New Old Chicago Debuts in Eden Prairie – And It Is Good

I recently got a press release from Old Chicago about doings at the Eden Prairie store. I frequently get press releases from Old Chicago. Some are more interesting to me than others. This one got my attention. While the release didn’t give the whole scope of what was happening, pharmacy it suggested that the Eden Prairie location was the beta for a nationwide re-do of the chain; new food, sildenafil new design, pharm and most importantly to me a new beer list. There was also something about Cicerone Certified bartenders. My curiosity was piqued.

You’ve been to Old Chicago, right? It’s that pizza joint with the 1980s decor and the World Beer Tour. They have a big beer list – 30-some taps and a bunch of bottles – but fully a third of the list is standard American lagers. There’s little chance the staff will be able to tell you much about the beer they are pouring. Hopefully the draft lines are clean.  You go there because you know you’ll find a decent beer, but the experience is always somewhat underwhelming.

This press release suggested all of that was about to change. To get to the bottom of things I talked to Mark Newman, the person in charge of beer and spirits for the chain. “When Old Chicago opened in 1976,” he told me, “we had 110 beers. People thought we were crazy. It wasn’t easy to get 110 beers back then, so we brought in all of these imports. Old Chicago introduced the whole idea of the beer-centric restaurant.” Over the years helped launch some of today’s top craft brands. Old Chicago was one of the first to pour New Belgium. According to Newman Odell’s first account was at Old Chicago. But somewhere in the 1990s he says, the chain lost its way. Now they’re trying to get that old vibe back.

Photo from Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal

Newman gets audibly excited when talking about the changes. You can tell he’s genuinely passionate about what they’re doing, which is just short of a total re-do. The cluttered-casual 1980s design has been scrapped in favor of a sleek, modern look; minimalist almost. The menu was gone over from the bottom up. They worked with chefs from the Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You group on the culinary redesign. Old items were dropped, new ones were added, and everything is made in-house, from scratch.

But it was the beer aspect that interested me. The changes on the beer side encompass both selection and service. In terms of selection, Newman says they considered a couple of options; the Flying Saucer model with hundreds of taps and bottles or a more-focused model with a smaller selection. They opted for the latter, choosing in his words “quality over quantity.” The new restaurant has 36 taps and maybe twice that number of bottles. Of those taps 24 are craft rotators and only three to four taps are given over to what they are calling “US Classics.” As Newman explained, “There is a market for those beers and we will always sell them, but we don’t need eight of them.” One of the most exciting changes to the beer selection is a focus on local. Newman says they want every Old Chicago store to reflect its location, and that means always having several beers available from local brewers.

Changes on the service side include both the way beer is served and the knowledge of the staff that serves it. As part of the Eden Prairie re-make they tore out the old draft equipment and replaced it with a brand new state-of-the-art system. With the exception of branded specialty glasses, they have replaced all the glassware so that beer is served in an appropriate style, non-frozen glass; no more icy shaker pints. Beer-clean glassware is especially important to Newman. Proper cleaning methods have been put in place and all glasses are rinsed before filling. As well, glassware is checked twice a day to make sure it is beer clean.

Server knowledge is important. It’s frustrating to go someplace and not be able to get information about the beers that are being poured. At the new Old Chicago everyone goes through some basic beer education. It is mandatory for bartenders to pass the Certified Beer Server level of the Cicerone Certification Program. It is encouraged for servers. Newman says the company will support any staff that wants to advance to higher levels of the program, paying for exams and education. Additionally, they have instituted a policy encouraging staff to offer samples to guests; kind of an “if you like that you might also like this” idea.

Photo from Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal

After talking to Newman I had to see for myself, so I trekked out to Eden Prairie for dinner. I was impressed. The food was good, the décor was a big improvement, but this being a beer blog I’m going to focus my review on the beer experience.

Selection: Of the 36 beers on tap I counted eleven from Minnesota. The local selection was even bigger in bottles. The rest of the beers were a high-quality mix of national crafts and imports. Of the three American lagers available on tap, one of them was Grain Belt Premium. In the printed menu each beer is accompanied by a set of icons that describe its basic flavor profile. The list seemed to me a little heavy on hops, but there was a range available from Victory Prima Pils to Brooklyn Brown and Stone Smoked Porter.

Service: My two beers came out in proper Nonic pint glasses with a perfect half-inch of foam on top. They left circles of lace all the way down the glass as I drank. Glancing around the bar it seemed like proper glassware was the norm, and I saw that beer-clean lacing everywhere I looked. I even witnessed the bartender explaining the concept of beer-clean glassware to some patrons sitting at the bar.

My server Jen was great. She is a Certified Beer Server and seemed to know her stuff. I asked about local beers and she pointed me directly to them, even telling me the thumbnail sketch of Fulton’s history. She was able to describe the flavors of beers reasonably well and guide me toward the profile I wanted. As I sat enjoying my Sweet Child of Vine, she brought me an unsolicited sample of Lucid Camo, another hoppy beer from a local brewery. I saw others being offered samples as well. When I asked Jen about a beer to accompany desert, she suggested Brau Brothers Moo Joos.

To head off any suspicion, I am not being paid to shill for Old Chicago. In the interest of full disclosure, they did buy my dinner.

What interested me about this story was the fact of a national chain committing itself to quality beer and beer service. When TGI Friday starts serving craft beer, it’s significant. When Old Chicago reasserts an emphasis on proper service, staff knowledge, and quality selection, including a number of locals, it says something about the state of craft beer. Are they just cashing in on the craft beer boom? Perhaps, but what’s wrong with that? The thing is, these places attract a broad clientele. It’s great to have dedicated beer bars like Happy Gnome or Muddy Pig, but they primarily preach to the converted. These national chain restaurants have the potential to introduce a huge swath of people to better beer. If they do it right, like I believe Old Chicago’s Eden Prairie rollout suggests they will, then that’s all the better.

Firkin Fest 2012: A Quick Recap

Firkin Fest at the Happy Gnome…for the last two years I have had little positive to say about it. My recaps of 2010 and 2011 were full of tales of woe; too many people, sovaldi sale too few “facilities”, ambulance frightening firkin abuse, physician and many other forms of general unpleasantness. The quality of beers on offer and the mere fact that the Happy Gnome made a celebration of cask-conditioned beer happen seem to be the only positives I could muster. 2011 was better than 2010, but nonetheless I had sworn off the event.

This year though I was convinced to give it another go. The Gnome learned from the past and had instituted some changes that seemed like they would make the event go better. They did!

The improvements started right off the bat with the lines. The entry was moved behind the restaurant where they could have multiple lines heading through the gates at once. This definitely streamlined the process and facilitated getting people in the door more quickly.

An hour of early-entry sampling on an empty stomach was beginning to take its toll. I needed to eat. It took me a minute to find the food, which was tucked on the Happy Gnome patio outside the tent. What a great place for it. It was off away from the hub-bub of the fest and there were lots of tables to sit at, at least when I ate. The food was good too. Pulled pork and cheese curds on a beautiful sunny afternoon on the patio; How can you beat that?

You beat that with barrels of cask-conditioned beer, of course. As in past years the beer was great. All the usual suspects were bringing it strong. Lift Bridge took the people’s choice golden firkin for the too-many-to-count time. I couldn’t hear what the winning beer was, but I suspect it was the coconut infused version of their Irish Cream Stout. It was very nice. J. W. Lee’s Harvest Ale and Harviestoun Old Engine Oil are two of my favorite beers anyway, so I was very happy to be able to taste them on cask. Schell’s Imperial Deer Brand was actually surprisingly good; unfiltered and dry-hopped with Nelson Sauvin hops. The sneak-peek of the Stag Series Czech Dark Lager makes me even more excited about its expected April release. I was happy to see several new comers there like Lucid, Lucette, and Boom Island.

My favorite two beers of the day were a Bazooka Bubblegum infused Fatty Boombalatty from Furthermore Beer and Odell IPA infused with orange. These two beers fell at opposite ends of the spectrum. Bazooka’d Fatty was a gimmicky trifle. The powdered sugar flavor of bubblegum blended right in with the banana and bubblegum flavors of this imperial witbier-ish ale. Odell’s “Danny Mac” IPA was a more sophisticated sipper; kind of a bitter Grand Marnier. Both were delicious.

And what about the crowds? Considerably fewer tickets were sold this year than last, and it worked. Was it crowded in the tent? At the festival’s peak it was. Was it ever uncomfortably crowded? Never. Moving from one side of the tent to the other was never a seemingly impossible task. At no point did I feel like the 30th sardine in a tin made for 20. I miraculously managed not to use the facilities until well into the event. When I did, there was no line at all. I walked right in to one of many unoccupied units. Well done.

All in all I would say that this year’s Firkin Fest was a rousing success. For those who stayed away this year because of bad experiences in the past, you can come out now.

A Sahti and a Gose from Sam Adams

Two soon-to-be-released beers in the Sam Adams Single Batch series reach back to lost or nearly-lost beer styles of the old country. Verloren – it means “lost” in German – is a gose (go’ zuh), there a style that originated in Saxony, troche the area around Leipzig, purchase Germany. The style had ceased to be brewed until a small brewpub in Leipzig called Bayerischer Bahnhof resurrected it. Gose is a wheat-based ale, typically brewed with coriander and a touch of salt. A bright, lactic acidity is usually present. It’s a tasty beer and the perfect accompaniment to nearly any thai food. Try gose with Thai beef salad. You will be amazed.

The second upcoming release is Norse Legend, based on a Finnish beer style called Sahti; a beer that in Finland is still brewed today much as it was 500 years ago. Anyone who has talked to me about homebrewing in the past couple of years knows that I am all about the Sahti. Once my friend Mark, a Brit who had been living in Finland, tossed down the gauntlet to make our own sahti I was hooked. We brewed three batches, trying to stay as close to tradition as possible given the realities of my homebrewing rig. We used loads of rye, filtered through juniper twigs, left the beer un-hopped , un-boiled, and un-carbonated, and we fermented it with bread yeast, once smuggling a cube of yeast back from Finland. We even hosted a special episode of Brewing TV to chronicle our process. Our results were mixed, and we never quite achieved the deliciousness of the commercial examples that Mark brought back from Finland, but the exploration was fun and I have gained a real fascination and love for this unusual style.

Sam Adams certainly got my attention with these two unusual beers, but did they pull them off?

Here’s my notes:

Norse Legend
Boston Beer Company, Boston, Massachusetts
Style: Sahti
Serving Style: 22 oz bottle

Aroma: Caramel, bread crust, raisins, and the herbal/spruce character of gin. There are hints of chocolate, but caramel is king. Some subtle fruity esters mingle with aromas of spice, like nutmeg or ginger.

Appearance: Deep mahogany and hazy. A splendiferous stand of creamy, ivory foam falls slowly and remains as a thick cap on the surface all the way to the bottom of the glass.

Flavor: Thick and creamy caramel floods the tastebuds right away. Interesting light fruit flavors like pineapple or sour apple come in long after swallowing and linger. Many flavors return from the aroma; the bread crust is there, raisins, and the piney gin flavor of juniper berries. The berries are there, but where are the twigs? Hint of roastiness and maybe a slight whiff of smoke make an appearance. Bitterness is low and I don’t detect any hop flavor. Noticeable alcohol reinforces the gin-like taste of juniper berries. Loads of fruit mid-palate; berries, orange, melon. Aaahhhh, there’s the twigs. They come in much later as the beer warms.

Mouthfeel: Thick and creamy, Medium-full body. Low carbonation. Warming alcohol.

Overall: This is closer to the commercial examples from Finland than any other American-made sahti I have tried. It’s a nice beer for sipping from a kuksa, a traditional Finnish wooden cup, on a winter’s night above the Arctic Circle – or from a tulip glass on a chilly spring evening in Minnesota. This so far is my favorite from the Single Batch series.

Boston Beer Company, Boston, Massachusetts
Style: Gose
Serving Style: 22 oz bottle

Aroma: Coriander and wheat. Light citrusy fruits. There’s an almost savory, herbal quality that makes me think of oregano, but it’s not quite that.

Appearance: Deep golden color, almost amber. Cloudy. The small, off-white head leaves lace on the glass.

Flavor: Very wheaty. Next to wheat, coriander is the predominant flavor, but not overwhelming. It’s all kept in balance. A background saltiness gives a savory sensation and sticks to the back of the tongue on the way out. Some orange citrus notes counter the salt.

Mouthfeel: Light body. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: First let me say that I really enjoyed this beer. It’s a refreshing, summery beer that perfectly complemented the chicken bouillabaisse I made for dinner. Taken for what it is, it’s delightful. I don’t like to be a style Nazi, but there is a point at which you have to say “this isn’t what you say it is.” Based on other examples I have tasted and readings on the style, I expect some lactic tartness. That was totally lacking in this beer. The fermentation character seemed very neutral to me. It was like an American wheat beer with coriander and salt.

Pour Decisions Brewing Company – An Update

On April 1st last year Pour Decisions Brewing Company came out. The timing and tone of the announcement led many to believe it was some elaborate beer-geek hoax. There were no names given in the communiqué. Who were these guys? Where did they come from? These unanswered questions sent many off on sleuthing missions, cure and checking addresses on Google Maps and looking up corporate registrations on the state website.

Turned out Pour Decisions wasn’t a hoax. It was a real brewery-to-be, and hospital spearheaded by homebrewers extraordinaire Kristen England and B.J. Haun. An article on Heavy Table followed soon after the announcement. Given the reputation of the brewers (both good and bad) the air was thick with anticipation. A couple more blog posts appeared on the Pour Decisions website and then………..silence.

In the intervening 11 months precious little has been heard from Pour Decisions, but they are still out there and moving toward finally opening the taps. I recently chatted with Kristen England at the brewery and got a status report.

On the afternoon of my visit the brewery was a construction zone as finishing touches were being put on the tap room, which should be finished by the time this posts. According to England, the plumbing and electric are all in place. The only thing remaining is to re-assemble the boiler. They are waiting on the proper contractor to complete that task. Once that is done, they should be ready to make beer. England refused, however, to be pinned down on a date. Things happen and that kind of speculation hasn’t worked out so well for them in the past.

So what has been the delay? England cited contractor delays and issues with city inspections. Problems with the contractors hired to install the plumbing and such has been a major source of frustration. Work was promised, partially paid for, and then never delivered. One contractor reportedly even went after Haun with a wrench (or was it a hammer?).

Part of the hold-up around inspections came from unforeseen code requirements. For instance, even though the taproom is only separated from the brewery by a four-foot half-wall, the space requires a separate HVAC system. And then there were the panels. The brewhouse is run from a plug-and-play control panel. In Minnesota all “panels” have to be inspected before they can be used. The keg washer/filler also had a panel that had to be inspected. Costs and delays.

Another problem was the lack of inspectors in Roseville where the brewery is located. If you open a brewery in Minneapolis or St. Paul, they have several inspectors who tend to the business of checking things out. In Roseville there is only one. Says England, “It takes a while. It’s not his fault; he’s got a lot to do.”

Once up and running they plan to launch with two beers. Patersbier is described as “a crisp, Monk’s Golden Ale.” It will come in around 6% and have a good amount of bitterness and hop character. Pubstitute is a dark Scottish session ale listed on the website at 2.8% ABV. England says they are going to bump that up just a bit to around 3.2%. By keeping it that low they not only stay true to style, but also create a beer that can be sold in the grocery store. Don’t fret the low ABV. English session ales have full-flavor and mouthfeel despite their diminutive strength; tastes great and less filling.

England has been involved in beer-historical research with British beer blogger Ronald Pattinson of the Shut Up About Barclay Perkins blog (a great blog if you’re into that sort of thing). Pattinson has been digging into the archives of Britain’s great breweries to discover what beers they were making and how they were making them. England has been translating that research into brewable recipes. Although he doesn’t want to be known as “the guy that makes historical beer,” this research will be a big influence in the beers that Pour Decisions makes. “Everything now has been done before.” says England. “People don’t think so, but everything has been done before. So when we come out with a double IPA it’s going to have English ingredients. It’s going to have all low-alpha hops. Our stouts will be historical stouts using brown malt and amber malt. We’ll use lots of invert sugar. When you taste it you’ll understand the concept. It’s going to be very similar to what you’ve had before, but not like anything you’ve had before. Our beers will be things that you can wrap your head around but different from what you know.”

Expect Pour Decisions to have beer on the street soon. What does soon mean exactly? I can’t say. If I were to wager a guess I’d say this time it’s a matter of weeks rather than months. But things do happen. Only time will tell.

Summit Unchained #9 – Dunkelweizen

I don’t often drink dunkelweizen. I like dunkelweizen, generic so I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because there aren’t many of them to be had in the Twin Cities. Those that are available are mostly imports, and German wheat beers, whether light or dark, are best consumed fresh. The long trip across the ocean and then halfway across the continent doesn’t always treat them kindly.

Or perhaps it’s the near-overwhelming diversity of beers available these days. Whether you know too much or you don’t know enough, a trip to the beer store can leave you locked in a paralysis of indecision.  Distracted by all the “bright and sparklies” on the shelf it’s maybe difficult for me to find my way back to the two bottles of dunkelweizen gathering dust amid the pilsners.

Whatever the reason, I just don’t often think about dunkelweizen.

I should think more about dunkelweizen. It’s a great beer to pair with food. Like its lighter sister it is great with salads especially those with more substantial flavors like candied walnuts.  Toasty-caramel melanoidin flavors make for scintillating combinations with the darker flavors of Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes with mole or roasted Poblano peppers. Pulled pork anyone? Okay, now I’m craving Tex-Mex and beer, but it’s only 9:30 am…

I really should give dunkelweizen more consideration.

Summit Brewing Company has pushed the style to the front of my crowded brain with the release of Unchained #9 – a dunkelweizen created by brewer Eric Blomquist. So now there are three examples on the shelf. But one of them is made in St. Paul. For those of us in Minnesota, it can’t really get much fresher.

Here’s my notes:

Unchained #9 – Dunkelweizen
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Dunkelweizen
Serving Style: 12 oz bottle

Aroma: A balanced blend of banana and clove that leans just a bit more heavily on the spice. Bread and caramel form the base with raisiny fruit filling in the cracks. Overtones of lemon citrus pop out of the glass like the tiny fizz splashes on soda pop. And do I detect the subtlest hint of smoke?

Appearance: Beautiful to look at. It pours dark amber to mahogany; murky and opaque. The long-lasting, fluffy, ivory head falls slowly to thick foam on the surface that lasts all the way to the bottom of the glass. Effervescent bubbles rise from the bottom of the glass.

Flavor: Let it warm up just a bit. Fresh from the fridge it is surprisingly bitter with a citrusy hop-like flavor that sits in the middle of my tongue. As the temperature rises, so does the flavor of melanoidin; like burnt brown sugar. And there are those raisins re-visiting from the aroma. The yeasty banana character steps to the background, allowing clove to come to the fore. The citrus from early on backs off toward the end, but leaves a final calling card at the back of my throat on the way out.

Mouthfeel: Light bodied, yet thick and chewy – pillowy. Effervescent – tingly on my tongue.

Overall Impression: A good beer for the kind of weather we’re having; not quite the summery quaff of a hefeweizen, but not as dark, rich and wintery as a weizenbock. It’s a delicate in-between. Let it warm a bit before you start drinking to let the malt character that makes if a dunkelweizen come through. Dark fruit and toasted brown sugar flavors work wonders with the yeast.

Unchained #9 comes out in bars the week of March 5th. Check the Summit website for details of release events. Bottles will appear the week of March 19th.