing did Farking Wheaton W00TSTOUT with actor Wil Wheaton who played Wesley Crusher on Next Generation. Someone even came out with Klingon Warnog and Vulcan Ale in cans.

But I do believe that young Nick Hempfer is the first to bring together all of these things in a truly coherent conceptual package. Earl Grey, ESB, and Jean Luc Picard. It all makes sense.

Here’s my notes:

Brews_Can_MakeItSoUnchained #19: Make It So
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Extra Special Bitter with Earl Grey Tea
Serving Style: 12 oz. can
5.3% ABV
40 IBU

Aroma: Fruit and buttered toffee. Notes of herbs and orange citrus. Iced tea. Toffee malt with low perception of sweetness. Iced tea lingers in the nostrils.

Appearance: Medium amber/orange. Brilliant. Full, creamy, ivory head with excellent retention.

Flavor: A bit malt forward with soothing, English toffee and toasted biscuit character. Bitterness is medium and lingers long into the finish. Hop character is low – herbal. Some subtle, orange-citrus esters and low butterscotch. The Earl Grey has a presence mid-palate – blends with hops and brings a light iced tea quality similar to that from the aroma. More the black tea flavor than the bergamot that defines Earl Grey. Some black tea tannin joins in the finish to grab the sides of the tongue.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Low carbonation. Light tannic astringency. Low creaminess.

Overall Impression: Lovely. The tea makes a subtle addition, blending nicely with the hops, the yeast, and the malt. Like spice in a good Belgian ale, it adds depth without calling itself out. The Base ESB is solid. Wonderful toffee malt and English fermentation character. One of my favorite beer styles with one of my favorite kinds of tea. This is all that I hoped it would be.

The official release party Make It So happens this evening (8/1/15) at the Summit Brewing Company beer hall at 5:00 pm.

Not Your Father’s Root Beer: My Strange Visit to Small Town Brewery

I didn’t care about Not Your Father’s Root Beer. I didn’t read any of the many articles being written about it. I was oblivious to the controversy surrounding it. I successfully ignored it as it repeatedly appeared in my Facebook feed. I certainly wasn’t going to make an effort to taste it. Writing about it was even lower on my list of priorities. Why would I? It’s an alco-pop like Smirnoff Ice and Mike’s Hard Lemonade. I don’t do those. Despite all of the publicity, I had managed to stay only vaguely aware of Not Your Father’s Root Beer.

And then I got an email from Andrew Gill, host of the Chicago-based beer podcast Strange Brews. They were doing a story on Small Town Brewery in Wauconda, Illinois, a suburb north of the city. The hosts had read my profile in A Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland and were intrigued by the account of my visit. They wanted to talk. Little did I know, they wanted to talk about Not Your Father’s Root Beer.

I had indeed tasted an alcoholic root beer when I visited the Small Town in January of 2012, but I hadn’t made a connection between that odd little brewery and the fastest growing alcoholic beverage in the nation. The root beer ripping up the marketplace is a mere 5.9% ABV. The one I sampled tipped the scales at an astounding 20%. It tasted like a decent root beer spiked with vodka. It was darned delicious though. I finished my sample and almost asked for more. Owner/brewer Tim Kovac wove tales of bar owners pleading for more.

Of the 236 brewer interviews that I did for the book, my conversation with Kovac was certainly one of the most interesting and perplexing. In the Small Town profile I write, “I must confess that, having spent an hour with Kovac, I left the brewery feeling less clear about what he is doing than when I arrived. It’s obvious to me that his understanding of the brewing process and history are limited at best. With simple brewing calculations, it is impossible to re-create the beers he is making using the methods he describes.” That was true in 2012. Re-playing my recording of the interview, it remains true today.

Small Town’s origin story is an interesting one. Kovac wanted to spend more time with his son and suggested homebrewing as a way to do that. When a vacation was cancelled due to “some volcanic eruptions in Ireland” (I think he meant Iceland), the pair compensated by brewing every day, sometimes multiple batches. They also made root beer. The beer and root beer were apparently so good that soon-to-be business partner John Dopak approached Kovac about starting a brewery together.

Kovac’s mother had long spun tales about a great, great, great grandfather (one great has since been dropped in the marketing copy) who was a ship’s captain ferrying colonists to the Americas in the 17th-century. When Kovac told his mother of the brewery plans, she revealed a part of the story that had hitherto been kept secret. This ancestor was also a gambler. He won a brewery in a game of cards and became a brewer. Kovac told me that it was this relative who discovered that giving passengers and sailors beer on shipboard instead of water kept them healthier and happier. After revealing this bit of family history, Kovac’s mother pulled a dusty, leather-bound volume from under the bed. It was a document from the 1600s containing recipes for beer. This manuscript is the well from which Small Town’s recipes spring.

It was difficult to get an interview with Kovac. He wouldn’t return my emails and calls. When he did, he seemed reluctant to have me visit. But I was writing a book, gosh darn it. And the story on his website was compelling. I persisted. He relented.

Tim Kovac with his rig

Tim Kovac with his rig

Small Town was located in the second floor of an old warehouse building. If memory serves, the first floor was occupied by a woodworking shop. The Small Town floor had been an indoor sports/recreation facility of some kind. Making our way to the small corner that the brewery occupied, we wound through a labyrinth of defunct batting cages and possibly an indoor mini-golf course. I recall it being a little bit creepy.

Although expansion plans ultimately had the brewery filling the entire floor, at the time it fit in just two small rooms. The “aging” area where full kegs were stored wasn’t even finished. It was framed, but no drywall had been hung. That space is where they planned to install a distillery. The brewery was in a small, but finished room with a cold box to one side.

The brewhouse consisted of two, 50-gallon, Groan soup kettles – the kind you would see in a commercial kitchen – and two 100-gallon plastic fermenting tanks. The various pieces were linked together with white PVC pipe (cue the sound of brewers cringing). In the cooler was a row of small, stainless steel conditioning tanks. An apartment sized stove served to stew vanilla bean and other spices that went into the root beer.small town (1)

It was on this rig that Kovac claimed to make the magic of 20% root beer happen. It was here that my confusion began. Kovac said that his root beer was made with barley malt, the way it was made in the 1600s. He was using a brew-in-a-bag method, which according to him was how brewers would have done it in the 1600s. I’ll dig into historical accuracy later. For now let’s focus on the feasibility of his claim. Using brewing software, I attempted to recreate his process. I could not make it work.

The brew-in-a-bag method involves conducting the mash with the crushed barley malt in a big mesh bag. When the mash is complete the bag is simply removed and drained. This allows the brewer to mash and boil in the same vessel. It is a fairly inefficient method, meaning that the brewer extracts less sugar from each pound of grain than with other more conventional methods. Some brewers sparge, that is they rinse the grains with hot water to remove additional sugar, which would increase efficiency. But when Kovac talked me step-by-step through his process he made no mention of this. With this in mind, I based my calculations on an assumption of 65% mash efficiency, which without a sparge step is maybe a bit generous.

Kovac told me that he was making all-grain wort, using 100 to 110 pounds of grain for each 50-gallon batch. He reported a starting gravity for the root beer of 1.200. By my quick and dirty calculations, 100 pounds of grain gives a gravity of 1.055. He would need more like 400 pounds of grain to hit 1.200, which would vastly exceed the capacity of his kettle. I assumed then that he was using malt extract or some other sugar to boost the gravity of his wort. When I asked about that, he insisted that he was not using extract, but admitted that he was using “malt powder.” So…extract. I estimate that he would need approximately 165 pounds of dry malt extract to go from 1.055 to 1.200. Again, there would be no room in his kettle for liquid.

Then there is the matter of fermentation. It isn’t impossible to get yeast to ferment up to 20% alcohol, but it is terribly difficult. Although yeast creates alcohol as a by-product of fermentation, that alcohol is poisonous to it. As the alcohol level increases, the ability of yeast to do its job decreases. Beyond around 15%, our favorite fungus starts to sputter and die. It takes constant babying to get beyond that. Kovac claimed he was doing just that, rousing and re-aerating the beer to see the yeast through a seven-day fermentation. Having seen his setup, I find it hard to believe that he was accomplishing this feat with any degree consistency and without creating some pretty terrible off-flavors.

And so, I found Kovac’s process description to be confusing at best, suspect at worst. But he really didn’t seem like a guy who was out to intentionally deceive. Without having actually seen what he was doing, I could only take him at his word.

17th century brewery

17th-Century Brewery

And then there’s the history part. Brewers actually had breweries in the 17th-century; breweries that worked essentially like the breweries of today. They weren’t huddled over wooden vats steeping grains in a bag. Also, Kovac says that his barley-based root beer recipe is authentic to the 1600s. The only references I can find suggest that fermentable sugars for various types of root beer at the time came from tree sap and molasses.

Confusion and mystery aside, it seems our boy Tim Kovac and his business partners have done well for themselves. They secured a deal to contract brew Not Your Father’s Root Beer at City Brewing in La Crosse, Wisconsin. There appears to be some squishy relationship with Phusion Projects LLC, the makers of such delights as Four Loco, Moskato Life, and Signature Cocktails. The brand has apparently been sold wholly or in-part to Pabst Brewing. I’m sure the Small Town guys made a pretty penny on the deal.

Does this mean that Small Town Brewery is finished as an entity? Who knows? Besides the root beer, Kovac also made beer. I sampled a brown, an amber, and a Christmas beer, among others that I don’t recall. I remember the beers being unremarkable, but Kovac indicated they were in high demand, with one bar owner apparently pleading to pay full price for a partial keg of year-old English brown ale. I know, I didn’t believe him either. He also spoke of plans for a concoction called Grandpa Gone Wild with label art showing “grandpa doing grandma from behind and she’s using a walker.”

So about that Not Your Father’s Root Beer. Apparently it was originally non-alcoholic. Kovac explained that when he and his son made the first recipe it was so good they wanted figure out how to make an alcohol-free version. He asked brewers for advice and was told to boil the alcohol away. And that is what he did. When I asked why he started leaving the alcohol in he replied, “Well, the whole point is saving a step, to be honest with you. I don’t have to boil it off and I can charge more. So that’s even better.”

Here’s my notes:

Not Your Father's Root BeerNot Your Father’s Root Beer
Small Town Brewery, La Crosse, Wisconsin
Style: Hard Root Beer
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
5.9% ABV

Aroma: Highly aromatic. Caramel. High vanilla. Wintergreen. Like wintergreen lifesavers with an undertone of vanilla. Low clove-like spice.

Appearance: Low, fizzy, soda-like head with no retention. Dark brown with red highlights. Brilliant.

Flavor: Sweetness is high. Caramel and vanilla are both high. Wintergreen is there, at first a bit more restrained than in the aroma. A low hint of alcohol, but like distilled spirit. Similar clove spice from the aroma. Strong wintergreen on the way out. A hint of anise. Finish is sticky sweet. Lingers on caramel, wintergreen and vanilla. Vanilla and wintergreen are the high notes. As I sit with it, the alcohol becomes more apparent, but still with that distilled character rather than fermented. A bit burning.

Mouthfeel: Medium-high carbonation. Like soda, but a little lower than most. Medium-full body. Cloying. Some alcohol warming.

Overall Impression: Aroma is really quite enticing. I might not guess there is alcohol if I weren’t told. It’s a decent root beer base, but I do wish that it weren’t quite as sweet as it is. I know that Kovac says he made it with grain, but there is nothing in the flavor that makes me think of grain. No roastiness that the color would indicate. No grainy bread crust. Only caramel and herbs. The low amount of alcohol taste is just enough to be a distraction. Not solvent, but more peppery spicy. On the whole, this is not bad, but the sweetness has me not wanting to finish the glass. It’s soda. Put it in a glass with ice. The cold helps cut the cloying sweetness.

July 30th Addendum

Based on a few Facebook comments, I want to clarify a couple of things.

– He is not producing the current quantity from this 100-gallon system. As I wrote above, NYFRB is contract brewed by City Brewing in La Crosse, WI.

– I believe at the time of my visit he was making everything in house. There was no bottled product yet. There was beer in tanks, not-great beer to be sampled, kegs in the aging room, and yeast being propagated. There was no indication of any connection to anything larger. I think Kovac just found a way to sell the product he developed and make some money on it. There is nothing wrong with that.

– I never had the sense that Kovac was intentionally deceiving me. That’s what made this visit so confusing. He seemed absolutely genuine about what he was doing. I simply couldn’t make sense of what he was telling me. Sure, he may have embellished the history story a bit, but that’s marketing. He struck me as utterly sincere, and frankly sort of geeky. The whole thing was way too elaborately quirky to simply be a front for Phusion Projects.

Indeed Brewing Company Dandy Lager

When I first really got into beer, I went through that phase of seeking out ever more intense flavor experiences. I craved the big hoppy ales, the oddball ingredients, the blackest of black stouts. Then one day that all changed. I just wanted a pilsner.

I remember two moments in that transition very clearly. The first came in 2007 at my first trip to the Great American Beer Festival. Midway through one of two sessions – I was almost certainly a bit buzzed by this time – I had had enough of the hops and booze. I craved something lighter to clear my palate. I searched the hall without much luck. Then I hit the Trumer Pils booth. At that moment, it was the elixir of my soul.

The second was a year later in 2008. I was doing an extended project in St. Louis and had hooked up with a local homebrew club. I was being shown around some local beer spots, again focusing on the monster brews. As we were crossing the Mississippi into Illinois I said to the others in the car, “I just want a pilsner.”

I have lived for German lagers ever since. They are my wheelhouse. Crisp, clean, and non-palate-wrecking, they are the beers I love most. As I have written and said many times in many venues, pilsner is the perfect beer. A really good one is a thing of beauty.

The current revival of sessionable beers has brought with it a revived interest in German-style lagers. If you scan the store shelves today, you’ll find that many well-respected brewers of often-extreme beers are putting out a pilsner. Hell has become one of Surly’s biggest sellers. Even American-style lagers are seeing a craft-beer comeback. I’ve died and gone to heaven.

Dandy Lager from Indeed Brewing Company is one such beer. I got some. I drank it.

Here’s my notes:

DayTripper_6packDandy Lager
Indeed Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Pale Lager
Serving Style: 12 oz. can
5.4% ABV
40 IBU

Aroma: Medium pils-malt sweetness with moderate, corny DMS. Low floral/spicy hops with a light, tangerine overtone.

Appearance: Light gold and clear. Full, creamy, white head with excellent retention.

Flavor: Slightly malt forward. Pils-malt toast and light corn. Medium-low sweetness. Bitterness is medium. Floral and black pepper hop flavors with a hint of citrus or peach. Subtle lemony high notes. Finish is off-dry with lingering floral/citrus hops and light residual bitterness.

Mouthfeel: Medium to medium-light body. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: A lovely, sunny lager. A bit hoppy for a Munich helles, not quite malty enough for a Bohemian pilsner, and not quite dry and bitter enough for a German pilsner. They call it a pale lager. I can live with that. Whatever it is, it’s delicious. It can take me a while to get through a sixpack of a given beer. This one was gone in a matter of a few days.

Schell’s One Five Five and Starkeller Peach

Schell’s turns 155 this year. It seems like just yesterday that they were celebrating 150 years with a whole line of what’s-old-is-new-again, limited-run beers. But if you look back on the changes to the Minnesota beer scene since that time, it almost seems like a lifetime ago. What a difference five years can make.

There were only a handful of breweries in the state in 2010. I don’t recall the actual count. I reckon near 100 have opened since. Nearly all of those breweries have taprooms, something that was illegal in 2010. And they can sell growlers on Sunday. Only a handful of bars and restaurants had good taps then. Now it’s hard to find one that doesn’t have at least a couple. During those five years, the city’s first dedicated craft beer store, the Four Firkins, ascended to its height of glory and then faded and died.

The 155th birthday isn’t as big a deal as the 150th in our imaginations. Rather than an assortment of beers to celebrate the day, Schell’s is only doing one. One Five Five is described as “a complex, medium-bodied red lager.” Its malty profile is achieved with a mix of 2-row, Munich, Victory, and three different crystal malts. Cascade and Mandarina Bavaria hops provide a bright, bitter cap.

As long as I was tasting Five One One, I decided to catch up on another Schell’s beer that has been lingering in my fridge. Starkeller Peach is the latest (the 7th I think) addition to the Noble Star Collection of Berliner Weisse style beers. For this one Jace Marti took Dawn of Aurora his, strong “champagner” weisse, and aged it on a whole bunch of peaches.

I was in New Ulm for a visit not too long ago. The old cypress tanks in the new Starkeller facility are almost ready to hold some beer. Look for a whole lot more of the Noble Star Collection coming soon.

Here’s my notes:

Schell's One Five FiveOne Five Five
August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: Red Lager
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
5% ABV

Aroma: Malt and hops in almost equal balance. Malt is rich caramel and low toast. Hops ride brightly on top – mandarin orange, floral. Moderate perception of sweetness.

Appearance: Medium amber/copper. Brilliant. Full, creamy head of off-white to ivory foam with excellent retention.

Flavor: Balanced malt to hop, with a nice hoppy overtone. Malt follows the aroma with caramel and toast. The toast comes more forward here. Sweetness is low. Bitterness is medium and comes mid-palate to carry through to the finish. Bright hoppiness on top – again mandarin orange and floral. Lager fermentation give a crisp and clean profile. Finish is dry with lingering bitterness and citrus hop flavor.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. High carbonation. Slightly creamy.

Overall Impression: The individual flavors are there and are lovely. But somehow I couldn’t get passed the feeling that the whole is missing something. Was I longing for a rounder ale fermentation character? Maybe I wanted even more follow-thru with the hop character? I don’t know, it’s in the realm of those intangibles that separate the good from the great. I’m not saying it’s not good. It is. But it doesn’t leave me wishing for that second pint.

Schell's Starkeller PeachStarkeller Peach
August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: Peach Berliner Weisse
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
7.2% ABV
5 IBU

Aroma: Loads of peaches – fresh and canned. Low perception of sweetness. Medium lactic acidity. Low barnyard Brettanomyces character. This is really all about the peach.

Appearance: Medium copper/orange. Cloudy. Full, creamy, off-white head with medium-low retention.

Flavor: High lactic acidity. Very fruity. Peaches follow – crushed fresh fruit. Overtones of lemon. Low barnyard Brettanomyces character. Bitterness is low. No hop character. Some malt sweetness survives fermentation, like the crust of a peach cobbler. Some fruity sweetness seems also to survive. Finish is very dry with long-lingering lactic acid tartness.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. High carbonation. Mouthwatering acidity.

Overall Impression: So much fruit. Like a tart, peach cobbler. A lovely summer refresher with a little bit of a kick. This would be great with desserts or a spinach salad with dried apricots, goat cheese, and a citrus vinaigrette dressing. One of my favorites of the Noble Star Collection.

Burning Brother Brewing IPA

Sometimes I pity those who really want to drink beer but can’t tolerate gluten. I know they don’t want my pity. But seriously, historically the options for good flavor have been severely limited. In 2013 when I wrote about gluten-free beers in the Star Tribune and the Growler, I was hard pressed to find one that I actually wanted to drink.

But things are looking up. With growing demand has come a new flock of brewers who are finding ways to cover up or alleviate many of the less pleasant characteristics of sorghum and the other alternative grains used to make gluten-free beer. One such brewer is Dane Breimhorst at Burning Brothers Brewing in St. Paul. A sufferer of Celiac disease himself, he has applied the flavor-balancing skills he learned as a chef to making beer that he himself wants to drink. And he is largely successful. I have often remarked how beer-like his beers really are.

I know that every time I say this I probably send a slight twinge down Dane’s spine. He doesn’t want his beers to be judged as “gluten free.” He doesn’t like it when people say things like, “That’s pretty good for a gluten-free beer.” He is aiming for beers that approach the quality and character of normal beers. In examining this taproom-only IPA I have tried to take that approach.

Here’s my notes:

BurnBrosBrew-logo_rgb_blkIPA
Burning Brothers Brewing, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Gluten Free America IPA
Serving Style: 750 ml growler

Aroma: Fruity – apple, pineapple, citrus, stone fruits. Some floral/grassy hop notes. Low toast. Slight cidery character and low butterscotch.

Appearance: Dark copper and moderately hazy. Medium, white head with mixed bubbles. Low retention.

Flavor: All about hops. High bitterness. High resin and citrus pith hop flavors. Sweetness and malt flavor barely balances bitterness. Low toasted and grainy malt flavor that increases as it warms. Typical cider/floral/almond alternative grain flavors are absent at the start, but increase as the beer warms. It’s not all together unpleasant, bringing a light melon/floral background. Medium butterscotch and background orange esters. Finish is very dry with lingering bitterness and alternative grain character.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Low astringency. Low alcohol warming. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: To my palate this beer could use more sweetness to balance bitterness. Bitterness is very high verging on astringent. Additional malt character would also add fullness to the mouthfeel. Some lingering alternative grain flavor leaves it with a less pleasant aftertaste. Some might find the bit of butterscotch objectionable. I kind of like it. All told, I would drink this. In fact, I did drink the whole 750 ml growler. And I did so happily.

Wabasha Brewing Company – A First Look

Wabasha Brewing CompanyTo find Wabasha Brewing Company head south across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Paul then continue up the hill past the Wabasha Street Caves. Tucked on Wabasha Street is a non-descript, two-story storefront. A sign on the sidewalk out front suggest that this is where you should enter, but drive around back to find the taproom. The building’s rear is even more non-descript, but the orange door and newly established hop vines suggest that something more interesting is going on inside.

wabasha-3Entering the taproom is a bit like stepping into someone’s home. It’s tiny – maybe cozy is a better descriptor. Cream-colored, brick walls and wood tones give it a warm, comfortable feel. It is a bit like a living room turned bar. I was reminded of intimate, cellar bars that I frequented in Germany.

Wabasha-1The brew house is crammed in behind the bar. There is only room for a couple of fermenters. The plan was to start big with the brewery, easily the most expensive piece of equipment. Brewing capacity is ensured from the start. When planned expansions occur fermentation tanks can be added as space allows.

The taproom’s intimacy encourages friendly interaction. I’m actually not the most social person, but I chatted up everyone seated with me at the bar. It wasn’t terribly crowded on the Thursday night of my visit, but I can see how it could get tight on a busy Friday or Saturday. And there is only one restroom for a bunch of people drinking a bunch of beer. Did I mention that expansion is planned?

The beer at Wabasha was a mixed bag – varied both in style and in quality. Nothing was terrible, but some were better than others. A couple of cloudy ones suggested to me that not enough conditioning time was given to let them settle. But it could also be that cloudy was the brewer’s intent.

Wabasha-2My favorite was Peter Wheat. Don’t let the name fool you, there is no wheat in this beer. It’s named after a comic book character created in the 1940s to advertise bread. Peter Wheat the beer is a Germany-style Kristal weizen made with corn instead of wheat. It’s got a creamy mouthfeel and light sweetness with faint, corny overtones. The banana, clove, and bubblegum notes of German, wheat-beer yeast are present, but remain fairly subtle. Higher than expected alcohol gives it a pleasant warming.

Lawnmower porter is a tasty, low-alcohol brown porter with a lovely chocolate brownie character. Low caramel and toast background notes round out the profile. It finishes dry, making it a good summertime dark beer.

West Side Popper was a surprise. I really don’t like pepper beers. I want my food as spicy as you can make it, but not my beer. This light, jalapeno infused cream ale gave a light bite on the finish, but was not overwhelming. It was amply balanced by a smooth, malt sweetness. The pepper flavor was kept to a minimum as well.

Red Bonnet Amber – a cherry infused amber ale – was indistinct – like it couldn’t quite decide what it wanted to be. A touch of caramel was there. A hint of tart cherry was there. But neither was really able to assert itself. Both were muddied by some unwelcome yeasty flavor that was foreshadowed by the murky appearance.

429 Wabasha St S
St Paul, MN 55107
(651) 224-2102

Thursday – Friday: 3:00 pm – 11:00 pm

Sidhe Brewing Company – A First Look

Sidhe Brewery LogoIreland is dotted with small, earthen mounds called Sidhe [pronounced Shee] said to be the homes of the mythical folk called the Aos Sí [pronounced ees shee]. Part of Gaelic and Scottish mythology, these supernatural beings are believed to inhabit an invisible world that coexists with the world of humans. This otherworld is seen to be closer during the hours of dusk and dawn. The Aos Sí are fierce protectors of their abodes. The modern term Banshee derives from “Bean sídhe,” a particularly fearsome female spirit. In Gaelic folk belief and practice they are often appeased with offerings and are rarely referred to directly, but rather spoken of as “The Good Neighbors”, “The Fair Folk”, or simply “The Folk”.

Sidhe is also the name of one of St. Paul’s newest breweries. The name is appropriate. This is Minnesota’s second women owned brewery (at least as far as I know). It is also the state’s first Wiccan brewery – although not the only one to have a somewhat pagan slant.

With its grand opening in May, Sidhe Brewing Company added another facet to the quickly-developing, foodie-focused, Payne-Phalen neighborhood in East St. Paul. It is a neighborhood in transition. Higher-end food joints like Ward 6 and Tongue In Cheek coexist side-by-side with old-school, storefront taquerias. A multi-cultural mix of people can be seen on the streets and in the seats. For co-owner and head brewer Kathleen Culhane this sense of place is important. She sees Sidhe as a gathering place for the neighborhood’s diverse inhabitants – an “awesome, cool place for Eastsiders and others to hang out.” Culhane’s plan is to have a stable of six house beers with a small, rotating selection of seasonals and specialties. She is experimenting with reduced-gluten beers for those with sensitivities.

Sidhe Brewing EntranceThe brewery and taproom occupies the rear part of an interesting marketplace that includes a Mexican restaurant and several small vendor booths. The building is built into a hillside, which means that entering the taproom feels like you are headed to the basement. The entryway from Jenks Avenue affords a nice overview of the whole operation before you descend the stairs into the taproom.

The taproom space itself is simple and relatively unadorned. A set of paintings on the east wall hint at the Wiccan influence. Shelves of games – including to my delight Rock-‘Em Sock-‘Em Robots – insures patrons have plenty to occupy their time while sipping the suds. On the west end of the building is a stage that will host live music. The comparison isn’t totally apt, but while sitting there I kept thinking that the place has a kind of “your-uncle’s-basement-bar” vibe.

Sidhe Brewing BeersThe beers on my visit were a bit problematic. Apparent under-attenuation left each of them tasting overly sweet and a bit sticky. This impression was heightened by low carbonation. Beers that should have been dry and crisp were anything but. The 84 IBUs of Hopped Up McGonigal IPA were nearly completely overwhelmed by sugar. Culhane indicated to me that she was aware of the issues and was taking steps to rectify them. Hopefully she can get that figured out.

Of the selections available, the Best Kissed Cream Ale was my top pick. It was better attenuated than the others, giving it a more refreshing profile. Low, grainy malt flavor was accentuated by a touch of corn. Bitterness was almost just enough to balance. Light, spicy hop notes added a bit of zest. After my sampler flight I had a pint. It was an enjoyable pint.

Next for me was Greenman’s Harvest American Nut Brown. It too was a bit less sweet than the others. Rich and malty, it featured notes of caramel, chocolate, and a faint background of roast-malt bitterness that helped cut the sweet. Hop bitterness was moderate, with low, citrusy hop flavors riding gently over the top.

990 Payne Ave
St. Paul, MN 55130
612-424-1KEG (1534)

Thursday & Friday: 4-11 PM
Saturday: Noon to 11 PM
Sunday: Noon to 7 PM

Northgate Brewing Company – A First Look

The last time I visited Northgate Brewing Company they were still a few weeks from opening. No beer had yet been brewed on their tiny, five-barrel brewhouse crammed uncomfortably into an 800 square-foot, industrial space in Northeast Minneapolis. It was hard to find. I had to call for directions that cold, dark, winter night, even though I was just on the other side of the building. I remember thinking, “How are they ever going to do growler sales if no one can find the place?”

Northgate Brewing Then & Now

Northgate Brewing Then & Now

A lot has changed since then. Last October the brewery moved into a brand new building, tripled the size of their brewhouse, and opened an actual, easy-to-find taproom. Tucked off Broadway on Harding Street, a little west of Highway 280, they managed to remain just on the edge of Northeast Minneapolis. The taproom is an Olympian stone’s throw from the core Northeast brewery district at Broadway and Central.

So why did it take me seven months to visit the new spot? One reason is time. I know it’s kind of my job, but I find it almost impossible to eke out free evenings for hanging in taprooms. I don’t know how you people do it.

But I’ve got to be perfectly honest, there was another reason I stayed away. I was never a fan of Northgate beers. I should have been. They specialize in English styles, which are some of my favorites. I wanted to like them. I repeatedly came back to their brews to give them another chance, but was always disappointed. English yeast can throw some buttery notes that become overwhelming if not handled properly. I found these to be consistently present. I even picked up some medicinal, phenolic flavors once or twice. But I hadn’t tried them since the move.

I entered the taproom this time with trepidation. I left with a changed mind.

I sampled eight beers in all – everything on tap at the time. While the little bit of butterscotch that gives pleasing roundness to well-made English ales was present, nothing crossed the line to unpleasant. And there was not a phenolic note to be found.

Parapet ESB was a standout to me. It was dry and moderately bitter with complementary grassy/earthy hop notes. The bitterness was balanced by biscuity and toffee-tinged malt with a low level of sweetness. The orange marmalade fermentation esters that I love so much were in abundance. If not for the fact that I still had two more taprooms to hit, I would likely have ordered a pint.

The Northgate guys said they would never brew an American-style IPA. And yet on the list was not just an IPA, but an 8.1 percent alcohol double IPA, loaded with quintessentially American Simcoe and Citra hops. Here’s Your Frackin’ IPA was remarkably delicate for its elevated strength. I would never have guessed its potency. While the big, citrus and tropical fruit hop flavor was all-American, the bitterness was on a more moderate English scale. No excessive tongue-scraper this, despite the 100 IBU claim.

There were two takes on Stronghold Robust Porter available – one with coffee and a cask-conditioned version with cherries. I’m not generally a fan of coffee beers and this one did not suit me. The underlying porter was nice, delivering dark, bitter chocolate roast and light sweetness. The coffee though tasted unpleasantly bitter, like that pot that sat on the burner in the office break room all day. The bitter dregs taste lingered long in the finish.

The cherry version on the other hand was delicious. The sweet cherry stayed unobtrusively in the background allowing the base beer to shine. Combined with the beer’s bitter chocolate, it tasted like a liquid Mon Cherie candy.

20150604_190014My companion aptly described the feel of the taproom as “coffee shop with a small nod to an English pub.” It is relatively unadorned and retains an industrial space ambience that is fairly common among local taprooms. Some color on the walls would do a lot to warm it up a bit. It was quiet when we arrived, but by the time we left the crowd had filled the room, bringing with it a din that was not terrible, but louder than I prefer. I’m like that. I like quiet.

783 Harding St NE
Minneapolis, MN 55418
(612) 354-2858

Taproom Hours:
Wednesdays: 4pm – 10pm
Thursdays: 4pm – 10pm
Fridays: 3pm – Midnight
Saturdays: Noon – Midnight
Sundays: Noon – 8pm