Brewer Interview: Dane Breimhorst – Burning Brothers Brewing

May 12th, 2014

Burning Brothers Brewing

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

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

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

Add water and stir?

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

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

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

What exactly is Celiac disease?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do you use instead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dane Breimhorst(2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about roasted grains?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stone Spröcket Bier Black Rye Kölsch

April 29th, 2014

Black Rye Kölsch!??! What the #&@$? Really?

I recently wrote a piece for the Growler Magazine decrying the tyranny of style. But really? Black Rye Kölsch? That doesn’t even make sense. Why evoke the word kölsch when the beer apparently has nothing kölsch-like about it? I mean, kölsch isn’t just a style invented for American competition guidelines; it’s an actual thing, defined by an international convention that spells out what it is and where it can be brewed?

Dick & Robbie’s Spröcket Bier is the first entry in Stone Brewing Co.’s Stone Spotlight Series, the product of an intra-brewery competition engaging all brewery employees in the creation of small-batch beers. As described on the brewery blog:

“in [order] to keep the ingenuity and enjoyability factors up at our brewery, we engaged in a year-long intra-company brewing competition that pitted single members of our brew staff and two-brewer teams against each other in a light-hearted yet extremely serious battle to see whose beer dream reigned supreme. That competition was dubbed the Stone Spotlight Series.”

Spröcket Bier was created by Quality Production Assurance Lead Rick Blankemeier and Production Warehouse Lead Robbie Chandler. It was based on a rye kölsch homebrew recipe. Blackness was applied as a nod to the Stone reputation for extremity. Like the black IPA and white stout before it, it is an oxymoron of a beer. But can this contradictory brew be good?

Here’s my notes:

Stone Spröcket Bier Black Rye KölschDick & Robbie’s Spröcket Bier
Stone Brewing Co., Escondido, California
Style: “Black Rye Kölsch”
Serving Style: 22 oz. bottle

Aroma: Low roasted malt – French roast coffee and bitter chocolate. Doughy, bready. Confectioner’s sugar sweetness. Low spicy, blackberry/current Hallertau hops. Moderate fruity notes – tangerine or pear.

Appearance: Black and nearly opaque with reddish highlights. Appears clear. Full head of sturdy, creamy, beige foam with excellent retention.

Flavor: Dry, espresso roast hits tip of tongue. A bit or roast astringency lasts through to the finish. Mid-palate is very pilsner-like – low, grainy pils malt character and the spicy, licorice, blackberry/current of Hallertau hops. Hop bitterness is medium, enhanced by roast. Rye character comes out just before swallowing and after – dry, spicy, rye bread. Finish is dry with lingering bitterness and roast astringency. Low pear-like fruity esters. Midway through the bottle the roast falls back, allowing a more kölsch or pilsner-like beer to emerge.
Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Medium carbonation. Moderate astringency.

Overall Impression: My experience of this beer changed as I drank. Temperature? Palate conditioning? At first I didn’t care for it. It made me angry. Why even evoke the name kölsch? It had nothing particularly kölsch-like about it beyond continental hops and a certain yeastiness in the nose. A coffee-ish pilsner perhaps? Coffee schwarzbier? It was too roasty for schwarzbier, but came closer to that than kölsch. I enjoyed the moments when the pilsner-like characteristics came through, but then that dry, Irish-stout type roastiness would get in the way. Dry, dry, dry. Dry roast. Dry finish. All enhanced by the dry impression of rye. But the longer I drank, the less the roast got in the way. The pilsner/kölsch character began to burst through. It kept flipping back and forth between roast and kölsch – an interesting, schizophrenic flickering in my brain. By the end of the bottle I was kind of digging it. Still, I don’t think I would call it a kölsch.

Fulton Beer’s New Production Facility

April 17th, 2014

I first interviewed the guys from Fulton Brewing about four years ago. They had come out of nowhere to put beer in bars all over the metro. No one knew who they were or what they were up to. The interview was conducted in a garage in the Fulton neighborhood of South Minneapolis. We drank beers poured from corny kegs in a chest freezer. At the time they were contract brewing their beer at Sand Creek Brewing in Black River Falls, Wisconsin.

They have come a long way since then. I just a few years they opened their taproom near target field, taking over the brewing of all of the kegged product, while moving bottled beer production to Point Brewing in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Last year Fulton’s total production was around 15,000 barrels. That’s a lot of beer. This year they will complete construction of a new 7 million dollar facility in Northeast Minneapolis that will increase their capacity to a point that they don’t even know. For the first time Fulton will be producing all of its own beer in-house.

I had a chance to visit the facility last night. Quite impressive.


Beer & Wine University is back!

April 2nd, 2014

Beer/Wine University

Due to overwhelming success of our fall Beer/Wine University Series, Sommelier Leslee Miller of Amusee and Certified Cicerone® Michael Agnew of A Perfect Pint are bringing the popular libation bootcamp back – not just once, but twice a year!

Each session we promise to mix up the fun & education, so you can build upon your repertoire of delicious wine and beer knowledge. If you made it to our last series, come again! It’ll be different each time around.

The next session’s fun starts on April 17th and runs three consecutive Thursdays May 1st!

When: April 17, 24th & May 1st. Class starts promptly at 6:30pm and will run until 8:30pm.

Where:  The Carlyle Building, 100 3rd Ave S, Minneapolis

Parking: There is absolutely no inside building parking.  Street parking is available, along with an open air CASH pay lot across the street from the building.

Cost: $40 per class session or sign up for all three at once and receive a $20 discount!

Buy your ticket here!

Contact Leslee Miller directly at leslee@amuseewine.com for all questions & inquiries, DO NOT contact The Carlyle Building

Session #1 – April 17th: Back to Basics: Wine/Beer Bootcamp: Learn the basics of beer and wine with two of the Twin Cities’ most passionate beer and wine educators, Sommelier Leslee Miller and Cicerone Michael Agnew. From styles, regions, grape varietals to all the sensory perspectives of grains to grapes – Michael and Leslee introduce the basics of beer/wine in this introductory 2 hour course.

Session #2 – April 24th:  Pantry Pairings: Understand the basics of how to pair beer and wine to the world of food. Whether the dish is light and bright, salty and savory, or earthy and umami, you’ll learn the time-tested tricks of correctly pairing the right libations to the right foods and gain an understanding of when the ‘old school’ rules need not apply.

The best part…we’re pairing to all the easy eats that you prepare Monday through Thursday; things found in your pantry, from guacamole, chips & dip to Minnesota hot dish! We have the libation answers to your weeknight cravings.

Session #3 – May 1st:  Open that Bottle Night!: Looking to really step outside your box?  This is the class for you!  From weird and whacky grape varietals, obscure growing regions, and funky vintaged wines to the world’s most interesting specialty and extreme beers (and maybe a beer cocktail to boot!), this class takes your knowledge of beer and wine to the next level.  Beverage selections for this class won’t be revealed until the night of!

Northern Lights Rare Beer Fest

March 31st, 2014

northern-lights-rare-beer-fest

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

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

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

So how did it go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August Schell 30th Anniversary Pilsner Collection

March 8th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s my notes:

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

19841984

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

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

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

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

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

20142014

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

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

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

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

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

roggenRoggen

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

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

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

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Effervescent carbonation.

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

mandarinaMandarina

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

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

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

Mouthfeel: Medium-full body. Medium carbonation.

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

Summit Unchained #15: Fest Bier

March 8th, 2014

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

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

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

Here’s my notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rye on Rye 2014 from Boulevard Brewing Co.

February 21st, 2014

Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City, Missouri is an example of both the past and the future of the industry. Founded in 1989, it was a pioneer among small brewers in the Midwest. Boulevard started small, with a business plan that foresaw eventual expansion to 6000 barrels of production annually. As was the case with small breweries in the “olden days,” growth was slow, but steady. By 2006 the brewery was able to expand into a custom-built facility adjacent to the original brewhouse, growing production to 600,000 barrels, making it the largest craft brewer in the Midwest and the 12th largest in the country. In addition to the 150-barrel brewhouse, packaging lines, and administrative offices, the new building also boasts several event spaces. It’s quite a facility and worth a visit if you are in the area.

So how does Boulevard represent the future? Last year the brewery was sold to Belgian beer maker Duvel-Moortgat. Purchases of this kind are going to become more frequent, I believe. First, they represent a growing interest on the part of large brewing companies to get a slice of the growing craft-beer pie. Another example of this is AB-InBev’s purchase of Goose Island and Blue Point.

Also, such purchases are a reflection of the aging of the first generation of craft brewers. Old-school founders such as Boulevard’s John McDonald reaching retirement age. They are looking for a way out. The companies they built are too large for other small brewers to purchase. Lacking a clear exit strategy, they are turning to larger concerns that have the wherewithal to do the deal. The same was true in the case of Anchor Brewing when Fritz Maytag sold it to a group of investors a few years ago. While some may decry this as a negative trend, I see it as a sign of a successful industry.

Boulevard built its reputation on a solid lineup of beers brewed to classic style. It has supplemented that with its Smokestack Series of specialty brews and a newer collection of barrel-aged, sour beers. Rye on Rye is produced annually as part of the Smokestack Series. It’s a 12% ABV rye ale aged in barrels that once held Templeton Rye whiskey.

Here’s my notes:

Brand_Rye_on_Rye2014 Rye on Rye
Boulevard Brewing, Kansas City, Missouri
Style: Barrel-aged Rye Ale
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle

Aroma: Bread crust and whiskey. Soft background notes of oak, vanilla and toffee. Whiskey and toffee aromas blend nicely, leaving it unclear where one ends and the other begins. Some alcohol is apparent. Dark fruity notes – dates.

Appearance: Medium amber/red. Hazy. Full, stiff, creamy head of off-white to ivory foam. Excellent retention.

Flavor: Alcohol is evident from start to finish – just shy of being hot. Caramel and toffee malt is the dominant theme, with spicy, bread-like rye gaining intensity mid-palate and lingering into the finish. Rye whiskey and wood places a close second. Date and orange citrus fruitiness fills in the cracks. Raisin comes in as the beer warms. Hop bitterness is medium-low, but supported by the spicy bite of rye. The finish is dry with lingering alcohol, toffee, rye spice, and dark fruits.

Mouthfeel: Full body, but well attenuated. High carbonation. High alcohol warming. Light astringency in the finish.

Overall Impression: Rye on Rye is a full-throttle sensory assault. It’s packed with complex flavors, but my problem is that is lacks nuance. It seems to hit me all at once like a brick wall. It becomes like the white noise static on an unoccupied television frequency. There is a lot going on, but I’m missing layers to explore. That and the high alcohol make it a one-and –done beer for me. I’ve never allowed a bottle of this to age. I wonder if that would smooth it out a bit and bring more dimension.

Locally Brewed: Portraits of Craft Breweries from America’s Heartland

February 18th, 2014

locallybrewed

The Midwest is the historic center of the American brewing industry. While brewing in this country may have begun on the East Coast, it was the mid-19th century German immigrants who settled in places like Milwaukee and St. Louis that built it up from a collection of small businesses into an industrial juggernaut that wielded significant economic and political clout. Names like Frederick Miller, Joseph Schlitz, Valentin Blatz, Frederick Pabst, and Adolphus Busch are still legendary for their achievements. Theirs were among the first truly national brewing concerns. The agitation of the men (and it was mostly men) who worked for them was foundational in the formation of the American labor movement. The significance of the early Midwestern beer industry cannot be overstated.

For the last few decades though, the position of the Midwest has been viewed in a mostly negative light by fans of better beer. The region remained a powerhouse, but of a much diminished industry. The smaller, regional producers mostly gone, Miller and Anheuser-Busch dominated the market producing hundreds of millions of barrels of beers that were largely indistinguishable. Their marketing budgets and market leverage made it difficult for the new craft beer movement to gain a foothold.

And so, in what had been the beer capital of the nation, craft beer was slow to get going. Like so many fashion trends, the movement came in from the coasts. That’s not to say that there weren’t significant pioneers in the region. Breweries like Summit, Schell’s, Boulevard, James Page, Capital, Goose Island and others worked hard to create a solid foundation upon which later-comers could build. But the real wave has only recently arrived. It corresponds with the boom that is happening across the country, but here in the nation’s symbolic beer center the result has been particularly exciting. Both in terms of the pace of growth and the quality of product, the Midwest is once again assuming a position of importance.

Anna Blessing’s new book Locally Brewed: Portraits of Craft Breweries from America’s Heartland does a good job of tracing this return to prominence. Blessing gives revealing profiles of twenty breweries in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. The profiles are arranged chronologically according to the brewery’s date of founding, allowing the reader to follow the development of the region’s craft beer scene. The portraits reveal the transformation of the hurdles each brewer faced from one of building a consumer base into a struggle to keep up with demand.

Blessing says that her passion is finding and learning about the people who do what they love practicing their craft. Her last book, Locally Grown: Portraits of Artisanal Farms from America’s Heartland, showcased Midwestern farmers at the center of the local food movement. For her a book on small, local brewers was a natural follow-up. She says that beer is in her blood. She was raised in Portland, Oregon, perhaps the craft beer capital of the nation. She is a distant descendant of the owners of the Stenger Brewery that operated in Naperville, Illinois in the 1800s.

Blessing’s easy to read and engaging profiles tell the story of each brewery’s beginnings and then go on to describe some interesting tidbit about the place, be it the history of Three Floyd’s Dark Lord Day or Jolly Pumpkin brewer Ron Jeffries’ insights on brewing sour beers in the US. Mostly the book is about the people behind the breweries, as they describe their experiences founding and running their operations.

If you go into any brewery you are likely to hear music blaring over the din of fork lifts, bottling lines, and brew kettles. Music and brewing are almost inseparable. Blessing pays homage to this by including a brewery playlist in each profile, a touch that gives a unique glimpse into the psyche of each place. One element of the book that I didn’t quite understand was the “Get a Pint” sidebar for each brewery. A complete listing of where to find each brewery’s wares would be impossible. As she only lists one to four for each, I fail to see the point. Perhaps they are in her view the best places to find the beers. I’m just not sure.

Three Minnesota brewers are featured among the profiles; August Schell, Surly, and Steel Toe.

Overall Blessings book is a quick and entertaining read that provides and interesting insight into craft beer in the heartland. It’s definitely worth a read. And as a selfish plug, it makes a great companion to my own A Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland, a guide to breweries in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois that is due out this spring from the University of Illinois Press.

Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale

February 17th, 2014

With the sheer number of new brews and breweries entering the state – both local and non-local – it gets harder and hard for me at least to get excited about them. It gets harder and harder to even know about them, frankly. I don’t envy the people who do the marketing. It must be a difficult task to get your beers front and center in the minds of beer drinkers.

But once in a while a brewery enters the market that piques my interest. Sometimes it’s the brewery’s reputation that recommends it. Sometimes I think it’s just that those marketing people have done their job well in bringing the beers to my attention. Sometimes it’s both.

Oskar Blues is case in point. The 17-year-old brewery has a solid reputation. It opened in 1997 as a tiny brewpub in Lyons, Colorado, brewing beer in the basement. By 1998 it was already winning medals at the Great American Beer Festival. Oskar Blues started the canned-beer revolution. In 2002 it was the first US craft brewery to can its own beer to put its beer in cans. It started canning its beer in 2002, making it among the first US craft breweries to put its beer in cans. Equipment upgrades made it the largest producing brewpub in America by 2006, and the medals just kept on coming. 2008 saw the opening of a larger production facility, further increasing capacity and distribution capability. In 2012 Oskar Blues became one of the first craft breweries to open a second brewing facility, this one in North Carolina. And the medals continued to come.

In addition to this reputation, both the brewery’s PR machine and the Twin Cities distributor Original Gravity worked overtime to publicize the local launch. For anyone who pays attention to such things, it was hard to miss.

I’ve had nearly all the Oskar Blues main-line beers over time. They have been available in Wisconsin for some time, and I’ve been to the original Lyons pub. The quality has never been in question. I was interested though in giving them another shot and paying closer attention. The flagship Dale’s Pale Ale, the one that pretty much started it all for Oskar Blues, seemed a good place to start.

Here’s my notes:

Dale's Pale AleDale’s Pale Ale
Oskar Blues Brewing Company, Longmont, Colorado
Style: American IPA
Serving Style: 12 oz. can

Aroma: Hops dominate – citrus, tangerine, fresh grapefruit, stone fruits. Some orangy citrus esters. Biscuity malt provides a counterpoint. Light caramel.

Appearance: Medium to medium-dark gold. Clear. Full head of creamy, white foam with larger bubbles interspersed. Excellent retention.

Flavor: Very balanced. Bitterness is medium-high, balanced by medium-low malt sweetness. Bitterness is the focus of the hops, but tangerine, grapefruit, and stone fruit hop flavors do make an impression. Malt provides a solid base of caramel and dry, English-like biscuit. Low orangy esters. The finish is just off-dry with lingering citrus-pith bitterness.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Medium-high carbonation. Low astringency.

Overall Impression: A very balanced IPA. Falls somewhere between English and American styles. The malt is all English. The hops are all American. I would have liked a bit more emphasis on hop flavor over bitterness, and a little less of the lingering, astringent bitterness in the finish. But that’s just how I like my IPAs. Overall a quite tasty brew.