Archive for the ‘Events’ Category

2013 Happy Gnome Firkin Fest Recap

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

The annual Happy Gnome Firkin Fest happened last Saturday. Firkin Fest is the Twin Cities’ biggest celebration of cask-conditioned beer, boasting some 80 casks from local, national, and international brewers. For fans of “real-ale” it’s quite the fete.

It’s also one of the Twin Cities’ most troubled beer fests. Starting about three years ago when “craft” beer really started to pop, the logistics of Firkin Fest got away from the organizers. Too many people crammed the tent. Too few porta-poties left people peeing on the trees. Long lines kept people standing in the cold and beer ran out with hours left to go. In short, it was a fat mess. 2012 was the first year in a lot of years that the Happy Gnome got it right. Then General Manager and lead organizer Catherine Pflueger left. I had concerns for this year. Experience with big events suggests that new organizers don’t necessarily heed past lessons learned.

Turns out my worries were for the most part unfounded. The tent did get tight as the fest wore on, but it wasn’t the all-out sardine squeeze of past years. The line to get people in seemed to move briskly – at least the tent filled up quickly once the doors opened. I never waited in any line at all to use the outdoor facilities. The food was tasty. I ate immediately upon arrival, so I don’t know how the food lines developed later. By the time I left just before 5 pm, the firkins were beginning to run dry, but no one was in danger of going thirsty. The one complaint I had was that I couldn’t find a trash can anywhere in the joint. I carried around an empty cheese-curd thingy until a brewer finally took it from me and put it on the ground under the counter. It was an oversight, but not one to ruin the fest.

The Beer

Casks have a big hole that kegs do not. You can stuff a lot of stuff into a big hole, and that’s what brewers tend to do at Firkin Fest. The results can be really tasty; O’dell’s orange IPA comes to mind – a personal favorite from both this year and last. But often times they’re not. Does that already hopped-up IPA really need extra dry hops? And alcohol-soaked Peeps? (Although by the brewer’s own admission the marshmallow chicks didn’t really taste like anything.)

My other pet peeve about the beer at Firkin Fest is the number of Belgian styles represented. Some styles just don’t belong in casks. High carbonation is an important part of the profile of most Belgian brews. It adds zip to the mouthfeel that helps lighten the body. Cask ale is by definition low carb (that’s bubbles, not starches). It leaves saisons and tripels tasting flat and flabby. And yet, there were saisons in abundance, each one getting a less-than-spectacular representation. The only one that worked was Surly’s Saison Brett. I think the barnyard funk of the Brettanomyces added a leathery bite that somewhat made up for the lack of fizz.

But there were some real standouts at Firkin Fest. My favorite was Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout. No tricks. No hops. No smirkins of this, that, and the other thing. Just Kalamazoo Stout in a cask. It’s a great beer to start with. It’s a style that’s absolutely appropriate for a firkin. It was fantastic. I went back several times and drank way more than my share.

I was pleasantly surprised by Crispin Cider’s Not You’re Mama’s Apple Pie cask. They started with The Saint, their cider fermented with Abbey yeast. They dosed it with additional sugars and then fermented it again with a different strain of Belgian yeast. To that they added apple pie spices. It really tasted like apple pie. Yummy!

Lift Bridge Brewery won the coveted Golden Firkin for the second year in a row with Manhattan Project. This was a fully-stuffed beer that I enjoyed. They added bourbon-soaked oak chips and maraschino cherries to a single-barrel aged version of Silhouette Imperial Stout for a kind of beer-based Manhattan cocktail. It was delicious.

Also worthy of mention was J.W. Lee’s Harvest Ale, always a favorite of mine. Schell’s Imperial Grain Belt was interesting, but like regular Premium was too sweet for me. And cask-conditioned lager is another fun experiment, but probably not a recipe for great beer. There were others, but travels prevented me from writing this any sooner and I left my program at home. My memory is failing me. Must have killed a few too many brain cells at the fest.

All in all it was a good fest. I can’t believe I didn’t take any pictures. What was I thinking?

 

 

 

A More Personal Description of the GABF Experience

Friday, October 19th, 2012

There is something to be said for nursing a pint in a quiet pub.

The Great American Beer Festival is a beast. This makes my fourth festival. Saturday afternoon marked my 13th session – a small number in comparison to some beer writers I know, but still enough to be able to form a few impressions.

GABF is an exercise in pleasurable self-abuse; too much beer, too many too late nights, and definitely too much heavy food. The weekend – or week if you go for all of the surrounding events – will beat you up. But you’ll have a great time taking the whupping.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the GABF. The hall is immense; rows of brewery booths and vendor stalls seem to stretch to the horizon. And then there are the 12,000 people that fill it and the noise that comes from the voices of that many drunken people. As attendees try to hear and be heard they talk louder. This raises the decibels, necessitating an even louder shout. The self-perpetuating crescendo gives one the sense of standing inside of a jet engine. The roar is punctuated by the scolding hoot that moves from one end of the hall to the other every time someone drops a glass. The noise alone is exhausting.  Add buckets of beer and unpleasant yellow light that is always just a bit too dim and you have a recipe for sensory overload, at least to a homebody such as myself.

People talk about having a plan of attack at GABF. Some focus on particular beer styles, others on hitting certain breweries. I made a plan the first year, but found that my plan disintegrated shortly after entering the hall, succumbing quickly to the “empty-glass” syndrome; “my glass is empty, I’ll just fill it at the nearest booth.” I guess I lack self-control. These days I take more of a free-for-all approach. I have some vague notions of places to go and beers to taste, but mostly I just wander the aisles until I see a beer or brewery that looks interesting. I tend to focus on breweries I’ve never heard of in search of undiscovered gems. I avoid the most popular booths – places like Dogfish Head and Russian River. They have perpetually long lines. I don’t believe in waiting in long lines for beer, especially when there are 2690 other beers available.

The most frequent question one gets asked at the fest is, “tasted any stand outs?” This is such a difficult question for me to answer. Pour after one-ounce pour makes it hard to keep track. Along with planning, taking notes was another first-fest casualty. But it’s not entirely a blur. There were a few beers that rose above attention deficit and overconsumption. All the German-style beers from Live Oak Brewing Company in Austin, Texas were great. They make a hell-of-a hefe. La Cumbre Brewing Company’s Elevated IPA paired with a mighty hunk of lamb at Friday’s media luncheon was fantastic. And Founders’ Blushing Monk paired to Buratta cheese with pear brulée and cranberry jam was a definite highlight of the weekend. There were others, but mostly they all sort of blend together – and that’s okay with me. The festival to me is really about enjoying beer, not about picking it apart and checking it off. I’ll do that in other settings that aren’t so mind addling. Or maybe I’m just a bad Cicerone…

I do better at the GABF when I have a task to do there. I’m like that with events in general; I’m more comfortable working an event than just attending one. Without a purpose I tend to feel a bit lost. On Thursday night our task was to shoot video interviews with brewers from the upper-Midwest. We shot a bunch; almost an hour of video. I caught up with Todd Haug of Surly, Dave Hoops from Fitger’s, Gabe Smoly and Eric Blomquist from Summit, Matt Potts the Brewmaster at DeStihl, Joe Barley from Solemn Oath in Naperville, Illinois, and a few others. Those will go on up on this blog at some point. Hopefully this year I’ll get that done sooner than the week before next year’s festival.

After a day of beer lunches and brewery tours, Friday night’s session was all about the Farm to Table Pavilion. This is a little piece of heaven. Off in a side hall, it is a welcome relief from the thunder of the main hall. And it’s all about great beer paired with great food. Brewers and chefs are teamed up to create miraculous combinations. Small plates and small pours – you just stay in there all night and revel in it. Where to even begin? How about Firestone Walker Pale 31 paired to lemon-roasted chanterelles with cannellini beans and chardonnay grapes? Or maybe Sun King Oktoberfest with butternut squash mousse, sesame beer brittle and toasted celery marshmallow is more your speed. And of course there were oysters – lots of oysters.  You couldn’t go wrong with any of the 24 pairings in the room. I didn’t want to leave.

Saturday morning we sat through the awards ceremony and then headed back into the hall. Here’s where that task-less confusion set in. After two solid days of drinking and eating I walked into the crowded hall and immediately thought, “Is this really where I want to be?” Of course after a few samples it was all good. But how to manage this my last session of the weekend? Sample all the medal winners? Without a written list, that was beyond my mental capacity at this point. And so I wandered, tasting as many of them as I could remember or as had signs indicating their medal status. And so it was that the official fest ended for me.

The drinking and eating of course did not. A fancy dinner Saturday night was followed by pints at Prost Brewing, a new Denver brewery specializing in German-style lagers. There I accidentally stumbled upon a meeting of beer writers from all over the US, as well as a couple of scribes from Canada and the UK. Interesting conversations did ensue. Look for a piece inspired by this meeting in the next issue of The Growler.

Ah, Sunday! Sunday is the best day at GABF, mostly because GABF is over. Everyone has left town. All is quiet. We always like to stay this extra day. It’s a day to unwind from the chaos with a long hike in the mountains. That’s always followed by beer. This year we took in Funkwerks in Fort Collins. A number of people who I respect had recommended this tiny brewery that specializes in saison. I had long wanted to visit. The beers didn’t disappoint. Every beer in the sampler was top-notch. An experimental witbier temporarily called Nit-Wit, a Berliner-weiss kind of think called Leuven, and a Green Tea Saison were particularly good. Finally a nightcap of beers and appetizers in the nearly-empty Falling Rock Taphouse.

There is something to be said for nursing a pint in a quiet pub.

 

A Few Takeaways from the 2012 GABF

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

The 2012 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) is over. The 31st installment of this showcase of the American beer industry was bigger and badder than ever before. 49,000 people attended four sessions that featured 2700 beers from 580 breweries. In a testament to how popular craft beer has become, those 49,000 tickets sold out in about 45-minutes – and we thought selling out 700 Winterfest tickets in under a minute was impressive. The festival and accompanying full week of surrounding events brings 7 million dollars of economic impact to the city of Denver.

The GABF competition is the largest such competition in the world. This year 185 judges evaluated 4,338 entries from 666 breweries. The upper-Midwest region fared pretty well in the medal count.

Minnesota

Category: 19 American-Style Sour Ale, 34 Entries
Bronze: Fitger’s Framboise, Fitger’s Brewhouse, Duluth, MN
Category: 30 Bohemian-Style Pilsener, 53 Entries
Silver: Summit Pilsener, Summit Brewing Co., St. Paul, MN
2012 Great American Beer Festival Pro-Am Competition
Bronze: Classic American Pilsner, Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery, Minneapolis, MN
Brewmaster: Mike Hoops, AHA Member: Kyle Sisco

Wisconsin

Brewpub Group and Brewpub Group Brewer of the Year
Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company, Madison, WI
Category: 4 Fruit Wheat Beer, 38 Entries
Silver: Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy, Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., Chippewa Falls, WI
Category: 5 Field Beer or Pumpkin Beer, 63 Entries
Gold: Whole Hog Pumpkin Ale, Stevens Point Brewery, Stevens Point, WI
Category: 23 Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Stout, 65 Entries
Gold: Fourteen Fourteen, Central Waters Brewing Co., Amherst, WI
Category: 42 German-Style Doppelbock or Eisbock, 19 Entries
Gold: Uber Bock, Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co., Madison, WI
Category: 37 American-Style Amber Lager, 45 Entries
Gold: Point Oktoberfest, Stevens Point Brewery, Stevens Point, WI
Silver: Staghorn Octoberfest, New Glarus Brewing Co., New Glarus, WI
Category: 34 American-Style Specialty Lager or Cream Ale or Lager, 34 Entries
Bronze: Mickey’s Malt Liquor, Miller Brewing Co., Milwaukee, WI
Category: 33 American-Style Lager, Light Lager or Premium Lager, 51 Entries
Silver: Miller Lite, Miller Brewing Co., Milwaukee, WI
Category: 30 Bohemian-Style Pilsener, 53 Entries
Gold: Hometown Blonde, New Glarus Brewing Co., New Glarus, WI
Category: 54 American-Style Amber/Red Ale, 87 Entries
Silver: Fixed Gear American Red Ale, Lakefront Brewery, Milwaukee, WI

Illinois

Category: 3 Fruit Beer, 58 Entries
Bronze: Strawberry Blonde Ale, DESTIHL, Normal, IL
Category: 18 American-Belgo-Style Ale, 71 Entries
Bronze: A Little Crazy, Revolution Brewing, Chicago, IL
Category: 46 English-Style Summer Ale, 38 Entries
Gold: Cross of Gold:, Revolution Brewing, Chicago, IL
Category: 48 English-Style India Pale Ale, 54 Entries
Gold: India Pale Ale, Goose Island Beer Co., Chicago, IL
Category: 50 American-Style Pale Ale, 109 Entries
Gold: Brickstone APA, Brickstone Brewery, Bourbonnais, IL
Silver: The Weight, Piece Brewery, Chicago, IL
Category: 54 American-Style Amber/Red Ale, 87 Entries
Silver: Fixed Gear American Red Ale, Lakefront Brewery, Milwaukee, WI
Category: 70 Belgian- and French-Style Ale, 68 Entries
Bronze: Domaine DuPage, Two Brothers Brewing Co., Warrenville, IL
Category: 66 South German-Style Hefeweizen, 70 Entries
Silver: Ebel’s Weiss, Two Brothers Brewing Co., Warrenville, IL

I sampled so many beers during the four days of the fest that it’s really pretty impossible to pinpoint a favorite. But there are a few general takeaways:

  • Hops are still big – The largest category in the competition was American IPA with over 200 entries. The festival floor was filled with lupulin-loaded pales, IPAs and Double IPAs. That’s not to mention black, rye, Belgian and wheat IPA.
  • Big is still big – High alcohol beers were very prevalent. That’s rough when there are over 2000 beers to sample. Though many sounded good, I left a lot of those on the tables.
  • Odd ingredients are big – Herb, spice and vegetable beer was the second largest category in the competition. Brewers are experimenting more than ever before. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not.
  • Barrels are still big – Whisky, rum, wine, new oak, you name it; beer at the festival was put into every kind of barrel. As with odd ingredients, often that’s a good thing.
  • Sour is bigger than ever – As I wandered the hall, it seemed that nearly every brewery brought a sour or “wild” beer of some kind. DeStihl in Illinois must have had ten taps of sours. I tasted several sours from breweries across the country. Some were deliciously tart and delicate – champagne-like. Others tasted more like foot. Just because you can call it sour doesn’t mean you should serve it.
  • While all of this experimentation is exciting, it’s also resulting in a number of beers of dubious character.
  • If you go to the GABF, spring for tickets to the Farm to Table Pavilion. It’s like heaven. Beers from selected breweries are sent to chefs for pairings. Some of the pairings this year were simply phenomenal. I got totally stuffed on small-plates. The pavilion is in a side hall and attendance is limited. It’s a quiet refuge from the deafening roar and hubbub of the main hall.
  • GABF gives one perspective on who’s hot nationally. Long lines formed in front of booths like Cigar City, Russian River, and Dogfish Head. It was interesting to go to a festival and not see a long line at the Surly booth. This isn’t to say that lines didn’t form there, but they were relatively short in comparison. But frankly, in a hall with 2700 beers on offer, why wait in line for that one-ounce pour?

Old Chicago Gold Medal Mini Tour

Saturday, August 4th, 2012

Truth be told, I don’t go to Old Chicago all that often. But they send me notices of each new mini-tour and every once in a while one will catch my attention – pique my curiosity. And so it was that the current one found me sitting at the Roseville location sampling beers.

Until August 19th, Old Chicago is featuring the Olympic-season-appropriate Gold Medal Mini Tour. The 8-beer tour is made up entirely of beers that have recently gone for the Gold in major national or international competition. This theme makes for an interesting and varied lineup. Remember that all of these competitions have Light American Lagers categories in addition to those for the more flavorful and funky brews. The Old Chicago selection of award-winners reflects that variety. At Roseville (three beers in the list vary from store to store) the list encompasses Michelob Ultra as well as Stone Cali-Belgique.

I didn’t sample the whole flight, as for some of them there was really no need. But here is the full list with notes for those that I did try.

Blue Moon Belgian White Ale

Michelob Ultra – Believe it or not, I had never tasted Michelob Ultra. I don’t tend to spend much energy on light beers. So it was with a certain amount of excitement that I raised the sampler to my lips. How do they make it so sweet when all the carbs are removed? It’s a mystery – a marvel of modern brewing science. And of course there was the green apple note that is the signature of AB products. I could see this being okay on a hot summer day if it is really ice cold. People are always complaining that beers like this win medals. Remember, the big-boys invented the category. Whether  or not you like the styles – or the breweries – they make them better than anyone else.

Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen – It had been over a decade since I had a Widmer Wheat. This is another hot-weather quencher. Crisp and dry with wheaty sharpness, it differs from other American wheat beers in its inclusion of subtle banana and clove yeast character. This could make a tasty everyday fridge beer. Nothing taxing, but tasty all the same.

Leinenkugel’s Berry Weiss

Schneider Weisse Tap 7 Original – This beer has won a ton of awards, and for good reason. It’s a great beer. It’s not called a dunkelweizen, but has many of the characteristics of one, including a dark-amber coloring. The sharp wheatiness is there. The full, yet light-bodied mouthfeel is there. Yeasty banana and clove are present, but not dominant. It’s rounded out by delicious caramel and dark fruit flavors with a touch of chocolate in the finish. Delightful! I just had to finish the bottle. Couldn’t let good beer go to waste.

Summit Extra Pale Ale

Stone Cali-Belgique IPA – Sometimes beers evoke images in my mind. While drinking this beer I could see the elegantly sleek outlines of modern industrial design; horizontal stonework, hanging light fixtures, exposed ventilation in the ceiling, and occasional flashes of corrugated steel. It’s bitter, but not the tongue scraper that I would expect from Stone. Peppery phenolics from Belgian yeast offer a nice complement to the spicy hops. A slight citrus edge adds bright highlights. The finish is clean and super-dry. This is an elegant beer.

Red Hook ESB – Another beer that I haven’t tasted in over a decade, this one took me back to the 90s when I lived in Chicago and waited tables at a restaurant in Evanston. It was a go-to craft beer at the time. Its reputation has faded since. It starts sharply bitter and then evolves to a caramel/toffee center. Bitterness lingers after swallowing. There was an intense fruitiness here; oranges and tangerines. It surprised us all. I don’t remember that strong fruitiness, but after more than 10 years, how much can I really remember of the taste of this beer?

MN Brewers Bringing it Strong to Duluth Beer Fest

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

The MN Craft Brewers Guild is heading out of the Twin Cities for the first time this weekend with the All Pints North Summer Beer Fest in Duluth.  If these exclusive and first-peek brews don’t make you want to sell the kids and pack up the house for a trip up north then I don’t know what will.

Fest Only Beers

Schell’s Fass Firebrick infused with red oak
Surly Fiery Hell aged on Hickory and Puya Chilies ON CASK!
Surly SYX (First Pour!!!)
Dubrue Strong Belgian Ale (First Pour) and Berliner Weiss
Badger Hill American Rye (First Pour)
Barley John’s Brew Pub – Cask Stockyard IPA with Sriracha(holy hot-sauce!)
Lift Bridge Brewing Co. Mango Hop Dish on cask
Summit Unchained No.10 Belgian Strong Dark on cask with Citra hops

But wait, there’s more!

La Lune Special Ale by Borealis Fermentery (Ever had Borealis Fermentery beer? I haven’t either. Can’t wait to try them.)
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I love pilsner. There will be pilsners a plenty from Harriet, Lift Bridge, and Vine Park.

Fruit & Spice beers anyone? Check these out.

Cardamom Porter  and Peppercorn Pale Ale by Barley John’s Brew Pub
Mon Cherries by Borealis Fermentery
Black Pepper IPA by Carmody Irish Pub
Apricot Wheat by Fitger’s Brewhouse
Mango Mama and Nitro Java Porter by Minneapolis Town Hall
Bourbon Barrel Coffee Mint Stout by South Shore Brewery
Cacao Bender by Surly

You wanna go, don’t you. There are still tickets left.

Glad I’m going to be there. I’m thinking my booth might be empty a good deal of the time…

Firkin Fest 2012: A Quick Recap

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Commander Barleywine Ale from Lift Bridge Beer Co.

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

On Saturday, Lift Bridge Brewing Company will celebrate the release of The Commander, an English-style barleywine aged in bourbon barrels from the Heaven Hill Distillery. It’s the brewery’s first barleywine, and also the first of what will hopefully be a long string of big-bottle, limited-batch releases.

The beer takes its name from the Commander grain elevator that towers over the city at the edge of the river just south of the lift bridge. The beer is as commanding at the building. At 12.5% ABV, it’s a bruiser of a beer. It’s as big in flavor as it is high in alcohol. Here’s my notes:

The Commander
Lift Bridge Brewing Company, Stillwater, Minnesota
Style: English Barleywine
Serving Style: 750 ml Bottle

Aroma: Poured into a small snifter, the aromas rise boldly from the glass. Bourbon and wood. Toasted oak and vanilla. Toffee. Lightly sweet with hints of golden raisins and alcohol.

Appearance: Clear. Jewel-like, dark-amber color with ruby highlights. The moderate off-white head dissipated fairly quickly into a fine film on the surface.

Flavor: Toffee, Toffee, Toffee! Brown sugar, vanilla, and bourbon work with the toffee to remind me of the Brach’s Chews I used to enjoy at my grandparents’ house, except that these are laced with alcohol. Wisps of orange citrus, oaky tannins, and still those golden raisins. Cardamom gives a unique fruitiness. Bitterness is moderate, just enough to keep it from being too sweet. It’s helped along by the abundant and boozy alcohol. As it warms it takes on tones of gooey caramel.

Mouthfeel: It makes my lips numb after just a couple of sips. Medium-full body, but well attenuated. Assertively warming.

Overall Impression: There is a lot going on in this beer. Toffee, cardamom fruitiness, bourbon, wood, and vanilla. It goes on and on and gets deeper as it warms. It’s delicious, but maybe a bit young. The flavors strike me as not quite melding. The main detractor is the prominent alcohol. It is quite boozy. My whole mouth was numb by the end of the first glass and the alcohol flavor was getting in the way. I think age will treat this one very, very well. The bottle says to drink it before 2020. That seems about right. Drink one now. Bury another one in the cellar and forget about it. It will be a great discovery years down the road.

The release party is happening at the Lift Bridge brewery in Stillwater on Saturday, November 19th from 3-8 pm. You’ll get to sample the beer, buy a bottle (limit 6), and participate in some fun and games while you’re at it. The website says this beer is so limited that it may not be made available in stores. If you want a bottle, best get your butt to the party. You can read more details about the event on the website.

St. Paul Summer Beer Fest: a Quick Recap

Monday, June 27th, 2011

The rain started to fall at about 12:30 as brewers and vendors were putting the final touches on their booths. Not a heavy rain, just a light but continuous drizzle. Enough to be annoying, but not enough to really get you wet. It was still raining as the bagpipes signaled that the start of the St. Paul Summer Beer Fest with the admission of the VIP early-entry ticket holders. Those folks got wet. Fortunately a good number of brewer-booths were under the canopy of the International Bazaar at the Minnesota State Fair Grounds. By 2:00 when the doors opened for general admission, the drizzle had largely stopped, leaving the rest of the fest with perhaps the best kind of beer-fest weather, overcast with temperatures around 80. No unwanted sunburn this year.

Once again Juno Choi and Mark Opdahl of Chop Liver LLC, along with an army of volunteers, put on a great fest. As in the past two years it was very well organized. From my own experience, very little was lacking. Although there were several water stations, drinking/rinse water coolers seemed in short supply or hard to find, at least in the “south forty” outside the confines of the actual Bazaar where I spent a good deal of my festival time. People kept asking after water. Next to the education tent were coolers full of water in which various hops and malt had been steeped. I got a kick out of watching the expressions on faces as people filled their glasses expecting straight water and got a mouthful of Saaz hop instead.

The change in venue was a good one. The International Bazaar seemed perfect for the event. Each booth was like a little chicken cage with chain link on which brewers could hang their banners. The canopy was nice during the early-hours drizzle. Behind the actual Bazaar was an overflow area where several brewers’ booths were located along with the education tent, the charity dunking booth, and the VIP hang-out tent. It looked to me like the location outside the main event did little to stop people from visiting those booths. The fact that Surly was out back probably didn’t hurt.

I’m not sure how many brewers were actually in attendance, but I’ll call it “a bunch.” In the program I count 80-ish. There didn’t seem to be any big new-comers this year aside from the new entries into the Minnesota market; Alaskan, Olvalde, Brooklyn et al.

No one brought any really exciting beers this year. The selection was mostly culled from the normal offerings of each brewery. That said, Rock Bottom was pouring from bottles of their barrel-aged, bottle-conditioned series and had a couple of beers from the new Brewmaster Bob McKenzie. I was also happy to see a Genesee Cream Ale booth (really). I have been thinking about that beer for a little while and it was good to have the opportunity to enjoy a sample at the fest.

Overall, the beer selection was disappointing to me. Was I in a bad mood? Definitely not. Have I grown hyper-critical from my beer-travels through the Midwest? Perhaps. Maybe I’ve just become jaded. Or was my palate off for some reason? All I can say for sure is that very little stood out to me as special. Granted, I didn’t try nearly all of them and most of the breweries’ regular offerings are tasty. There just wasn’t anything that made me say “wow.” Several beers even stood out as less than adequate. It was a bad day for saisons in particular. I tried many and didn’t care for any.

The one beer that was memorable to me was apparently also memorable to others, as it took the People’s Choice Award. That one was Engine 20, a smoked pale ale from Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Co. It was unique without being extreme. It had a very drinkable malt/hop balance and just enough smoke to make it interesting. Great Lakes won the best-of-fest last year with Nosferatu Imperial Red ale. They must be doing something right in Cleveland.

OMG Cheese & Beer Pairings at Cooks of Crocus Hill

Friday, May 6th, 2011

Wednesday night was all about local beer and cheese at the St. Paul Cooks of Crocus Hill. I paired up with James Norton and Becca Dilley, the folks behind The Heavy Table and authors of The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin, to bring together what are arguably the two best products to come out of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Guests were welcomed with a glass of Schell’s Pils to start the evening off. Once everyone was seated, we got down to business. As we got our introductions out of the way, Becca was wielding a skillet to heat up the first cheese, Brun Uusto from Brunkow Cheese of Darlington, Wisconsin. This munch-worthy American twist on the Finnish Juustoleipa-style cheese is buttery, salty, mild, and a bit oily. Light caramelized flavors made it a great match for Proper, a malt-forward English Bitter from Furthermore Beer in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

My second favorite pairing of the night was Surly Bender with Upland’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese. This is a fantastic cheese to begin with. It’s won the equivalent of Best of Show at the American Cheese Society three times. Pleasant Ridge Reserve is dry and nutty with gentle grassy background flavors that make for a “heavenly chorus” pairing with Surly’s nutty oatmeal brown ale. Both have big flavors, but they are evenly matched with one another. The nuttiness of one speaks to the nuttiness of the other. The beer and cheese together amplify some floral notes that are absent when tasted separately. You really should rush out and try this combination.

The pairing that really made my mind explode was Matacabras from Dave’s BrewFarm with Meadowlark, a cloth-bound, cave-aged cheddar from Pastureland in Goodhue, Minnesota. This is one unusual cheddar. The cave-aging lends it loads of funky, mushroomy funk that you wouldn’t normally associate with cheddar cheese. These melded seamlessly with the funky Belgian yeast flavors in the beer. Matacabras leans to the sweet side and drips caramel and dark fruit. These flavors offered a wondrous counterbalance to the deep, umami flavors of the cheese.

Although not the official pairing, Matacabras also went beautifully with the next cheese, Amablu, a cave-aged blue cheese from Faribault Dairy. Think blue cheese with fig puree. Fantastic. The actual pairing to this cheese was Summit Horizon Red. This beer’s slight caramel residual sweetness counters the sharpness of the blue cheese while dirty, grassy Horizon hops pick up the tangy moldiness.

The “dessert” pairing was also very nice; Crave Brothers Mascarpone with Tyranena’s bourbon-barrel aged Rocky’s Revenge. The cheese has a creamy sweetness of its own that was amplified by the rich vanilla and whisky flavors of this sweet-leaning beer. While full flavored, Rocky’s Revenge is not so heavy as to overpower this fairly lightweight cheese. The orange biscuits served with the cheese sent the whole ensemble over the top.

Gold Sovereign Ale, the 6th beer in Summit’s Unchained Series, made a great match for Hook’s 7-Year Cheddar from Hook’s Cheese Company of Mineral Point, Wisconsin. The beer is hoppy and bitter bit has enough backing sweetness to pick up the creamy sweetness of the cheese. With wine they say, “if it grows together, it goes together.” The same can be said of beer. Cheddar cheese and English India Pale Ale are a can’t miss combination.

I can’t wait to do this class again; sometime, somewhere. In the mean time I may just have to pick up some of these cheeses and beers to re-experience the pairings on my own.

Crispin Cider Dinner at Kieran’s Irish Pub

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Monday night Kieran’s Irish Pub played host to a sumptuous, 7-course, cider-pairing dinner featuring Crispin Ciders and Fox Barrel ciders. Kieran’s chef James Kelly and his staff whipped up some apple-tastic delights that were prepared and paired with cider. Attendees were treated to a taste of 2-Gingers Irish Whiskey, a brand commissioned by Kieran’s along with a few other local eateries for in-house sale. The menu also featured the charcuterie of Green Ox meats, a local purveyor of artisan sausages and cured meats, as well as a couple of new-ish treats from Crispin; “cream cider” and a new version of the Fox Barrel Pear Cider.

Until now the popular (at least in our house) Fox Barrel Pear Cider has been an apple cider flavored with pear juice. The new version is a true perry, made from 100% pear juice. Unaware that we had this new version in front of us, the first thing we noticed was an extraordinary aroma of flowers, honey, and pears. Thinking this aromatic explosion was due to the glassware, we started planning a trip to the kitchen store. It wasn’t until Crispin CEO Joe Heron let us in on the secret that we realized it was actually the cider. Besides the intensified aromas, the new recipe has a richer, fruitier flavor with interesting woody background notes. It’s a nice change.

Cream cider is actually Crispin Original served on nitrogen gas like Guinness. The problem with nitrogen gas is that is lightens the flavor of whatever it’s pushing. That doesn’t matter so much with the intense roastiness of a Guinness Stout, but with a lighter drink like cider it leads to a fairly bland experience on its own. It looks pretty though; bright golden color with a huge, cascading, white head.

We were served the cream cider in one of two cider/whiskey cocktails featuring 2 Gingers whiskey. I’m not a whiskey drinker. I’ve never been able to tolerate even the smell of it. However, the cocktails disguised the flavor enough that they weren’t too bad. The first of them was a Crispin Spritzer with Crispin Original, 2 Gingers, and seltzer. A wedge of lime added a nice tart citrus touch. The second, Ginger Cream, consisted of the cream cider with 2 Gingers whiskey and Canton ginger liquor.

The food and the pairings were fantastic. The first course, an Amuse Bouche consisting of warm Green Ox pork rillettes and wild mushroom 2 gingers fricassee piled on top of a chicharon chip and surrounded by caramelized-Crispin apples, was fantastic. It was like apple-cinnamon bacon. Amuse bouche means amusing bite, and this really was just a bite. It left me wanting more.

The second course was a butternut squash and pear cider soup. The cider flavor came through clearly in the soup and was a wonderful sweet/tart match to the squash. It made for a great pairing with the new Fox Barrel pear cider. Bleu cheese crusted walnuts and fried herbs added a savory touch.

The fourth course was another stand-out to me; seared sea scallops wrapped in Green Ox cured loin over a roasted tomato puree. It was infused with just a touch of chili oil that gave it some zip. The tomato puree was to die for and really set off the sweetness of the scallop and the saltiness of the cured loin. It was a little too salty for my dining partner, but I didn’t mind that. Paired with Crispin brut it was excellent.

The star of the meal was desert (no surprise there, really); crème de banana crepes. The banana crème stuffed crepes were had a dollop of semi-fredo made with Crispin’s the Saint cider. I had to ask the chef what a semi-fredo was. Seems it’s one of those high-tech, cooking-with-science creations made with liquid nitrogen; something about the intense cold coagulating the cream and other stuff that I only barely understood. Anyway, it was like cider ice cream and it was good. There was a drizzling of cider glaze, basically a Saint Cider reduction. The reduction process intensified the flavors, bringing delicious caramel-apple flavor and a bright, contrasting bit of acidity. The pairing with the Saint cider was fantastic. Fermented with Belgian ale yeast, the Saint has unique banana and spice flavors that perfectly complemented the dish.

A warm fennel-sausage and potato salad with arugula and Browns Lane cider vinaigrette was nice, but would have been better had it actually arrive warm. The main course was a cider marinated brisket served with root vegetables roasted in honey and Honey Crisp cider with a whiskey and cider demi-glace. The flavor was very nice, especially the vegetables, but the brisket was a bit overdone; easy to do with brisket.

All in all it was a fun evening. I’m all about beer and food pairing, but I’m starting to see the potential of partnering cider with food as well. I might have to expand my pairing vocabulary for my clients’ private beer dinner parties.