Archive for the ‘Beer News’ Category

3700 Breweries and Growing

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

growth chartI received an interesting press release this morning from the Beer Institute, a national trade association for the American brewing industry, representing both large and small brewers, as well as importers and industry suppliers. According to the release the US added 948 new brewing permits in 2013, bringing the total number of “active ‘permitted breweries’ overseen by the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)” to a record smashing 3699.

This is a staggering number of breweries and extraordinary growth for any industry in one year. But I questioned the numbers. In January the Brewers Association released preliminary figures for 2013 putting the total number of breweries at 2722, an increase of nearly 400 over the previous year. That’s a difference of more than 1000 breweries from the Beer Institute report. That’s not something that can be put down to statistical error.

I also questioned the Beer Institute numbers because they list 73 active permitted breweries in Minnesota. This is true if you include contract-brewed brands and all of the Granite City locations where beer is fermented onsite, but not actually brewed. The number is considerably less if those are excluded.

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I contacted the Beer Institute to find out what was going on and got a quick response from Megan Kirkpatrick. They get information straight from the Federal Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) about issued brewing permits. “This is a list we receive from the TTB that includes any brewing location that has received a permit to brew beer.” she explained. This includes breweries-in-planning that are permitted, but haven’t yet started producing. It also includes brewing companies that have multiple breweries, such as Boston Beer Company, Lagunitas, and Sierra Nevada, as well as the mega-brewers. She was unclear as to whether the number includes beer companies whose product is contract brewed by others.

However you slice that number, it’s big. And most of the growth has occurred in just the last couple of years. Kirkpatrick pointed out that the start of the growth curve corresponds with the passage of the Small Brewer Tax Credit passed by congress in 1977. According to the Beer Institute press release, “under the existing tax structure, small brewers (defined by U.S. Tax Code as those that produce up to 2 million 31-gallon barrels per year, or the equivalent of 110 million six-packs) receive a substantial break on federal excise tax, paying only $7 per barrel on the first 60,000 barrels. The regular tax rate is $18 per barrel, which is paid by all brewers of more than 2 million barrels, all beer importers regardless of size, and on every barrel produced by small brewers beyond 60,000. More than 90 percent of permitted breweries today produce less than 60,000 barrels annually.”

The release goes on to say that “beer puts more than two million Americans to work, from farmers to factory workers, and brewers to bartenders. The combined economic impact of brewers, beer distributors, retailers, suppliers and other inducted industries was calculated to be $246.5 billion in 2012. The industry paid $49 billion in federal, state and local taxes that same year.” That’s a rather large economic impact.

While this news is exciting, I still get a slight nauseous feeling every time I hear about a new brewery opening. I know the question has been asked a billion times, “Is this a bubble? Will it burst?” I guess only time will tell, but to me this current rate of growth seems crazy. What’s that term they use in the stock market? “Irrational exuberance.”

You can read the full Beer Institute report here.

Announcing the Alliance for Beer Education

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

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For the past several months I have been semi-secretly working out the details of an educational collaboration with Rob Shellman at the Better Beer Society. I’ve worked with Rob on past events, most recently hosting the fall semester of Better Beer Society University at Republic 7 Corners. This new project stems from our desire to see the education that happens at Minnesota beer festivals achieve the same level of quality as the festivals themselves.

With that in mind, A Perfect Pint and Better Beer Society are excited to announce the “Alliance for Beer Education (ABE)”, a new joint project aimed at providing quality education programs for Minnesota’s beer festivals.

The increased attention to craft beer in the media has brought with it a blossoming of enthusiasm among consumers. New palates are being brought into the fold every day, many of them at beer festivals that happen through the year. Educating these new consumers has never been more important.

Rob and I are both Certified Cicerones® with a combined 11 years’ experience as beer educators. Our credits include the Better Beer Society University, BBS Brown Bag Blind Tastings, The University of Minnesota Department of Continuing Education, Cooks of Crocus Hill, Kitchen Window, and Betty Crocker, as well as countless corporate and private events.

Minnesota’s beer festivals are second to none, and we applaud festival organizers for incorporating education into their events. We look forward to bringing our passion and high level of commitment to beer education tents statewide, beginning with the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild’s Winterfest.

If you are going to Winterfest, please do check out the great programming at the education area. We’ve got some fantastic speakers lined up to cover some really interesting topics.

7:15:      Michael Agnew & Rob Shellman – Beer Basics
Where do beer styles come from? How do I get the fullest taste experience from beer? What kind of flavors am I looking for and where do they come from? Is there a right way to serve beer? Rob and I will lay out the basics to help you get the best enjoyment from every beer you sample at the fest.
7:45:      Josh Havill – The Mighty Hop
Josh Havill is an Undergraduate Research Assistant at University of Minnesota, working primarily on the University’s hop research program. He’ll be outlining the utilization, history, and botany of hops, as well as discussing the U’s research on hop growing in the Midwest.
8:15:      Gary Muehlbauer – How Beer Saved the World
Gary J. Muehlbauer is a Distinguished McKnight University Professor and Department Head in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Minnesota.  He will be discussing the history of barley and relating it to the Discovery Channel documentary How Beer Saved the World about all the good that beer has brought, from the birth of civilization to the development of automated manufacturing.
8:45:      Michael Wagner – “The art of selecting: Choosing the right beer for you”
Michael is the Manager of Strategic Imbibing a the Four Firkins Specialty Beer Store in St. Louis Park. The world of craft beer can get a bit overwhelming with new choices arriving on local shelves literally every day. Michael will discuss the trends and changing tides of taste preferences. He’ll dispel some myths and discuss how he goes about curating choices specifically for individual people at the Four Firkins. When it comes down to it you should drink what YOU like.

An educated beer drinker is a better beer drinker, and we look forward to expanding your palate and understanding of the world’s finest beverage.

Cheers! We hope to see you at an upcoming fest.

Day Block Brewing Co. & Destihl Brewery

Saturday, January 25th, 2014

There is a lot of excitement right now around the multiplication of new Minnesota breweries. They are coming so fast and furious that I am having trouble even going to check them out. The Freehouse opened just a short while ago on Washington Avenue. I haven’t yet been to Sociable Cider Works, which started pouring at just about the same time. I still haven’t made it out to Victoria to see the guys at Enki, despite the fact that they have been open for some time. Burning Brothers will start putting their gluten-free beers on the street any day now.

Day Block Brewing Company

Day Block Brewing Company will open its doors on Monday, January 27th at 3pm. Day Block managed to snag Paul Johnston, formerly of Harriet Brewing and Lucid Brewing, as head brewer. I was under the impression that Paul had left the Twin Cities for opportunities elsewhere. I was happy to learn that he was still in town. Joe Williams from Punch Pizza is running things in the kitchen. He’s responsible for Day Block’s small but intriguing menu of specialty pizzas.

I attended a soft opening last night and had the opportunity to sample the beers and taste a pizza. The crew is working extensively with local hop growers to source ingredients for the beer. Hippity Hop Pale Ale is made with organic Cascade hops from Hippity Hop Farms in Forest Lake, Minnesota. Northern Discovery IPA uses rare Northern Discovery hops grown only on a mysterious, unnamed farm in Wisconsin. My only beef with these beers is that they needed more hops, an unusual thing for me to say given my preference for malty beers. I was told that this was because the brewery hadn’t received their full allotment of hops. That’s fine, but why Paul didn’t adjust the recipes to account for this, I don’t know. I look forward to trying future versions of these beers.

My favorite was Frank’s Red Ale, a malt-forward American amber ale. The caramel malt was nicely balanced by moderate bitterness and light citrusy hop flavors. I also liked the Day Block Porter – a little roasty, a little chocolaty, with some nice earthy and spicy background hop notes.

I had the Commie pizza (I just liked the name), a cheeseless pie with bratwurst, kimchi, and hoisin sauce. It was tasty, but the kimchi could have used a bit more zip. They said that they are still working out the kimchi recipe. The Banh Mizza was highly recommended by several people in attendance. It’s kind of a pizza version of the Vietnamese pork Banh Mi sandwich. All of Day Block’s specialty pizzas are very unique. It was difficult to choose.

Out of State Breweries

It’s not only Minnesota breweries that are causing a buzz. There are also new and exciting brands coming in from out-of-state. Oscar Blues from Lyons, Colorado debuts today at the Beer Dabbler Winterfest. Destihl Brewery from Bloomington, Illinois celebrates its Minnesota launch on Tuesday. I am particularly excited about the latter.

Destihl BreweryDestihl started as two, upscale-concept brewpubs; one in Normal, Illinois and one in Champaign. I visited both while researching my upcoming Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland. I was impressed by the sleek and elegant décor, the stepped-up variations on standard brewpub fare, and the well-crafted beers. Last year Destihl built a 25-barrel production facility in Bloomington that enabled them to package beer for distribution.

Destihl is especially and deservedly recognized for its St. Dekkera Reserve line of sour beers. These tart and funky creations are spontaneously fermented, unblended, single-barrel brews that stay in oak barrels from one to three years. They have won numerous medals from the Festival of Barrel Aged Beers, The World Beer Championship, and the Great American Beer Festival. I’ve had the opportunity to sample several in the line and they are good.

Destihl beers will initially be available only on draft in Twin Cities market. Sixpack cans will follow soon. St. Dekkera sours and other specialty brews will see sporadic availability, but they will be worth watching for. Destihl’s launch event is happening this Tuesday, January 28th at Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque and Pirate Bar in Stillwater. I chatted with Destihl brewmaster Matt Potts at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival.

Bent Brewstillery’s Bartley Blume on the Merger with Pour Decisions

Monday, January 13th, 2014

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On January 2nd, Pour Decisions Brewing Company and Bent Brewstillery shook the Twin Cities beer scene with the announcement that they had merged. The Pour Decisions brand was gone and the new conglomeration would henceforth be called Bent Brewstillery. Gone too, it seemed, were the Pour Decisions beers. The new marketing pushed only Brewstillery brews. I think very few beer drinkers anticipated this development. More than a few were wondering exactly what was going on.

After a more than rocky start, Roseville-based Pour Decisions launched at the State Fair in 2012. They had initially announced their existence on April 1st, 2011, but problems with municipal regulators led to a delay of more than a year before they were actually able to open. Led by multiple-award-winning, St. Paul homebrewers Kristen England and BJ Haun, Pour Decisions specialized in tweaked versions of classic styles, many of which were based on historical recipes gleaned from old brewer’s logs from some of England’s most revered breweries. They were also known for their excellent revivals of nearly extinct styles like Berliner Weiss and Gräzter. Always extraordinarily well-made, the Pour Decisions lineup was perhaps a bit esoteric for the average beer drinker.

Bartley Blume introduced the Twin Cities to his Bent Brewstillery beers at the 2013 St. Paul Summer Beer Fest. He wowed the crowd with Ghostface Fatha, a version of his strong, black ale infused with ghost peppers, the world’s hottest chili pepper. Blume’s beers were brewed under contract by Kristen at Pour Decisions. The contract arrangement was later changed to an alternating proprietorship as Bent Brewstillery became better established. Blume was in the process of adding a still at the brewery for the production of distilled spirits when the merger was announced.

The taproom at the brewery is currently closed for renovation. I’ve seen the new floor-plan and relatively big changes are coming. The taproom area will be expanded with additional tables to allow for more seating. The still will occupy a space at the front of the brewery near the taproom. The plan is to have the taproom open again in March.

I sat down with Blume at the brewery to get the low-down on the merger and the plans for Bent Brewstillery.

You come to the merger with a set of Bent Brewstillery beers that seem to be the focus of your marketing right now. I know there are a lot of fans out there of some of the Pour Decisions beers. I personally think that Patersbier was one of the best beers being made in the state. How many of those beers are going to stick around?

You know, that’s undecided as of right now. Patersbier, yes, is one of the ones that is going to stick around. It will be renamed into something else. That’s something that Kris and I agreed on as far as the name of it. It will be a patersbier; because that is really a style of beer more than it is a name of a beer. So we’re going to come up with a new name for it. It will be branded, of course, under Bent Brewstillery, but it will continue to be made.

That makes me happy.

I’m sure it makes a lot of people happy. I mean, they’ve got a really big fan base for that beer. The last thing we wanted this merger to do was piss off all the fans of Pour Decisions. So were going to definitely keep that one and who knows really what else. But that was the first and foremost decision made was that we’re keeping Patersbier; keeping that same recipe and moving forward with that.

There are others, too. Maroon & Bold will continue to be a seasonal release. It’s another great beer. We’re uncertain about Infidelity at the moment. Uncertain about St. Whatshername. The experimental stuff like that will still continue to go on. I mean a lot of the stuff that Pour Decisions has made in the past has been one-offs, never to be made again. That is the same sort of thing that we’re going to continue to do, unless it turns out to be something that’s really great and that we want to keep around. Then that turns into a year round beer, too.

Some of the sours, like the Berliner weiss?

The sours are staying around. Which ones I’m not sure. One of the things that I want to do is focus a little bit and start making larger batches of some of these great sours so that we can get them out there on shelves. Put them in 750s or even into 22s and get them on liquor store shelves, and bring them to bars and restaurants, and get them out there to more people as opposed to just being able to get it here in the taproom.

Between me and Kris we have so many ideas. The biggest challenge is pairing them down to what we want to do first, second, third and all that. That’s the beauty of having the taproom and someone who is so experienced, like Kris, as the head brewer. We will be able to make all these experimental things and try them out. Put them in the taproom and see how we like them, and then make our decisions based on that. So we’re really leaving a lot of this stuff open for basic development. As we go we’ll just feel it out and fly by the seat of our pants in this regard. That’s what keeps it exciting. It keeps it new. It keeps it fresh. It makes it interesting and keeps everyone happy.

Let me back up. How did you get into this? I don’t mean this merger. I mean this business in general. How did Bent Brewstillery come about?

About six years ago my wife bought me a Mr. Beer kit for Christmas. I brewed my first batch of beer and I was instantly obsessed. Up until then I enjoyed cooking. So I’m used to putting flavors together and that sort of thing. I’m not formally trained or anything, it’s just a natural ability to put different flavors together to make something different. Even my ravioli, it’s poured out of a can, but it doesn’t taste like ravioli out of a can when I’m done with it. I sauté onions and garlic first and dump it on top of that. I throw in rosemary and basil and all these other herbs and spices and make it something completely different. Even something as simple as that has helped fuel my desire to create beer.

After the first couple of batches of cutting the cans open and dumping stuff in I started saying, “It’s got to be harder than this.” So what’s the next harder step? That’s when I went to all-grain. I started doing all-grain batches knowing that this could potentially be preparation for a career. Not that I had made the decision right there, “I’m going to be a brewer.” It was just, why don’t I take the necessary steps that I would do if I were to become a brewer without buying a brewery and everything like that; without spending a huge amount of money.

What were you doing?

My past life? Well, my education is an electrical engineering degree from Auburn University down in Alabama. So with that I worked with NASA for quite a while. I worked with the Department of Veterans Affairs for a while. What brought me to Minnesota was a job at an aerospace company called Aero Systems Engineering. The company builds high-speed, aerodynamic test facilities, like wind tunnels and jet engine test cells. Things like that. So I started with that company as an electrical engineer and from there was promoted to a business development position with the company. I spent the last twelve years of my life as a business development manager for this aerospace and aerodynamics company. So that gave me a lot of the business background that you need to start a business like this and to grow it into what it needs to be; the exposure, the networking, the sales, the marketing, and all that sort of stuff that you need.

Engineering is one of the big three or four careers that brewers come out of.

It is. Yeah. Absolutely. And I can see why. The creativity gets stifled so much in the engineering field. And there are so many engineers who are creative and who want to have an outlet for that creativity. You think of engineers as being 100 percent right brain. A lot of them are. But the ones who have some of the left brain, some of the freedom and creativity, want to do something other than just engineering. And this is a great way to express that, because you’ve got both. You’ve got process control and the creativity in altering that process that changes the flavor of the beer. It really is the perfect segue into this sort of career. So I did that for many years and I just decided about two years ago that I was going to do this. I had done everything that I can do. My recipes are developed to the point that I think they are just right for the public. The only thing left to do besides incorporating, which I had already done, was to find a space and start building out an extremely small…at that time my business plan was to build extremely small brewery slash distillery with a very small taproom.

So how did distilling come into this?

You know, I picked up a book. I read a book. That’s exactly how it started. After that I was hooked. I read a book about it and I saw all the additional complexities to it. I saw so much room for interpretation of that process. I said, “No one is doing this here in this state.” They are all over the east coast and west coast and places like Colorado. There are all these craft distilleries. How come there are none here in Minnesota? So I look at that as another canvas to paint on. The beer canvas has been painted all over. It’s getting harder and harder to find a blank area that hasn’t been painted on already. So I saw this as another way to get out there and be creative and put some more of my ideas into the market and see what other people thought. To me it’s two things that go hand in hand. I mean really, you need a brewery in order to distill. You can’t have a distillery that doesn’t have half of it that’s a brewery. So to me it seemed like two businesses that should always be hand in hand. The scientific-ness of it, the complexity, it was just great. Brewing is cool. Everybody knows brewing is cool. But distilling, that’s sexy.

This is something that I’m not familiar with. I’ve familiarized myself pretty much with the laws around breweries and brewing. What are the legal issues with connecting a brewery and a distillery?

There are no laws against it, except that they are separate spaces. As long as the distillery proper is separated from the brewery proper, that’s really the only legal requirement. How you do that is really up to you and what your TTB (Tax and Trade Bureau) agent approves. My TTB agent approved me having an eight foot high security fence around the distillery. That was the plan here when I was going to build it in the back corner. After several months of talking with the Pour Decisions guys and telling them my woes of finding my own place for a distillery, BJ said, “Why don’t you just build it here?” So I was going to lease a little bit of space, like 500 square feet, and build my distillery back there. And talking with the TTB, as long as it’s separated and lockable, it’s fine. A lot of people read the regulations that say it has to be separated and they automatically assume the worst. They think you have to have a separate entrance, and walls, and all this other stuff. That’s really not the case. As long as it’s separate, it doesn’t have to be a separate building, or a separate door, or a separate entrance, or anything like that. It just has to be separate.

There is a brewery in Iowa that’s in a winery. It shares the space with a winery. It’s separated by a four foot chain link fence.

Exactly. That’s something that I wouldn’t mind doing as well. I would like to have the trifecta. Brewery, distillery, and winery. Why not? There’s no reason why not. What the heck. Make a little bit of everything. I make several ciders that I think are phenomenal. But it’s something that I can’t make as a brewer or distiller.

How did you initially get hooked up with Pour Decisions?

Well, originally my business plan was to have my own tiny little taproom and brewery, and to have another larger company contract brew for me for distribution. What I made on my own little, tiny, 1000-square-foot premises would only serve the taproom. The distilled products of course would be sent out because that’s the Minnesota law right now, they have to be distributed and you can’t serve them at the distillery. So the idea was I would make just enough for the taproom and I would have another brewery make the beer for distribution for bars and restaurants.

Well, I came in here soon after they were opened and started talking with Kris about it. First it was, “No. Not interested.” I come back in a couple days later or the next week. “Nope. Still not interested.” I came in a couple of weeks later and he was like, “You know what? I was talking to BJ about it the other day and he thinks maybe it’s something that might work. But we’d have to talk about all the details. It would have to be financially beneficial to us to take time out of our schedule to brew beer for you.” So that’s when it started.

We started brewing beer and things were going good. We changed to an alternating proprietorship as opposed to contract brewing. And then we had another alternating proprietorship agreement for the distillery. I just got so integrated here. Everything was good. The relationship was good and everything was rolling along pretty well. And then BJ brought up the idea, hey why don’t we merge and become one company? It’s beneficial to both of us. We don’t compete against each other now. And I think I bring a lot to the table that they were looking for. They needed an outside guy, someone to be out there, to do the promotions, and the marketing, and all that sort of stuff.

What went into the decision as to which name to take?

It was an offer on their side for me to come into this and call it Bent Brewstillery. And I agreed. I was looking for my own company. That was the thing. This is what I’m building. This is what I’m creating for my brand, my image, the distillery and all that stuff. I think they knew that was where I was going to go and they felt like it was probably best for them too to bring it not only under the brand of Bent Brewstillery, but also under my leadership. I’m the President of the new-formed – well it’s not really a new-formed company – but of the rolled-into company of Bent Brewstillery. That was another thing that was to everyone’s advantage, to have someone with business acumen become the leader of the company, become the president. Being that I already had my brand and image and everything, to roll it in under my brand just seemed to be the most logical way.

That business acumen an important part of running a brewery that some don’t have.

Very often when you have friends come together – homebrewers who want to make a business – you have to have complementary people, not similar people. You have to have someone who is logistical, someone who can do the day to day operations, and you have to have someone who will do all the other stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with brewing beer. That’s definitely one of the things that’s required in running a business nowadays. And a lot of people don’t understand the fact that a brewery isn’t just a bunch of people running around brewing beer and drinking it up. To tell you the truth, we don’t really drink that much anymore because we’re so busy doing the things that we need to get done in order to run a business. I’ve been asked that question several times, “How is it that you’re just not drunk all the time?” Well, I’m kind of too busy. I’m running a business. To tell you the truth, I’ve cut down quite a bit since all this happened. It’s a good thing, of course. I don’t miss it. I get my chances in every once in a while. There are always functions that you go to and you have a couple of beers. Things like that.  But to me this is just so much fun. I’m enjoying the hell out of it, being creative on my side of things and Kris being creative on his side of things. It’s just a blast.

This is always a hard question because I’m asking you to pigeon-hole yourself, but if you could define the overarching concept, or character, or profile of Bent Brewstillery as it is now, what would you say?

There have been several things that have been thrown around. Bent Brewstillery’s central theme has always been defying the classification of normal beers. Everything we make is a bit of a hybrid. Pour Decisions was “Innovating the traditional.” Kris has been brewing a lot of these beers that haven’t been around for years, decades, centuries; bringing some of these things back to life. So how we’re going to put those two things together is something still to be figured out. But one of the things that we like to say is that we are rebels against style. I’ve never like to be pigeon-holed. That is our pigeon-hole, that we’re not pigeon-holed. If that makes any sense.

Both of our current beers, Nordic Blonde and Dark Fatha, are hybrid beers. Somebody with a lot of experience like yourself or Kris could probably take Nordic Blonde [described as a pale ale/blond ale cross] and find a classification for it. But we like to keep it simple and make it easy to explain. Everyone knows what a pale ale is. Everyone knows what a blond ale is. You start getting into some of the more obscure classifications and people don’t really know what you’re talking about. Same for the Dark Fatha, it’s probably classifiable somewhere, but when I first brewed it I didn’t think about classification. I thought about the things I like about certain beers and combined them into what I thought was a good beer. And that’s really all we’re interested in doing is making good, drinkable beer and not being restricted or feeling like we have to be in a box around a specific style guideline. We’ll be doing the same thing with our IPA. Our IPA will be very different than other things that are out there on the market right now. At least we hope so. But that’s kind of the thing is that we don’t really want to be defined by anything in particular except that we are making beers that really aren’t defined.

I primarily write about beer and I don’t even really drink spirits except gin, but I am interested in what’s going on in the distillery side of this. Talk a little more about your plans for that part of it.

We’re going to be coming out with a whiskey [called Unpure] to start with and a gin. Those two are going to be the first two releases. In the meantime, we’ll be putting bourbon back for long-term aging. Long-term is a relative term. Whether it’s six months or twenty years, we won’t know until we start tasting it after the first few months and see what it tastes like. It’s ready when it’s ready. It’s like brisket. I cook a lot of barbeque. Brisket is done when it’s done. You don’t just stick it on there and say you’re going to take it off in thirteen hours. You take it off in six if it’s hot enough and tender enough. That’s what you’re really looking for, is when it’s done. But the whiskey is going to be an un-aged, pure-malt whiskey. We’re taking the same concepts that craft brewers use – high quality ingredients, highest care in production, not as concerned about efficiencies, but more concerned about flavor – and putting that into a spirit. I think that’s the way you get a spirit that is minimally aged and yet still tastes good and doesn’t taste like white whiskey.

Will it be a clear whiskey?

No, it won’t be.

If you’re not aging it, how are you getting color?

Good question. What I’m going to do is filter it through charred oak and charred apple wood. Both of these woods, as it’s filtering through, are going to impart color as well as filter out some of the impurities. And once it gets to the apple wood, the apple wood is going to impart some sweetness into the spirit as it comes through. So you’re going to round out the edges of a rough spirit, as well as give it the proper color that it should have. But the color really is a psychological thing. It’s a byproduct of aging in a barrel. But it’s something that’s important. It’s supposed to have the right color. It’s supposed to be pleasing, visually appealing. So we’re going to filter it through the two woods like that and get a spirit that’s drinkable right off the bat. I mean, I say un-aged. It’s going to take probably two weeks without the filtering. The filtering will probably take about a week for it to filter through all of the stuff and get to the bottom. And then also there’s a period of settling to get anything that’s in suspension settled out. Then we’ll rack off of that and into bottles. So it will still be a three week or so process.

And what about the gin? Like I say, gin is the only spirit I drink and I really like gin.

You like gin because if the juniper berries?

I like a really herbaceous gin.

Well then you might like this one. Our gin is going to have a minimum of twelve different botanicals in it besides juniper berries. We’re going to focus heavy on the aromatics. Without giving away all of my recipe, lavender will be included in our botanical list. Some citrusy things like lemon peel, grapefruit peel, that sort of stuff. A little something to help sweeten it a little on the flavor side, some Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans. We’re going to add a little bit of spiciness with some tellicherry black peppercorns and things like that. Lemongrass. Ginger. That’s a very small portion of the list of things that are going into this gin create something that’s smoother, something that’s not so focused on the juniper berry, and something that’s crafty. Just juniper in a gin isn’t quite as crafty as it could be. You can get so much more creative than that. We’re going to experiment around with that one too. We’ll probably end up aging some in a barrel. That’s something new actually. I wish I could say that I thought of that originally, but I’d heard of it happening in other places and I thought that’s a great idea. There’s just none made here yet. So getting crazy with the gin is something I’m really looking forward to.

And besides the Unpure being pure malt, it’s going to be smoked malt whiskey, so it’s going to have a fair amount of smokiness to it. It’s not the peat-smoked malt like you get from scotch. It’s going to be more of a cherry-wood, apple-wood, oak-smoked flavor from that. My recipe for bourbon is top secret at the moment, but it is also something that is off the beaten path. By definition it has to be 51 percent corn, but that’s really the only requirement. After that, go crazy with the cheese whiz. We’re going to do something a little bit different than other people do with their bourbons.

So kind of maintaining continuity with the philosophy of the brewing side.

Yes, absolutely. It would be very easy to add hops to the Unpure mash bill and create a beer out of it. We want to be true to our roots of brewing and make something that’s beer inspired. That’s where the bourbon is going to come from. The rye whiskey, we’re going to have something very different for the rye as well. We’re going to experiment will all different types of aging processes and things like that. I hope to make a brandy as well. We’re even talking about making rum out of some local sugar beets. About the only thing we can’t make is tequila. There is no natural source of agave around here. I do want to stick with local things that you would find here. If we were further south in Texas or something it would be great to make tequila, but I just don’t think it fits…

We’re in Minnesota.

Right. We’re in Minnesota. I doubt I’ll ever make vodka either.

Vodka doesn’t taste like anything. There is no point to vodka.

Exactly. That’s the way I feel, too. There’s no point. Nothing against people who make artisanal vodka, but if your goal is to make something with no color, no flavor, and no aroma, where’s the creativity? It’s what you put back in it that makes it interesting.

St. Paul Boy Makes Good: Bob Galligan of Hops & Grain Brewing in Austin, Texas

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Most people are unaware that aside from organizing private beer-tasting events, I also own a theatre company. Don’t bother asking which one. Although it’s quite successful, you’ve never heard of it. We don’t do any public performances. GTC Dramatic Dialogues tours to college campuses all across the country doing interactive, dialog-based shows on issues like diversity, sexual assault, and substance abuse. That’s right; I am both a beer evangelist and a substance abuse educator.

Naturally, we drink a lot of beer while on tour. The actors who work for me know that if there is a brewpub in the town where we are performing, we will be eating there. They have no choice. Beer and Yahtzee is a typical post-show activity. Ah, the showbiz life!

Over the years I have introduced a lot of actors to really good beer. For some it has sunk in more deeply than others. One of those is Bob Galligan. I hired Bob pretty fresh out of the theatre program at the University of Minnesota. He performed with the troupe for two seasons before moving to Austin, Texas. Bob was fun to have on the road. His oddball sense of humor can be seen in this video created with friends for distribution to colleges.

Once in Austin, Bob realized that there was no acting to be done. What was an out of work actor to do? Go into brewing, of course. Within a year he worked himself up from tour guide to canning line, brewer, and finally head brewer at Hops & Grain Brewing. I caught up with him in the brewery’s booth at the GABF.

Hopps & Grain AlterationAlteration
Hops & Grain Brewing Company, Austin, Texas
Style: Northern German Altbier
Serving Style: 12 oz. Can

Aroma: Clean. Malt forward with subtle bread crust and light spicy hops to balance. Dark fruits – raisins.

Appearance: Moderate head of off-white, creamy foam that is moderately persistent. Brown with reddish highlights. Clear.

Flavor: Malt definitely leads. Bread crust maltiness with caramel-like melanoidin. Bitterness is medium to medium low. Spicy and floral hop flavors are medium to medium low. Hints of chocolate and dark fruits like raisins. Clean, crisp lager-like finish.

Mouthfeel: Medium body with some creaminess. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: I’m going to call this one a Northern German Altbier. The bitterness and hop flavors strike me as low for a good example of the Düsseldorf variety. Caramel and toast malt with touches of dark fruit are similar to Belgian dubbel, but without the yeast esters and phenols.

Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery at the 2013 GABF

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

I don’t think I am saying anything controversial when I submit that the Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery is one of the best, if not THE best, brewpub in the Twin Cities metro. The beers are well-made and often quite interesting. The food is always tasty. The atmosphere is comfy and inviting. Although I don’t get there as much as I would like, it’s one of my favorite places to drink in Minneapolis.

Town Hall has stood the test of time to become a Twin Cities fixture. Founded in 1997, it celebrates 16 years of beer and food this year. Town Hall has not only survived, it has expanded. With its two satellite locations, the Town Hall Tap and the Town Hall Lanes, doing well, owner Pete Rifakes is turning his attention back to the mother ship. Plans are in the works to renovate the 7 Corners brewpub and expand brewery capacity.

In this 2013 Great American Beer Festival interview Rifakes and brewer Mike Hoops talk beer, bowling, and building a better brewery. Just a warning, the planned renovation means the restaurant will have to close briefly sometime next year.

Ray Daniels of the Cicerone Certification Program at the 2013 GABF

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

Every year at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) I do interviews with local and not-so-local brewers and beer industry celebs. This year’s assortment includes chats with Mike Hoops and Pete Rifakes from Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery, a gaggle of guys from Summit Brewing Company, and Marika Josephson from Scratch Brewing, a new and very exciting brewery in Southern Illinois. I talked with Mob Craft Beer, a new “Heartland” brewery that didn’t make it into my upcoming beer guide. I got a very special interview with old friend and former employee Bob Galligan who moved to Austin, Texas a couple of years ago to be an actor, but ended up as head brewer at Hops & Grain. These and others will be showing up here in the coming days and weeks, with a shout-0ut of thanks to my great friend Tom Graybael who did the shooting.

I start the series with an interview with Ray Daniels, author of beer and brewing books as well as the founder of the Cicerone Certification Program. I first interviewed Daniels at the 2010 GABF. The Cicerone program was just getting its feet under it at the time. It has been grown with leaps and bounds in the intervening years, becoming the standard for beer-knowledge certification. In this interview Daniels talks about that growth and about education programs that have been put in place to serve those who desire certification. He drops some news about the newest training products that the program offers and projects where the program might go in the future.

Sam Adams Redesigns the Beer Can

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

A guest at a recent private beer-tasting event sent me into a rant. We were discussing the relative value of cans when he suggested that the reason some people might taste a metallic flavor in canned beer is that they are putting their mouth all over the top of the can. At that moment I was seized by the spirit of Ninkasi. “At least 85% of what you taste is actually what you smell.” I said. “If you drink from the can or bottle you smell nothing. You are cutting yourself off from the majority of the experience of the beer.” I ended with the admonition, “I don’t care what kind of glass you drink from. Just drink from a glass.”

Now the Boston Beer Company is telling people to drink Sam Adams Boston Lager from the can.

Well, not really. They still want you to drink it from a glass, but they acknowledge that sometimes that’s impossible. Maybe you’re hiking or canoeing far into the backcountry where glass is not allowed. Cans have long been touted as a solution to such situations. So should you just accept that you will only get 15% enjoyment out of that backcountry quaff? Ever the innovator in beer-service technology, Boston Beer says, “No.”

Following up on the Sam Adams Perfect Pint glass and the Spiegelau IPA glass, they have revolutionized the beer can. Called the “Sam Can,” the new package is the result of two years of “intensive sensory research.” It features a wider lid to allow more airflow into your mouth, a more centered can opening to bring the beer closer to your nose, and an extended lip to deliver the beer to the tip of your tongue.

I was skeptical. Really? These little changes were going to make a big difference? The Sam Adams press release did a good job of adding to that skepticism. Like the media reporting on the underdog in a presidential debate – “he just has to avoid looking like a complete idiot” – the materials stressed that the difference was “subtle, but noticeable.”  The bar was set low. Maybe they had learned a lesson from the over-hype of the IPA glass.

I was skeptical, but curious. So when the media package arrived at my door containing one regular can and one Sam Can, I had to give it a whirl. I opened both at the same time for a side-by-side face-off. Just for comparison I poured a bit from each can into a glass.

Of course the beer in the glass tasted the best. Really, drink your beer from a glass! But to my surprise, the Sam Can delivered on its promise, and then some. The improvement in flavor was more than “subtle, but noticeable.” I found there to be a significant difference in all three areas of sensory evaluation; aroma, flavor, and mouthfeel.

Aroma: In this area I won’t say that the difference was huge, but it was there. Aroma was non-existent when drinking from the regular can. While the Sam Can didn’t deliver the aromatic blast of drinking from a glass, hops and malt were noticeable.

Mouthfeel: The regular can delivered a beer that was unpleasantly prickly. Carbonation felt excessive, lightening the impression of the beer’s body. The Sam Can smoothed out the bubbles. The impression was more like that of a beer that has been poured into a glass and allowed to degas. Boston Lager isn’t a full-bodied beer by any stretch, but the reduced carbonation allowed the viscosity that is there to come through.

Flavor: The beer from the regular can was bland and sharply bitter. Spicy hops almost totally obliterated the malt, leaving only the faintest impression of caramel. The excessive carbonation mentioned above gave it a distinct carbonic bite that amplified the already harsh bitterness. From the Sam Can the beer was much more balanced. Bitterness was there, but kept in check by noticeable malt sweetness. Spicy hop flavors made their appearance, but malty caramel provided a welcome counterpoint. It was a much more pleasurable quaff. The cynical thought crossed my mind that they had perhaps put a different beer in each can, but poured into a glass the two were indistinguishable.

I went in a non-believer. I came out convinced. The Sam Can may not be an earth-shaking development, but the difference is real. Still, drink your beer from a glass.

Spiegelau/Dogfish Head/Sierra Nevada IPA Glass: How’s it Rate?

Monday, February 18th, 2013

One of the things that I love about the beer-nerd world is our tendency to get our knickers in a bunch about things that really don’t matter. This is true of any nerdly endeavor, I suppose. It’s not exclusive to beer.

The latest earth-shaking controversy came a few days ago when glassmaker Spiegelau released this video to introduce a new IPA-worthy glass designed in conjunction with Ken Grossman and Sam Calagione, founders of Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head respectively.

My goodness, you would think the two men had announced that they were going to cease making beer. Reaction was swift and severe from both supporters and detractors. Pennsylvania beer writer Lew Bryson said on Facebook of the new glass, “Jesus H. Christ. More prescriptive bullshit about how we’re supposed to drink our beer. Every beer I have today, I’m going to drink right out of the bottle or can, or in a shaker glass. And they’ll taste great.” The comment thread got pretty crazy with oppressed drinkers claiming that the existence of the glass was ruining the whole experience of drinking beer. Stephen Beaumont fired back with a blog post in which he exposed himself as a glass dork, and reminded people that it is just a glass after all. No one was pointing a gun at anyone’s head forcing them use it.

The controversy really heated up a couple days later when A Good Beer Blog revealed that the painstakingly designed IPA glass was strikingly similar to a wine glass made by Spiegelau parent company Riedel. The glass-making beer-brewing team hadn’t in fact done anything unique. This was a bald-faced rehashing of been-there-done-that glassware design. The whole thing was just a marketing ploy – a cynical scheme to separate gullible nerds from their money. The comment threads got vicious now, as detractors and supporters exchanged brutal verbal lashings. The brewers weren’t spared the hyperbolic attacks. According to one commenter, Dogfish Head (arguably the most creative brewery in the country for better or worse) had never done anything truly revolutionary in its entire existence.

Turns out that all the huff-n-puff was for naught. The very next day Beer Pulse published a statement from Sam Calagione freely admitting that the Riedel wine glass had served as the basis for the IPA glass. They had in fact, tested many different Riedel and Spiegelau designs on the way to their ideal cup. “Traits of various glasses that boosted the hop aromas and flavors of IPAs helped inform the direction of our glass,” he said, “but the final design came from carefully refining eight original hand-blown glasses. This wasn’t plucked from a shelf.” No need to reinvent the wheel when you can poke, prod, and tweak a design that already exists.

Well my curiosity was piqued to say the least. I had to put this glass to the test. I requested. They delivered (and very quickly, I might add).

IPA glass test

I pitted the glass against a standard shaker pint and my very favorite Spiegelau tulip glass. I poured Surly Abrasive, a beer with beaucoup hop aroma and flavor, the profile of which I know fairly well. I cleaned each glass in the same way prior to the tasting and made an effort to give each a similarly aggressive pour. I compared each glass for aroma, appearance, and flavor. There are a couple of caveats. First, I am a glass dork. I like fancy glassware. The only thing I drink out of a shaker pint at home is water. Second, one can’t test glassware blind. Although I tried to be as objective as possible, my ultimate experience could be colored by my preconceptions.

So how did they fare?

Appearance

While the glass itself is not especially attractive, I have to give the IPA glass the edge. The agitating ribs at the base of the glass and the laser-etched nucleation points kept a decent head going long after the others had fallen flat. In fact, I had foam all the way to the bottom of the glass. That etching also kept the beer sparkly with little bubble continuously rising up from the bottom. It looked real purtty.

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Aroma

This was the most interesting area of assessment. The real surprise was the shaker pint. Raising it to my nose I got a burst of citrus and tropical fruit that was totally unexpected. It delivered the brightest aromatic expression by far. The big disappointment was my beloved tulip. I described its olfactory effect as “meh…not much there.” The IPA glass gave the same citrus and tropical fruit punch as the pint, but smoothed out – not as bright. The components were more clearly articulated. Tropical fruit was specifically and intensely mango. The fruit was deepened by other hop notes like a very subtle chive. Once again the IPA glass takes it.

Flavor

Here it was a virtual tie between the IPA glass and the tulip. The beer tasted nearly identical out of each glass, but subtle differences led me give the slightest preference to the IPA glass. In the tulip glass the beer was a touch brighter, crisper and pricklier. The emphasis was tilted slightly more to bitterness over fruity hop flavor. The IPA glass rounded and smoothed the experience, shifting it a bit toward flavor over bitterness. The carbonation had less tingle.

In my final assessment I rate the IPA glass a success. It provided a rounder and smoother experience with a fuller expression of flavor and aroma. If you like hoppy brews and enjoy geeking-out on glassware, then pick up a couple. You’ll love them. If fancy glasses aren’t your thing, the difference may not be significant enough to make it worth your while.

<EDIT> To make sure I’m perfectly clear. I gave the edge to the IPA glass, but with the exception of appearance the difference was marginal. I was trying to be really picky and precise.

612Brew and Steel Toe Brewing Taprooms Open This Week

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

612brewlogonew

I first met the guys from 612Brew in the early spring of 2010 while working on a piece about soon-to-be breweries for Heavy Table (there were only five at the time…crazy!). They were working in a South Minneapolis garage, tweaking recipes on a cobbled-together homebrew system and dreaming of bigger things. Two years later their “garage” is a 5000 square-foot warehouse space in a multi-million dollar commercial re-development in Northeast Minneapolis. The five-gallon, glass carboys have been replaced by 30-barrel tanks of mirror-polished stainless steel. The steps in-between included three business plan revisions, two cancelled leases, and a change of personnel, including hiring brewer Adam Schil.

Almost three years after than initial meeting, the crew is ready to launch. 612Brew already has beer in metro-area bars. The taproom at the corner of Central and Broadway will open tomorrow night, February 13th at 4:00pm.

612Brew (2) small

The taproom retains the retro-industrial ambiance of the 1924 factory building that it occupies. Thick, maple timbers rise up two stories from the polished concrete floor. The bar top is made of re-purposed bowling alley lanes, while the bottom is faced with boards salvaged from an 1850s-vintage home. The gleaming brewery is separated from the public space by wooden standup bars. A tall, glass overhead door looks out onto a patio and rain garden, which is anchored by a stone amphitheater where live music is planned for the warmer months.

612Brew (9) small

612Brew’s focus is on hop-centered session beers. They aim to satisfy that craving for bitterness with lower-alcohol brews that allow for more than one pint after work. They are launching with four beers. Six is a sessionable American Pale Ale with biscuit malt and bright citrus hops. This is the same beer – with some recipe tweaks – that I sampled three years ago in the garage. Zero Hour is an American black ale brewed with roasted wheat for a smoother, less-bitter roastiness that lets the hops shine through. Bitter Cold Winter Ale is a single-malt, single-hop IPA brewed with Maris Otter malt from England and Willamette hops from the Pacific Northwest. My favorite brew is Rated R, a balanced rye IPA. The focus here is on flavor and aroma hops. The bitterness bites, but not too hard. Spicy rye notes come in late and linger into the finish.

It’s hard to believe that I would call a one-and-a-half-year-old brewery old, but in today’s crazy world, with breweries popping up like popcorn, it’s the truth. Steel Toe Brewing Company is old. But that doesn’t make them any less wonderful. In my view Steel Toe is one of the top-five breweries in Minnesota. Size 7 might just be the best IPA made in the state. A recent blind tasting re-confirmed for me the brilliance of the light and lovely Provider Ale.

The opening this Friday, February 15th, of Steel Toe’s long-awaited taproom makes this a busy week for Twin Cities beer fans. The fun begins at 3:00pm and I’m guessing it will be crowded. Steel Toe is located at 4848 W. 35th St. in St. Louis Park. Be there!