Stone 15th Anniversary Escondidian Black IPA

In calling its 15th anniversary beer an Escondidian Black IPA, Stone Brewing Co. took an intentional jab at the silly debate over what to call black and bitter beers; Cascadian Dark Ale or Black IPA. As it is the first Imperial version of this up-and-coming style (that I know of), I suppose it is within their rights to claim origins in Escondido.

It’s a big bruiser of a black and bitter beer. Weighing in at 10.8% ABV and 100 IBU. I have to say that my experience of this beer may have been tainted by the fact that I was really in the mood for a saison. This is not a saison. I let myself get talked into opening the bottle. With that in mind, here’s my notes:

Stone 15th Anniversary Escondidian Imperial Black IPA
Stone Brewing Co, San Diego, California
Style: Imperial Black IPA
Serving Style: 22 oz bottle

Aroma: Immediate hit of big pine and citrus hops; grapefruits and tangerines. Underneath lies dusky roast and bitter coffee. Imperial stout-like with bold American hops.

Appearance: Opaque black. Full and long-lasting creamy tan head.

Flavor: Hops hit first on the tip of the tongue; a shockwave of bitterness, tangerines, and pine. Mid-palate the malt rushes in bringing bold coffee and bitter chocolate flavors. Sweetness fights with the bitterness and nearly wins. The finish leaves lingering blackstrap molasses and hop bitterness amplified by burnt roasted flavors. Throughout a mix of pith and pine, sweet tar and roast.

Mouthfeel: Full-bodied and a bit astringent. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: Is this a hoppy imperial stout or a sweet and strong black IPA? I don’t usually hang on styles, but if forced to choose I’d go with the former. It’s big. It’s thick. It’s boldly roasty and bitter. Only the extra-intense hop flavor and aroma tell me that this is something other than an RIS. While the coffee/chocolate/tangerine blend was pleasant, it slapped me around a bit more than I wanted.

Surly Turns Five: An Interview with Omar Ansari and Todd Haug

Surly Brewing Company opened the doors of its Brooklyn Center Brewery in 2006. At the time there wasn’t much of a craft beer scene in the Twin Cities. The big craft-beer boil-over of the last few years was just reaching a simmer. There certainly was nothing – or at least very little – in the market with the heavy lupulin load of Furious. But the desire for such beers must have been there. In its first year, Surly took off like a rocket.

It’s been a busy five years for Owner Omar Ansari and Head Brewer Todd Haug. Rapid growth in demand has spurred constant expansion of capacity in the brewery. This year they spearheaded a successful legislative effort that won Minnesota brewers the ability to sell pints at the brewery. The next five years promise to be even busier with the construction of a planned 100,000-barrel “destination brewery.”

I sat down with Omar and Todd at the brewery last week to talk about the past, the present and the future of Surly. And of course we talked about Five, a beer fermented with “wild” Brettanomyces yeast brewed to celebrate the anniversary. Five had its bottle release this week. It sold out in most stores in just a few hours. If you missed out getting a bottle, a draft release party is happening on Monday the 29th at the Republic in 7-corners from 6:30 to 10:30 PM.

Surly turned five. Five years is one of those milestones. If you think back to 2006, where did you think you would be right now?

Todd: You know, hindsight and experience always seems to change that idea of what you thought it would be, but certainly we didn’t expect things to grow as fast as they did, especially with beers like Furious in our market. We always knew that there were holes in the market in terms of beer styles, especially styles that weren’t represented by Minnesota breweries. Knowing that, we thought, “Well how big are these holes? A really hop-forward beer; how is that going to carry through all the state of Minnesota?” So that’s the kind of stuff we didn’t know. And at the time we didn’t really need to know. It was more like, “let’s just make these beers and make them the best we can and see what happens.” What we really didn’t see coming was the timing with the craft beer swell. We knew it was happening around the country, but it was a little slow getting to Minnesota. There was a lot of fortuitous timing.

Omar: I was really hoping that we would have a few employees and maybe be making six or seven thousand, eight thousand barrels. That was really what we hoped for, to make enough beer to pay the bills. Just get the beer out and hope that we’d find some people that want to drink it. The plan wasn’t to get the Coors drinkers to start drinking the beer. We always said that our beers don’t come with training wheels. They’re not starter beers. We’ll let Fat Tire be the gateway beer. We weren’t looking to bring people into the world of craft beer. We wanted to brew something a little bit bigger; some of the more aggressive beers that this market didn’t have. We were both a little surprised after the ball got rolling by how much people embraced it. It was pretty unbelievable the amount of progress in that first year. It’s still amazing some of the places where we have accounts. It’s shocking given the price point of the beer and the flavor profile of the beers. It’s just not the type of beer you expect to see all over the place.

I find that Furious has become a gateway beer.

Todd: Scary.

Omar: You mean a gateway from BMC? Yeah, a couple years ago when sales were kind of doing their normal spring ramp-up I called up “Fitty” (beer manager Joe Fitzpatrick) at Thomas Liquor and asked, “What the hell’s going on? Your sales are up like 30%.” He’s like, “Well, more people are drinking it. A good example, we’ve got a guy who was a Coors drinker, and he’s started drinking Furious.” That makes no sense on every level; economic-wise, flavor-wise, Just the whole brand. Who would think that someone would go from Coors to Furious?

I think it has something to do with Surly’s reputation. People hear about Surly and how good the beers are so they try it. You might think they wouldn’t like it, but they do.

Todd: I’ve done that before. I don’t necessarily like the word hype, but I understand it. Whether it’s a movie or a new TV show or whatever it is that people have heard about, they hear that it’s supposed to be good so they have this expectation. I think we still have some of that, but I think in general people are going to it with an open mind. Instead of saying, “Oh, it’s going to be similar to this beer.” They sort of have a completely clean slate as far as what they’re palate memory thinks it’s supposed to taste like. I think that’s good for us because people are a little bit more open to it.

Talk a little bit about Surly’s reputation. You’ve got this reputation for these big extreme beers. But in my view that’s not really what you do.

Todd: No. And that’s kind of been our argument for a number of years now. You know, at first we wanted to grab peoples’ tongues with the beers and grab their attention. But all we ever said was that we wanted to make the best beers we could in whatever style we wanted to make; the kind of beers we wanted to drink. That’s what every brewer says. Hopefully no brewers are out there making beers they hate.

Omar: Beers the marketing team comes up with.

Todd: But, with that in mind those first beers… I mean Furious maybe, but Bender? It’s not really an extreme beer. But for some reason, and I don’t know if it’s because of this market or because of the beers that people talk about on the internet, that’s the perception. But Hell, Bitter Brewer, Mild, we make a lot more sessionable beers than we do extreme beers.

Omar: I don’t think if we were in southern California, Oregon, Washington, or Colorado, I don’t think there are many of the beers that would be in any sort of extreme category. I mean even Darkness isn’t huge. We talk about this all the time. Everybody’s brewing these great beers, but how many 14% beers do you want to drink? I guess it again all kind of comes from what we want to drink. Neither Todd nor I are into these really massive beers because you can only have one. And I think we both like drinking more than that. We’ve gotten into more sessionable beers as time has gone on. I don’t know if it’s the marketing or the design or just that how we do it stuff kind of comes together, but folks think of it as this really crazy extreme thing. Furious is a big beer, but there are a lot of them out there like it. Go out west and they’re all over the place. Imperial Red Ale, it’s not a crazy style.

Todd: I was a big fan of Hop Rod Rye from Bear Republic.

That’s a great beer.

Todd: That’s kind of what inspired Furious. That hoppy amber that didn’t exist in this market. It wasn’t that we felt we needed to make something extreme. It was because there was already stuff out there that we were into; you just couldn’t get it here. That’s the biggest thing that people don’t understand is just how behind Minnesota craft beer was. It certainly caught up fast now that ever brewery in the country is available here almost. But five or six years ago, unless you wanted to road trip or were actively involved in traveling and visiting breweries, there was a lot of stuff going on in small little regions that nobody knew about here. Obviously Beer Advocate and Rate Beer have shrunk a lot of that. But we’ve quickly realized that as great as the BA community has been to us and really helped us get rolling, that’s a tiny percentage of the people that actually buy our beer. That’s another reason we don’t just make extreme beers.

That’s an even tinier percentage.

Todd: Exactly.

Omar: We also think of the fatigue of those beers. You can drink them for a while and then you’re just like “ugh.” I mean, I never thought we were going to brew a lager when we started. I remember people asking us, “You going to brew any lagers?” I was like, “Hell no we’re not going to brew any lagers. Schell is already doing a great job of that.” But three years into it…

Todd: Let’s brew a lager.

Omar: Why wouldn’t I want to brew a lager? To me that’s part of the Surly extreme thing. Maybe other people think that’s not what we should be doing, but that’s what we want to do. So that’s why we’re going to do it.

So let’s talk about Five. At Winterfest you took the Great Snowshoe award with Pentagram. That was a single barrel version of Five?

Omar: Yeah, Pentagram is what we called the single barrel version.

Todd: Yes, the blend is a little different. I think it’s better.

I’ve got to say, even given that Winterfest is a beer-nerd audience and that Pentagram was really good, I was frankly surprised that it won. I wouldn’t have expected a sour beer to win.

Todd: Me too. I was like, “really?” I thought one of the super hoppy beers like Abrasive Ale, or Furious, or somebody else’s. I thought Fitger’s bottle-conditioned beers or something. And that’s kind of what we were talking about too, about how accepting the market was for Furious five years ago. I didn’t think that they would ever embrace a beer that was that hop-forward in this market.

Omar: I don’t think they were that accepting five years ago. It kind of took a while.

Todd: Well, you know what I mean. It started pretty fast after that first eight months. But Five should be the most polarizing beer we’ve ever made. I think it’s fairly balanced for being as tart as it is. I don’t think it’s straight up vinegar.

What made you decide to make a sour beer?

Todd: Well we’ve been talking about it for a little while. It’s always one of those things that we wanted to do it but we weren’t sure how. Obviously there’s the risk of bringing that stuff (Brettanomyces) into the brewery, which I’m still worried about. But it made sense to do something extra different for a bigger number on the anniversary. So we pulled the trigger a little over a year ago with the blind faith of we’ll see what happens. I think we knew we would be able to make something that was really good, but we weren’t sure. Even all the research I do and talking to other brewers, they were like, “You’re kind of on your own on this one.” Okay, great. Thanks for the help. But it’s true. I can call Chris White from White Labs (a yeast bank). I can call other people I know that have worked with Brett. But they all do it differently than I wanted to do it. Most of the guys I know that are using Brett are using it just to finish the beer. We wanted to do 100% Brett-fermented and then condition in barrels. There are a handful of those out there. Not a lot of them, but I think that’s going to change. People are learning more about how Brett works fermentation-wise.

Omar: It’s definitely going into the unknown. The anniversary beers always are. Todd usually tells me after he’s put it together.  It’s always, “we’ll see how this works out if we use ten pounds of cranberries per barrel.” We’re going to go down that road and see where it takes us. With the other beers we know where it’s going. But this is like, we’ll find out.

With Brettanomyces and any of the bacterial fermentations it’s kind of a crap shoot what you end up with. How did you deal with that uncertainty?

Todd: By just trying to understand how Brett works as a yeast. Not flavor profile, not raw material, not anything but what does it do and how does it do it? Chris White at White Labs really helped me establish pitching rates, which allowed us to get primary fermentation into a normal window. Most people are under the impression that it takes months and months and months for Brett to actually ferment. I guess we proved that it doesn’t if you pitch right. The souring takes months, but the actually primary fermentation doesn’t, which is kind of cool. So with that in mind, we did primary fermentation in stainless. We had it contained. We really didn’t want it blowing all over the brewery. We had a couple old 15-barrel tanks that we used for that. Once we got the Brett established we were able to brew it every ten to fourteen days. As soon as it was done fermenting we’d rack it into the wine barrels. But I think the important things are how we handled it in terms of the flavor profile. I wanted a really rich malt. I didn’t want a pale sour beer. I wanted something with caramel flavors, which would with time turn into a cherry and tobacco, plum and raisin kind of thing. So there’s some Special B in there and some de-bittered black malt for color. At first it tasted kind of smoky and was kind of gross actually. But after two months it was like, “Whoa. This tastes totally different.” You could convince somebody that there are cherries in it.

What strain of Brettanomyces did you use?

Todd: We used Brett strains A and C, Anomalus and Claussenii. Bruxellensis is what a lot of people are using. That’s pretty standard. I wanted to try something a little different.

Did you have any inspirations for making a Brettanomyces fermented beer?

Todd: The first all-Brett beer I had was from my big hero Tomme Arthur of Lost Abbey. It was Cuvee de Tomme at the time. I thought it was amazing. That was probably the first and last all-Brett beer I’ve ever had. I think the sour character was nice, to where it was like, “wow.” It was pale. It was kind of more of a gueuze kind of profile from what I remember. I just remember thinking it was a lot like some of the Belgian sours that I had had. I was just amazed that it wasn’t Belgian.

How did you get the fermentation to happen so quickly? I made an all Brett beer a couple years ago and had trouble getting it to start.

Todd: When I talked to Chris White about it, that’s what my original concern was. He gave me some advice about pitching rates. I don’t remember what the cell count was, but it’s literally like ten times the normal amount. But once you get to that point you’ll see normal fermentation times. So the first generation was kind of slow and it attenuated high. The second one went a lot faster and attenuated lower. The third one took right off and went all the way down to 2-degrees Plato, which was what we wanted. Oxygenation is a huge thing too. The tricky thing is that when using Brett, leaving it in the tank is the safest thing to do. Rack your beer off it and then just put fresh wort in there. Every time you oxygenate it there’s more acetic acid, so it gets more sour every time. They don’t recommend trying to quicken the fermentation by oxygenation because you’re going to have a lot of weird stuff happen with a lot of acetic acid produced. We tried not to do that. So every time we’d run fresh wort in there we’d try to make sure it was well oxygenated. Once we had the right amount of cells per milliliter it would take off. Now that it’s been sitting again when we want to reuse it, it will probably be slow again. But I’m shocked at how durable it is. It’s indestructible and it’s sitting there ready to go when you need it. We’re going to mess around with it some more, just because we have it. We’ll see what happens with it as we continue to use it.

We can’t talk about the five-year anniversary without talking about the next five years. Given plans for the “destination brewery” obviously big things are coming.

Todd: Yeah, there are big things coming down the road. It’s going to be a couple of years. Meanwhile for me, my job is to make sure everything is running and we’re able to grow, stay staffed, and still make clean, solid beers while we’re working on the new project. As exciting as it is, the normal day-to-day stuff here isn’t going to go away. So I think for me the main challenge will be to not get distracted by the thing down the road and worry about what’s going on here and now.

You still have to run the brewery.

Todd: I just don’t want people to think that in two years everything is going to be great. It’s going to be different, but we still need to get there. I don’t want to forget what we’ve built and how we’ve built it. We’ve still got equipment to install and maintain and new staff to hire and train. When the new facility does open that will probably be immediately in charge of the flagship beers and probably all the canning operations. And the current brewery we’re hoping will become a bottling facility only. That’s kind of what we’re thinking now.

So more the small batch type of stuff?

Todd: Yes. I think it will be a great training ground for new guys or for a place for guys who want a break from the bigger brewery and want to get hands on. We could do a lot of sour stuff here. We could do a lot of different things, which is pretty exciting because we could go into it with the ball rolling. That will be a nice luxury. As this brewery fades out of the regular beer production and the new one takes over we’ll be able to immediately start making different cool beers here.

How far along is the new brewery?

Todd: We’re just now trying to finalize sight selection and stuff. It sounds like that could be done in September. So that’s a huge factor in how we’re going to build it out. How we’re going to size the equipment. When we get a site selection that’s when we need to order a brewhouse and start looking at the big pieces. There’s really nothing here that would scale up to the new facility. We’re limited by our ceiling height here. Our fermenters are the size and geometry they are as dictated by our brewhouse and the ceiling. But in the new place that won’t be an issue. There’s really nothing here we’d want to bring over there. Maybe a couple small tanks for a yeast bank or something like that, but generally everything here is sized for a 30-barrel brewhouse. The new brewhouse will hopefully be around 80 barrels.

That will make things easier.

Todd: It will. It’s going to be rough getting everything going. Everything is going to change. We just want to keep it simple. We don’t need a five-vessel brewhouse. We aren’t going to start decoction mashing. We aren’t going to change things just because we can. I’d like to keep things as similar as possible with the brewhouse. For the regular beers, that’s what established the flavor profile. We want it to be efficient. Actually that’s going to be a huge benefit of a bigger brewhouse is waste energy recovery. It’s going to be in the high 90s for efficiency which will be great. The canning line will be high speed. We’ll probably have to look at used machines just to see what we can get into. New machines aren’t cheap. But again, all that stuff has come so far in ten or fifteen years. If we buy a ten, fifteen, twenty year old machine, it’s going to need a lot more maintenance than a new machine that’s a little bit more high tech. A new machine might be a smaller footprint even. So there are some trade-offs. We’re not going to know. We might run into some problems. Rolling beer into new markets takes time too. We’re probably going to have to be patient and wait for some of those markets to develop before we can just go, go, go.

Although there is certainly going to be no shortage of demand in new markets.

Todd: No, true. But it still takes time. Stone is a good example of it. They’ve tried to roll out in some other states that aren’t as close to their home market where people don’t know as much about them. They went into Wisconsin and weren’t happy with the way beers were selling and weren’t happy with the distributor setup, so they left. Stuff like that. I’m not saying they can’t sell everything they make, but they had to kind of re-figure it. We could see that happening to any brewery.

Surly Five

What does Surly Five taste like? Here’s my notes:

Surly Brewing Co., Brooklyn Center, Minnesota
Style: Brettanomyces Fermented Beer
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle

Aroma: Loads of cherries with complementary leathery aromas. Hints of wood and roast.

Appearance: Black. Moderate off-white head with fine bubbles that did not persist.

Flavor: A complex mélange that changes with each sip and evolves through to the bottom of the glass. Flavors come in stages. Starts with hit of sour cherry. That subsides mid-palate to let rich, mouth-filling caramel malts and balsamic vinegar take over. Cherries are still there, but darker. Leather. On the way out it’s husky, woody, and lightly astringent. Finishes very dry. Throughout there are ever revolving chocolate, roast, wood, and fruit flavors. Fruits range from unripe apricot to pineapple to berries and even some hints of dark, dried fruit. As it warms it takes on the character of cold-coffee. Complex but easy to drink. The sour wasn’t too intense. Should be good even to the uninitiated.

Mouthfeel: Light but mouth-filling. Well attenuated, but still thick in parts. Light and not unpleasant astringency. Medium-high carbonation.

Overall Impression: Good “wild” beers can be tricky. Brettanomyces yeast is a crapshoot. You never really know what you will get. Todd Haug has pulled off a nice one. Evolving layers of oak, malt, and yeast character. Not too sour, but sour enough. Pentagram was good at Winterfest. Five is better. This one should get even better with age.

A Quartet of New Ciders from Crispin

Crispin Cider Company has some interesting products in the pipeline. Four new ciders are to be released in the coming weeks, including three new pear ciders in the Fox Barrel line and a new Artisanal Reserve unfiltered apple cider from the Crispin brand.

New Crispin Artisanal Reserve Release

Ch?-Tokky? means “super express” in Japanese. It is the original name of the Japanese bullet trains. It is also the name of the newest Artisanal Reserve cider from Crispin. A continuation of Crispin’s yeast experiments that started with The Saint, an apple cider fermented with Abbey Ale yeast, Ch?-Tokky? is fermented with Sake yeast. A bit of rice syrup is added both as a nod to the main ingredient of sake and to lighten the body and dry out the finish. Here’s my notes:

Crispin Cider Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Apple cider fermented with sake yeast
Serving Style: 22 oz bottle

Aroma: A blend of fresh and cooked sweet apples. Vinous and floral with earthy background notes.

Appearance: Pale yellow and very cloudy. Reminds me of beeswax. Fine bubbles.

Flavor: Sweet up front with lingering acidity on the backside. Very dry finish from rice syrup addition. Cooked apple flavors don’t dominate. They are balanced by the yeast characer. Floral Floral Floral. A bit vinous, white grape. Earthy.

Mouthfeel: Light-bodied but with yeasty fullness. Carbonation was lower than expected.

Overall Impression: Very unique. Floral and earthy flavors were nice, but the floral was a bit more than I wanted. Not my favorite of the Artisanal Reserve ciders, but worth the experiment.

New Fruity Pear Ciders from Fox Barrel

For those who don’t know, the Fox Barrel Cidery in Colfax, California is where Crispin ciders have been made from the beginning. A couple of years ago Crispin bought Fox Barrel. They have done good things with the brand. For one, the Fox Barrel brand is now completely focused on pear ciders made from 100% fresh-pressed pear juice. If you have never had a real pear cider, it’s worth checking out.

Crispin is introducing a new line of unfiltered and “naked” pear ciders under the Fox Barrel label, similar in feel to the Artisanal Reserve Crispin ciders. Three new ones will be released soon; Wild Orchard Naked Pear Cider, Fox Barrel Cidery Reserve Rhubarb and Elderberry, and Fox Barrel Cidery Reserve Ginger & Black Current. Here’s my notes:

Wild Orchard
Fox Barrel Cider Company, Colfax, California
Style: Unfiltered perry fermented with champagne yeast
Serving Style: 22 oz bottle

Aroma: A burst of fruity pear with floral highlights. It’s great just smelling it.

Appearance: Unexpectedly clear for unfiltered cider. Crystal clear I would say, despite swirling pre-pour. Light golden color.

Flavor: Like eating a pear and drinking champagne. Lightly vinous. Huge fruit. Pear, pear, pear. Starts sweet with gentle tart acidity in the finish.

Mouthfeel: Light bodied and lightly spritzy.

Overall Impression: WOW! You owe it to yourself to check this out.

Fox Barrel Cidery Reserve Rhubarb and Elderberry
Style: Unfiltered pear cider with rhubarb and elderberry
Serving Style: 22 oz bottle

Aroma: All pears and berries. Light at first and getting stronger as it warms. So much berry. Grape Jolly Rancher. Elderberry Jam. Sweet and tart.

Appearance: Maroon purple and cloudy with light fizz. Pretty to look at. Fine pink foam.

Flavor: A burst of fruit; berry, pear. Grape Jolly Rancher comes back from the aroma. It has the exact sweet/tart blend of that candy. Not a bad thing. Pear provides a foundation. Dark berry flavors add depth. Rhubarb comes in as an afterthought to bring a bright, tart finish. Nicely layered. You taste all the ingredients.

Mouthfeel: Light body and lightly carbonated.

Overall Impression: A bit of an alco-pop, but who cares. I would drink a lot of it. This would be great with desert. If you like Lindemans Fruit Lambics, you will like this.

Fox Barrel Cidery Reserve Ginger & Black Current
Style: Perry with ginger and black current
Serving Style: 22 oz bottle

Aroma: Apples and berries at first. An explosion of fruit. Fresh and cold from the fridge the ginger remains in the background. It comes on strong thought as the cider warms.

Appearance: Maroon and murky. Fine bubble rise to the top of the glass.

Flavor: The explosion of fruit in the aroma carries over to the flavor. Simply bursting with fruit. Pears and currents fight for dominance, but neither ever really wins. Similar to the aroma, the ginger is subdued at first, but gets stronger as it warms. Still, it remains in balance, never overwhelming the fruit. Always just at the edge. A bit of ginger bite sees the cider out the door. Hits the front of the tongue first with sweetness but tart takes over in the finish. Lingering current and ginger. Delightful and refreshing.

Mouthfeel: Light-bodied, but with a yeasty fullness. Spritzy.

Overall Impression: Another fruity alco-pop that I would gladly drink bottle after bottle. Fresh-pressed fruit yields fresh fruit flavor.

World Tour of Beer Class at Cooks of Crocus Hill

The Beer, Wine & BBQ class a couple of weeks ago at Cooks of Crocus Hill was a blast. Sommelier Leslee Miller, Chef Mike and I rocked the kitchen with great grilled treats and eight luscious libations.

On September 9th I’m back at Cooks, this time teaming up with Chef Rachael Rydbeck for World Tour of Beer: A Beer Pairing Dinner. Together we will take you on a hops-filled international excursion to find the best beer and food pairings anywhere. The menu will feature five courses of great food and beer from around the world. Get to the Cooks website and register!

photo from

Where: Cooks of Crocus Hill, 877 Grand Avenue in St. Paul
When: Friday, September 9th, 6-9 pm
Cost: $75
Menu: Provençal White Bean Dip (France); Chicken Tamales with Tomatilla Salsa (Mexico); Vegetable Curry (India); Thai Beef Salad (Thailand); Blueberry Cobbler (United States). Each course paired with beer.

Brews and Breweries of the Upper-Midwest at the U of MN

Come join me this fall for another beer class at the University of Minnesota, College of Continuing Education. The two sessions of Beer-101 classes that I have taught in the past were very well attended and rocking good times. This semester I’m bringing something new.

Since December I have been touring breweries and interviewing brewers throughout the upper-Midwest for a book I’m working on for the University of Illinois Press. I’m building a very good overview of what is happening in our region beer-wise. Starting October 12th I’ll be sharing some of that knowledge in a class called Brews and Breweries of the Upper-Midwest. We’ll talk about the explosive growth the region’s brewing industry and explore its trends, tastes, and interesting personalities. Of course we’ll be sampling some of the best beers from Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

The class runs for four consecutive Wednesday evenings from 7-9 pm starting October 12th. It takes place at the Campus Club in Coffman Memorial Union on the University of Minnesota Minneapolis Campus. Registration is now open on the Learning Life website.

Here’s the official description.

The last five years have seen an explosion of new brewing activity in the Upper Midwest, making it one of the fastest growing beer scenes in the country. The region is home to an eclectic mix of old and new that includes some of the nation’s oldest breweries, a handful of microbrewing pioneers, and new breweries opening at a dizzying rate. It has spawned new beer-world superstars like Surly in the Twin Cities and Ale Asylum in Madison. The region’s breweries come in all shapes and sizes; from large producers making over 100,000 barrels per year to pico-breweries making beer 10 gallons at a time. Midwestern brewers are experimenting with local ingredients like Iowa corn (including the stalks) and aging beer in barrels from regional distilleries and wineries. This coterie of brewers is even packing some political clout, changing long-standing beer laws in several states, including Minnesota. This class will take you on a beer tour of the Upper Midwest featuring beers from breweries new and old in Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. We’ll look at overall trends in the region and explore some of the new styles being crafted to suit the regional palate. Participants pay a $40 fee to the instructor on the first night for food and beverage.

Michael Agnew is a certified beer cicerone and the founder of A Perfect Pint, which offers beer tastings and educational experiences for private and corporate events. He is a national beer judge for the Beer Judge Certification Program, consults with restaurants about beer, and has taught classes at Kitchen Window and Cooks of Crocus Hill.


An Interview with Dan Carey of New Glarus Brewing Company

Dan Carey is a brewer I have always wanted to meet. Tasting his beers and hearing him talk I built an impression of him as an intelligent person and one who thinks deeply about beer. I like talking with such people. They challenge me. They expand my knowledge and push me to deepen my own perceptions of what beer is and can be.

Dan Carey founded New Glarus Brewing Company in 1993 together with his wife Deb, an outspoken powerhouse of a woman who handles the business side of the brewery. He has an extraordinary brewing pedigree. Carey started in the industry at the age of 20 working at a small brewery in Helena, Montana. He spent time as an engineer for brewery manufacturer JV Northwest where he built or consulted on the breweries for many of the 1980s craft-beer pioneers. Before starting New Glarus he was a production supervisor at Anheuser-Busch. He was valedictorian of his Siebel Institute class, did an apprenticeship a the Ayinger brewery outside Munich, and in 1992 became the first American since 1978 to pass the Master Brewer Examination of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling in London. He is one of the few American brewers who can rightfully be called a Brewmaster.

In June my book research took me to Madison, Wisconsin. I finally had the opportunity to sit down with Carey during my visit to New Glarus. It was a 30-minutes conversation that left me exhilarated and renewed my excitement about beer.

How do you approach making a beer? What is your process?

First of all the beer has to taste good. That is extremely subjective, tasting good. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I don’t consider myself a microbrewer. I consider myself a brewer. I don’t belong to any school. I don’t try to make most outrageous beer. I just try to make something that tastes good.

The Second thing is that it has to be made well. So it has to be consistent and predictable. It has to have a reasonable shelf life. Part of the problem with small breweries is that our beer doesn’t move as quickly as say a suitcase of light beer in cans. We have to make a beer that has a better shelf stability than the large breweries do. So discipline and quality is important. How the beer is brewed is important. And then of course it has to be something that’s practical to make.

So I have an idea of what the beer should taste like that comes about through discussions with various people; Deb (Carey), my brewing team, and my lab team. We talk about what we want the beer to be and then we imagine that. It’s like writing music. People who write music write the music down and they can hear it. It’s the same thing with writing a recipe on a piece of paper.

Also, the machinery cannot be divorced from the process. For example, if you write a recipe and use the same exact ingredients, same yeast, same water, everything exactly the same and you bring it to various brewers you will always have different beer, because the machinery is extremely important. Machinery has its own personality, its own temperament, and its own foibles. So you have to work with the strengths and weaknesses of your machinery. So it gets very complex. In a lot of ways it’s like being a conductor in the sense that you have to write the music and then conduct it.

I like this analogy of making beer to making music. If you’re a good musician you have to have knowledge of fundamentals; the scales and all that. How does that translate into making beer?

It’s a beautiful analogy. The discipline of being a good brewer – let’s call it a Brewmaster. What is a Brewmaster? You have to be a manager of people, so you have to be a leader, which is not easy. You have to be inspired and well educated and really believe in your people for them to follow you. You have to be a scientist to understand the microbiology and biology and chemistry. You have to be an engineer because you have to understand physics; things like heat transfer, and motors, and pumps. You also have to be a little bit of a chef because you have to understand all the flavors that go into it.

You should be able to go into a brewery and the brewer should be able to tell you how many kilowatts or therms of energy they are using to make a bottle of beer, what their loss is in the process, what’s their extract efficiency. Those are all fundamental.

To make good beer is fairly easy to accomplish, especially in this modern age of the internet, and yeast suppliers, and malt suppliers, and equipment suppliers. There’s a whole infrastructure. To make good beer is fairly easy. It wasn’t that way thirty years ago, but nowadays it is. But to make great beer…First of all, what is great beer? When you drink a beer you instantly know a great beer from a good beer. Brewing a great beer is maddeningly difficult, because of all the tiny nuances that you never imagined. Brewing is all about the little subtleties. That takes a lifetime of continual learning and honing of process.

We are very much in the dark ages of brewing. We think that we’re very modern. I’ve even heard brewers at large breweries utter this, “We’ve got the beer nailed.” They know how to make a light lager. They know how to make an American style pilsner.  It’s absolutely and completely understood. It’s been well written about. But now we’re talking about dry-hopping and bottle conditioning and esoteric yeast strains. So all of a sudden we’re back into a world where we don’t really know what we’re doing. It’s maddeningly frustrating because there’s more unknown than there is known. It’s like the 1880s. As a small brewery it’s difficult to have the time and the skill and the laboratory available to do the research. The large breweries have been successful post-prohibition because the they have invested in top-quality scientists. They paid them to be in the laboratory doing silly experiments that really didn’t pay off for a long time. As a small brewer it’s very difficult to be able to do that.

You said that you know a great beer when you drink one. I have thought and written about what makes this so for me. Let me ask you, what makes a beer great?

Nobody really knows, but I’ll give you my opinion. First of all, your palate changes. It depends on how hungry you are. It depends on how thirsty you are. It depends on the mood cycle of your body. So that is important. You may taste a beer one day and it may taste great and the next day it may not. Something as subtle as when you brush your teeth can have a big difference on it. So there’s that.

But also, beer is not just about what’s in the glass. It’s also about the experience. For example, I remember reading a question sent in to I think it was Saveur Magazine. Someone said, “My wife and I went to Tuscany. We were in this beautiful castle on top of a hill. We were having this sangiovese wine, this Chianti. It was absolutely the most beautiful wine we’ve ever had. We bought a case and brought it home. Now we’re sitting in our kitchen drinking it and it’s not the same wine. We’re wondering if something happened with altitude, maybe coming across the ocean in the hold of an airplane. Will that affect the flavor of the wine?” It’s like ‘DUH’. You’re sitting on this beautiful hilltop, looking over Tuscany. So the mood is important. But that’s not really what you’re asking.”

That is exactly what I’m asking. I agree totally with what you are saying.

There’s nothing better than sitting in Bamberg and drinking a smoked beer. But you know what? If I took that bottle of smoked beer and gave it to one of my customers and they drank it in their kitchen they’d say “I can’t drink this.” But if you’re in Bamberg it’s nirvana

But what makes a great beer other than that? You know it because the glass goes empty. Sometimes when one of those awful shaker pint glasses gets put in front of you it takes a long time to finish the beer. Other times you’re talking and all of a sudden the glass is empty. That’s a great beer. So a great beer is drinkable. Whether it’s a light American lager or a double IPA it goes down quickly. The reason it goes down quickly is because it’s got a combination of the correct level of bitterness and the correct level of sweetness, nice condition, and good carbonation. It’s balanced.

Bitterness is not just IBUs. Bitterness is like Eskimos and snow. You know, they have all these words for snow. There should be more words for bitterness, because bitterness may linger. Bitterness may be harsh. Bitterness may be fast. I find that most people like bitterness in beer. Even people who like sweet beers like bitterness in beer. What they don’t like is that harsh and lingering bitterness, a bitterness that’s hard and bites, or a bitterness that lingers, that you taste minutes after you drink. So what you want is, you want the sweetness, you want the bitterness, and you want the bitterness to be quickly cleansed from your palate.  When the bitterness is harsh it makes the beer taste thin and it lacks body. So beer needs body. It needs fullness. It needs condition. It needs nice foam. It needs appropriate haze, or lack of haze. It’s all of those subtleties that come together to make a beer enjoyable.

When I taste a great beer, one of the things that I notice is that I can actually visualize layers of flavor.

Yeah, that’s true. Complexity.

There’s complexity, but it’s not all clumped together. There’s this flavor and this flavor and this flavor. Each one can be picked out, but then they all come together.

I know exactly what you mean. It’s like watching someone tell you a story; like a page turner. I know exactly what you mean. Like if you look at American lager. It is eminently drinkable. A well-made American lager served out of a clean draft line in an ice-cold glass on a hot day, it’s extremely drinkable. But it’s pretty dumb. It’s just kind of thirst quenching. It’s pleasurable that way. And then there may be other beers that are very complex, but they’re like drinking a brick. The idea is to have both. And that’s really hard to make. How do you make a beer that’s drinkable, but still loaded with that complexity where you drink it and you say, “Wow.” And you sip it again and say, “Wow,” and all of these new things happen. You’re 100% right. That’s what people want. That’s exactly what people want. They want to be wowed. They don’t want to be hit over the head with intensity. Bu they want to be wowed by subtlety. Like good music. Like a good singer. Like an orchestra. Like listening to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. You know, it’s like “wow.” And it just keeps getting more intense and more intense

That’s a great comparison again, because with a great piece of music you’ve got these layers. You’ve got the different sections of the orchestra doing different things. You can listen to each one individually or you can listen to the whole thing as a piece.

You’re right. But it’s extremely difficult because you have to have all of your ducks in a row. You have to have the correct yeast strain with the correct health. It has to be perfect wort with the right balance of ingredients and the perfect water and really good hops, and put together in just the right way. It has to be put into a bottle in a stable way. There are so many places you could screw up.

A really great beer like that, you don’t get it all that often.

No, that’s right. That’s right. But there are a lot of brewers out there that can do that. And that greatness does not seem to be tied to machinery. It has more to do with an innate talent, I think. And I think it has a lot to do with the ability to taste. People taste and they make subtle changes and they keep honing and honing. I notice that among a lot of brewers that are very creative.

Working on this book I have visited a huge number of breweries in a very short time. I feel like I’m getting a good overview of what’s happening in the upper-Midwest. Most breweries are making good beer, a handful is making great beer, and a few should do something else. Within that big middle, most breweries have at least one beer that rises above the rest and at least approaches greatness.

You’ve identified three groups. Is there a common thread among those three groups? Do you see any trends that make those that are up at the top better? Or do the differences outweigh the commonality?

At most of the breweries I talk to the brewers, so I’ve spent a good deal of time with brewers. I see a difference in brewers actually. I haven’t quite formulated this completely, but I have this sense that there are “brewers” and there are “people who make beer.”  It’s kind of like tasting a great beer. When you taste a great beer you know it. I have the same sense when I’m talking to a brewer. It’s like “Oh, you are a brewer.” And that tends to show up in the beer. They’ve got the ability to taste. They’ve got the technical know-how. They’ve got the process down. But they also think about beer in a certain way. One reason that I was interested in talking to you is because I have a sense that you think about beer.

All the time.

There’s also a broad tendency in the region toward sweeter, less bitter beers. It’s a general Midwestern thing that I think might be selling the Midwestern palate short. For instance there’s the Iowa Pale Ale (IPA). It tones the hops way down and pushes up the sweetness.

Well, you know that’s true, but you say that these brewers are selling their customers short. Obviously I pay attention to this. If I go to any town in California and go into a pub, there’s some local IPA, and it’s usually 60, 70, 80 IBUs. Big beers. Talk to Joe Sixpack, 20-something year old kid, and they’re sucking that stuff down like it’s going out of style. They love it. They can’t get enough of it. I think it’s akin to hot sauce. But you come to the Midwest and pick an average bar in Iowa, Wisconsin, anywhere, and you would never find an IPA. And if you gave one of these 40, 50, 60, 80 IBU California beers to somebody there, they wouldn’t drink it. They would not drink it.

So we as a brewery do not market, we don’t advertise, we don’t push. We are a pull brewery, which means that our customers pull the beer. We don’t push the beer. So we brew a whole range of beers. We don’t force one over the other. We don’t choose what people drink. We just make it. We make beers as high as 85 IBUs and as low as 8 IBUs and let the customers choose. In general most people will go toward the lower end of the spectrum in the Midwest.

So, when brewers say that, it’s not a grand conspiracy to dumb down beer, it’s what people want. It’s what sells. I mean if you write a book about types of frogs in the Midwest I guarantee you’re going to sell fewer copies than if you write about breweries. If I were a frog expert I would be turning my nose down about, “How could he write about beer? Frogs are more important.” But you know what? People who buy frog books; there ain’t a whole lot of them. And it’s the same with stronger beers.

However, the world is changing. And when you have these beers that are so big and so bitter like extreme hot sauce it brings the median up. Sierra Nevada pale ale 20 years ago was on the high end of the spectrum. Low 30 BUs was a big beer. Now that’s midstream. So when we make a beer that’s 30 BUs, that’s a comfortable session beer. So what the big beers have done is brought people up into a reasonable range, because 30 IBUs is probably appropriate for a beer. A 12 degree plato beer should be about 30 IBUs on average. That’s where beer has historically always been, for obvious reasons. Because it tastes good and you can drink more than one or two. So that’s the benefit of the stronger beers.

You said you think about beer all the time. Why?

I’m compulsive, frankly. That’s really the short answer. The other answer would be that it’s my business. It’s my life’s calling. I consider myself an artist, so I always want to be better. The pursuit of excellence is extremely important to me. And the last thing is that my mind always works. My mind is a very noisy place. Thinking about beer helps me to tone down the demons so to speak. And I like beer.