Spring Beer Classes at Cooks of Crocus Hill

I am pleased to announce new beer classes at Cooks of Crocus Hill for spring. I’ll be teaming up again with Master Sommelier Leslee Miller of Amusee Wine and Chef Mike Shannon for one of our now-legendary beer/wine pairing dinners. And I’ll be working with Heavy Table’s Becca Dilley and James Norton, authors of the Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin, for some awesome pairings of local beer and cheese. Check these out.

The Big Thaw: Wine and Beer Pairing Dinner
April 15th, 6:00 PM-9:00 PM, $75
With Leslee Miller and Mike Shannon
It’s OK to come out now … the cold war is over! Join Chef Mike, Sommelier Leslee and Cicerone Michael at Cooks for a night of fabulous drinks and eats sure to thaw out your tail feathers and get your palate prepped for all the great gourmet goodies that spring has in store. Menu: Bacon and Crab in Endive; Asparagus Tip Vinaigrette; Spring Vegetable Primavera; White Bean Cassoulet with Sausage; Apple-Cherry Turnovers. This one WILL sell out.

Local Cheese and Ale
May 4th, 6:00-9:00 PM, $70
With Becca Dilley and James Norton
Even though we may disagree about The Favre and whether or not you should buy alcohol on Sundays, Minnesota and Wisconsin can at least come together on a few things, like the importance of good beer and cheese! Cicerone Michael Agnew will enlighten you on the ales, while Becca Dilley and James Norton, authors of The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin, will take you on a tour of the best fromages these states have to offer. Menu: A Selection of Cheeses from Minnesota and Wisconsin Cheesemakers Paired with Craft Beers from Brewers in Both States.

Sign up online at the Cooks of Crocus Hill website.

Fulton Beer Buys A Brewery

On their newly re-vamped website, just launched this morning, Fulton Beer has announced that brewing equipment has been ordered and should arrive sometime this summer. I have reported in greater length on the City Pages Hot Dish Blog. Read it! Congratulations guys.

In other news, Harriet Brewing will be having it’s first growler sales at the brewery tomorrow (Saturday) from 1-5 PM. 3036 Minnehaha Ave, Mpls, MN. Be there!

Leinenkugel’s Limited

Back in 1986, Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company made what the brewery calls its “first ever craft beer”, Leinenkugel’s Limited. (Of course, this begs the question what they had been doing for the previous 119 years, especially those before prohibition, but that’s for another story.) Limited was originally a fall seasonal release, but became a year-round beer in 1990. Because the beer then had “unlimited” availability, the name was changed to Northwoods Lager. It was taken out of production in 2000.

Apparently public clamor for this beer was great enough that Leinenkugel’s is re-releasing it for a limited run.  According to the press release it’s “a slow-brewed blend of four select barley malts – caramel, Munich, Carapils, and Pale – and aromatic, bittering Cluster and Cascade hops.” Limited won gold and silver medals in the premium lager category at the GABF in 1993 and 1991 respectively.

Leinenkugel’s Limited is being released in select markets on February 1st. Here’s my notes:

Leinenkugel’s Limited
Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company, Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin
Style: Amber American Lager
Serving Style: 12 oz Bottle

Aroma: Very gentle aromas, but pleasant. Cool and refreshing. Light caramel and sweet malt. Overtones of orangy citrus.

Appearance: Beautiful to look at. Medium Amber color and crystal clear. Large, fluffy, white head that lasts and lasts.

Flavor: The crisp lager character and high carbonation are the first impressions, somewhat overpowering all else. As the beer warms some gentle caramel malt comes in, surrounded by delicate fruity hops with musk melon, orange citrus, and light floral overtones. Bitterness is low, but balances the low level of malt sweetness. Finishes dry with some lingering hints of caramel and orange.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Medium-high carbonation with tiny, champagne-like bubbles; better once it has a chance to de-gas. Crisp.

Overall Impression: This is not a bad beer. In fact, it’s quite pleasant and easy to drink. I just wish there were more to it. I am a fan of subtle lagers. A good Munich Helles is heavenly. But the flavors and aromas of this beer are so delicate that despite being pleasant, it seems lacking. The old show-biz admonition to “leave them wanting more” applies here, just not in the right way.

Matacabras from Dave’s BrewFarm

Anyone who lives up here in the North-Country knows that northerly winds in the wintertime bring frigid unpleasantness. In Minnesota we call them Alberta Clippers. In Spain there are twin arctic winds. The first is called Descuernecabras, the wind that dehorns goats. The second, more vicious twin bears the morbid moniker Matacabras, the wind that kills goats.

Matacabras is also the name of a not-so-menacing beer from Dave’s BrewFarm in Wilson, Wisconsin. The name is appropriate however, as the wind can blow a mean-streak up on the rural ridge where the BrewFarm is situated. It blows hard enough to drive the wind turbine that provides a good percentage of the brewery’s power. As to whether it kills goats…you’ll have to ask Farmer Dave.

Here’s my notes:

Dave’s BrewFarm, Wilson, Wisconsin
Style: Belgiany Specialty Ale
Serving Style: 12 oz Bottle

Aroma: Toasted bread crust maltiness supports the light banana and sugar sweetness of Belgian yeast. Brown sugar mingles with some intriguing fruitiness; candied oranges, raisins, figs. Faint floral aromas float on top.

Appearance: A rocky, ivory-colored head that persists reasonably well. Dark orange/amber color with moderate haze.

Flavor: An herbal, peppery bite of hops and rye greets the tongue at first. That fades mid-palate to reveal toasty, bread-crust malt and loads of candied fruit flavors, brown sugar, raisins, bananas, and a faint tart citrusy note. Alcohol is noticeable and welcome. Finishes dry, with final spicy bite that resolves into long-lingering candied fruit.

Mouthfeel: Creamy and medium-full bodied. Medium-high carbonation lightens it up, but brings some carbonic bite in the beginning. Warming alcohol.

Overall Impression: A Belgian barleywine? An English Dubel? Maybe and Anglo-Belgian Imperial Dunkel? Matacabras offers an ever-changing mix of flavors that roll riotously from one thing to another; at times resolving in articulated layers and at others collapsing together into a chaotic clump. But always that beautiful bread crust.

MN Craft Brewers Guild Wants You to Have Winterfest Tickets

Winterfest tickets sold out in under a minute. Hard to believe, but true. It was a serious online crush to snap them up.

Didn’t get tickets? Well the MN Craft Brewers Guild, sponsors of the event that is probably the best beer fest in the Twin Cities, feels bad for you. They want to give you a chance to win tickets in the Minnesota Craft Beer Heritage Contest. Pen your most purple prose explaining why you are the ultimate Minnesota Craft Beer fan and you could win not only tickets to the event, but also early entry and a meet & greet with the brewers. A Mr and a Ms Minnesota Beer will be named, each taking home the coveted prize.

Interested? Here are the details from the website.

Prove Your Minnesota Beer Heritage
The Minnesota Craft Brewer’s Guild wants you to share why you are a true Minnesota craft beer lover. Have you toured every brewery in the state? Do you brew a unique beer for every season? Did you introduce your 80-year old grandmother to the state’s best IPAs? Or do you just have a love affair with the great beers of Minnesota, unmatched by any of your friends? In 200 words or less, tell us your qualifications and heritage when it comes to Minnesota craft beer. Please visit the www.mncraftbrew.org or email minnesotabrewers@gmail.com to submit your entry. The Brewer’s Guild will select two separate winners Mr. Minnesota Craft Beer and Ms. Minnesota Craft Beer. We want to celebrate thou who prove to be the most devoted Minnesota craft beer enthusiast. And please note the winners do not have to be affiliated.

The winners will be awarded four tickets to Winterfest, the Minnesota Craft Brewer’s Guild winter showcase on Friday, February 4. The winners will also get a private meet-and-greet with some Minnesota brewers and early access to Winterfest.

The deadline for submissions is 10pm CST on Monday, Jan 31.

Get Writing!

The Angry Minnow Brewpub in Hayward, Wisconsin

Traveling from Duluth, Minnesota to Hayward, Wisconsin takes you on winding two-lane highways through the beautiful northern Wisconsin landscape. It’s the kind of country that makes me want to pull off the road and head into the woods for a hike. The thick snow that blanketed the ground when I made the drive last December made it just that much more enchanting. But I didn’t have time to stop. Having spent the afternoon sampling beers at Fitger’s Brewhouse, I was on my way to do more sampling at the Angry Minnow Brewpub in Hayward.

At the Angry Minnow I was met by Jason Rasmussen, brewer and co-owner with his brother Will. While touring the brewery, located in the basement of the historic building that houses the brewpub, Jason explained the Angry Minnow’s development.  Will Rasmussen dreamed up the idea during a 2002 ski trip to Colorado. After visiting several of the state’s renowned brewpubs, he thought the concept might work in his hometown of Hayward, a center of outdoor activity in both summer and winter. He brought Jason on board, who at the time was an avid homebrewer, and in 2004 the Angry Minnow opened.

Jason started homebrewing in college, but never really thought of doing it professionally. When Will approached him about brewing at the Minnow, he left school and finagled an apprenticeship at the Great Dane Brewpub in Madison. The apprenticeship afforded him invaluable hands-on experience. From there he headed to Chicago’s Siebel institute for some deeper textbook knowledge.

Jason offers patrons a wide range of beers, from a “lite” golden ale to an imperial IPA. His personal taste is for big, hoppy beers, but he recognizes a need for easier-drinking session beers as well. He also tries to craft beers that will challenge the mostly lager-drinking locals and satisfy the palates of the steady stream of homebrewers that come through.

On my visit I sampled a very nice smoked porter, a medium bodied beer with smooth roast and subtle but noticeable charred-wood smoke character. The standout beer for me was Redhorse Ale, a seasonal “Midwestern” red ale, slightly malt-forward with toasty, biscuit flavors blending nicely with sweet caramel. Citrus and pine-resin hops offered a bright contrast to the malt, and moderate bitterness with a clean, light finish made it a delightfully drinkable beer. Angry Minnow’s year-round beers include Oaky’s Oatmeal Stout, River Pig American Pale Ale, Honey Wheat, Minnow Lite.

The food has an intentionally Wisconsin bent. Menu items include several varieties of freshwater fish from Lake Superior, wild rice, and locally grown pork fed on spent grains and food waste from the brewpub. Dishes are more upscale than traditional pub food, but still reasonably priced with entrees topping out at about $18. The cheese curds were spectacular with a light, crispy crust and firm texture. The only downside to the curds was their lack of a dipping sauce.

The atmosphere is decidedly different from the typical brewpub. High ceilings, exposed brick, and dim lighting give an elegant but inviting feel to the dining room. It is an ambience that would serve well for a romantic date or a round of drinks after work. The building itself has a unique and storied past, having served as the offices of the Northern Wisconsin Lumber Company, an auto body shop, and possibly a brothel. Windows in the walkway from the front to the back dining room provide a bird’s eye view of the basement brewhouse.

Hayward is an outdoor mecca. While you are there you have to check out the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame with its giant walk-thru walleye. During the winter there are ample opportunities for cross-country skiing. Every February the town hosts the American Birkebeiner Cross-Country Ski Marathon.

Crispin Browns Lane Imported English Cider

A while back I was talking with Crispin Cider CEO Joe Heron when he handed me a can of cider from England. He told me that the company would soon be importing it to this country under the Crispin label. Heron was very excited about the project, but said that it was still under wraps.

Browns Lane Classic English Dry Cider was finally released earlier this month. It is now available in four-packs of 16-ounce cans at most metro-area fine beverage stores. According to the can Browns Lane is “100% pressed, fermented and produced in England. It is a lightly sparkling, crisply effervescent cider made with traditional English bittersweet cider apples sourced in the Malvern Hills of Worcestershire.”

Sounds tasty. And it is tasty. Here’s my notes:

Browns Lane
Imported by Crispin Cider Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: English Dry Cider
Serving Style: 16 oz can

Aroma: Fruity apples and spice. Red apple skins. Hints of sulfur.

Appearance: Golden color and crystal clear. Tiny bubbles rise from the bottom of the glass.

Flavor: Crisp red apple. When cold it’s like biting into a firm, fresh fruit. Vinous like chardonnay. Leans toward tart, with sweetness that just balances. Lingering apple sweetness after the swallow quickly gives way to a long-lasting, very dry and tart finish.

Mouthfeel: Crisp, dry, and light-bodied. Prickly carbonation.

Overall Impression: An easy-drinking and refreshing cider. Nice balance of sweet and tart. More tart and with a dryer finish than the other Crispin offerings, it is my favorite outside of the Artisanal Reserve line. Nothing offensive. Nothing challenging. Just a nice fruity, dry, and lightly tart apple cider. I braised some kale in this stuff and it was fantastic!

Let’s Save Rock Bottom

The Rock Bottom brewpub chain has a big secret. It’s an open secret, but something that most people, even many beer nerds, don’t know. I myself was unaware of this secret until a ten-minute talking-down from the brewer at the Chicago location corrected my misconception of the chain.

The secret is this: There are no standardized brews at Rock Bottom.

That’s right; every beer at every store is an original creation of the head brewer at that store. While some beer names are used across the chain, the beers behind the names are unique. The food menu is standardized, but the beer menu is not. Brewers have essentially total control of the beers that they produce.

Over the 20 years that the chain has been in existence, this open policy toward brewers has resulted in 45 GABF gold medals and countless silver and bronze medals. Rock Bottom brewers are consistently among the medal-winners in the World Beer Cup and other prestigious brewing competitions. Many Rock Bottom brewers have gone on to open their own breweries or to work at other successful breweries. Surly brewmaster Todd Haug is one example. Anyone who has visited Rock Bottom with any frequency knows that this chain brewpub is different from the others.

This difference is in jeopardy. The recent merger between Rock Bottom and Gordon Biersch has been widely reported. Initially Frank Day, co-founder of Rock Bottom and board chairman of the newly formed company CraftWorks Restaurants and Breweries, stated that no re-branding would occur. “Each brand will stay separate and do its own thing…we’re not wanting to homogenize the restaurants.” The problem with this statement is that while it may rule out homogenization between the different concepts, it doesn’t preclude increased homogenization within each concept.

That appears to be exactly what is happening at Rock Bottom. As first reported on Brewpublic.com, it seems that the new corporate management intends to limit the amount of control that Rock Bottom brewers have over their production. Sources inside the chain have leaked the information that a number of system-wide, standard beers will soon be required at each location. Because the chain has never done a particularly good job of marketing the fact that each store’s beers are unique, this isn’t technically a “re-branding.” It is, however, a bad idea on many levels.

Unlike the Hops, BJ’s, and Gordon Biersch chains that serve the same beers across the entire system, each Rock Bottom store has a different brewery setup. While every Gordon Biersch has a reverse osmosis system in place to standardize the brewing water, every Rock Bottom location uses different water. Consistency across batches is hard enough for a small brewery. Consistency across a number of small breweries with different systems and water is a near impossibility. If management’s intention is to give guests a consistent experience from store to store, they will most likely miss their mark.

And besides, who really wants another Hop’s, BJ’s, or Gordon Biersch? In a world overflowing with Benihoulafridaybee’s restaurant concepts do we really need another totally-interchangeable, cookie-cutter dining experience? Craft beer is the only segment of the beer industry currently seeing consistent growth. Part of that success is due to a growing desire in the public for all things local. People are beginning to seek out fine food and drink. Grocery stores are beefing up gourmet food sections. Restaurants and bars are offering more and more eclectic beer selections. The number of operating farmers markets saw 16% growth from 2009 to 2010. Why is CraftWorks looking to homogenization when uniqueness and higher quality are the trends of the future?

Rather than trying to limit brewer freedom at Rock Bottom, CraftWorks should be developing a coherent marketing strategy to sell it. They should be shouting from the hilltops that every visit to Rock Bottom is a unique experience. They should boldly declare that their brewers are among the nation’s best, and they should be trotting out their competition medals to prove it.

I am encouraging beer-lovers to send this message to CraftWorks management. Send an email to operations@rockbottom.com. Use the power of Facebook and Twitter to spread the word. Blog about it. Tell your friends.

Let’s save Rock Bottom.

Great Lakes Eliot Ness Amber Lager

Invented in the 1840s by Austrian brewing magnate Anton Dreher, the Vienna lager style was one of the most popular of its day. The story goes that Dreher was touring Britain, visiting breweries and stealing wort in a hollow cane, an early bit of industrial espionage. He took what he learned there and made an amber lager roughly modeled the English pale ales he had sampled and swiped. I can’t be sure of the truth of this story, but that’s the story.

At any rate, the style gradually went out of favor in Europe and by the early/mid 20th century was gone from the continent. The style survived in central America where expatriate German brewers were still brewing it. Even there Vienna lager underwent a gradual transformation from a full-flavored, all-malt lager to an adjunct-laden shadow of itself. In the 1980s however, upstart American craft brewers re-discovered the toasty, amber lager and revived it. There are now several fine examples brewed in this country, including Capital Wisconsin Amber, Schell’s Firebrick and Great Lakes Eliot Ness Amber Lager. The latter is the one I just sampled. Here’s my notes:

Eliot Ness Amber Lager
Great Lakes Brewing Company, Cleveland, Ohio
Style: Vienna Lager
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle

Aroma: Toasty bread-crust and earthy spice. Aroma is light overall.

Appearance: Medium amber and brilliant. Long-lasting, creamy, ivory-colored head.

Flavor: Fuller flavor than most of the style. Sweet caramel and toasted bread-crust malt dominate. Moderate bitterness balances. Spicy/herbal hop flavors keep it refreshing and accentuate hints of roast. The crisp, dry finish lingers on toasty malt.

Mouthfeel: Medium body, but full for the style. Medium carbonation. Crisp.

Overall Impression: A very nice, full-flavored Vienna lager. I love toasted flavors in malt and this beer has them in spades. Refreshingly dry finish makes this a very easy beer to drink, sessionable except for the 6.2% ABV.

Cozy Comforts Beer & Wine Pairing Dinner at Cooks of Crocus Hill

Last night the tastebud-teasing trio of Sommelier Leslee Miller, Chef Mike Shannon, and Cicerone Michael Agnew (that’s me) came together at Cooks of Crocus Hill in St. Paul for another beer, wine, and food pairing experience. This one, called Cozy Comforts, focused on the kind of foods that Minnesotans need to help them through January’s deep-freeze. As temperatures routinely drop well below zero, we crave rich and wholesome foods like pot roast and mac & cheese; the kind of food that your grandma used to make (only a lot fancier). During the three-hour class, guests tasted their way through five courses, each paired with a beer, a wine, or both.

I started the night off with a welcome beer, Schell’s Snowstorm. Snowstorm is the annual winter seasonal release from New Ulm’s August Schell Brewing. Every year it is brewed to a different style. This year’s version is a dark wheat doppelbock (just try saying that three times fast). This is a fantastic beer to warm the soul, combining the familiar banana and clove flavors of a German Hefeweizen with the rich, sweet, caramel maltiness of a doppelbock. Several people told me that they typically don’t like wheat beers, but that this one made them reconsider.

The first course was braised winter greens with bacon. Imagine kale (I love kale) braised in cider and topped off with cranberries and bacon; bitter, sweet, tart, and salty/savory all in one place. Leslee paired this with Helfrich Riesling from Alsace. The wine had earthy aromas of wet stone and a bright acidic tartness. It really spoke to the cranberries in the dish and made them absolutely pop.

For the second course Chef Mike whipped up four-cheese macaroni and cheese with gruyere, white cheddar, parmesan, and just a touch of gorgonzola. I paired this with Isolation Ale from Odell Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado. Isolation Ale is a traditional English winter warmer, malt-forward with a bit of bitterness to balance and light orangey citrus notes. It paired well, but I think I could have gone even maltier with something like an English barleywine.

Next on the menu was ginger orange Cornish hens with sweet potatoes and green apples. Leslee made an unexpected pairing to this dish, choosing a bigger Spanish red, Caliza Syrah from Marqués de Griñón. The wine had strong peppery flavors that spoke to the ginger in the dish, while the citrusy sauce and sweet potato/apple side-dish pulled out nice fruity notes from the wine.

The pairings with the fourth and fifth courses were the best of the night. The fourth course was a very traditional pot roast with carrots and shallots. Leslee focused on the sweetness of the carrots and onions, choosing Root: 1 Carmenere, a red from Chile. It featured juicy plum and berry flavors with light tannins on the finish. The wine went perfectly with the veggies and also pulled some sweetness from the meat. I went with Meantime London Porter, a medium-bodied, moderately-roasty porter from England. The roastiness of the beer was perfect with the meat and the light caramel sweetness also spoke to the carrots and onions.

Desert was S ‘more Pot De Crème, an original creation of Chef Mike. Rich chocolate custard was topped with crumbled graham-cracker and torch-toasted marshmallow cream. The drink pairings offered a lesson in both complementary and contrasting flavors. I chose Rogue Chocolate Stout, rich, sweet, and chocolaty. I was going for chocolate overload. The flavors melded perfectly as one disappeared into the other. Leslee went with Astoria Lounge Sweet a tasty sparkling wine from Italy. It’s deep honeycomb and fruit flavors countered the rich chocolate/marshmallow of the desert and the light sparkle cleansed the palate for the next bite. It reminded me of the way a tart raspberry sauce enhances a dark chocolate cake.

Our next Cooks of Crocus Hill beer/wine pairing event is on April 15th. The theme is “the Big Thaw”; food, beer, and wine to bring us out of hibernation.