Archive for January, 2012

The Whistle Stop Restaurant & Brewery in Woodman, Wisconsin

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

The Southwestern Wisconsin town of Woodman has a population just over 100. At one time it was the terminus of the “Dinky”, a narrow-guage railroad that connected it to the towns of Boscobel and Fennimore. Of course at that time Woodman was a bit more bustling, with residents numbering in the thousands. The Dinky used to drop mail it passed the post office in Woodman, announcing its arrival with a toot of its whistle. The Dinky tracks are still in the ground behind the Whistle Stop Restaurant, and the kitchen still doubles as the town’s post office.

In almost every way the Whistle Stop is what you would expect from a restaurant/tavern in a tiny Wisconsin town. The décor is simple; it’s relatively unadorned save for the Bud and Miller Lite posters on the walls. The tables are covered with the requisite red and white checked tablecloths. There is taco night on Tuesday and an all-you-can-eat Friday night fish fry. A small number of locals sit around the bar talking and drinking beer. On a busy night they might be joined by bikers. The thing that makes the Whistle Stop unique is the beer that they are drinking. It’s brewed on sight.

After Dennis Erb and his mother Leslie bought the restaurant in 2008, Dennis started looking for a way to make the place a little more special. He started making beer there in 2010. With no prior brewing experience, he has leapt right in, constructing a home-made, half-barrel, electric brewery in the basement. During summer high-season he brews every other day. That’s essential given the six house-brewed taps and numerous bottle selections he keeps available. He also sells a limited amount of bottles in area stores.

Erb says that his brewery is like “Dogfish Head on a smaller scale.” The comparison is not entirely undeserved. Many of the beers in his lineup are one of a kind. There’s pistachio kölsch, hazelnut red stout, the minty-bitter Arctic IPA, and Rose Red, a red-ale brewed with rose hips and rose extract. He takes inspiration from all around him. Sometimes it’s something he sees in the grocery store. Or maybe he reads about an exotic location and sets his mind to translating it into beer.  As he talks about it, the joy he derives from the process is evident. The experiments don’t always work, but when they do they are surprisingly tasty. And you have to give him credit for going out on a limb in a place where Busch Light is king.

Ordering beer at the Whistle Stop is a bit of a crap shoot. About half of the beers I tried were sour; unintentional, but not always entirely bad. Those that hadn’t “gone Belgian” were actually pretty good. There was the deceptively drinkable Amber Bock, a dangerous seven-percenter that drank more like it was four or five percent.  I approached the mint-infused Arctic IPA with trepidation. It ended up being one of my favorites of the night. While the smell of spearmint was intense, the flavor was just enough to enhance the already minty Northern Brewer hops. And the floral rose-hip/rose extract ale was a downright, champagne-like delight.

The food at the Whistle Stop was good as well. My bacon double burger was prepared by postmaster Leslie Erb herself. It was delicious. The French fries were nice and crisp.

Oh, and there is supposedly a ghost.

If you tend to geek out on style guidelines or can’t control yourself when presented with a beer that’s gone over to the other side, then don’t go to the Whistle Stop. If you are looking to have fun tasting some very interesting beers and chatting up the super- friendly locals, then this place is for you. Check it out next time you find yourself in the southwest corner of Wisconsin.

Mankato Brewery – A First Look

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

Within three days of launch, Mankato Brewery had already sold 30-barrels of beer. That’s 930 gallons, the entire capacity of one of the brewery’s three fermentation tanks. The rapid sales took them by surprise. When I visited on Thursday, January 12th they had only one sixth-barrel keg left in the cooler and had ramped up their brewing schedule as much as possible. After only a week in business, they are already shopping for more tanks. It’s a good problem for a new brewery to have.

I first talked to Mankato Brewery co-founder Tim Tupy for a June 2010 article on The Heavy Table food blog. At that time Tupy and his partner Tony Feuchtenberger were just getting started. Their website was mostly a space-filler. They had yet to nail down a space. And their search for a brewer was just beginning. They needed someone willing to build the brewery and the brand from the ground up, and willing to relocate to Mankato. As it happens, Mike Miziorko, then a brewer at Summit, was looking for just such an opportunity. He read the Heavy Table article and picked up the phone to call Tupy. In July of last year he celebrated his last day at Summit and headed south to join the team.

The three view themselves as the legs of a three-legged stool. Each one brings a different talent to the partnership. Tupy is an entrepreneur with marketing experience and deep connections in the civic life of Mankato. Feuchtenberger’s background is in production and operations management. Miziorko is the man who makes the beer. Of his switch from Summit’s 220-hectolieter, fully-automated system to the much-smaller and totally-manual 15-barrel brewery at Mankato Miziorko says, “This is brewing. This is what I went to school for. I’m much closer to the beer.” He’s enjoying the ability to put his stamp on the thing from build-out to beers.

Tupy began considering the idea of opening a brewery a few years ago. He’s active in several civic organizations, which makes him well connected to what’s happening in Mankato. He saw a demand. People still had a connection to the old Mankato Brewing Company that closed in the 1960s. Kato beer signs and t-shirts were a common sight. His entrepreneurial spirit – he’s already opened two other businesses – said “let’s go.” He approached his homebrewing buddy Feuchtenberger and the two began to plan. A public brew day at the Brau Brothers brewery in nearby Lucan, Minnesota sealed their resolve. Within three months they had the basics together and started their search for a brewer.

Mankato Brewery launched on January 5th with their flagship beer Mankato Original. Original is a classic Kölsch-style beer. The crisp, lager-like ale has bready malt flavor and subtle fruitiness in the nose. Spicy hops and moderate bitterness keep it balanced but leave it light and delicate. In talking about the beer, Miziorko, who’s college major was German, quotes and old German saying that the “first beer should ask for the third.” My first-hand experience says that the third goes down just as easily as the first.

Miziorko appreciates the subtle complexity of German beer styles. To him they are beers with both depth and drinkability. “I’m a beer drinker,” he says. “I want to be able to enjoy more than one.” He has spent a good deal of time in Germany and admires the sense of community and tradition that surrounds beer there. Beer is a staple of life; it’s food.  He says that beer drinking there is less about the beer and more about the time spent drinking it. “That’s Gemūtlichkeit.”

Mankato Brewery is only distributing in Mankato and St. Peter. If you want the beer, you’ll have to go there to get it. There are plans to introduce other year-round beers and a few seasonals, but those will have to wait until they can keep up with demand for Original.

Badger Hill Brewing Company

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

I’m telling you, the rush of new breweries in Minnesota just can’t be stopped. Every time I turn around I learn about another one on the horizon that I had never heard of. On a trip out to the Lucid brewery today, I had the pleasure of speaking to Broc Krekelberg, one of the threesome behind Badger Hill Brewing Company, a new, soon-to-be brewery in the Twin Cities metro.

Badger Hill is still a couple months away from selling beer. They are still waiting for their brewers notice from the TTB to be able to get started. They expect that soon. They plan to launch with an ESB style beer. Other beers planned will be designed for a wide palate. A double IPA or the odd Belgian may be in the mix down the road, but the brewery’s focus will be on more sessionable beer styles. Kölsch was one that was mentioned.

Badger Hill will be brewing at Lucid Brewery in Minnetonka, taking advantage of the federal designation called alternating proprietorship that allows them to have their own brewer’s license while operating in another brewery’s space. It’s not contract brewing, they are a full-fledged brewery sharing equipment and space with another brewery. They have purchased and installed their own fermenters and have plans to bring in a bottling line, which would also allow Lucid to package their brews. Krekelberg emphasized how glad they are to have hooked up with Jon and Eric at Lucid. The chemistry between them is great and the arrangement has allowed Badger Hill to get up and running more quickly and with lower up-front capital needs.

I’m happy to welcome another new brewer to the state. I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more from Badger Hill Brewing very soon.