Northern Lights Rare Beer Fest

northern-lights-rare-beer-fest

For the last several years, purchase the Denver Rare Beer Tasting has been one of the highlights of GABF week in Denver. The intimate event features 40-ish brewers from all over the country pouring rare and vintage beers for just a few hundred guests – fans and brewers alike. The one-of-a-kind event supports the Pints for Prostates organization, a beer-based charity to support prostate cancer research, founded by cancer survivor Rick Lyke. At $100 the ticket price is steep, but between the beer and the cause, the cost is worth it.

Now the Twin Cities can boast its own version of this auspicious event. The boys at Chop Liver LLC, the ones who bring you the St. Paul Summer Beer Fest among many others throughout the state, debuted the Northern Lights Rare Beer Fest last Saturday at the Minnesota History Center. It brought together 30 breweries for a celebration of brews exotic and hard to get.

The premise of the event was fairly simple. Each brewery was to bring at least one beer that is otherwise unavailable in the metro market; maybe a vintage example, maybe some tweak to a flagship. Some brewed small-batch beers just for the event. Every brewery was to have someone from the brewery in the booth to talk with attendees about the beers. Ticket sales were capped to keep it intimate and elegant. And like the original, this fest would support Pints for Prostates.

So how did it go?

First a note about the location. The Minnesota History Center is one of the best, if not the best, location for a beer festival in the metro. It’s elegant. It’s intimate. Multiple levels give it a sense of space. Gray and black polished granite elevate it way above the usual white tents and utility tables. It’s just lovely. I wish that the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild’s Winterfest had not outgrown it. I hope that Chop Liver will continue to utilize it.

Now to the fest. Overall, I would call it a success, especially for a first attempt. The beers were generally very interesting. The food was tasty. The musical entertainment was unobtrusive, but well…entertaining. The mood was festive. And best of all, it wasn’t crowded!

I know from talking to the organizers that they didn’t sell as many tickets as they would have liked (or perhaps needed to sell). I think the high ticket price scared many away. Chop Liver should have stressed the charitable cause thing a little more strongly. From my perspective though, the number of attendees was perfect. There was none of the shoulder-to-shoulder mass of humanity struggle that one typically encounters at indoor beer fests. It was intimate and airy. I don’t think I stood in a single line for beer. While a couple hundred more people probably wouldn’t have killed the vibe, it was quite pleasant as it was.

There was no shortage of amazing beer to sample. My biggest fear was that everything would be over 9% alcohol. There were indeed a lot of big beers, but thankfully some brewers were thoughtful enough to bring lighter-weight offerings as well. I was able to go back and forth between heavy-hitters and sessionable brews, which greatly extended my sampling capabilities.

What about the “rarity” of the beer? In some ways the Twin Cities can already claim a rare beer fest. At Winterfest guild-member breweries typically go out of their way to bring something extra special. I’m not sure the rarity factor at Northern Lights topped that, although there were extraordinary beers from regional and national breweries that would not be represented at Winterfest. That said, while some seemed to lack the imagination that the festival demanded, most breweries did break out the good stuff. There were too many to talk about all of them, so I’ll just list a few that stand out in my mind.

On reflection, my favorite of the fest was Eye Wine from Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery, a “well-aged,” wine-barrel version of their award-winning Eye of the Storm Honey Ale. Even with just a small sample pour this beer changed drastically from start to finish. The first sip was a honey-dripped barleywine; thick and sweet. Then came a wash of woody oak to cut through the nectar. Finally this same beer transformed itself into a light and sparkly, slightly acidic, glass of vinous goodness. This was only my third or fourth sample of the night. This metamorphosis wasn’t just some drunken illusion. It really happened. And it was verified by none other than beer historian Doug Hoverson.

Another favorite was the Wine Barrel Aged Breakwater White with Brettanomyces from the other Hoops brother up at Fitger’s Brewhouse. It was a Belgian witbier aged in a red wine barrel with brett. The resulting beer was tart and super refreshing, a welcome thing in a fest full of big-thick and super-hops. The dominant flavor was fresh-squeezed yellow grapefruit with a whole load of other citrus throw into the mix.

Icy Wheat IPA from Oskar Blues was another favorite. Wheaty, super-dry, and loaded with vinous Nelson Sauvin hops, it was just really good. A great palate cleanser for the fest.

Others worthy of mention were Barrel-aged Old Rasputin from North Coast, Huckleberry Sour from Grand Teton, and 16, the bourbon-barrel imperial stout made to celebrate Central Waters’ sixteenth anniversary. There were so many others worthy of mention, but I’ve just got to stop.

Mark and Juno promise the Northern Lights Rare Beer Fest will be back next year. For those who opted out this year, it might be worth it to reconsider next year.

August Schell 30th Anniversary Pilsner Collection

Like most beer fanatics, I am a serial drinker. I move from beer to beer in search of the next thing, frequently having to remind myself to go back every once in a while to beers that I love. Brand loyalty plays only a small part in my beer enjoyment.

That said there is one beer that I always have in my refrigerator. That beer is Schell’s Pils. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever heard me speak or read anything that I have written that I love pilsner. It is without question my favorite beer style. And Schell’s makes one of my favorite examples. It is a go-to in any season, on any day, for any mood, and with any food. It’s just good beer.

So when Schell’s announced that it would be celebrating the 30th anniversary of this great beer with a 12-pack containing four different versions of it, I was quite simply “psyched.” I couldn’t wait.

The release of Pilsner and Hefeweizen in 1984 marked a turning point for Schell’s and for beer in Minnesota. Recognizing early that the microbrewery movement that was taking root on the coasts could be the future of the beer industry, the second-oldest family-owned brewery in the country took a leap from light lager to more full-flavored brews. Things have been looking up for Schell’s ever since.

The current anniversary pack looks both forward and back. It includes four versions of Pils past, present, and future. The first is the original 1984 recipe; 6-row barley malt, bittered to a modest 28 IBU with Cascade hops, seasoned moderately with Hallertau Mittelfrüh, and fermented with the original Schell’s yeast strain. Next is 2014, the current version of Schell’s Pils; drier and cleaner with nearly twice the bitterness of the old. The third beer, Roggen, is a rye-tinged twist on the recipe with spicy rye malt accentuating spicy German hops. Last but not least is Mandarina, a stronger version with an IPA like 60 IBUs of bitterness and featuring the tangerine, citrus notes of Mandarina Bavaria hops, a new variety from Germany. It’s worth mentioning that a different yeast strain was used for each version. Schell’s brewer Dave Berg corrected me. They used three different yeast strains. 1984 uses the Schell’s house strain. 2014 and Roggen use the Grain Belt yeast. Mandarina uses a third strain.

The collection is only available in the 12-pack. A commemorative Hefeweizen 12-pack is due out in July!!

Here’s my notes:

30th Anniversary Pilsner Collection
August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: Pilsner
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottles

19841984

Aroma: Full, grainy sweetness with corny overtones. Some yeasty sulfur character. Low-level floral hop aromas. A hint of melon fruitiness.

Appearance: Light gold and brilliantly clear. Low, loose, white foam with poor retention.

Flavor: Grainy and sweet with light corny notes. Low level of sulfur carries over from the aroma. Bitterness is low to medium. Hop flavor has a perfume/floral character that lingers into the somewhat sweet finish.

Mouthfeel: Medium to medium-full body. A bit clingy. Carbonation is medium-high.

Overall Impression: Think “classic American Pilsner” or beefed-up American lager. In my original notes I called it “heavy and plodding.” That sounds like a negative, but it isn’t in my mind. 1984 is sweeter and less bitter than the other examples in the collection. The malt is less complex. The yeast character is more pronounced and less clean. It’s generally less delicate. But all of those things make this my second favorite of the assortment.

20142014

Aroma: Light graham cracker malt. Cleaner and less sweet than 1984. Low spicy/floral hop nose

Appearance: Pale gold and brilliantly clear. Slightly darker than 1984. Moderate, creamy, white head with good retention.

Flavor: Light and crisp. Malt is graham-cracker with a hint of toast. Fermentation is clean. High attenuation gives a brisk, dry finish. Hop flavors are licorice spice with touches of pepper and lemon citrus. Bitterness is medium to Medium-high and provides a nice balance to the malt.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Medium-high carbonation. Crisp and clean.

Overall Impression: Much lighter, crisper, and bitterer than the 1984 brew. It remains my favorite of the bunch. It’s just a great pilsner.

roggenRoggen

Aroma: Low, grainy, graham-cracker malt. Low spicy/floral hops with lemony high notes. Faint sulfur.

Appearance: Light gold. Brilliantly clear. Effervescent bubbles. Full, creamy, white foam with very good retention.

Flavor: Hoppy notes of melon, lemon peel, pepper, and licorice spice. Bitterness is medium to medium-high, enhanced by the spicy, bready flavor of rye. Earthy. Delicate. Beneath the rye is a layer of grainy-sweet, graham-cracker. Finish is dry with lingering bitterness and rye.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Effervescent carbonation.

Overall Impression: Roggen retains the sharp, clean profile of a pils with rye adding a layer of complexity. Nice play of lemon-peel/pepper hops with earthy spice of the rye. This one gave 1984 a run for its money, coming in a close third in my ranking.

mandarinaMandarina

Aroma: Grainy/graham cracker malt with touch of toast. Light fruity overtones – mandarin oranges and peaches. Clean. Balanced, but hops have a slight upper hand.

Appearance: Medium gold and brilliantly clear. Darkest of the four. Moderate head of creamy, white foam, with moderate retention.

Flavor: Fuller malt flavor than the others – grain, toast, melanoidin. Fuller malt is needed to balance the high degree of bitterness. Hops bring a range flavors – pepper, floral, and overtones of soft peach and oranges. Finish is dry and crisp with lingering bitterness and fruity hop flavors – juicy fruit or tropical fruit.

Mouthfeel: Medium-full body. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: This is both the hoppiest and bitterest of the four pilsners. Fuller bodied than the others as well, with an added dimension of toasty and melanoidin flavors. I Love the peachy/orange flavors of the Mandarina Bavaria hops. They have a soft fruitiness instead of the in-you-face citrus of American hop varieties. This beer is zippy and refreshing, but maybe more bitter than I want my pils to be. It verges on something like the increasingly popular India Pale Lager.

Summit Unchained #15: Fest Bier

It still seems to me like just a few months ago that Summit Brewing Company released the first beer in the Unchained Series; a tasty Kölsch style brewed by former Summit brewer Mike Miziorko. But here we are almost five years later looking at beer number fifteen – Fest Bier. And we’ve come nearly full-circle. The series started with a lager-like German ale. This newest addition is the first Unchained German-style lager.

When I interviewed Summit brewers at last year’s Great American Beer Festival, seek Nate Siats was excited about the possibility of adding lagers to the Unchained lineup. The brewery had just completed an expansion of its cellaring capacity that would make the long-aging of a lager beer less disruptive to the overall brewing schedule. Lagers tie up tanks. More tanks means the brewery is better able to work around them. He was looking forward to taking a shot at these difficult-to-brew beers.

In the press release for Fest Bier, doctor Siats says that he recently fell in love with the German styles. I say, patient “What took you so long?” For his Unchained beer he took inspiration from the Märzen beers that we call Oktoberfest and Wiesenbier, the stronger, golden lager that is actually served at the Oktoberfest in Munich. He sourced his base malts from a small maltster in the Czech Republic. The beer received a full eight weeks of cold conditioning, something of a rarity in these days of “get it on the streets” brewing.

Here’s my notes:

Summit Unchained #15: Fest BierUnchained #15: Fest Bier
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Märzen
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle

Aroma: Light grainy sweetness. Dark honey. Bread crust and toasty melanoidin. Low notes of golden raisins. No hops to speak of. Clean.

Appearance: Medium head of just-off-white, rocky foam. Good retention. Light copper color with brilliant clarity.

Flavor: Almost equal balance of malt and hops. Malt comes out just slightly ahead at first, but gains ground through the glass – bread crust and caramel-toasty melanoidin. Low malt sweetness. Hop bitterness is medium, but enhanced by carbonation and dry finish. Long-lingering hop flavors of licorice with background of black currant and lemon peel. Finishes crisp and dry with hops and underlying toasty malt.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Carbonation is high, almost prickly.

Overall Impression: A light and refreshingly crisp Oktoberfest style beer that rides a knife-edge balance of malt and hops. Carbonation struck me as very high at first, maybe even a bit intrusive. It smoothes as the beer sits and de-gasses. I would like a touch more malt character, but I’m a true malt lover and these are my favorite malt flavors. The lessening carbonation does allow a fuller malt to finally come through.