St. Paul Summer Beer Fest: a Quick Recap

The rain started to fall at about 12:30 as brewers and vendors were putting the final touches on their booths. Not a heavy rain, just a light but continuous drizzle. Enough to be annoying, but not enough to really get you wet. It was still raining as the bagpipes signaled that the start of the St. Paul Summer Beer Fest with the admission of the VIP early-entry ticket holders. Those folks got wet. Fortunately a good number of brewer-booths were under the canopy of the International Bazaar at the Minnesota State Fair Grounds. By 2:00 when the doors opened for general admission, the drizzle had largely stopped, leaving the rest of the fest with perhaps the best kind of beer-fest weather, overcast with temperatures around 80. No unwanted sunburn this year.

Once again Juno Choi and Mark Opdahl of Chop Liver LLC, along with an army of volunteers, put on a great fest. As in the past two years it was very well organized. From my own experience, very little was lacking. Although there were several water stations, drinking/rinse water coolers seemed in short supply or hard to find, at least in the “south forty” outside the confines of the actual Bazaar where I spent a good deal of my festival time. People kept asking after water. Next to the education tent were coolers full of water in which various hops and malt had been steeped. I got a kick out of watching the expressions on faces as people filled their glasses expecting straight water and got a mouthful of Saaz hop instead.

The change in venue was a good one. The International Bazaar seemed perfect for the event. Each booth was like a little chicken cage with chain link on which brewers could hang their banners. The canopy was nice during the early-hours drizzle. Behind the actual Bazaar was an overflow area where several brewers’ booths were located along with the education tent, the charity dunking booth, and the VIP hang-out tent. It looked to me like the location outside the main event did little to stop people from visiting those booths. The fact that Surly was out back probably didn’t hurt.

I’m not sure how many brewers were actually in attendance, but I’ll call it “a bunch.” In the program I count 80-ish. There didn’t seem to be any big new-comers this year aside from the new entries into the Minnesota market; Alaskan, Olvalde, Brooklyn et al.

No one brought any really exciting beers this year. The selection was mostly culled from the normal offerings of each brewery. That said, Rock Bottom was pouring from bottles of their barrel-aged, bottle-conditioned series and had a couple of beers from the new Brewmaster Bob McKenzie. I was also happy to see a Genesee Cream Ale booth (really). I have been thinking about that beer for a little while and it was good to have the opportunity to enjoy a sample at the fest.

Overall, the beer selection was disappointing to me. Was I in a bad mood? Definitely not. Have I grown hyper-critical from my beer-travels through the Midwest? Perhaps. Maybe I’ve just become jaded. Or was my palate off for some reason? All I can say for sure is that very little stood out to me as special. Granted, I didn’t try nearly all of them and most of the breweries’ regular offerings are tasty. There just wasn’t anything that made me say “wow.” Several beers even stood out as less than adequate. It was a bad day for saisons in particular. I tried many and didn’t care for any.

The one beer that was memorable to me was apparently also memorable to others, as it took the People’s Choice Award. That one was Engine 20, a smoked pale ale from Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Co. It was unique without being extreme. It had a very drinkable malt/hop balance and just enough smoke to make it interesting. Great Lakes won the best-of-fest last year with Nosferatu Imperial Red ale. They must be doing something right in Cleveland.

Samuel Adams Utopias 2011

I have somehow been fortunate in my life. Maybe I’ve just been a good boy. I have had the opportunity to taste every vintage of Samuel Adams Utopias. The super-strong, cognac-like extreme beer has been released every odd-numbered year since 2002. It is constructed from a blend of different barrel-aged beers some of which date back to the original vintage of Triple Bock from 1994. The strongest, naturally-fermented beer in the world, it weighs in at a hefty 27% ABV.

I won’t say that I remember every vintage. That would be absurd. But a few do stand out. 2003 was especially good in my memory, as was 2009. But maybe that was just the circumstances in which I tasted them. At any rate, I sampled this year’s version last night. Do I like it? I’m undecided. I guess I’ll just have to try it again. Here’s my notes:

Samuel Adams Utopias 2011
Boston Beer Company, Boston, Massachusetts
Style: ?
Serving Style: 22 oz bottle

Aroma: Thick butterscotch and maple candy with faint chocolate in the background. Port wine-like. Caramelized prunes. Layers and layers of smells. A big enough whiff reveals nostril-burning alcohol.

Appearance: Dark mahogany with flashes of blackness. Clear. Still. Ample legs drip down the side of the glass when swirled.

Flavor: Rich and creamy. The same butterscotch and maple candy carries over from the aroma. Chocolate comes lingers behind. Glints of sour cherry toward the end. Caramelized dark fruits. Alcohol is prominent, perhaps a bit too much so. Not hot, but boozy. It tingles the tongue and numbs the lips. Finishes long and sweet. Complex.

Mouthfeel: Thick and chewy. Alcohol warms all the way down. Creamy. Still.

Overall Impression: The caramel, butterscotch and maple is nice, but then the tart cherry comes in underneath and upends it. It adds layers of complexity, but that isn’t always necessarily a good thing. My impression changed from sip to sip, some exceedingly enjoyable, some less so. It would be nice to let the alcohol tone down a bit. Perhaps some age will help. I’ll give it another try in a few months.

Boulevard Two Jokers Double Wit

I first tried Boulevard Brewing Company’s Two Jokers Double Wit when it was originally released two years ago. At the time I found it overly spiced, kind of like granny’s bath soap. After that experience I never went back. Jump to the present and I had a completely different experience. Has the beer changed or has my palate change? That’s hard to say. Here’s my notes:

Two Jokers Double Wit
Boulevard Brewing Company, Kansas City, MO
Style: Imperial Witbier
Serving Style: 750 ml Bottle

Aroma: Saltine cracker wheatiness. A bit of banana candy and lemony citrus. Intensely floral.

Appearance: Deep golden to orange color. Cloudy. Fluffy white head that lasts and lasts.

Flavor: Tart, lemony, citrus acidity hits the middle of the tongue right away. Soft bready wheat serves as a base, providing a sweet fluffy cushion. Plenty of stone-fruit esters and floral spicy notes. It’s still a bit perfumed for me, but no longer seems over the top. The dry finish lingers on floral spice.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Mouth-filling wheat thickness. Effervescent carbonation.

Overall Impression: The “imperial” part of this beer lands it somewhere between a Belgian Tripel and a witbier. The spice blend is strong, but doesn’t seem as over the top as the last time I had this beer. For 7+% ABV it’s remarkably refreshing.

Magic Hat Summer Scene Variety Pack

The Summer Scene variety pack from Magic Hat Brewing Company is now in stores. It contains a seasonal mix of lighter ales including their flagship #9, Single Chair Ale, Blind Faith IPA, and an odd little beer called simply Wacko. I had the chance to give the latter three of these four beers a try. I’ve always been fond of #9, but I have to say that the rest of them didn’t really grab me. Here’s my notes:

Magic Hat Brewing Co, Burlington, VT
Style: “Summer Beer”
Serving Style: 12 oz Bottle

Aroma: Tart citrus. Raspberries. Light acidity.

Appearance: Hazy, medium-amber with a pinkish tint. Low, white head with fine bubbles that dissipated quickly.

Flavor: Dry, crisp and wheaty. Medium bitterness with light grassy hop flavors. Fruity background berry flavors, blueberry or raspberry, but not as intense as a fruit beer. The light acidity in the aroma would be welcome, but is missing. Some lingering wheaty sweetness in the finish. Hints of caramel.

Mouthfeel: Crisp and dry. Some creaminess comes in as it warms. Medium-high carbonation.

Overall Impression: I would call this an okay American wheat beer, although the website makes no mention of wheat in the ingredients. It drinks easy and would be quite refreshing on a summer day. They tout the use of beet sugar, but this adds nothing except to lighten the body. Background berry notes are nice. Not bad, but just kind of “meh.”

Single Chair Ale
Magic Hat Brewing Co, Burlington, VT
Style: “Golden Beer”
Serving Style: 12 oz Bottle

Aroma: Pilsner malt; sweet graham-cracker and bread. Hop aromas are low. Light citrus, but predominant hop aromas are spicy.

Appearance: Slightly hazy and golden colored. Low, white head that didn’t persist.

Flavor: Malt dominates the aroma, but hops take over in the flavor. Assertively bitter for such a simple beer. Spicy and fruity hops sit on top of mildly-sweet, graham-cracker malt. Hints of fruit flutter in the background; apricot? Orange? Finish lingers on fruit and sweet malt.

Mouthfeel: Light body. Medium-high carbonation.

Overall Impression: A nice, summery, blond ale. Tilted a bit to the hoppy side, but still balanced. I love light, blond ales, This one isn’t bad, but doesn’t jump out at me.

The last beer in the selection is Blind Faith IPA. I don’t have specific notes, but I’ll just say that this one is bitter. I’m a weirdo in that I first look for malt in an IPA. This one could use a bit more malt to keep it balanced. I also prefer IPAs that favor hop flavor and aroma over bitterness. This one seems more balance to bitterness. It’s just not my kind of IPA, though some might find it great.

Beer and Wine Tips and Videos in June Cambria Style Magazine

A while back I teamed up with my good friend sommelier Leslee Miller of Amusée to create some super pairings for the summer issue of Cambria Style Magazine. Outside, the gray and snowy day hardly made one think of summer, but inside Kitchen Window in Uptown things were warm and glowing. We shot several videos that day to accompany our written pieces about pairing beer and wine with food. The only down side was that the food and drink were being photographed for the issue, so very little sampling was done. Nonetheless it was a great day. The videos came out beautifully. Be sure to check out the magazine spread as well.

Summer Beer/Wine/Food Pairings

Pouring a Proper Pint

One More Class to List

I’m doing one more summer beer class that I didn’t mention in the last post because I thought it was a members-only event. It’s not.


Beer Class: Understanding Hops
June 8, 5:30 PM, $30 includes light appetizers.
Campus Club, Coffman Memorial Union
, University of Minnesota
The Campus Club regularly produces beer themed events for members, including our annual Oktorberfest and our spring Beer Testing. This is our first ‘class’ focused on a specific beer theme. Our presenter is Michael Agnew, Certified Cicerone (the beer equivalent of a Sommelier). His beer column appears each month in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
You will learn a lot about hops: History, Botanical Description, Production, Types, Varieties, Brewing Process, and Vocabulary. You will sample a spectrum of beers to gain a deeper understanding of this essential ingredient in beer.
You must reserve your place(s). Call 612-626-7788. Non-members are welcome, but you must reserve your place.

Summer Beer Classes

Now that I’m back I’m hitting the ground running. I have a bevy of public events and classes coming up that I want to let you know about. Check these out.

Beer & Cheese Pairing at Midwest Supply
June 23, 6-8 PM, FREE
People usually talk about pairing wine and cheese, but beer is a much better companion. In fact, they are sort of the same thing (learn why by coming to the event). In the class we’ll talk about some basic principles of pairing beer and cheese while sampling the wares of some of Minnesota and Wisconsin’s best cheese makers and brewers. Midwest Supply is going to stay open later than normal so you can stock up on your brewing supplies while you’re there.

Summer Fresh Beer Pairing Dinner at Cooks of Crocus Hill
June 24, 6-9 PM, $75
With Chef Jeremy Reinicke
Fresh, light, easy. These are all the words that spring to mind when we think of summer food. But summer beers are no different! They’re fresh, light and easy to drink. Join Cicerone Michael Agnew and Chef Jeremy Reinicke for the perfect pairing of yummy warm-weather favorite foods and summery suds.
Menu: Assorted Fresh Cheeses; Summer Harvest Salad with Honey Basil Vinaigrette; Tuna Tartare with Dill on Toasted Baguette; Roasted Leg of Lamb with “Flanders Red” Marinade; Summer Berries with Puff Pastry and Aged Balsamic; a Selection of Summery Craft Beers.

Beer, Wine & BBQ at Cooks of Crocus Hill
July 29, 6-9 PM, $75, SOLD OUT get on the waiting list.
With Chef Mike Shannon and Sommelier Leslee Miller
Smoky. Sweet. We’re not just talking about the food either! Chef Mike, Sommelier Leslee and Cicerone Michael are back together again, this time pairing grapes and grains with the great summer flavors of the grill. Join them as Mike fires up the grill and Michael and Leslee throw down the pairings. There’s no better way to beat the heat this summer.
Menu: Grilled Tomatoes with Mozzarella; Grilled Romaine with Blue Cheese Vinaigrette; Coconut Shrimp with Vanilla Gastrique; Knife and Fork Manchego Burger; Grilled Peaches with Grand Marnier Cream.

Hope to see you there!

I’ve Been Gone, But Now I’m Back

I’m back. Looking back it seems I have only posted four times in the last two months.

I’ve been away from home for the better part of those two months working on a non-beer project that was pretty all-consuming, but definitely worth the time and effort. I have a nearly annual gig at St. Leonard’s House, a halfway house on Chicago’s West Side making theatre with men and women who have just been released from prison. This year I actually lived at the men’s house with the guys. That was interesting in its own right. Imagine a Cicerone® spending two months in a sober house. You get the picture. Still, it’s one of my favorite gigs and one of my favorite places to be and to work.

Being away for two months, I became pretty disconnected from the Minnesota beer scene. A lot of things were happening of which I was only vaguely aware. The “Surly Bill” is now the “Surly Law.” The t-shirt bill, Sunday sales, and brewpub bill all went down in flames. Not to mention that I missed all of Minnesota Craft Beer Week!

I was in Chicago during Chicago Craft Beer Week, but it fell during my production week, so I didn’t even really get to take advantage of that. I think I attended one event. But it wasn’t an entirely beer-free two months. During my stay I managed to squeeze in around 25 brewery visits for the Upper Midwest Beer Guide that I am writing, interviewing brewers or owners at most of them. Illinois is in about the same place as Minnesota in terms of developing its craft beer industry. It was late to get started, but is making up for it with a vengeance. During the time that I was there, three or four new breweries put beer on the streets, making it hard to keep my master brewery list up to date. There is some great beer being produced by breweries and brewpubs both old and new in the great Chicagoland area. More posts about these will be forthcoming.

It’s time to end my internet silence. It’s great to be back.