Wabasha Brewing Company – A First Look

Wabasha Brewing CompanyTo find Wabasha Brewing Company head south across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Paul then continue up the hill past the Wabasha Street Caves. Tucked on Wabasha Street is a non-descript, two-story storefront. A sign on the sidewalk out front suggest that this is where you should enter, but drive around back to find the taproom. The building’s rear is even more non-descript, but the orange door and newly established hop vines suggest that something more interesting is going on inside.

wabasha-3Entering the taproom is a bit like stepping into someone’s home. It’s tiny – maybe cozy is a better descriptor. Cream-colored, brick walls and wood tones give it a warm, comfortable feel. It is a bit like a living room turned bar. I was reminded of intimate, cellar bars that I frequented in Germany.

Wabasha-1The brew house is crammed in behind the bar. There is only room for a couple of fermenters. The plan was to start big with the brewery, easily the most expensive piece of equipment. Brewing capacity is ensured from the start. When planned expansions occur fermentation tanks can be added as space allows.

The taproom’s intimacy encourages friendly interaction. I’m actually not the most social person, but I chatted up everyone seated with me at the bar. It wasn’t terribly crowded on the Thursday night of my visit, but I can see how it could get tight on a busy Friday or Saturday. And there is only one restroom for a bunch of people drinking a bunch of beer. Did I mention that expansion is planned?

The beer at Wabasha was a mixed bag – varied both in style and in quality. Nothing was terrible, but some were better than others. A couple of cloudy ones suggested to me that not enough conditioning time was given to let them settle. But it could also be that cloudy was the brewer’s intent.

Wabasha-2My favorite was Peter Wheat. Don’t let the name fool you, there is no wheat in this beer. It’s named after a comic book character created in the 1940s to advertise bread. Peter Wheat the beer is a Germany-style Kristal weizen made with corn instead of wheat. It’s got a creamy mouthfeel and light sweetness with faint, corny overtones. The banana, clove, and bubblegum notes of German, wheat-beer yeast are present, but remain fairly subtle. Higher than expected alcohol gives it a pleasant warming.

Lawnmower porter is a tasty, low-alcohol brown porter with a lovely chocolate brownie character. Low caramel and toast background notes round out the profile. It finishes dry, making it a good summertime dark beer.

West Side Popper was a surprise. I really don’t like pepper beers. I want my food as spicy as you can make it, but not my beer. This light, jalapeno infused cream ale gave a light bite on the finish, but was not overwhelming. It was amply balanced by a smooth, malt sweetness. The pepper flavor was kept to a minimum as well.

Red Bonnet Amber – a cherry infused amber ale – was indistinct – like it couldn’t quite decide what it wanted to be. A touch of caramel was there. A hint of tart cherry was there. But neither was really able to assert itself. Both were muddied by some unwelcome yeasty flavor that was foreshadowed by the murky appearance.

429 Wabasha St S
St Paul, MN 55107
(651) 224-2102

Thursday – Friday: 3:00 pm – 11:00 pm

Sidhe Brewing Company – A First Look

Sidhe Brewery LogoIreland is dotted with small, earthen mounds called Sidhe [pronounced Shee] said to be the homes of the mythical folk called the Aos Sí [pronounced ees shee]. Part of Gaelic and Scottish mythology, these supernatural beings are believed to inhabit an invisible world that coexists with the world of humans. This otherworld is seen to be closer during the hours of dusk and dawn. The Aos Sí are fierce protectors of their abodes. The modern term Banshee derives from “Bean sídhe,” a particularly fearsome female spirit. In Gaelic folk belief and practice they are often appeased with offerings and are rarely referred to directly, but rather spoken of as “The Good Neighbors”, “The Fair Folk”, or simply “The Folk”.

Sidhe is also the name of one of St. Paul’s newest breweries. The name is appropriate. This is Minnesota’s second women owned brewery (at least as far as I know). It is also the state’s first Wiccan brewery – although not the only one to have a somewhat pagan slant.

With its grand opening in May, Sidhe Brewing Company added another facet to the quickly-developing, foodie-focused, Payne-Phalen neighborhood in East St. Paul. It is a neighborhood in transition. Higher-end food joints like Ward 6 and Tongue In Cheek coexist side-by-side with old-school, storefront taquerias. A multi-cultural mix of people can be seen on the streets and in the seats. For co-owner and head brewer Kathleen Culhane this sense of place is important. She sees Sidhe as a gathering place for the neighborhood’s diverse inhabitants – an “awesome, cool place for Eastsiders and others to hang out.” Culhane’s plan is to have a stable of six house beers with a small, rotating selection of seasonals and specialties. She is experimenting with reduced-gluten beers for those with sensitivities.

Sidhe Brewing EntranceThe brewery and taproom occupies the rear part of an interesting marketplace that includes a Mexican restaurant and several small vendor booths. The building is built into a hillside, which means that entering the taproom feels like you are headed to the basement. The entryway from Jenks Avenue affords a nice overview of the whole operation before you descend the stairs into the taproom.

The taproom space itself is simple and relatively unadorned. A set of paintings on the east wall hint at the Wiccan influence. Shelves of games – including to my delight Rock-‘Em Sock-‘Em Robots – insures patrons have plenty to occupy their time while sipping the suds. On the west end of the building is a stage that will host live music. The comparison isn’t totally apt, but while sitting there I kept thinking that the place has a kind of “your-uncle’s-basement-bar” vibe.

Sidhe Brewing BeersThe beers on my visit were a bit problematic. Apparent under-attenuation left each of them tasting overly sweet and a bit sticky. This impression was heightened by low carbonation. Beers that should have been dry and crisp were anything but. The 84 IBUs of Hopped Up McGonigal IPA were nearly completely overwhelmed by sugar. Culhane indicated to me that she was aware of the issues and was taking steps to rectify them. Hopefully she can get that figured out.

Of the selections available, the Best Kissed Cream Ale was my top pick. It was better attenuated than the others, giving it a more refreshing profile. Low, grainy malt flavor was accentuated by a touch of corn. Bitterness was almost just enough to balance. Light, spicy hop notes added a bit of zest. After my sampler flight I had a pint. It was an enjoyable pint.

Next for me was Greenman’s Harvest American Nut Brown. It too was a bit less sweet than the others. Rich and malty, it featured notes of caramel, chocolate, and a faint background of roast-malt bitterness that helped cut the sweet. Hop bitterness was moderate, with low, citrusy hop flavors riding gently over the top.

990 Payne Ave
St. Paul, MN 55130
612-424-1KEG (1534)

Thursday & Friday: 4-11 PM
Saturday: Noon to 11 PM
Sunday: Noon to 7 PM

Northgate Brewing Company – A First Look

The last time I visited Northgate Brewing Company they were still a few weeks from opening. No beer had yet been brewed on their tiny, five-barrel brewhouse crammed uncomfortably into an 800 square-foot, industrial space in Northeast Minneapolis. It was hard to find. I had to call for directions that cold, dark, winter night, even though I was just on the other side of the building. I remember thinking, “How are they ever going to do growler sales if no one can find the place?”

Northgate Brewing Then & Now

Northgate Brewing Then & Now

A lot has changed since then. Last October the brewery moved into a brand new building, tripled the size of their brewhouse, and opened an actual, easy-to-find taproom. Tucked off Broadway on Harding Street, a little west of Highway 280, they managed to remain just on the edge of Northeast Minneapolis. The taproom is an Olympian stone’s throw from the core Northeast brewery district at Broadway and Central.

So why did it take me seven months to visit the new spot? One reason is time. I know it’s kind of my job, but I find it almost impossible to eke out free evenings for hanging in taprooms. I don’t know how you people do it.

But I’ve got to be perfectly honest, there was another reason I stayed away. I was never a fan of Northgate beers. I should have been. They specialize in English styles, which are some of my favorites. I wanted to like them. I repeatedly came back to their brews to give them another chance, but was always disappointed. English yeast can throw some buttery notes that become overwhelming if not handled properly. I found these to be consistently present. I even picked up some medicinal, phenolic flavors once or twice. But I hadn’t tried them since the move.

I entered the taproom this time with trepidation. I left with a changed mind.

I sampled eight beers in all – everything on tap at the time. While the little bit of butterscotch that gives pleasing roundness to well-made English ales was present, nothing crossed the line to unpleasant. And there was not a phenolic note to be found.

Parapet ESB was a standout to me. It was dry and moderately bitter with complementary grassy/earthy hop notes. The bitterness was balanced by biscuity and toffee-tinged malt with a low level of sweetness. The orange marmalade fermentation esters that I love so much were in abundance. If not for the fact that I still had two more taprooms to hit, I would likely have ordered a pint.

The Northgate guys said they would never brew an American-style IPA. And yet on the list was not just an IPA, but an 8.1 percent alcohol double IPA, loaded with quintessentially American Simcoe and Citra hops. Here’s Your Frackin’ IPA was remarkably delicate for its elevated strength. I would never have guessed its potency. While the big, citrus and tropical fruit hop flavor was all-American, the bitterness was on a more moderate English scale. No excessive tongue-scraper this, despite the 100 IBU claim.

There were two takes on Stronghold Robust Porter available – one with coffee and a cask-conditioned version with cherries. I’m not generally a fan of coffee beers and this one did not suit me. The underlying porter was nice, delivering dark, bitter chocolate roast and light sweetness. The coffee though tasted unpleasantly bitter, like that pot that sat on the burner in the office break room all day. The bitter dregs taste lingered long in the finish.

The cherry version on the other hand was delicious. The sweet cherry stayed unobtrusively in the background allowing the base beer to shine. Combined with the beer’s bitter chocolate, it tasted like a liquid Mon Cherie candy.

20150604_190014My companion aptly described the feel of the taproom as “coffee shop with a small nod to an English pub.” It is relatively unadorned and retains an industrial space ambience that is fairly common among local taprooms. Some color on the walls would do a lot to warm it up a bit. It was quiet when we arrived, but by the time we left the crowd had filled the room, bringing with it a din that was not terrible, but louder than I prefer. I’m like that. I like quiet.

783 Harding St NE
Minneapolis, MN 55418
(612) 354-2858

Taproom Hours:
Wednesdays: 4pm – 10pm
Thursdays: 4pm – 10pm
Fridays: 3pm – Midnight
Saturdays: Noon – Midnight
Sundays: Noon – 8pm

The Brewer’s Table Kitchen at Surly

20150519_151107There are a lot of restaurants that do beer and food. Some of them do it very well. Most of them though, are working with an ever rotating set of taps from an ever changing array of breweries. The beers change faster than the menu, meaning that the food is curated for beer generally, without a focus on particular flavor parings. Brewpubs have the luxury of working with a set list of beers made on premises, but in my experience, most of them don’t seem to put much thought into how the menu and the brews might work together. Pub grub is generally the rule.

But what happens when you give a talented and adventurous chef the opportunity to create an entire restaurant from scratch that is centered on the flavors of a single brewery’s lineup. The Brewer’s Table Kitchen at Surly is what. Opening this Friday, May 22nd, the second-floor, fine-dining venue at Surly is a foodie-friendly laboratory for beer and food pairing.

Given the sophistication of the beer hall menu I had lofty expectations for the Brewer’s Table. Chef Jorge Guzman had set the bar high. Judging from the samples offered at a recent media preview, he has deftly met the challenge. The menu is loaded with items, the descriptions of which make me say, “Oh, I want to try that.” Tantalizing treats like a Reuben made with beef heart, octopus with romesco sauce and chorizo, or lamb sweet breads immediately set my salivary glands atwitter. The dishes we were served not only offered layers of flavor to explore, they were pretty to look at as well. Like colorful paintings on a plate, they were almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

Beet Salad paired with Pentagram

Beet Salad paired with Pentagram

I love beets, so one of my favorites was the beet salad. Guzman likes to use ingredients in multiple ways in each dish. This one has beets roasted, charred, pickled, and pureed. On top is fois gras that has been cured, passed through a tamis, fortified with beet gel, frozen and then shaved. It looks almost like wood chips or pencil shavings on the dish, but eats with a luscious, creamy richness. The pairing with Surly’s sour, wild ale Pentagram was surprisingly good. The interaction of acids in the dish and the beer toned down the sour, but still let the beer cut the richness of the fois. Earthy notes from the Brettanomyces fermentation bridged nicely to the earthy beets.

Tea Egg paired with Cynic

Tea Egg paired with Cynic

The Tea Egg was another favorite. A five-minute egg is cracked and then poached in tea and truffle powder to give it a tie-die appearance. It’s served on a bed of sheep’s milk cheese, puffed quinoa, and black garlic puree, with marinated asparagus. There is a lot going on in this dish, which makes it a particular pairing challenge. Which flavor element do you aim for when selecting a beer? Guzman went with Cynic, which he called the “easy” route. Easy or not, it worked. The soft sweetness and spicy/fruity yeast notes of the beer at least touched on nearly every layer of the dish.

Pork Jowl  paired with Todd the Axeman

Pork Jowl paired with Todd the Axeman

If you are looking for something rich, the Pork Jowl is the way to go. Guzman envisions this dish as a taco. This gorgeous hunk of meat is cured, sous vided, and roasted to fatty, pink perfection. It’s layered on puffed amaranth and a black bean puree made with Mole’ Smoke beer, and topped with a hazelnut vinaigrette. A picadillo sauce of the type used for empanadas completes it. This one was paired with Todd the Axeman, a West Coast-style IPA brewed in collaboration with a Danish brewery. It’s the hoppiest beer Surly makes, but the focus is on flavor and aroma instead of overly-aggressive bitterness. It cut through the richness of the jowl without taking out your tastebuds or preventing the subtler flavors from coming through.

Guzman and crew encourage diners to explore their own pairings, but they are happy to make recommendations if desired. For those who want to turn it over entirely to the whim of the chef, a Chef & Brewer pairing menu will take you through a five-course meal with a pairing for each course.

20150519_150435The décor of Brewer’s Table is in keeping with the rest of the building – sleek and elegant, yet not too stuffy. The long, kitchen bar would be my choice for seating, but I love to watch chefs at work. In the summer the outdoor patio overlooking the beer garden would also be very nice. Reservations are available and recommended. Bar seating is first-come, first-served. The Brewer’s Table is open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 5-10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5-11 p.m.

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Octopus paired with Overrated IPA

Octopus paired with Overrated IPA

LynLake Brewery – A First Look

LynLake Brewery

Progress has been slow in the continuing quest to satisfy my New Year’s resolution by visiting all the TC taprooms that I have neglected. I’m sorry. I’m really busy right now. But it is always on my mind – a little nagging voice in my head telling me, “Get your butt out of the house and go drink some beer!” I finally listened to that voice, pried free some time, and got my butt into the next taproom on my list, LynLake Brewery.

lyndale bingoLynLake is located on South Lyndale Avenue just north of Lake Street (thus the name) between The Herkimer and Moto-I. It occupies a most fascinating building. The Lyndale Theater opened in 1915 as a silent movie house and operated as a cinema until it closed in 1952. An interesting bit of trivia, actor Eddie Albert was once a manager there. That’s Oliver Wendell Douglas for any fellow Green Acres fans. The building became a grocery store in 1954 and was a furniture store from 1962 to 1972. The American Legion used it as a bingo hall from 1973 to 1990. After that came an antique store, which closed around 2006.

The building’s history plays a role in defining the feel of the place. The high, movie theater ceiling gives it a fantastically open feel. Surviving gold gilt on the cross members, together with the exposed brick walls evoke a nostalgic feel of another era. I kept looking for a proscenium arch on the back wall. This old-time feel is amplified by the antique looking light bulbs that illuminate the space and the bent bike wheels that hang over the bar. The brewhouse rises at the back of the room like the set of a 1930s Frankenstein film.

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They don’t serve food at LynLake, nor can they have food trucks parked on Lyndale Avenue. But the table flip-charts have menus from a number of nearby restaurants that will deliver. As the instructions on the cards say, just call them up, order, pay, and eat.

An elevator and rather impressive staircases on either side of the room lead up to a delightful rooftop patio. There is ample picnic table-type seating and two fire pits to warm you up on cooler spring and fall days. The Lyndale Avenue side of the patio offers a great view of the Minneapolis skyline. It will be a great place for a beer this summer.

Although nothing was terrible, I found the beers to be a bit hit or miss. Some were great, some not so much. So let’s start with the great.

Sideburns Oat Raisin Milk Stout on nitro was fantastic. It’s full-bodied, rich, and rummy, with huge cocoa notes giving the impression of creamy, melted, bittersweet chocolate. The raisins come across as a faint, background hint of dark fruit. There is some licorice. A touch of dry, black malt roast offers a balancing counterpoint to the sweetness.

My second favorite on the list fell at the opposite end of the spectrum from Sideburns. Ponyboy Gold Lager is light, sessionable, and utterly delightful. Beer nerds tend to poo-poo American-style lagers. There really is no reason for it when you can get one as good as this. It’s simple and lightly sweet, with overtones of toasted grain if you are willing to look for them. Bitterness is medium-low and supported by spice and lemon hop flavors. If you want a beer for the long haul, this is it.

MMC 63 American Brown Ale was one of the two cask-conditioned offerings available during my visit. It was a well-done cask – clear, smooth, and served at the proper temperature. The beer was good, too. Caramel, nuts, a touch of chocolate, and a bit of roast make up the body. It’s balanced by a moderate level of bitterness. Tasty!

Take 6 is a decent if not great American India Pale Ale. It emphasizes hop flavor and aroma over bitterness and in fact comes off as just a little bit sweet – Midwestern style. Peppery spice and lemon-pith citrus give the beer its zing. There is a hint of that hop-derived garlic of which I am not a fan. With so many great IPAs out there, I’d say drink something else while you’re here. Sideburns, for instance.

Rubbish Oat Amber Ale was the biggest disappointment. There is a lot going on in this so-called Scottish amber ale. Caramel, raisins, cherries, and chocolate all make an appearance. The beer poured with a heavy haze. The murky appearance matched the profile. The myriad flavors all just seemed jumbled together without crisp definition.

Despite a couple of less appealing beers, I’d say that overall for ambiance, beer, and the rooftop patio, LynLake Brewery is worth a stop. Hours are:
Wednesday and Thursday: 5pm-12am
Friday: 4pm-1am
Saturday: 12pm-1am
Sunday: 12pm-10pm

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Brewer Interview: Seamus O’hara of Carlow Brewing Co.

Valentine’s Day is over. We’ve survived Mardi Gras. It’s not too early to start planning for the next big holiday, St. Patrick’s Day.

I know, I know. Amateur day, you say. But does it have to be? Just because the rest of the world is crowding the Irish bars getting sloshed on green swill doesn’t mean that the good-beer loving rest of us should dump the holiday altogether. There is good Irish beer out there. Let’s reclaim St. Patrick’s Day!

And by “good Irish beer” I don’t mean Guinness, Harp, Smithwick’s, Murphy’s and all the other usual suspects. There is good craft beer from the Emerald Isle available to us here in the Twin Cities. Some of the best comes from the Carlow Brewing Company in Carlow, Ireland, brewers of the O’hara’s brand beers. If you haven’t had O’hara’s Irish Stout or Irish Red Ale, you haven’t had the real thing. These beers fit the mold of their respective styles, but are so much more flavorful than those from the bigger brewers that they almost seem like totally different things. Although I do have a couple of others that I turn to on occasion, if I am going to pour an Irish stout or red at a tasting event, it will more than likely be O’hara’s.

Founded in 1996 by brothers Seamus and Eamonn O’hara, Carlow is one of the pioneers of a rapidly expanding craft beer movement in Ireland. Where there were once only three or four brand available in any Irish pub, there are now a bevy of craft brands competing for tap space and winning converts to the cause.

Image from beerbloggersconference.org

A while back I had the opportunity to chat with Seamus O’hara over lunch at The Local. We talked about the brewery, but also about the state of craft beer in Ireland. As we went I was continually reminded of the state of craft beer in Minnesota and the Upper-Midwest region in general. Both are experiencing a rapid expansion based on education, festivals, and an evolving consumer palate. Both are seeing increasing pressure from bigger breweries whose market they are chipping away. It was fascinating to see how small breweries over there are coping with similar issues as those faced over here.

What follows is an edited transcription of that interview. It’s long, I know. But I found the perspective interesting. I remain committed to long-form journalism to tell the stories of beer and the beer industry. And come on, have our attention spans really gotten so short? I’ll follow up the interview over the next couple of days with tasting notes of different O’hara’s beers.

I’ve talked to a few folks from Ireland and I get varying opinions and attitudes towards Irish themed American bars.

So you got their opinions, you don’t need mine. Some of them are great, some of them are a bit contrived. It’s great that the Irish bar is a thing and that it’s out there. When you go in to chat with the owners they are so on top of their culture and history that they almost put you to shame. It’s only when you live abroad that you start to reflect on your culture and where you come from and all that. Certainly the first few times I came over to America with our beer, I’d go to Chicago or Boston and meet some of the people who had been over here for a long time or who were second or third generation and definitely I felt a little put to shame. I need to go home and educate myself. So with those guys it wasn’t contrived. It was really authentic. But also in some ways a kind of historic reflection, because Irish pubs have moved on. So it’s like an impression of an Irish pub from years gone by. But it’s always interesting.

Let’s get to the brewery. Give me some background. How did you come to running a brewery?

Actually my background is in biotech. As part of that we studied brewing and we had a pilot brewing plant in college. When I graduated I went to work in pharmaceutical biotech, but I was also an active homebrewer and just got into making beer and wine and all sorts of stuff. But it was funny, when I went to work in pharmaceuticals I was working abroad, initially in the UK, and that was the first time I got introduced to all the beers and cask ales. I kind of really got into it and really loved going to the bars for different guest beers each weekend. Three years later or so I moved back to Ireland and it was almost a shock to the system. I didn’t realize that we had such a limited selection – like the same three or four products in every pub in the country. So over a couple of years I kind of got the idea about maybe setting up a brewery. I got inspiration from American craft brewing that you can do it. You can set up a small brewery. It’s not just for the big guys. So that’s where the idea came from. Eventually myself and my brother just got together and worked out a plan. In 1996 basically, we set up a company and went about looking for a building and equipment. We raised a small amount of money from friends and family and the first products came on the market in 1998. I kept another job. It was kind of part time. We couldn’t afford to be full time. But it’s been great over the last three or four years to be full time. And we’ve had a lot of growth over the last three or four years.

You just alluded to this, but over here Ireland is known for a good pub culture, but not so much a good beer culture. So what gave you the idea that starting a small, craft brewery in Ireland was a good idea?

To be honest, looking back we didn’t really fully appreciate that fact. I suppose we were kind of a little bit naive. We kind of got excited ourselves about beer and thought that once people tasted this and got introduced to different beers they were going to be as excited as we were. But it’s not as straightforward as that. One of the reasons we started exporting as a relatively young company was for our survival. As we gradually grew our business in the local market we had other avenues of business. But I think over time the Irish palate has developed in terms of different beers. There are a lot more import beers now and a lot more local craft beers. But to be really honest I think Irish craft is about one percent of the market. Three years ago we were about half a percent of the market, so a lot of it has happened in the Irish market over the last three or four years. Before that it was kind of more specialist kinds of pubs. But now about 120 bars in Dublin have our beers on draft. I think there’s a total of 600 bars in Dublin, so it’s a good percentage. And there are other craft breweries out there as well, so craft has now kind of got a profile.

Craft brewing in Ireland is not something that we really think about over here. I don’t think I even knew it existed except for a couple of breweries like your own. Describe the craft beer scene there.

When we started there was kind of a first wave of breweries around the same time. There were up to about eight small breweries back in the late 90s. But we all had the same issues. Not only were there only the same beers in every pub, but because there had never been small breweries, none of the infrastructure was there for distribution. You couldn’t plug into a distributor. There was no line cleaning. You had to do everything yourself. So it was a challenge. From that time there are only three survivors, I think. But then there was a change in excise law in the early 2000s to allow an excise break for small breweries and that kind of helped the viability of the business. Bringing it up to date, one of the other hats I wear is that I’m involved in running craft beer festivals in Ireland. We started that business in 2011. Because there were so few opportunities to get craft beer out there we set up our own festivals. The first year we did it we had twelve breweries. The second year we had 16. The third year was 23. This year we think we’ll have 35. So there’s been quite an increase. It really has taken off in the last two or three years. It’s a recognized thing and category. Bar staff know about it. Pub owners know about it. It’s kind of opened up. It’s a really interesting time.

So obviously the Irish palate has developed.

Hugely, yeah. It was always progressing, but maybe it just gets over a critical mass and enough people are talking to enough people and suddenly it accelerates. And I think things like Twitter and Facebook helps get the word out. It’s that word of mouth thing that kind of accelerated it. The other key thing that happened in Ireland is that we had a steep recession that also hit the pub business. Something like a pub per day closed down in Ireland over the last five years. Prior to that they were all busy. It didn’t matter what they served. Then they went through a stage where they were saying, “Hang on a second. I’m losing business here. I need to look at my offering, my customers, and what they want.” They were certainly much more receptive. You could go in and talk about “what might it do for me?” So there was just a total mindset change in the bar business as well. I think that was the big catalyst.

In the early days, aside from the fact that there were only a few major brands, were there other things missing in the Irish beer scene that you wanted to fill in?

Definitely. At that time I was interested in any sort of wheat beer. Like American wheat ale type products. At the same time we were very interested in the Irish beer styles, which we kind of viewed as having been kind of watered down over the years. They’d become a bit insipid and dumbed down for the mass market. We wanted to bring the flavor back into the Irish beer styles. So we had kind of a twin thing. That’s why when we started out we started with a stout and a red and a wheat beer.

carlow-brewing-company

You’ve now got a double IPA.

Double IPA is about a year old. Again it’s a sign of how the market is developing in Ireland that people are into hoppier beers and are willing to drink a higher ABV beer. Our double IPA is still at the lower end of the ABV range for double IPAs. Again, it’s just our kind of pub culture in Ireland. That kind of pub culture, which is about drinking pints and having a good long night out. Plus we did some barrel aging. We got some whiskey barrels. We’ve done our extra stout Leann Folláin in Bushmills whiskey barrels. And we’ve done some seasonals. We just had a winter seasonal that was just kind of a spiced amber ale. We just brought out an amber ale called Amber Adventure, which we’re using southern hemisphere hops. We call it Amber Adventure because we’re going to play with hops and have an adventure with hops. For St. Patrick’s did a collaboration with some Polish brewers. We have an oatmeal stout that has polish hops and Irish malt. We’re really happy with that. That’s our first collaboration, so we’re kind of looking at those things as well. We’ve expanded our capacity a bit over the years. We’ve added more tanks a couple of times and we just have some more coming again. We’re keeping a bit behind the curve for our needs in terms of capacity, but where we were much more restricted previously, now were doing new beers. We’re doing seasonals. We can do collaborations.

Carlow-Brewing-1

So I am struck by how similar this all sounds to the American beer scene right now; the rapid expansion, continually coming up with new products. Part of that here is that breweries have to keep themselves front and center in the minds of serial drinkers, people who don’t have any brand loyalty, so they have to keep bringing out new things. Is that the same in Ireland?

That’s not really my driver to be honest. I’m a bit scared by that. For us it was more these are the things we wanted to do. We had a kind of a backlog of things we wanted to do in terms of product styles. But the craft beer consumer in Ireland is learning from America as well. There is a demand for new stuff and a little bit of rotation in the bars, but not as much as over here. I’m hoping we can get a balance. Honestly just from the business point of view when there is so much rotation and so much new things it’s hard to sustain that. I’m hoping we can manage it.

I don’t think it’s realistic, it’s just that is the state of the market here right now.

I think the Irish beer consumer as well, they like to try different beers, but they do tend to get one and stick with it. Maybe for what they buy to take home they are more adventurous and try new things, but a good 50 to 60 percent of beer consumption is still on-premise, so people tend to have a bit of a go-to beer at that end. So I don’t see it getting as bad as here, at least in the short term. But it probably will eventually.

Brand loyalty seems stronger in Ireland. I was doing a private party at a client’s house and they had some guests over from Ireland. I was pouring your Irish Stout, because that’s the one I typically pour. I said that it was more dimensional in flavor than Guinness and mentioned that I’m not a huge Guinness fan. Boy, I thought I was going to get killed for a second.

To be honest, Guinness is a huge success in Ireland. It’s one of these things that that kind of brand strength is out there. It’s one of the things that we’re up against. If we can get that kind of brand loyalty closer to our products that would be great. That’s part of what we’re trying to do in Ireland is educate. To say there is more out there. Try something different.

So how do you go about educating consumers?

We try to start with the bar staff. We go in and we taste one of our beers and give them some key information about the products. Get them kind of interested in it. We always invite them to come do tours of our brewery. It’s that kind of face-to-face, point of sale type thing. Also, the Grand Beer Festival. It’s good to mention that. That started in September 2011. I do kind of trace back a big jump in craft beer sales to around the same time. The festival has grown. We had 3000 people the first year. 6000 the second year. 10,000 the third year. But I think definitely it’s a case of one beer fan dragging his three mates along. I think the same thing happened with bar owners and bar managers. When you see 10,000 people in a big hall all enjoying this craft beer in a great atmosphere and a nice quality crowd, I think the feedback from the bar owners was, “Okay, I need to look at this harder because that’s the kind of audience I want in my pub.” And then we do sampling for customers as well. A lot of media sources in Ireland have been interested in the sector. We’ve got a lot of good PR. A lot of good online stuff as well, with beer bloggers kind of generally spreading the word. It’s those kind of things. I do think it’s one of the key things to grow the market.

What’s the situation with craft beer bars in Ireland?

There’s a few craft beer bars in Dublin. There’s probably five pubs now in Dublin that wouldn’t serve any Heineken or a Guinness. None of the big brands. Then there’s another layer of maybe 20 that would have fairly significant craft beer offerings. Most of the pubs that we would be in would have maybe three or four craft beer lines, which is kind of one of the challenges, because most Irish pubs don’t have a lot of beer lines. So as a craft brewer you’re fighting over a small number of lines. Molson Coors and a couple of other big companies are trying to target the same lines. So it is a challenge. But I think the bars that have focused on craft have been quite successful. So that’s going to bring more people to it. You know, I could see some people start adding more lines, but it’s still the early days in that regard.

I just keep being struck by how familiar all of this sounds to me.

Yeah. But I think familiar as in how recently. We’re probably ten or fifteen years behind. But it probably won’t take us ten or fifteen years to get there. We’re just starting, but it will probably accelerate. We don’t have any sour beer breweries for example. There’s nothing like the range and the depth of things going on. But we’re very happy with the way it’s going in Ireland right now. We’re on a wave. We hope that wave keeps going, moving forward, you know. I’m always concerned about what sort of backlash or activity the big breweries will come up with to try to keep us down, but you know, we’ll just have to deal with it.

We’re seeing things like that here. Are you seeing this kind of thing with the big breweries over there?

Yeah. But look, the genie is out of the bottle at this point. When you drink craft beer you can’t go back to drinking a mainstream beer. The market we have now, they can’t get it back. And there is growth there as people talk and taste. There will be short term setbacks, you know. A certain dealing gets done and our beers are out. And the big guys bring out their own kind of craft beer – imitations or whatever, products to position in that space. So I would say, I hope we have enough momentum. My belief is that we’re not here for the short term. We’ve had our ups and downs. We’re here for the long term.

Seamus and Michael

Town Hall Barrel Aged Week 2015 Starts Today

When Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery got its first barrel in 2000, barrel aging of beer was not yet the thing that it is now. Brewmaster Mike Hoops had heard rumblings at a Craft Brewers Conference about this crazy thing that some breweries were doing with their beers – putting them in used barrels. The result was an almost magical fusion of beer, barrel, and booze. Hoops wanted in. A Jack Daniels barrel was obtained and Czar Jack was born.

As barrel-aging has expanded nationally, the Town Hall barrel program has expanded along with it. One barrel became several. Even more were added when additional cellar space opened up after the recent renovation. The barrel program is Mike Hoops’ baby. These are the beers of which he is most proud. In 2009 he got the chance to really show them off when they held the first Barrel Aged Week, now an annual event.

Hoops and crew go to the distilleries themselves to pick up barrels, creating relationships with distillers that help to insure they get the barrels they want in a world where used barrels are becoming scarcer. Even with these relationships he has concerns about getting some of the barrels they have used for many years.

This year’s Barrel Aged Week kicks off tonight at 5pm. It will include nine beer releases over six days, ending on Saturday the 21st. Whether you go one day or every day, these barrel aged beers are worth checking out.

Tonight’s release is Manhattan Reserve, a cherry grand cru aged in Woodford Reserve barrels. Grand cru is a nebulous term that doesn’t really correspond to any actual beer style. Every brewery’s grand cru is unique. For Mike Hoops the term just refers to the beer that a brewery views at its “celebratory” brew. The base beer for Manhattan Reserve has been brewed at Town Hall for around ten years. It’s a Belgian style beer with plenty of fermentation-derived fruit and spice. Tart cherries come through strongly in both the flavor and aroma, boosted by apple and orange notes and a touch of acidity. Caramel, vanilla, and bourbon offers a sweet counterpart. Effervescent carbonation and peppery spice complete the picture.

Two of my favorites will hit the taps on Saturday. Brown Label Belgian Bruin is a maple brown ale fermented with Belgian yeast and aged in a Woodford Reserve barrel. Big chocolate notes lead, accompanied by dark fruits like plums, prunes, and cherries. A low balsamic acidity brings to mind a Flanders Oud Bruin. Vanilla, oak, and subtle spicy note like cinnamon are in there too. Delicious.

Duke of Wallonia is an imperial witbier aged in a red wine barrel. This is a vinous beer with an interesting juxtaposition of lemony tartness and darker, red wine fruit. Coriander comes through loud and clear, but doesn’t get soapy or vegetal. Orange peel is subtler, but still adds some character.

I’m told the “brewers’ choice” beer will be released on Tuesday night. Foolish Angel is aged in Angel’s Envy barrels, a new distillery partner as of this year. I didn’t get to sample this one, but it is described as a “massively malty” and “beautifully smooth” Belgian quadrupel.

The barrel-aged beers are being sold this year in the new 750 ml growlers. This should allow for folks to get more than one brand to take home. Pre-sale took place on Sunday, February 8th, but a certain number of growlers have been reserved for purchase through the week. If you buy a glass of a particular beer in the brewpub, you will be given the option to purchase a growler of that same beer as long as supplies last.

A lot of people like to cellar these beers, some for a number of years. That is of course your decision, but I would suggest that growlers are not the best container for further aging of beer. They are not optimally designed to limit exposure to oxygen. Remember also that these beers are already well over a year old. They have already been aged. According to Hoops, “We’re releasing [these beers] when we’re pleased with how they are going to be received by consumers.” I say buy it and drink it. A beer not consumed is a beer wasted.

Daily beer released are at 5pm Monday through Friday. Saturday will have releases at 11am and 3pm.

Eastlake Brewery & Taproom – A First Look

Eastlake Craft Brewery

I don’t normally make New Year’s resolutions. This year I did. I resolve to get caught up on the Minnesota taprooms. So many have opened, so many of which I have not been to. It’s a time and money thing mostly. I have precious little of both. I’m also a cheapskate and an introvert. Spending too much of my cash and extroversion reserves even in pursuit of beer is a difficult mental leap. But I have resolved.

This was not a thought out resolution. It was a spur of the moment decision made Friday afternoon as I was nodding off while trying to get work done. Needing a change of activity, I decided a taproom visit would be in order. It was Friday, after all. I hopped in the car and headed to the nearest one that I had not yet visited – Eastlake Craft Brewery.

Eastlake is located in the Midtown Global Market on East Lake Street. The Global Market is an internationally-themed, public market with groceries, food vendors and boutique shops of all kinds. Located in the old Sears department store building, it is brimming with produce, meat, fish, and art. They hold weekly educational and entertainment programs. It’s a unique and colorful place that offers a magnificent olfactory overload the minute you walk in.

And now you can get a brewed-on-site beer. Eastlake Craft Brewery opened three weeks ago on December 11th. Owner/Brewer Ryan Pitman was a homebrewer. Prior to cranking up the kettle at Eastlake he had no professional brewing experience. This can bode poorly for a new brewery these days, but in this case it seems to be working out. The beers were generally solid across the board with no obvious off-flavors and plenty of desirable on-flavors. They offer clean, layered profiles with good attenuation.

Pitman started things off with mostly lighter, sessionable ales. The strongest beer on the current list tops out at 7% ABV. They go all the way down to a particularly tasty 4.1% table saison. Bigger brews are on the way, though. He’s got a double brown in the works at 8%, along with others. Pitman’s tastes lean toward the Belgian brews. The list leans heavily in that direction. But these are crisp beers like saison, Belgian pale ale, and Belgian IPAs instead of the expected abbey styles.

For non-drinkers there is root beer and Deane’s Kombucha on draft. (I’m happy to see Deane’s back on the market, albeit in non-alcoholic form.) You can order a One Two Punch, which is a blend of kombucha and beer. As the menu says, “Ask a server for a recommendation or let your creativity fly.” Food can be brought in from any of the many vendors in the Market. You can order directly at the bar from Manny’s Tortas, El Burrito Mercado, and Hot Indian Foods. The food will be delivered to you in the taproom.

My favorites from the tap list were Increasingly Lost Saison, Stick Style IPA, and Devil’s Kettle Belgian IPA.

Increasingly Lost Saison – This is a straight up table saison in the mold of Avril Saison from Belgium’s Brasserie Dupont. It’s a light and refreshing session brew coming in at only 4.1% ABV. Bright lemony overtones stand out in both the flavor and aroma. Peppery spice offers a zippy counterpoint. Subtle bubblegum notes fill in the background along with low, crackery, pils malt. Bitterness is moderate, but accentuated by the very dry finish.

Stick Style IPA – Tangerine and melon hops dominate the nose with floral notes underneath. This carries into the flavor. The same bright tangerine and melon are joined by juicier stone fruits. The focus is on hop character over bitterness. In fact, bitterness is pretty restrained for an IPA. Not a bad thing. It’s not quite a sweet-leaning Midwestern IPA, but also not quite a hop-dripping west coast version either. The malt profile makes a strong impression of toffee and toast. It’s a malty IPA, but not sweet. The finish is off-dry. A light sweetness that lingers into the finish is the only detractor.

Devil’s Kettle Belgian IPA – Full bodied and full flavored. It’s the strongest beer on the menu currently at 7% ABV. Medium-high bitterness lingers into the finish. Hop flavors bring spicy, floral and stone fruit overtones that blend with some fruit from fermentation. Malt character is huge, but again not sweet – biscuit and toffee. Belgian yeast does bring some fruit, but leans to the phenolic side with pepper and light clove. This is a good food beer. I really wanted some pulled pork with this. A pulled pork taco? Lingering over the glass it seemed to become a bit cloying by the end. It’s really tasty, but maybe a one-and-done beer for me.

The space is simple and casual with one wall open to the market. Seating is at mostly communal tables, but there is ample room at the bar as well. It struck me as a place for lunchtime meetings or as a pre-game stop off on the way to other evening plans.

Eastlake Brewery & Taproom
Midtown Global Market
920 E. Lake St. #123
Minneapolis, MN 55407

Hours
Thursday – 11 am to midnight
Friday – 11 am to midnight
Saturday – 11 am to midnight
Sunday – 11 am to 6 pm
Closed Monday and Tuesday
They open early for English Premier League Soccer

Surly Destination Brewery Grand Opening

Surly Brewing Company officially opens their new digs this morning at 11am. So many words are being written/broadcast/Facebooked about this today that the news is hard to avoid. So many others have already given the basic information and said most of what needs to be said. I see no need to repeat what has already been oft repeated. I’ll keep my statement here brief.

Space: The building is beautiful. It combines a stark, concrete- and-steel modern sensibility with warming touches of wood and light. The communal seating in the beer hall encourages socializing (which is what beer is really all about), but there are a few smaller tables for those hard-core Minnesotans who may not want to sit with strangers. The most impressive thing about the space is that the brewery is the focal point. Every vantage in the building – both upstairs and down – looks onto the brewery through two story walls of glass. Beer is at the center of this place.

Food: Chef Jorge Guzman has taken the concept of beer hall food and stepped it up several notches. There is barbeque, meat, shellfish, salads and snacks. They even have pizza and a burger. But the snacks include things like Foie Gras French Toast and Bone Marrow. My don’t-miss menu items (there are so many): Smoked Brisket, Bone Marrow, Charcuterie Board (especially the pheasant rillette and the smoked ham), Bitter Greens Salad. This is food for grazing. It’s not the kind of thing where you order yourself an entrée and go. Order a couple things and share among your group. When those are done order a couple more. Repeat until full.

Beer: Come on. It’s Surly.

I’ve been known on occasion to make statements critical of Surly. But this place is freaking amazing.

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Brewer Interview: Dane Breimhorst – Burning Brothers Brewing

Burning Brothers Brewing

In a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune column I profiled Burning Brothers Brewing, Minnesota’s first and only gluten-free brewery. For the column I did an extended interview with co-founder and head brewer Dane Breimhorst. We talked in-depth about what it means to live with Celiac disease, how gluten-free beers differ from other beers, and the challenges of crafting gluten-free brews that actually taste like beer. What follows is the nearly-full content of that interview.

Let’s start with your background. What’s the path you took to get here?

I grew up in a small town. And I actually grew up hating beer. In this small town the only beers were a lot of the larger brand beers, and I just didn’t care for them that much. I thought that’s how beer tasted. I thought that was it. I drank it on the farm all the time because after a hot day there is nothing like an ice cold lager. But what I did like to do was make wine. So I started off at eighteen making country wines. If it rotted I made wine with it. Then somebody had this beer kit at a garage sale. It was one of those Mr. Brews or something like that.

Add water and stir?

Add water and stir, ferment it and wait. And it tastes horrible. But I was curious to see if I could make it taste better, because I was also really into cooking. I used to run a little gourmet club when I was in high school and I would ferment anything that fermented.

So it seems like fermentation has been a theme in your life.

Yup. If it rots you can ferment it. I didn’t care if it was grain or if it was dandelions or gooseberries. I didn’t care whatever the heck it was. I’d go to the grocery store and walk through the produce section going, “Wow, there’s a lot of wine in here.” I’m making everything into wine.
But so when I turned 21, I had a Red Hook Extra Special Bitter. I was hooked. All of a sudden I got something different and I started diving into it. Kölsch? I was like, “What is that?” There wasn’t a lot of literature on it and the internet wasn’t huge, so I just started dabbling and anything that looked weird I’d buy. At one point in time I became a stout fanatic to the point where we used to go see an Irish band play every Tuesday night and I would order a pitcher of Guinness and I would dunk my Oreos® in it all night long. And I got other people ordering pitchers of Guinness. All of a sudden you’d see people going into this Irish bar with Double Stuffed Oreos®. I mean people were sitting there listening to the band and dunking Oreos® in Guinness and drinking. It was a new fad in this particular pub. It lasted at least a month or two.
So from there I just started exploring brewing a little bit more. And then my friend Thom and I, we’ve been friends since we were nineteen, we both started thinking that we had enough knowledge of it on a small system, like a little 15-gallon, half-barrel, 20-gallon system, that we could make a brew on premises work. I think it’s a fantastic idea and if it’s marketed right I think that the Twin Cities could use another one. And I thought that if we opened one up in Northeast or over in that area that it would rock. So we wrote up a full business plan on it. We continued to brew. We started brewing together to see where we were both at. We priced it all out and had the business plan written, and we were about to execute it when we got slammed by a brick wall. I was diagnosed with Celiac and that was the end of that. Right away we looked at the business plan and said there’s just not the market for a gluten-free brew on premises and there’s no way that I could run a regular brew on premises without killing myself.

What exactly is Celiac disease?

Alright. So Celiac is an autoimmune disorder. Meaning that when my body ingests a certain amino acid protein strain found in a variety of grass that is the wheat family it triggers a self-attack. Wheat, barley, rye, spelt, all of those grasses are related to each other and they all contain gluten. Well, all grain contains a gluten protein, and that gluten is just a protective amino strain that protects the grain. This particular strain of gluten from that particular grass family affects some of us to where our bodies ingest it and it triggers a self-attack. So my body will actually attack itself and it will do so mostly in my small intestine. It destroys the small hairs that uptake nutrients and you actually become malnourished. So after I was tested, we actually had to go through a full test to see what my vitamin levels were and I was practically third-world country. We had to bump everything way back up again. And when I get sick I can tell because all of my nutrients go down and for the next couple of months I’m prone to any kind of illness because it’s an immune reaction. So for me it feels like the flu times ten, about 48 hours of nasty. Then about a week or two of recovery.

I know there are degrees of Celiac. Some people it’s fairly mild, some people it’s intense. You’re on the intense end of that spectrum.

This is what they’re trying to figure out. It doesn’t seem like it’s so much the severity of the actual disease itself, but the severity of the reaction, the outward reaction. Some people get nothing but a little bit of heartburn. That becomes chronic and of course it’s bad for the esophagus. But the problem is that they are still doing the same damage on the inside. So yeah, my symptoms are pretty severe. There are people out there that are much more severe than I am. My aunt has Celiac and she’ll actually break out in hives all over. I don’t. I just puke out of every orifice. And sit around in the fetal position for a while wishing I was dead. Then after that it’s alright.

So I notice that you were wearing rubber gloves at Winterfest.

I learned a lesson at Hops for Hunger. I was pouring beer all night at Hops for Hunger and I was drinking my beer as well. But as soon as you hand someone your glass, a lot of times they are going to rinse out that previous beer. The glass is soaking in beer. It’s all over everything. So it was all over my hands. So every single time I was drinking my beer I was rubbing more gluten onto my cup and into my mouth. It usually takes about 24 hours for the symptoms to really kick in. I was so bad. I hadn’t had that kind of reaction in a while. Unfortunately brew day doesn’t care about that. I think I did a 16 or 17-hour double brew run that day. It was just running back and forth from the bathroom to the brew floor just wanting to die. I mean, everybody helped. We all kind of chipped in. It was Thom and I for the most part and we just rocked it out. Then I went home, tried to get some sleep, and came right back in the next morning. Welcome to owning your own business. So now when I’m pouring we bring a box of gloves for me to wear.

Sticky hands are just part of a beer fest. You end up with beer all over everything.

I know. Actually, people were kind of whispering about it. “Oh my god, does he hate beer that much? Why is he wearing gloves?” I’m Burning Brothers. I have celiac. It will kill me.

So to get back, you had this business plan and you had to throw it out.

Yup. We were pretty bummed out about it. We weren’t quite in the position that we thought to open an actual package brewery. So I went out and bought pretty much every gluten-free beer that was on the market. Back then that was only three or four. I didn’t like them. They just weren’t my thing. I’ll never cut them down. I’ll never cut down any beer out there. It’s up to personal preference. But it wasn’t my thing. I didn’t like it and I was determined to make my own. I obviously know how to brew beer and so does Thom. So Thom was like, “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s see if we can brew a gluten-free beer.” We spent years trying. We threw the kitchen at it. We were trying different spice combinations, anything just to mask that sorghum flavor.

So my take on gluten-free beers, most of them, is that you can’t approach it thinking that it’s going to taste like beer. If you accept that and judge it on its own merits, then some of them aren’t so bad. But you have to rid yourself of that expectation.

We kind of approached it that way at first, but I said why not raise our standards up and say this should taste like beer. I want to make it as close to beer as possible. And not just beer, but I want to make it a well-balanced beer, as balanced as I can possibly make it. That was my thing. I missed beer

So what do you have to do to make a gluten-free beer? What’s different than regular barley beer?

You cannot use barley, wheat, rye, spelt, all the main ingredients in beer as we know it today.

So what do you use instead?

BB PyroI use an ancient grain, which some of the first records of beer out of Northern Africa were thought to be made out of, a grain called sorghum. It’s the primary grain in our flagship beer. That’s a 100% sorghum beer. I also use malted buckwheat and malted millet. I’m trying to experiment a little bit with teff, which is kind of a nutty grass. Wild rice as well. I’m not big on the rice, however. I’ve had a couple of companies ask me if I could sample their malted brown rice. But I always get a piece of paper with it that says “Please don’t feed this to people with celiac because there is gluten in it.” It’s malted on the same malting floor as barley. It’s stored in the same warehouse. I’m like, well then it’s full of it. Are you kidding me? I almost yelled at a couple of suppliers for bringing it into my brewery, because this is s gluten-free facility. We don’t allow it in the facility in any way. So now I’m taking some of that and very carefully packaging it and sending it out to my maltstress in Colorado and saying, “can you give me 20 or 30 pounds of this? I just want to try it to see what the flavor profile is.” That’s the big thing with gluten-free. You’re using different grains, but yet you want to try and get a lot of the same flavors as you would from barley.

So is the brewing process the same with those grains? Will they convert their own starch to sugar or do you have to use enzymes?

They convert. I have to use no enzymes whatsoever. They actually convert very easily, so they’re a little bit more forgiving. Sorghum isn’t. Sorghum is a pain. Sorghum is an absolute pain. That’s why most places will just extract the sugar by adding enzymes instead of using the malting procedure. They just grind it, add enzymes and pull out the sugars that way. But millet and buckwheat are easy. And quinoa as well, which if the price ever goes down on it we’ll run a batch. If I do end up running it, then we’ll do small, one-barrel batches of a tripel, because that’s my Everest. I’m pretty sure I have a recipe down that I can do it, but that will be quinoa, buckwheat, and millet all together with no sorghum in it.

So sorghum to me does have a particular flavor when it’s made into beer. It’s kind of all at once oddly almond/floral and then cider – like green apple cider. But your beers do not have that. There is a little bit of that floral/almond in there, but not as intense as in a lot of sorghum beers. And I don’t get any of that cider character. If this beer is 100% sorghum, why don’t I get that?

So when we were trying to do gluten-free beers at first, we were failing miserably. We just couldn’t do it. We stopped and took a step back and thought, “We’re starting to prove that Einstein’s theory is correct. We’re just doing the same thing over and over again. We’re adding spices. We’re adding this and that. We’re adding as many adjuncts as we can to try to mask flavors. Instead of trying to mask flavors, why don’t we tear it apart?”
You know, I used to be a fine-dining cook. I’m very good at pulling flavors apart palate-wise, at least for food. So I had to start training myself. I’m always trying to look at beer in that sense. With beer and with wine I’m always trying to pull the palate apart and taste it that way. But I kind of stepped back from the beer thing and I went more for cooking. The flavor profiles that I’m looking for are this, this, this, and this. These are the flavor profiles that are good about straight sorghum and these are the ones that are not. So how do we get rid of the ones that are bad? Then I tried to figure out what I had. As much as I liked brewing and fermenting, I was no yeast expert. I knew that different kinds of yeast do different things and give different flavors and different reactions, but I didn’t know why. I didn’t know what happens if you push a yeast here or there. I knew about steam beers, but why does that action happen? Why does it change the flavor so profusely? I started playing around with yeast at that point. I started playing around with hops, completely throwing the books out, throwing out the guidelines and asking, okay so how do I change this profile? I have to add this profile to it and that will neutralize it and make it inert. You know, I add a bitter to a sweet. I add a spice to a sweet.

So working kind of like I would do with food pairings, looking for interactions that will tone down certain things and bring out others.

Exactly. It took a while to really wrap my head around it and start walking down that edge. Now I’m so specific that I’ve kilned my own grains and malted my own grains. It comes to me already malted now, but it’s the exact same thing, so I already know what it’s going to taste like. I can actually send my maltster a sample of my particular roast and she will match it. So we started playing with that. I started pushing yeast a little bit too, trying to get some flavors that might be considered off in other beers. We actually look for them, because they contradict some of the flavors in the sorghum that we want gone. So clever use of hops and yeast is the biggest thing. Fermentation temperatures. How fast I cycle through a fermenter.

So that kind of gets to something you said to me earlier, that yeast is your best friend. Is that primarily the reason?

I’ve always been fascinated by fungus. When I was younger I used to grow mushrooms. Not the hallucinogenic ones. I loved growing edible, culinary mushrooms. It’s hard to find hedgehog mushrooms. It’s hard to find black chanterelle mushrooms up here. And there’s no way I’m going to pay that much for portabellas or creminis. I realized that I could get free spore prints from universities. Growing mushrooms was one of the most difficult things I ever learned how to do. You almost have to do it in a lab. I actually have a glove box and I’m taking spore prints and I’m inoculating plates. It’s like working with yeast. I feel very comfortable with it.

Dane Breimhorst(2)

Is there really a big enough market for a totally gluten-free brewery?

Yes. Absolutely. Right now the gluten-free industry in the United States is a 3.8 billion dollar industry. So it’s huge. And the number of cases is increasing yearly. The reason why is not because the number of people who have the genetic code for celiac are increasing, it’s that people are more aware of it and the tests are getting easier. The blood tests are actually pretty decent now. When I first went in, the blood tests were crap. You pretty much had to do an endoscopy and that scares people away from getting tested.
In some states you can be certified that you have celiac. I don’t know what that means to be certified celiac. “Wow! I have a sucky disease and I’m certified that I have a sucky disease! I can’t eat your food anymore! This sucks! Yay me!” But now more and more people are getting tested. That’s one of the things they are testing kids for now. It’s part of the allergen test.
That’s one of the reasons that we want to come out with the beers that we want to come out with. We want to come out with an American pale ale because to me when you’re trying to get into beers and you’re really exploring, there are beers that are better to start off with than others. And I think that the drinkability of American pale ale, especially with the citrus, it makes it a really easy summer beer to drink and it’s a beer that you can drink all year round. And it’s easier for those who aren’t hugely into craft beers. I mean, I have an American premium lager recipe. I’ve brewed it. It tastes like an American premium lager. It’s a pain to do, but I don’t mind doing it. But at the same time I’m like, “Do I want to put out an American premium lager? Do I want to do it?” I might eventually. I don’t know. As I got older I found a place for the American lager – before I got diagnosed. I actually really liked it when I went out fishing. That’s why I want to put it out. I want to put out a fisherman’s eight-pack. Just in cans. An eight-pack kind of thing.

You wouldn’t be the only one. A lot of craft brewers now are starting to put out American style lagers. Town Hall has one.

You can have fun with them. You don’t have to rip out everything with rice solids. I want to see how straw-colored I can make mine. I want to make it as clear as possible, as straw-colored as possible. It’s a challenge to make. It’s a hard beer to make. It’s a stupid-hard beer to make gluten-free because there is so much in the flavor that you have to hold back.

There’s not a lot to mask the sorghum flavor.

The other really difficult one is one that Thom my business partner has challenged me to do, and I’m not sure how I’m going to do it, but he wants me to do an English mild session beer. Trying to get a sorghum beer down in the 2% range, low 3% range – I have a hard time keeping it as low as I do now just because your first instinct is to rip out as much of the sugar from the sorghum as possible. That’s how you’re going to get alcohol from doing that. But to actually try to keep it low and still keep the balance. I’m thinking it’s not going to be a sorghum beer, that’s for sure. It might be just straight buckwheat, and I’ll use a bit of millet just as a pale malt in there.

What about roasted grains?

It gives you a real biscuity flavor if you just use it straight without malting it. If you malt it first you get a lot more of the malt tones in there. It’s still hard to pull that malt flavor out. But when you just roast it there’s no backbone, but a lot of biscuit. You can almost taste the burnt toast in there. It’s good in certain beers.
I was playing around with different stout recipes. I still want to create different stouts, because as I said before, when I was younger I fell in love with stout. I’d like to get back and do a really nice porter and a really nice stout and dive into some of the darker beers, the meatier beers like that. I use roasted buckwheat in one of the stouts that I was working on. It came out pretty good. The best stout I did was with quinoa, but I can’t figure out how to brew it on a large scale and have people afford it. That would be a 750 ml for 30 bucks almost. I know there are people with celiac who would pay that, but at the same time, I just don’t want them to have to. So it will take some time. Right now I’m working on something that’s just as good but doesn’t have quinoa in it.

That would be a hard sell. At 30 bucks you’re in the range of something like Deus Brut des Flandres.

I’m not up to that. I can only strive.

Talking to you it’s clear how your cooking and culinary background translates into brewing. But how do you see the connection?

Well…my attitude on the brew floor. My assistants hate it. I go right back into the kitchen mentality. One of them, thank God, has spent half his life in a kitchen, so he knows what it’s like to be yelled at. There’s a separating line between the brew floor and out here. Out here it didn’t happen. Just forget about it. We made beer. But I get pretty ornery back there. It’s funny, because I revert right back to that. If somebody misses something that’s really, really small it’s the most irritating thing in the world. To me as a cook that’s huge. On the hot side it’s not as bad because you’re not really as worried about contamination and all that, but I’m still, “I didn’t say that lever! Grab that butterfly and God damnit open it now! Jesus fucking Christ, let me do it!” I’m whipping down from the platform and I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to go over here and CIP something.” Actually, I’m trying to work on it.

Having worked for ten years in restaurants, that sounds very familiar.

Exactly. And I want to do everything at once, too. Just like in a restaurant. When they walk into the cooler and grab one thing and come out, I’m like, “what the hell are you doing? You’ve got stronger arms than that, pile it on there. You can take three boxes of hops out of there at a time, for God’s sake. It’s under a hundred pounds. You can do it. You’re wasting time.” Even though it’s not affecting the brew time whatsoever. You’re waiting for water to boil. Nothing is going on besides cleaning the brewery and prepping things out there. It’s not a big rush. But I get that cook mentality where it’s a rush and get it on. When that door opens, this place better be pristine and you’re mise en place better be set out perfectly. And you better be ready to cook some real food. Everything is done to order, baby.
But I also do that with the recipes too. I have my own wait staff that comes by to try recipes that I think are getting to the point that they are good. They come by and grab a growler and tear this apart. Tear it apart. My family, I’ll go to them for compliments all day long. But I want some constructive criticism, damnit. Tear it apart. That’s the reason we entered our beer into so many competitions while we still could. We entered the competitions just to get the feedback from the judges. We never told them it was gluten-free. I don’t want it compared to other gluten free beers. I feel like I have a product that can stand up against other gluten free beers on the market. I more want a product that can stand up to or at least hold its own weight against some of the craft beers. There is no way that I can top some of them, but I’m going to keep trying.