Dark(ness) Days at Surly Brewing?


As the “craft” beer movement – industry, ask let’s call it what it is – continues to blossom, illness marketing is more and more the name of the game. In 2009 I toured the Lagunitas brewery in Petaluma, California. Someone asked the tour guide how large their marketing budget was. The response was a chuckled, “We don’t have a marketing budget.”

Fast forward to today and every brewery – new, old, large, small – had better have a solid marketing and sales plan in place if they want to thrive. As competition intensifies, I suspect they will need them to merely survive.

Many breweries now hire PR firms. At some it is next to impossible, even (or maybe especially) for media, to communicate directly with someone from the brewery. All communications go through the PR representatives.

Surly Brewing is a case in point. Once upon a time it was relatively easy to get a question answered by owner Omar Ansari or former head brewer Todd Haug. Nowadays, even simple questions directed to personal emails receive responses from representatives at One Simple Plan, followed up by second emails inquiring if the needed information had been received. Typically the answer is no.

I don’t fault them for this. As frustrating as it might be for me, it is as it needs to be for them. As Surly grows, their time becomes increasingly valuable. As I already mentioned, marketing is now the name of the game and PR firms are part of it.

It could be argued that much of Surly’s success has come from marketing. I’m not knocking the beer. The beer is great. If it weren’t, the marketing would not have worked as well as it did. But Surly’s cantankerous image and “do it our way” persona appealed to drinkers at the beginning of the current “craft” revolution. Drinking Surly made one a rebel. The image captured the zeitgeist in a way that I think surprised even the folks at Surly. But they recognized it early, manipulated it, and were able to capitalize on that oeuvre. It was savvy marketing that built their brand.

In a piece for Mspmag.com about Haug’s resignation from Surly and subsequent hook-up with Three Floyds, Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl opined that many of Surly’s more recent beers are decidedly un-surly. I would counter that this has always been the case and that it was marketing that made them seem so over the top. Hell is one of the brewery’s top-selling brands. It’s a simple, golden lager. The now-retired Bitter Brewer was a slightly Americanized English Bitter – hardly an extreme style. Bender is a brown ale. And Cynic is nothing more than a traditional Saison – and a comparatively uninteresting one at that. Surly’s lineup has always consisted largely of beers that did not go to extremes. The “extremes” were mostly minor tweaks and an aggressive public image.

Even the more extreme brews aren’t so extreme when viewed in a larger context. Furious was fierce for the region at the time of its release. But according to Haug, it was modeled on West Coast-style red ales – now called American Strong Ales by the BJCP – that already existed in abundance elsewhere. Think Bear Republic Rocket Red or Stone Arrogant Bastard. Abrasive is one of many double IPAs. Even Darkness has its antecedents – notably Three Floyd’s Dark Lord, which Haug will presumably now have a hand in brewing. But image and branding made the Surly beers feel bigger, bolder, and badder than they perhaps really were.

Todd Haug’s departure presents Surly with a dilemma. In her piece, Moskowitz Grumdahl quotes Haug as saying, “They marketed the shit out of me.” Indeed, Haug was the public face of Surly. I’m sure many Surly fans couldn’t identify Omar Ansari if they saw him. But everybody knows Todd Haug. Although he is one of the kindest and gentlest men in brewing, his outward demeanor – tat covered, goat bearded, heavy metal axe man – personified the Surly image. He looked the part of the devil’s spawn. He exuded an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. Todd Haug put a personal face on Surly’s marketing.

So what is Surly to do now? I have no concern for the future of the beer. There are plenty of passionate and talented brewers there to keep the taps flowing. But what will become of the image? As the brewery gets bigger, it will be difficult to maintain the bearing of rebellious upstart. As people and entities mature that stance starts to look curmudgeonly. Even Stone Brewing’s arrogant attitude has softened of late. And who will be the public face that makes the marketing a tangible, touchable thing?

The Surly crew is smart. They clearly know how to market. I’m sure they’ll figure it out.

As a last tip of the hat to Todd, I’ll take a look at his last batches of Damien, Darkness, and Anniversary beer.

Here’s my notes:

Surly Damien 2016Damien
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: American Black Ale
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
6.5% ABV

Appearance: Opaque black. Faint ruby highlights. Appears clear. Full, creamy, tan head with excellent retention.

Aroma: Toasted bread. Coffee. Light Oreo cookie chocolate. Medium-high Melon and tangerine hop notes provide bright contrast to deep, rich roast malt character. Moderate impression of sweetness. Low alcohol. Low dark fruit esters. Pine.

Flavor: Malt forward with ample supporting hops. Chocolate – semi-sweet. Low coffee. Smooth café mocha. Low caramel and bread crust. Vanilla. Melon and tangerine hops bring bright contrast to the roasted malt. Lifting. Bitterness is medium to medium low. Low alcohol. Low fruity esters. Something vaguely vinous. Finish is dry with lingering chocolate and melon/citrus/pine hops.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Creamy. Velvety. Medium carbonation. Not warming. Not astringent.

Overall Impression: Like a lightweight, less-intense black IPA. Smooth, velvety chocolate countered by bright tangerine/pine hops. Easy to drink and drink a few.

Surly Darkness 2016Darkness 2016
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Russian Imperial Stout
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
13% ABV

Aroma: Malt forward with moderate hop accompaniment. Coffee. Dry chocolate cookie. Licorice and dark fruits – raisins or dates. Alcohol is apparent – isopropyl. Moderate pine resin hops. Very low impression of sweetness.

Appearance: Voluminous, creamy, tan foam. Cascades in glass. Excellent retention. Black and completely opaque. Appears clear. Faint ruby highlights.

Flavor: Roast malt driven with subtler, malty sub-flavors and moderate hop support. Chocolate dominates – dark chocolate syrup with dry chocolate cookie at the end. Low coffee grounds. Caramel. Similar date/raisin dark fruits from the aroma. Licorice. Burnt black malt character in the finish, but not the primary roast note. Subtle undercurrents of vanilla and maple. Maybe even a hint of blackberries? Medium-high sweetness. Hop bitterness is medium-low. Tar. Medium-low, pine resin hop flavor. Alcohol is apparent – helps cut the sweetness without crossing the line to solvent. Finish is semi-sweet to sweet with lingering cookie-like, dry roast, dark fruit, and caramel.

Mouthfeel: Full body. Smooth and silky. Medium-high alcohol warming. Low carbonation. Not astringent.

Overall Impression: Okay, I’ll be that guy that I often deride. It’s not as good as last year. My notes from last year are much the same as this year. But last year the pine felt more intense, the overall feeling was less sweet, less heavy. At least in my memory. But I’m probably wrong. Still, this is good. Alcohol is high, but not quite intrusive. Love the chocolate syrup. And the satin texture is to die for. As always, whacks you in the head at first and then comes back to deliver lots of subtle complexity.

Surly TenTen
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Old ale aged on toasted sassafras
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
10.5% ABV
63 IBU

Aroma: Floral alcohol. Bread. Chocolate. Toffee and brown sugar. Dark fruits. Vaporous alcohol is the dominant note. Camphor. High caramel with background vanilla. Very light earthy/herbal hops. Dark fruit esters – date and cherry.

Appearance: Full, creamy, beige head with good retention. Reddish brown/mahogany with red highlights. Clear.

Flavor: Malt forward with low hop accompaniment and alcohol. Malt is the dominant flavor – caramel and vanilla prominent. Background notes of milk chocolate and dark fruits. Alcohol is definitely a component – floral and verging on solvent/hot. Hop bitterness is medium, but still remains subservient to the massive malt. Low herbal/earthy hop flavors. Dark fruit esters – dates and maybe candied cherry. Sweetness is medium-high. Finish is off-dry to semi-sweet with lingering bitterness, alcohol, caramel and cherry fruit. Chocolate covered cherry or Brach’s chocolate covered cherries. Wood impression is missing. Or is that maybe a little root-beer character in there?

Mouthfeel: Full body. Low carbonation. Medium-high alcohol warming, but not quite hot. Low astringency.

Overall Impression: Let it warm up for a long while. Complexity doesn’t come through until its temperature is up there. Alcohol is a bit of a distraction, would do well with some age perhaps. Try it again in two years. Where’s the toasted sassafras? Am I missing something? I admit that I don’t know what toasted sassafras tastes like, so maybe I am. But my Boy Scout experience with sassafras leads me to expect root beer flavors. A generally pleasant sipper, but think it’s one of those rare beers that could be better in a couple years.

The Pipes, the Kilts, and the Beer

The sound of a bagpipe is one that defies onomatopoeic description. Equal parts pipe organ, sovaldi sitar drone, and and python-ensnared sheep, it is at once abrasively off-putting and irresistibly seductive. Bombast and melodiousness stuffed uncomfortably into one inflated bag.

The sound of the pipes is also inexplicably linked to beer. At every beer festival I have ever attended bagpipes have served to usher the crowds in and then back out again, like the Pied Piper with his rats and children. This is true not just in Minnesota, but nationally. Brewers Association festivals including the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and SAVOR always begin with a pipe and drum band. From Florida to Washington it’s the bagpipes that start the taps flowing.

A related curiosity is the wearing of the kilt. Whether authentic or utility, beer fests bring out an unusually high concentration of kilts. Men by the hundreds – okay, the tens – parade around festival grounds in their tartan or Carhartt® manskirts. What’s the deal?

I have never understood the connection. Certainly the Scottish drink beer, their already incomprehensible brogue becoming more garbled with every pint, but this is a distinctly American phenomenon. I have it on good authority that you wouldn’t hear pipes or see kilts at a beer fest in Glasgow or Edinburgh. So what is it about beer that turns so many of us Yanks into wanna-be Scots? Curiosity got the best of me. I decided to find out.

It was a stormy day at the Beer Dabbler Pride Fest where I began my quest. Waves of rain rolled through one after another, sending people scurrying under brewer tents for shelter. During breaks in the weather I queried anyone in a kilt. The reasons they gave were many. “It’s breezy.” “It’s comfortable.” “It provides easy access.” (I didn’t ask for what.) And from a woman in a Utilikilt®, “My husband wears a kilt because I like what it does to him. He likes what I do to him later.”

These reasons were all fine and dandy, sexy even, but none of them had anything to do with beer. No one at Pride Fest could explain why a beer festival in particular had prompted them to pull a kilt out of the closet, so to speak. I was going to have to dig deeper.

I needed to talk to someone in the industry. Flat Earth Brewing founder and now-retired Summit brewer Jeff Williamson was known to don a kilt at fests. I sought him out. Williamson cited his own Scottish heritage. He owns kilts that bear the tartan of the region whence his family came, but he mostly wears a Utilikilt® to beer fests. It’s easier to clean spilled beer off of 65/35 Poly/Cotton Twill than wool. He parroted the Pride Festers’ assertions of comfort and ease of access. (Again, I didn’t ask.) But he could offer no explanation for the connection between kilts and American craft beer. Another dead end.

Dennis Skrade

I turned my attention to bagpipes. Perhaps an answer to that oddity would also solve the kilt question. I sought out Dennis Skrade, the man whose clangorous tones have kicked off nearly every beer fest in the state. He’s played Winterfest and Autumn Brew Review from the beginning. He’s blown up his bladder at the Great Taste of the Midwest, All Pints North, and several other fests. His pipes have accompanied Rock Bottom tappings and the blessing of the Maibock at Town Hall. In short, he’s been everywhere and played them all. Surely he would have some insight.

Skrade first proposed a number of benign theories. “Beer makes people happy and makes them smile.” He said. “Bagpipes do the same thing.” He noted that bagpipes have long served to commemorate important events both solemn and festive; think police funerals or the queen’s birthday. Or maybe it’s that beer people are loud and brash. Like bagpipes, you hear them coming. These folks need something equally piercing to get their attention, especially after a few beers. Bagpipes were meant to lead people into battle. Their tone gets your blood going and makes the hair on your neck stand up. And they can be heard even over a festival’s din.

Skrade also thought that it might be more an Irish connection than Scottish. The Irish have their own piping tradition and made up a larger percentage of immigrants to this country in the 19th-century. A Chicago fire chief of the day purportedly hired men based on whether they could blow songs that he didn’t know. The Irish have a prodigious reputation as aficionados of the drink. It’s no secret that St. Patrick’s Day, one of the biggest drinking holidays of the year, is also a prime day for pipers. And many of the early beer imports to this country were Irish; think Guinness and Harp. This theory deserved further exploration.

Seeking answers, I pushed Skrade harder. Ultimately he laid the blame on Summit Brewing Company founder Mark Stutrud. In 1986 Skrade tried his first Summit beer. He liked it so much that he made a point of visiting the brewery. Upon learning that Stutrud was a fan of the pipes, Skrade asked to be allowed to play at the brewery. Ever since, festivities at Summit have included bagpipes. The tradition expanded from there.

So this whole bagpipe/kilt thing is Mark Stutrud’s fault. Now I had a real lead.

Mark Stutrud

I confronted Stutrud with the accusation. “I deny that outright.” He said. “There is way too much liability involved. The amount of insurance, the premium would be outrageous. So I wouldn’t do it.”

He did confess an affinity for bagpipes and kilts. It is, he claimed, in his DNA. His need to be around pipers and people who wear kilts is a way of dealing with subconscious issues of Scandinavian abhorrence of pipes; a way to confront ancestral fears head on. “The Vikings considered bagpipes weapons of mass destruction. It’s about the only thing that scared them.”

He also pointed out that in the 1980s craft brewers were deviants; isolated miscreants making flavorful beer in a sea of…well you know. Pipers are also a bit of a deviant group, he opined. There is a natural affinity.

Reflecting on the real connection between bagpipes and beer, Stutrud took a historical perspective. He related it back to Anglo traditions at a time when life was bound up with the seasons. A successful harvest was celebrated with dancing and drinking accompanied by bagpipes. “It’s a long-standing tradition that pipers were always compensated in beer. So they’re like flies to honey in that regard.” So are modern pipers just looking for ways to get free beer? “There is absolutely no question.” Stutrud continued. “Every piper I’ve met has the same perspective. So truthfully I think that’s the direct connection. Those guys are seeking out a good mug of ale. And historically that’s how it’s always been.”

Bob McKenzie

I next turned to Bob McKenzie, Head Brewer at the Barley John’s Brewery in New Richmond, Wisconsin and an actual bagpipe-playing Scotsman. If anyone would have insight, certainly it would be him. I first asked him about Dennis Skrade’s Irish theory.  He discounted it immediately, saying, “Irish people would already be drunk and getting into fights by the time they got to the festival, so it’s unlikely that they’d be in any shape to play the bagpipes.” I ran this past Irishman and Summit Head Brewer Damian McConn for verification. “That’s like stench from a sweaty sock.” he replied, adding that he had no idea what the connection was between bagpipes, kilts, and American beer fests.

McKenzie thought the connection could have its roots in the fact that early American craft brewers were by and large brewing English styles and reaching out to people with an interest in British culture. Bert Grant, a native of Scotland and the man who basically invented the brewpub when he opened the Yakima Brewing and Malting Co. in 1982, exemplified this. According to an article on Seattlepi.com, “Grant was known to wear a kilt at his pub in Yakima and occasionally dance on the bar. He kept a claymore – a double-bladed broadsword – just in case he had to enforce his ban on smoking.”

McKenzie reinforced the Pied Piper theory. Festival organizers like bagpipes because they are loud and people follow them. When the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild did two sessions of Autumn Brew Review a few of years ago, they wondered how they were going to get people to leave after the first session ended. The answer was to send in the pipers. People will either follow them or run away from them was the thinking. It worked. McKenzie speculated on the reasons. “The Scottish used them to lead people into war, so maybe there’s just some primordial instinct to follow a bagpiper. It could just be to see if they fall down or not. You’ve got this person trying to walk and play this instrument that involves a lot of wind at the same time. Everybody just wants to see if they are going to fall over.”

After positing these possibilities McKenzie got down to brass tacks. “My first idea is that it all has to do with Dennis Skrade. I kind of thought initially that it was solely due to the fact that he likes free beer. It was an elaborate ploy for him to get free beer.” But then McKenzie went to the GABF where there were bagpipes and people in kilts. He realized that this was bigger than just one man.

Bagpipe bands are mostly male, he postulated. If given the chance to drink free beer they would jump at it. “One bagpiper somewhere thought, ‘this is a good way of getting beer.’ Word went out over the piper forums to contact the local beer festival. They’ll let you in for free. All you have to do is play bagpipes at the beginning and the end. Any piper that survived St. Patrick’s Day knows that you can still play bagpipes no matter how much you drink.”

As for the wearing of the kilt McKenzie said, “They make it much easier to go to the bathroom. Something that is important when consuming large quantities of beer.” Is this what people meant by “ease of access?”

Not Your Father’s Root Beer: My Strange Visit to Small Town Brewery

I didn’t care about Not Your Father’s Root Beer. I didn’t read any of the many articles being written about it. I was oblivious to the controversy surrounding it. I successfully ignored it as it repeatedly appeared in my Facebook feed. I certainly wasn’t going to make an effort to taste it. Writing about it was even lower on my list of priorities. Why would I? It’s an alco-pop like Smirnoff Ice and Mike’s Hard Lemonade. I don’t do those. Despite all of the publicity, I had managed to stay only vaguely aware of Not Your Father’s Root Beer.

And then I got an email from Andrew Gill, host of the Chicago-based beer podcast Strange Brews. They were doing a story on Small Town Brewery in Wauconda, Illinois, a suburb north of the city. The hosts had read my profile in A Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland and were intrigued by the account of my visit. They wanted to talk. Little did I know, they wanted to talk about Not Your Father’s Root Beer.

I had indeed tasted an alcoholic root beer when I visited the Small Town in January of 2012, but I hadn’t made a connection between that odd little brewery and the fastest growing alcoholic beverage in the nation. The root beer ripping up the marketplace is a mere 5.9% ABV. The one I sampled tipped the scales at an astounding 20%. It tasted like a decent root beer spiked with vodka. It was darned delicious though. I finished my sample and almost asked for more. Owner/brewer Tim Kovac wove tales of bar owners pleading for more.

Of the 236 brewer interviews that I did for the book, my conversation with Kovac was certainly one of the most interesting and perplexing. In the Small Town profile I write, “I must confess that, having spent an hour with Kovac, I left the brewery feeling less clear about what he is doing than when I arrived. It’s obvious to me that his understanding of the brewing process and history are limited at best. With simple brewing calculations, it is impossible to re-create the beers he is making using the methods he describes.” That was true in 2012. Re-playing my recording of the interview, it remains true today.

Small Town’s origin story is an interesting one. Kovac wanted to spend more time with his son and suggested homebrewing as a way to do that. When a vacation was cancelled due to “some volcanic eruptions in Ireland” (I think he meant Iceland), the pair compensated by brewing every day, sometimes multiple batches. They also made root beer. The beer and root beer were apparently so good that soon-to-be business partner John Dopak approached Kovac about starting a brewery together.

Kovac’s mother had long spun tales about a great, great, great grandfather (one great has since been dropped in the marketing copy) who was a ship’s captain ferrying colonists to the Americas in the 17th-century. When Kovac told his mother of the brewery plans, she revealed a part of the story that had hitherto been kept secret. This ancestor was also a gambler. He won a brewery in a game of cards and became a brewer. Kovac told me that it was this relative who discovered that giving passengers and sailors beer on shipboard instead of water kept them healthier and happier. After revealing this bit of family history, Kovac’s mother pulled a dusty, leather-bound volume from under the bed. It was a document from the 1600s containing recipes for beer. This manuscript is the well from which Small Town’s recipes spring.

It was difficult to get an interview with Kovac. He wouldn’t return my emails and calls. When he did, he seemed reluctant to have me visit. But I was writing a book, gosh darn it. And the story on his website was compelling. I persisted. He relented.

Tim Kovac with his rig

Tim Kovac with his rig

Small Town was located in the second floor of an old warehouse building. If memory serves, the first floor was occupied by a woodworking shop. The Small Town floor had been an indoor sports/recreation facility of some kind. Making our way to the small corner that the brewery occupied, we wound through a labyrinth of defunct batting cages and possibly an indoor mini-golf course. I recall it being a little bit creepy.

Although expansion plans ultimately had the brewery filling the entire floor, at the time it fit in just two small rooms. The “aging” area where full kegs were stored wasn’t even finished. It was framed, but no drywall had been hung. That space is where they planned to install a distillery. The brewery was in a small, but finished room with a cold box to one side.

The brewhouse consisted of two, 50-gallon, Groan soup kettles – the kind you would see in a commercial kitchen – and two 100-gallon plastic fermenting tanks. The various pieces were linked together with white PVC pipe (cue the sound of brewers cringing). In the cooler was a row of small, stainless steel conditioning tanks. An apartment sized stove served to stew vanilla bean and other spices that went into the root beer.small town (1)

It was on this rig that Kovac claimed to make the magic of 20% root beer happen. It was here that my confusion began. Kovac said that his root beer was made with barley malt, the way it was made in the 1600s. He was using a brew-in-a-bag method, which according to him was how brewers would have done it in the 1600s. I’ll dig into historical accuracy later. For now let’s focus on the feasibility of his claim. Using brewing software, I attempted to recreate his process. I could not make it work.

The brew-in-a-bag method involves conducting the mash with the crushed barley malt in a big mesh bag. When the mash is complete the bag is simply removed and drained. This allows the brewer to mash and boil in the same vessel. It is a fairly inefficient method, meaning that the brewer extracts less sugar from each pound of grain than with other more conventional methods. Some brewers sparge, that is they rinse the grains with hot water to remove additional sugar, which would increase efficiency. But when Kovac talked me step-by-step through his process he made no mention of this. With this in mind, I based my calculations on an assumption of 65% mash efficiency, which without a sparge step is maybe a bit generous.

Kovac told me that he was making all-grain wort, using 100 to 110 pounds of grain for each 50-gallon batch. He reported a starting gravity for the root beer of 1.200. By my quick and dirty calculations, 100 pounds of grain gives a gravity of 1.055. He would need more like 400 pounds of grain to hit 1.200, which would vastly exceed the capacity of his kettle. I assumed then that he was using malt extract or some other sugar to boost the gravity of his wort. When I asked about that, he insisted that he was not using extract, but admitted that he was using “malt powder.” So…extract. I estimate that he would need approximately 165 pounds of dry malt extract to go from 1.055 to 1.200. Again, there would be no room in his kettle for liquid.

Then there is the matter of fermentation. It isn’t impossible to get yeast to ferment up to 20% alcohol, but it is terribly difficult. Although yeast creates alcohol as a by-product of fermentation, that alcohol is poisonous to it. As the alcohol level increases, the ability of yeast to do its job decreases. Beyond around 15%, our favorite fungus starts to sputter and die. It takes constant babying to get beyond that. Kovac claimed he was doing just that, rousing and re-aerating the beer to see the yeast through a seven-day fermentation. Having seen his setup, I find it hard to believe that he was accomplishing this feat with any degree consistency and without creating some pretty terrible off-flavors.

And so, I found Kovac’s process description to be confusing at best, suspect at worst. But he really didn’t seem like a guy who was out to intentionally deceive. Without having actually seen what he was doing, I could only take him at his word.

17th century brewery

17th-Century Brewery

And then there’s the history part. Brewers actually had breweries in the 17th-century; breweries that worked essentially like the breweries of today. They weren’t huddled over wooden vats steeping grains in a bag. Also, Kovac says that his barley-based root beer recipe is authentic to the 1600s. The only references I can find suggest that fermentable sugars for various types of root beer at the time came from tree sap and molasses.

Confusion and mystery aside, it seems our boy Tim Kovac and his business partners have done well for themselves. They secured a deal to contract brew Not Your Father’s Root Beer at City Brewing in La Crosse, Wisconsin. There appears to be some squishy relationship with Phusion Projects LLC, the makers of such delights as Four Loco, Moskato Life, and Signature Cocktails. The brand has apparently been sold wholly or in-part to Pabst Brewing. I’m sure the Small Town guys made a pretty penny on the deal.

Does this mean that Small Town Brewery is finished as an entity? Who knows? Besides the root beer, Kovac also made beer. I sampled a brown, an amber, and a Christmas beer, among others that I don’t recall. I remember the beers being unremarkable, but Kovac indicated they were in high demand, with one bar owner apparently pleading to pay full price for a partial keg of year-old English brown ale. I know, I didn’t believe him either. He also spoke of plans for a concoction called Grandpa Gone Wild with label art showing “grandpa doing grandma from behind and she’s using a walker.”

So about that Not Your Father’s Root Beer. Apparently it was originally non-alcoholic. Kovac explained that when he and his son made the first recipe it was so good they wanted figure out how to make an alcohol-free version. He asked brewers for advice and was told to boil the alcohol away. And that is what he did. When I asked why he started leaving the alcohol in he replied, “Well, the whole point is saving a step, to be honest with you. I don’t have to boil it off and I can charge more. So that’s even better.”

Here’s my notes:

Not Your Father's Root BeerNot Your Father’s Root Beer
Small Town Brewery, La Crosse, Wisconsin
Style: Hard Root Beer
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
5.9% ABV

Aroma: Highly aromatic. Caramel. High vanilla. Wintergreen. Like wintergreen lifesavers with an undertone of vanilla. Low clove-like spice.

Appearance: Low, fizzy, soda-like head with no retention. Dark brown with red highlights. Brilliant.

Flavor: Sweetness is high. Caramel and vanilla are both high. Wintergreen is there, at first a bit more restrained than in the aroma. A low hint of alcohol, but like distilled spirit. Similar clove spice from the aroma. Strong wintergreen on the way out. A hint of anise. Finish is sticky sweet. Lingers on caramel, wintergreen and vanilla. Vanilla and wintergreen are the high notes. As I sit with it, the alcohol becomes more apparent, but still with that distilled character rather than fermented. A bit burning.

Mouthfeel: Medium-high carbonation. Like soda, but a little lower than most. Medium-full body. Cloying. Some alcohol warming.

Overall Impression: Aroma is really quite enticing. I might not guess there is alcohol if I weren’t told. It’s a decent root beer base, but I do wish that it weren’t quite as sweet as it is. I know that Kovac says he made it with grain, but there is nothing in the flavor that makes me think of grain. No roastiness that the color would indicate. No grainy bread crust. Only caramel and herbs. The low amount of alcohol taste is just enough to be a distraction. Not solvent, but more peppery spicy. On the whole, this is not bad, but the sweetness has me not wanting to finish the glass. It’s soda. Put it in a glass with ice. The cold helps cut the cloying sweetness.

July 30th Addendum

Based on a few Facebook comments, I want to clarify a couple of things.

– He is not producing the current quantity from this 100-gallon system. As I wrote above, NYFRB is contract brewed by City Brewing in La Crosse, WI.

– I believe at the time of my visit he was making everything in house. There was no bottled product yet. There was beer in tanks, not-great beer to be sampled, kegs in the aging room, and yeast being propagated. There was no indication of any connection to anything larger. I think Kovac just found a way to sell the product he developed and make some money on it. There is nothing wrong with that.

– I never had the sense that Kovac was intentionally deceiving me. That’s what made this visit so confusing. He seemed absolutely genuine about what he was doing. I simply couldn’t make sense of what he was telling me. Sure, he may have embellished the history story a bit, but that’s marketing. He struck me as utterly sincere, and frankly sort of geeky. The whole thing was way too elaborately quirky to simply be a front for Phusion Projects.

Altbier in Düsseldorf

In the days of old, viagra prescription before the advent of railroads, medicine freeways, and automobiles, people traveled less. The distances between the cities and towns felt further than it does today. Commerce did occur, of course. But generally, each village was a semi-isolated community where residents identified more strongly as citizens of the town than of the nation or state.

This relative isolation led to the creation of local specialties – crafts, cheese, cuisine, and even beer. Brewers brewed beers that were adapted to locally available ingredients and water supplies. Einbeck had bock beer. Dortmund had Dortmunder lager, a strong-ish, balanced, golden, lager with a pronounced hop presence. There was the weissbier of Berlin and the altbier of Düsseldorf. It’s not that these brewers set out to create a “style,” they just made beer the way it was made in that particular place.

Düsseldorf’s altbier wasn’t always called “alt,” the German word meaning “old.” It was once just called “beer.” Through the 1800s the new-fangled lager beers were on the rise. The crisp, clean, cold-fermented brews caught the imagination of beer drinkers and quickly spread across the land. But there were a few holdouts. In places like Düsseldorf and Cologne brewers clung to their old-style, top-fermenting ales. And so the term “alt” was applied to differentiate them from the rapidly encroaching “new” beer.

Altbier is an amber-colored, malt-forward style that features the warm, nutty, toasted bread flavors of German, kilned malts. Bitterness can be assertive, but is never harsh. Low notes of spicy, German hops complete the picture. It’s a crisp, easy-drinking beer designed to enhance social gatherings.

Zum Uerige

While it was originally a wider regional specialty, altbier is now heavily associated with Düsseldorf and especially with that city’s Altstadt or “Old City.” The city center was mercifully spared bombardment during World War II, leaving its cobblestone streets and medieval structures intact. With over 300 bars, the Altstadt is known in Germany as “the longest bar in the world.” It is the historical and cultural heart of the city.

Im Füchschen

The Altstadt is also the heart of modern altbier. Many of the brewpubs that have defined the style for our age are located there within a few hundred yards of each other, including the famous Zum Uerige, Im Füchschen and Zum Schlüssel. The oldest altbier brewpub, Schumacher, is only a 10-minute walk. It opened in 1838. There are bigger altbier breweries, but these quaint, old pubs where beer is poured from wooden casks, are the best place to get the true feel of the style. A relaxed stroll from one pub to the next is a great way to spend an afternoon.

Altbier is drunk from distinctive, straight-sided glasses in 0.2-, 0.3- or 0.4-liter sizes. When your glass is empty, waiters will quickly set a new one down in front of you, making a mark on your coaster to keep track of how many you’ve had. The beer will just keep coming until you tell them to stop.

The Altstadt of Düsseldorf is one of the stops on the Grains & Grapes Adventure Tour – A Taste of the Rhine River. We’ve teamed up with Altbier Safari to give you guided tours and samplings at five Altstadt brewpubs – Zum Uerige, Im Füchschen, Schumacher, Brauerei Kürzer, and Zum Schlüssel. You’ll taste the best that altbier has to offer in the place that it was meant to be experienced.

In addition to altbier in Düsseldorf, A Taste of the Rhine River will take you to a kölsch brewery in Cologne, and wineries on the Rhine and Mosel Rivers. We’ll visit castles, cruise the Rhine, and end up at the greatest beer festival on earth, the Munich Oktoberfest. It’s going to be a great trip.

To learn more or to sign up visit our friends at Defined Destinations.

Cooking Spring Hop Shoots

New Spring Hop Shoots

Spring is finally here and the hops in my back yard are crazily sprouting. It can take three years for hops to really establish and mine are in their third year. These bines were pretty productive last year. The sight of bright green cones dangling from my pergola was beautiful. This year the early shoots are much more vigorous and numerous that in the past, cure so I am expecting great things from them come September.

When growing hops it’s common practice to snip off the first growth and go with the second. The initial bines grow super fast and can end up hollow and weak. They can be less productive and less able to withstand the winds that can whip them around on their string trellises. I’ve not snipped mine for the past two years, but with them coming on so strongly this year, I decided to do it right.

Now, I hate to see anything go to waste. I could have composted the sprouts in my backyard bin, but lately I’ve been reading quite a lot about eating them. I’m an adventurous eater and I love to cook, especially new vegetables. And hop shoots supposedly taste like asparagus, one of my absolute favorite veggies. Why not give it a go?

Chopped and Ready

One recommendation I have read was simply to sauté them with a little garlic and butter. This sounded quick, easy, and delicious, so that is the route that I chose. I clipped my bines, chopped them into smaller chunks and got to work melting butter and chopping garlic. Into the pan they went.

Into the Pan

I had let a couple of the bines get a bit too long, I think. They were woodier and more fibrous than the shorter shoots. In order to soften these up a bit I opted midway to braise. After tossing them in the garlic butter for a few minutes, I added a quarter cup of water, covered the pan, and lowered the heat. I let them simmer there for five minutes and then cooked off any remaining liquid. I added a bit of salt and pepper and they were done.

After the Braise

The bright green shoots looked great on the plate. I served them with a mashed mix of red and sweet potatoes and simple grilled chicken thighs made the way my dad used to make them – cooked over coals and brushed with a butter/Worcestershire glaze.

And onto the Plate

Those who say that young hop shoots taste like asparagus are right. They are lightly sweet with that vegetal/chlorophyll flavor that makes asparagus oh-so delicious. From the texture of the raw shoots, I expected them to be more fibrous and prickly. With the exception of the couple that I let grow a little too long, they braised up nice and tender. And not a prickle in the bunch. The tougher ones though did suggest that it’s better to cook them earlier than later. I would recommend not letting them get more than four or five inches long before you snip and eat.

I only have two plants, so cooking hop sprouts is a one-meal deal for me. But I can say with confidence that I will do it again next spring.

Observations from the 2014 Great American Beer Festival

GABF logo

Minnesota brewers racked up the medals at the Great American Beer Festival held in Denver, Colorado October 2nd through 4th. Summit’s often underrated EPA took bronze. Indeed’s Mexican Honey took silver. The barrel-aged Buffalo Bock earned a bronze for Town Hall. Bent Paddle took home a well-deserved bronze medal for 14° ESB. And Badger Hill and Steel Toe both won gold – Badger hill for their White IPA and Steel Toe for Wee Heavy.

Indeed, the Heartland region as a whole did well. Wisconsin garnered seven medals. Illinois took an impressive nine. And Iowa earned two. I’m thinking that our upper-Midwestern states will not be considered beer flyover country for much longer.

What is is it about beer people that makes them dress up?

Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association.


Hops are still king in American beer. India pale ale was the contest category with the largest number of entries for the umpteenth straight year. There was no shortage of hoppy beers in the festival hall. Nearly every brewery had a hopped-up pale ale, IPA or double IPA. White IPAs, black IPAs, red IPAs, Belgian IPAs, and session IPAs were also in abundance. The increasing demand for hops has led to rumors of an impending hop shortage, but there was no sign of it in Denver.

Hops may still be on top, but the number of sour beers in the hall suggested that a slow-building trend is now finally blossoming. Beers fermented with 100% brettanomyces yeast were easy to find. The number of all-sour breweries like Jolly Pumpkin or Trinity Brewing out of Colorado Springs is growing. There were barrel-aged sours, stainless fermented sours, and spontaneously fermented sours. They ranged in profile from delicate and vinous to aggressively funky. The lovely thing is that they were mostly very good. In past years at GABF tasting sours has been an exercise in dumping. The few good examples were overwhelmed by others loaded with foot-funk and vinegar. This year I only tasted one or two dumpers. At the Trinity Brewing booth the brewer told me that I would taste all of their beers. I countered that I would taste one or two. I tasted them all.

Saison was another big trend at this year’s festival. Suffice it to say there were a lot of them – spiced, unspiced, strong, black, and every other way. Through the course of the weekend I easily tasted more saisons and sours than any other styles.

Historical revivals? That trend is growing as well. Several examples of the salty-sour gose style were to be found. Berliner weisse with and without fruit was everywhere. And Austin, Texas based Live Oak Brewing Company had a very respectable Grodziskie, a smoked and slightly sour wheat beer style from Poland.

An unusual tidbit that I noticed was the use of blood oranges in beer. I had several beers made with this fruit from IPA to hefeweizen. My favorite beer of the festival was a blood orange gose from Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Boonville, California. I went back for several samples of this beer during all three sessions that I attended.

Another burgeoning trend that I find particularly exciting is the use of foraged ingredients. A mini-festival held during GABF week called Beers Made by Walking was dedicated to foraged ingredient beers. Breweries like Scratch Brewing from Ava, Illinois or the newly opened Forbidden Root Brewery in Chicago are using a variety of botanicals like walnuts, sassafras, lemon myrtle, burdock root, and even mushrooms to flavor their beer. Scratch Brewing completely rebuffed the hoppy beer thing by bringing a lineup of all gruits. None of their beers contained any hops at all.

Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association

Not All Trends Are Good

But it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns at the GABF. There has been a lot of talk in the industry lately about a possible decline in overall quality as the number of breweries mushrooms. 2014 marked the second year in a row that I have noticed a large number of so-so and not-so-good beers in the GABF hall. My mode of operation in the hall is to sample beers mostly from breweries that I have never heard of. I want to know what’s going on out there beyond the big names. And to be completely honest, I don’t like to wait in line for beer, especially when there are 3000+ other beers available. I tasted a lot of beers that just didn’t cut it.

I made a special point of visiting new breweries in the states that I covered in A Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland. Of the seven or eight regional newcomers, only one of them – Forbidden Root – was making beer that rose above the level of average homebrew. Fortunately that one was very good.

I was talking to a brewer friend who has judged beer at the competition for many years. He told me that he judged a lot of sub-par entries this year. I asked if this was the norm or something new. He said that this year was markedly different from past years. As new breweries continue to come on line, the industry is going to have to get serious about quality.

2014 Autumn Brew Review Preview

Tomorrow is Autumn Brew Review day!

The Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild knows how to throw a beer fest. The three they stage are always the best of the year. While Winterfest is the hands-down winner as “Best Fest” in my opinion, it’s hard to choose between All Pints North and Autumn Brew Review.

In Brew Review’s favor, it’s a bigger festival with more breweries and more beers to sample. This year’s lineup includes 109 breweries. With each one offering an average of three-ish beers, that’s a lot of tasting. The setting at the majestic Grain Belt Brewery building gives the festival a palpable connection to the city’s mighty brewing past. But then again, it’s hard to beat Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth as a site beer fest site. Oh, it’s so hard to choose…

There have been so many new breweries opening in the state in the last few months that I haven’t even begun to sample them all. That’s one thing that I am particularly looking forward to at this year’s ABR. Among the brand-new brewers represented are Bauhaus Brew Labs, Fair State Brewing CO-OP, Four Daughters Cidery, Pryes Brewing Co., Tin Whiskers Brewing Co., Veteran Beer Co. and Bank Brewing Co. Bank has been around for a while, but they have only recently begun making their own beer. I’ve been to some of these, but it will be great to sample brews from some of the others.

Minnesota is also being flooded by brands from other states, many of which will be represented at the festival. I’m looking forward to visiting with Bull Falls Brewery from Wausau, Wisconsin and Finch’s Beer Company from Chicago, Illinois. I hit both places researching A Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland. I’m glad to see their beer here at home. Others to hit are Fargo Brewing Co., Local Option, Stillwater Artisanal Ales, and Prost Brewing Co. Prost is a Denver brewery that makes German-style lagers. I was there a couple of years ago and loved it.

The program reveals that brewers will have some interesting beers on display. 2012 Alaskan Smoked Porter anyone? Or how about a preview of Dawn of Aurora “champagner weisse” from the Schell’s Noble Star Collection? Bent Brewstillery will be doling out something called El Guerrero Chilean Double Stout – undoubtedly something that brewer Kristen England brought back from recent beer-judging trips down south. Destihl Brewery from Illinois is bringing their awesome Gose. The Hoops brothers at Town Hall and Fitger’s seem to be trying to out-do each other with their fest selections. And Fitger’s Cherry Batch….

And speaking of cider…there are a lot of opportunities to sample the scrumpy this year. Cider makers at the fest come from both coasts as well as Minnesota. Among them are Wyder’s Hard Cider, Two Towns Ciderhouse, Schilling & Co., Angry Orchard Cider Co. and Ace Cider. Sociable cider Werks and Four Daughters Cidery are representing for the home state. I’m really into cider lately, so I’ll be hitting up most of these booths.

Things to remember at the fest:
– You don’t have to (read can’t) sample everything.
– Beware the “imperial.” A few of those and your day is done.
– Drink water.
– Hit up the food trucks. Food is good when drinking.
– Line up a ride home. Don’t be “that guy.”

The forecast for tomorrow is for low 80s and partly cloudy. You couldn’t ask for better beer fest weather. So hit up a hearty brunch (gotta get that base on), grab a bus, taxi or Über, and get your butts to Nordeast for a great afternoon of tasting.

Northern Lights Rare Beer Fest


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

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

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

So how did it go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insight Brewing Company: Bringing the World of Beer to the Twin Cities

I first became aware of Ilan Klages-Mundt back in 2010 when I was a featured writer at the Hoppress on Ratebeer.com. He had joined the Hoppress team at the start of a year-long adventure traveling the globe to intern at some of the world’s great breweries. Along the way he penned several posts detailing his exploits. I recall experiencing a tinge of envy as I read about his work with Fuller’s, Kiuchi (Hitachino Nest), Mikkeller, and others. I mean, how great a gig was that?

Ilan’s posts stopped in February 2011. His journey of passion passed from my mind. But then I got score sheets back from a beer I had entered in a local homebrew competition. Ilan had judged my beer. I remember thinking, “What’s he doing here?”

Turns out Ilan is a native Minnesotan, hailing originally from Winona. After his world tour he returned to his home state and settled in the Twin Cities. And of course the answer to what he’s doing here is building a brewery.

Insight Brewing Company is currently in the process of securing startup funds and hopes to open in the first quarter of 2014. They’re looking at locations in Northeast Minneapolis, but won’t yet reveal exactly where. The name Insight is inspired by Ilan’s journeys. Working with some of the world’s greatest brewers, he gained deep insights into brewing process, the beer industry, and world beer cultures. With Insight Brewing he wants share what he learned with beer drinkers here at home.

Ilan’s craft-beer adventure began in 2007 when he was a music student at Lawrence University’s Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin. A sample of Sand Creek Oscar’s Stout opened his eyes to the flavor potential of beer. He began tasting anything he could get his hands on. Armed with the Ratebeer Top 100 Beers list, he travelled to Denmark, eager to get his hands on some of the Danish beers he had read about. The store that he chose didn’t have any of the beers on the list, but it did have Westvleteren 12. That for Ilan was an epiphany. Upon tasting that beer he knew he wanted to become a brewer.

When he returned to the states he began a period of intensive homebrewing and self-study. His passion was noticed by a professor who encouraged him to apply for a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship offered by IBM. The expressed purpose of the fellowship was to allow students to pursue a passion that was not related to their major. Full of optimism, he applied and contacted brewers around the world, asking simply if he could come and be an intern. Many said yes. But then he didn’t get the fellowship.

Undeterred, he approached brewers again asking if in exchange for his free labor they would provide a place for him to stay and some meals. Again, many accepted. With $3500 in his pocket and the possibility of a little under-the-table work here and there, he set off for England.

His first stop was picking hops in West Kent, England. That was followed by time at the Fuller’s Brewery in London. From there he set off for Japan to work at the Kiuchi Brewery, makers of the Hitachino Nest beers. He worked at the Fanø Bryghus in Denmark doing contract brewing for the likes of Mikkeller. He was hired as head brewer at the Søgaards Bryghus brewpub in Aalborg, Denmark. He ended the experience with a bike and brewery tour of France and Belgium.

Ilan Klages-Mundt at the Fanø Bryghus in Denmark

Ilan says that the hardest brewery to work at was Kiuchi, starting with them forgetting to pick him up at the airport. When his ride did arrive it took him straight to the brewery where he began what would be a stint of 90 to 100-hour work weeks. The Japanese are known for their work ethic. They are also known for their respect of hierarchy. This meant that you started at the bottom regardless of prior experience. Ilan spent a lot of time doing basic brewery grunt work. It was difficult, but good experience for what’s to come.

Ilan says that the most important thing he learned while overseas was to keep it simple. “Homebrewers often throw too many things in and get a muddled flavor.” he says.  “Instead, let natural complexity come out by using only two or three malts.”

His other big lessons were about beer culture. “Beer around the world is so much more accepted than in the majority of the states. We’re growing quickly here, to where it’s becoming much nicer. But still in England, and London especially, everyone is drinking a beer with their lunch or a glass of wine. Here not too many people do that. Some do, but not too many. I think that culturally beer has a long way to go in the states. It is getting there. I mean we’re still at volume-wise 6.3% or something. It’s tiny. In England cask beer is in the 30s. So just a huge difference.”

Insight’s beers will be globally inspired; not just Belgian and not just English or German. They are rooted in classic styles, but some tweaks on those styles will be part of the lineup. I had the opportunity to sample nine brews during my visit. They ran the gamut from a 2.8% alcohol “Piccolo” IPA to a 26% barrel-aged, ice-distilled barleywine. All of the beers were quite tasty. I particularly noted the solid fermentation character. A high degree of attenuation left every beer crisp and refreshing.

Here’s a rundown of my favorites:

Lamb & Flag Premium Bitter – This is a classic English bitter that is named after Ilan’s favorite pub in Oxford. He had access to all of Fuller’s recipes, so this one is loosely based on London Pride. It smells awesome; neither malty nor hoppy, but balanced somewhere in between. A tinge of bitterness at the top is followed by toffee and biscuit malt. Bitterness returns at the end and hangs on into finish. Subtle orange-marmalade hop/yeast flavors fill in the background.

Piccolo IPA – The name is a nod to Ilan’s music background. The piccolo is one of the smallest instruments in the orchestra, yet also one of the loudest. This 2.8% IPA drinks more like 4%. It presents a delicate, citrus hop aroma. Bitterness is firm, but doesn’t blow you away, meaning you can drink a few without wrecking your palate. Citrusy lime, tangerine, and grapefruit hop flavors dominate with subtle grainy/biscuit malt to keep it balanced. It’s a great summer quaff.

Saison de Blanc – This celebratory saison is brewed with Sauvignon Blanc grapes giving it a vinous and almost grape-skin tannic quality. It’s fizzy and light like champagne, but never crosses a line to where it stops being beer. Floral and honey notes peek around the corners. I loved this beer as it is, but suggested that a version fermented with brettanomyces would be great.

The Yuzu – This was by far the most “interesting” beer in the lineup. It’s an American pale ale brewed with yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit. This one is a bit sweeter than the other beers and intensely citrusy with a mix of mandarin orange and grapefruit. The yuzu fruit provides a fruity flavor that is difficult to describe. Reaching for descriptors I came up with phenolic, but that isn’t really quite right. It is most unique and quite delicious. The Yuzu will be an Insight taproom exclusive.

Eric Salazar: New Belgium’s Maestro of Sour

Eric Salazar of New Belgium Brewing Company

I first toured New Belgium Brewing Company in 2002 or 2003. At the time it still consisted only of what they now call Brewhouse #1. It was a small concern on the cusp of becoming the national brewery that it is now. When I drove past the brewery last year during GABF I was stunned by the size of the place. The small building that was once the entire brewery is now surrounded by what seem like acres of warehouse and cellaring structures. It’s huge.

That first visit was also my introduction New Belgium’s line of sour beers. It was probably my introduction to sour beers period. At the end of the tour we were given the choice between a sampler paddle of the six mainline beers or three funky beers; Frambozen, advice Transatlantique Kriek, cheap and La Folie. I chose the latter. How could I not? The tour guide had mentioned something about “old cheese” as we overlooked the foudre.

Tasting through the flight, I was blown away. I wasn’t sure what to think. My palate was hit with an assortment of flavors that I had never experienced in beer. These beers were tart, earthy, and fruity. And yes, there was old cheese. I picked up a bottle of La Folie at the brewery and a six pack of Frambozen at the grocery store on the way out of town.

The brains and tongues behind these zesty beers are the two-person team of Eric and Lauren Salazar. Eric mans the cellars and Lauren is the blender-in-chief. I had the opportunity share a sour beer (or three) with Eric at the Happy Gnome during a recent visit to the Twin Cities. What follows is the full transcript of our half-hour interview.

A meeting of minds…or something.

During the interview we make reference to “Felix” and “Oscar.” It might be helpful to know who these characters are. The entire line of New Belgium sour beers is built on two base beers. Felix is a light beer. Oscar is a dark beer, basically 1554 with a touch less roast. Both are fermented with lager yeast before going into the foudres for acidification by the house culture of bacteria.

I first met you at the GABF in 2007 when you had presumably made Eric’s Ale for the first time.

No, we had a few batches before that that we released in kegs. That was the first bottled batch.

You were pimping it hard at the booth.

I bet I was. Sounds like me.

To start with, give me your path. You started at New Belgium in…

I started at New Belgium in 1995. I was an art student at the time in Fort Collins. I got a job at the brewery through some friends. Now of course, at 22 years old what’s a better job to have than at a brewery, especially New Belgium Brewing Company? New Belgium in those days, and it still is, was very nurturing. They’ll take anybody who wants to really make their own path. Whatever direction you want to go in you’ll be allowed to do it, but you’ll also be given all the tools to do it. So I’m a classic example of that. I started out in packaging. I was making what I considered not a lot of money, but enough money for a 22 year old guy in college. And I was working a lot of hours. I mean we worked long-hour days. We worked very hard, you know. Packaging. Hot conditions. The little train station we were in in those days, it wasn’t temperature controlled. There weren’t a whole lot of creature comforts. But we loved it. We loved what we were doing. We loved the beer that we were producing. We loved the company that we worked for. I think I was employee number 20 at that time. We’re up to 500 employees now. So, you know, I recognized the opportunity and recognized that New Belgium was a company that was going somewhere. I knew I was going to be a part of it. Not only that, I was doing something that I loved and something that was new to me. I did a lot of research. I did a lot of study. I asked a lot of questions. I made my way through the company. Within a year I was in the cellar, cold side brewing. And then within four years of that I was in the brewhouse. So I did that for a bunch of years. I was a brewer for a bunch of years. Peter Bouckaert (New Belgium’s Brewmaster) had come to the brewery in 1996, just one year after I started.  He immediately was like, “Okay, let’s start a sour program.” Of course that’s what I was interested in. Everybody at New Belgium loved sours. We loved that Belgian tradition of lambic beers. We loved the flavor profile of anything Belgian in those days, but we didn’t know how to make sour beers. It was something that traditional brewers have known for generations in Belgium, but you have to be…

It was kind of this esoteric thing here.

Yeah, in those days it was really kind of weird for us to even be doing Belgian-type beers or Belgian-style beers. So I made sure that I was next to Peter Bouckaert as much as I could be as we were developing this sour beer program and wood beer program. I would do anything, no matter how menial, to be a part of that. And even still to this day it’s still a matter of just doing the work. It’s still a matter of hauling around hoses. It’s a matter of setting everything up right. It’s a matter of knowing how much of each barrel goes into the blend. It’s still the same job that it was. And I think that’s what I like about my job nowadays is that I’m still doing the job in the manner that I learned how to be a brewer and a cellar person.

So you are now mostly in the cellar?

I am mostly in the wood cellar. I care for the foudres. I care for the beer in the foudres. Tasting, blending. Lauren Salazar, our main blender, our sensory specialist, I work closely with her. We work together to do these beers.

What got you interested in sour beers to begin with? Particularly since back in the day that would have been this weird, unheard-of thing.

New Belgium has always tried to bring everything they could to their employees. I mean we’re kind of one big family. We drink beer together. We travel together. We go to Belgium. New Belgium has a program where if you work there five years you get to go to Belgium and tour from bar to bar and brewery to brewery. You get a handle on the beer culture of Belgium. That’s essentially what we’re all about, you know. When [New Belgium founder] Jeff [Lebesch] went to Belgium the first time and came back with this idea of making this brewery, it was the culture he fell in love with. It was the essence of that brewing culture in Belgium that started New Belgium Brewing Company. So this is something that’s been a really important part of our culture since day one. So, you know, having been a part of that, having been with New Belgium from the early days, always trying new stuff and always drinking beers that we didn’t necessarily know how to make or even plan on making, that’s how I learned about sour beers. That’s what brought me to it. And when Peter started there I just made sure that I was part of it as much as I could.

How huge was that to get Peter Bouckaert, the Brewmaster of Rodenbach?

It was big. Yeah. It was big. I don’t know how the specifics of that worked, but it was really a big deal to us at New Belgium. We were blown away. And he was excited I think. From his standpoint, he was doing something new. There was no precedent for a brewery basically swallowing up the Belgian traditions and becoming that. And I think the fact that he came to us, came from Belgium and moved his whole life here, says a lot about what we were doing in those days. He was impressed with it, you know. And he wanted to take it further. He probably saw it as chance at a new thing, something that was going on. And I don’t think he was very popular for it at the time, to put it bluntly. He wasn’t very popular in Belgium for it at the time. Of course he’s Peter Bouckaert and he’s a very charismatic figure and he has lots of friends there, so I think eventually they started to realize – the Belgian brewers – that we’re bringing their culture and their beers. We’re not just copying them. We’re emulating them, yes, but we were also part of a revolution that brought the knowledge of those beers to the United States. Before that I don’t think there was much going on as far as the general public and their knowledge of Belgian beers. And so we tried to bring that to the general public. And of course we brought to it our own love and what we liked in beer. We weren’t necessarily trying to bring it to the people more than we were just trying to have good beer ourselves, you know. There were a lot of brewers here and a lot of people trying to do something different and that was our niche. And I think we did it well. We did it better after Peter Bouckaert came, for sure.

Eric chats with Kristen England of Pour Decisions Brewing Company

So let me ask you some specific questions about your sour program that you oversee.

Yeah, I’m part of it. Lauren Salazar and myself are the team that takes care of the entire cellar. I do a lot of the physical stuff. I do tasting with Lauren. She of course is the sensory person that runs the blending. I do all of the physical blending and care of the barrels. We’re a two-part team.

So one of the things that is interesting to me is that there are basically just two beers that form the basis for all of the sour program; Oscar and Felix. Why just two beers?

In the early days we tried many things. We had a lot of experiments going on. We would put fruit in beer. We would make different types of beer.  And we would age it in these barrels, but what we would come out with was this basic sour profile. So the conclusion we came to, and this is the type of thing that comes with trial and error, was that why put so many resources, why put so much time and thought into something that’s going to come down to just being a sour beer. Find the basics. Focus on those basics, and then use those basics as components in sour beers later on. So the way that developed with La Folie was that we had barrels that were developing well. They weren’t necessarily the barrels that we designed, but they just kind of came into being because of the bacteria. We blended those barrels together and then we tasted those barrels. Then we blended those barrels together. Then we blended those barrels together into large foudres and we just came up with this one beer. What we found was rather than trying to design the beer from the get-go and then sour it, you might as well take that beer and then blend it later. It really is a much easier process. It’s also a much more detailed process in terms of flavor profiling. Let’s use Tart Lychee as an example. So that is a beer that’s almost 50% strong golden. It has lychee juice, and then it has the sour portion, the Felix, added into it. Now if you think about yourself as a scientist in a lab and you’re mixing things, you know, and you’re using a little bit of this and a little bit of that and a little bit of something else, you can taste it right there. Rather than having to wait all that time to let the thing develop, you have all the components, you mix them right there, and then you taste them. So we found that only having two basics you can do that in the end. It’s much easier.

What struck me when thinking about that is that it’s really about the fermentation.

It’s about the aging process. It’s about the acidification of that beer. Yeah, exactly. So we can control that aging process and we can control that acidification without having to worry about whatever components are going to go into that beer in the future. And really that’s another part of this. We have this sour beer. It takes two years to age and develop. We don’t know what we’re going to develop two years from now. You know? Lauren comes up with lychee juice. Let’s put that in a beer. So we have already soured beer. We try it out. It worked out well. Who knows what’s going to happen in the future. Eric’s Ale worked out the same way with peach. The Le Terroir, which is the dry-hopped Felix, really you couldn’t have done that without knowing what the sour beer tasted like first, without knowing what you had to begin with. Then you dry hop it and you say, “Hey, that’s pretty good.” You know. When Lauren developed that beer, Le Terroir, I was kind of like, “I don’t know. That’s kind of weird. You want to dry hop a sour beer?” I was like, “I’ll do it. I’ll do it. No problem.” And so I did it and I had to eat my words. It was great. It actually was a really awesome beer. It’s an awesome beer. And I was like, “Okay, you’re right. You’re right.” She thought about it and she had it in her mind, but we really couldn’t have tested it out and tried it and proved it without having that sour beer already worked out, already processed and alive and running.

You reuse yeast. You have your own blend – it’s a multi-strain blend. Talk about how that came about.

It’s mostly really a bacterial soup, for lack of a better way of putting it. We have a lot of terms in this type of product that don’t sound real appealing, but you kind of say to yourself, “but in a good way.” So bacterial soup is the term I’ll use. It’s lactobacillus. Maybe a little bit of pediococcus. And probably some brettanomyces and wild yeasts in there, but for the most part it’s lactobacillus. Now in the early days what we did is – and this was Peter Bouckaert’s design – we blended those small barrels, only a few, and we put whatever we wanted into them. We put our cherry beer. We put some lactobacillus in some. We would put different types of yeast and we would just let those barrels develop. And we had a meeting on Thursdays where we would taste beers from Belgium and we would taste the barrels. And in the early days, I’ll be frank, for a long time they sucked. They would kind of start to develop and then they would go south. We learned a lot about the “sick phase” of barrels. In order to get to heaven you’ve got to go through hell, I guess the saying goes. So as these beers developed we would taste them and then we would also taste the beers we were going for; Liefmans, Rodenbach, and any lambics. We would discuss those beers and we would discuss what we had. Well, when the beers started to get better – the barrels that would get better were obvious and the ones that weren’t working out so well were obvious as well – we would get rid of those barrels [that weren’t getting better] and then we blended the barrels that were good and we’d let those age for a little while. Then we’d have the same discussions, the same parallel discussions with the traditional Belgian beers and what we were coming up with. And we’d have open conversations about what we were looking for. What we were looking for developed over time. It wasn’t necessarily like we were going for one thing from the get-go. But as we were doing this and as we figured out what we had and what we were capable of doing, that idea came about. Then we purchased some large-scale foudres. I think our first four were the 60-hectoliter fouders that we have. We still have those foudres, one of which is foudre 1 that we call “Sure Thing.” It has been a part of every single La Folie blend since we bought it. We bought that one in 1999 I believe. 1999 or 2000. That one barrel has been a part of every single La Folie, so it’s steeped deep with the flavor profiles and bacteria that we want. So same situation [with the foudres]. We’d blend those barrels together and as those barrels developed, we would develop what we wanted. And even still to this day, since 1998 when we put out the first one until now, sixteen years, I mean it’s still developing. It’s still a process. It still is about Lauren and I sitting down and sipping all the barrels, talking about it, talking about what we think about each barrel specifically. And each barrel can have its own personality. There are a lot of factors there. What time period of its development is it in? Where is the barrel sitting in the room? Is it in front of a window? Is it near the other door? How big is it? The smaller the barrel the larger the ratio of liquid to wood there is. A lot of little factors there. It’s all about us sitting down and tasting it. We’re still doing the same thing to this day as we always have done before.

So as you’re tasting each one of these barrels does that flavor that comes out of each one, that particular acidification profile, determine what you end up doing with that beer?  Whether it ends up in a blend of La Folie or goes into one of the Love releases? Whether you add lychee to it or something else?

So I’ll break that question down into a few different parts. Love is specifically a single barrel that we decide the moment that we taste it that it’s good enough to be Love. Now if that doesn’t happen, and it will [happen] because we have a lot of good barrels in there, but if that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. If we didn’t have a Love barrel, we don’t mind. That’s fine. Love is really something that we’ll put out a little at a time. With the Peach Love that we are drinking today, that’s a barrel that we decided was good enough and then we put it into a peach whiskey barrel. We recently, this past year, April of 2012, we purchased and installed seven 225-hectoliter barrels. Now we knew full well that we had to inoculate those barrels. The best beer to inoculate those barrels with, of course, is the best beer that we have. Right? So we kind of let it be known that this year’s production of sour beer was going to be diminished a little bit because we knew that we were going to take this best beer. So there’s the decision right there. This beer is really good. Of course we want it to be part of this blend, but we also want it to carry us into the future with these new barrels. So last year that was a pretty heavy-duty decision. It was like okay, we need to produce this much La Folie. We want to have as much Felix for whatever, Tart Lychee or Kick or whatever we’re producing. We want to have as much of that as possible. But we also want to make sure that we’re taking care of these new barrels and that we have something for the future, especially when we’re expanding on this program. So within a year we already have sour beer being produced in these large barrels that have never before been used for sour beer or beer at all. They were wine barrels before that. They’re 30 years old. And they’re working out. So we know that we made the right decision by giving up some of our best beer to inoculate those new barrels. We still were able to produce a fair amount of La Folie. But now we know that we’ll see more in the future because those barrels are working out. We expanded our capacity, you know. All the right decisions were made.

What are you looking for in the blend?

Well, La Folie. We know as we’re tasting them that we have a lot of barrels to choose from, so we know that we can build it as a profile. If we have something that’s really tart, maybe kind of a citric tart, something that’s really sharp, maybe not very complex but still has a nice tartness to it, then we can balance it out with something that’s maybe a little bit younger or maybe something that hasn’t quite developed the…I hate to put it like that…but hasn’t quite gone as far in its sourness and its acidification process as this other one. We can rely on the two beers to balance each other. So we’ll get something that’s maybe a little bit sweeter, a little more malty and pair it up with this very sharp, very pointed sour beer. But then other flavor components can be cherry pit, even along the same lines as a plum skin. These are things that we like to discuss. So we’re looking for balance. We’re looking for these different flavor components that will play off of each other and balance each other out without being too overpowering. Now a lot of people would say that when they taste La Folie it’s going to be really sour, but what goes into that is a lot more than just sour. You could just make it sour and it would all be one sided. You won’t have that balance and I don’t think it will be as popular a beer. So maybe it is sour, but there are a lot more subtle nuances going on there then you would think about if you just tasted sour beer. With something that’s going into a blend, you have to consider the fruit. If it’s a fruit you have to consider the other bit that you’re blending it with. Kick is an example. Kim and Dick, Kim Jordan and Dick Cantwell, that was their baby. That was the thing that they blended, that they put together. They wanted a pumpkin beer, but they wanted a sour beer. It took them a few iterations to get that right. But they did it just like that. They took a little bit of this beer and a little bit of that beer and they blended it together until they felt like they had the right flavor profile. That’s nothing you can do on paper. You can’t just make that up as you go along. There’s no numbers that take care of that. You have to taste it. It has to be a physical process. It has to be on the spot. It depends on what you’re looking for with that, with the blending of non-sour beers with sour beers. Every beer is different.

So beer nerds love to age beer. I’m going to tell you my first experience with my first bottle of La Folie. I didn’t intentionally age it, but it sat in my basement for a while. And by the time I opened it, it was straight-up vinegar. One thing that really made me happy though was that the next time I visited the brewery I told them that story and they gave me a sixpack of 1554. But the first thing the guy asked me was, “Did you try and age that?” So just for the sake of people who get a sour beer and feel they want to age it, talk a little bit about that.

Well, I feel like sour beers in general…I mean on a basic level the pH is low enough that they can be considered bomb-proof at certain points. That being said, you know, the beer is already two years old. It’s already been aged. We’ve already tasted that two-year-old beer and specifically decided on that blend. So really, you know, the beer is ready to go when it’s ready to go. Aging is up to you. It’s interesting to age beer and then taste it across the board and do a flight. Go from 2002 to say 2012. Can we do that? Does anybody keep their beers that long? I think they do. Some people do. I don’t know how they do it, because I always end up coming home at 2 am with a bunch of friends and drinking that beer. But there’s also how you keep it, you know. The temperature has to be right. With those cork and cage bottles, if they’re sitting upright they have a tendency to dry out. That cork can dry out. You can get a lot of oxygen through there, even if you don’t recognize it when you open it. It still may be a little pressurized, but it can go through ebbs and flows of drying depending on the season and what not. So it’s tough because you don’t know where people are keeping their bottles. And it’s hard to say whether you should age that, because what’s your storage area like? Is it your garage? Is it 100 degrees out there? Is it your basement? Is it humidity controlled? So I like to say “drink that beer.” When you get it, just drink it. It’s already two years old. We aged it. We blended it. If you want to do that though, treat it right. Lay it on its side. Take care of the cork. Keep that temperature even and low.

When you’re tasting sour beers – and again this is going to differ from style to style – but if you could kind of generalize, what is it when you taste a sour beer that makes you say, “This is a great beer.”

Balance. Yeah, balance. I like to have many components and not just one. If it’s too far to one side then it’s no fun. It has to have many flavor components and it has to have balance in those flavor components. If you’re going for something one way or the other then fine, you can flavor it that way. But if is takes over and it tends not to let anything else through, then that’s no fun. You know, you have to have that balance. I think that’s true even if it is a sour beer. And people generally, depending on their threshold of sour, might be like, “Wow, that’s kicking my ass right now.” But if they taste further they’ll find that we’ve taken the time to balance that out. We’ve done this or that. We’ve thought about what that beer is going to be. We’ve thought about what we want this beer to be. Now with Eric’s Ale that was a big deal. I was looking for that peach to come out, but I didn’t want a peach flavor. I wanted peach to be the aroma. And I wanted when you put that beer up to your mouth that you more sense it on your nose than you sense it on your tongue. It was still part of the profile, but it was a component that wasn’t necessarily obvious right away. It was about balance.

What are the components you’re trying to balance?

In? Name a beer.

La Folie. A lot of people know that beer so let’s do that.

With La Folie, like I said, we’re looking for sour. We’re looking for something that’s going to offset that sour; a little maltiness. We found that in these barrels and with Oscar aging that we always get a little cherry component. It’s weird because there’s no cherries added anywhere in the process. There’s always this cherry component. And if it’s a tart cherry, a cola component is never a bad thing. I mean there are just these little details that I don’t expect anybody to actually sense or even focus on, or even say the words “cherry pit” or “plum skin,” but I still want it to be there. I still want it to be a part of the flavor profile. Again balance. It may be one of the most sour beers in the United States, but I challenge anybody tasting it to be, “Oh. What is this little tiny thing? What is this sweetness? There’s an acidic portion of this, but then there’s a fruit sugar I can’t quite put my finger on.” And that’s fun. Right? That’s interesting. That keeps it interesting for all of us.

I gave La Folie to a wine sommelier that I work with frequently and she drank it the whole rest of the night.

That’s great. That’s an ultra-compliment. That’s really cool. Right on.

So, you started out as an art student. I’m curious, because my background is in the arts, what was your medium?

I’m a painter.

Do you still do it?

Oh yes. Very much so. I love water color. I love mixing colors. I love it when there are almost so many colors that you can’t really see them all unless you look closely. So I’m lucky enough to have a job where I’m not necessarily doing that exact thing, but I still am doing that thing in a sort of a way. I’m blending these beers just like I would be blending colors.

You just led into my question. How do the arts play into making beer?

Just like that. I’m still allowed to be that artist that I always wanted to be. I didn’t necessarily know when I was younger that brewing would be my calling, but there it is. It plays perfectly with what I’ve always done my whole life, and that’s being a painter and being an artist.