Friday night saw seven hundred Minnesota beer fans assemble at the Minnesota History Center for Winterfest 2010. The annual winter beer festival presented by the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild is a showcase of all things beer in the land of lakes. Seventeen Minnesota breweries and brewpubs were on hand pouring over seventy-five beers. The arrangement of the History Center was much better this year than last, spreading out the brewery tables to prevent crowding of the narrow hallways and allow easier movement and more comfortable imbibing. The only downside to the arrangement was that it was sometimes a challenge to find the particular breweries that I was looking for. Another plus this year was the plentiful food. In past years the food was usually picked over and nearly gone by the time I felt the need to refuel. This year there was still food to be had at multiple feeding stations right up to the end of the event. One of the greatest things about Winterfest is the presence of the brewers behind the serving tables. The only missing faces this year were Jeff and Cathie Williamson from Flat Earth who just welcomed their new daughter Heather into the world a couple of days ago. I guess they can be excused for missing. Beer was flowing, kilts were on display (though fewer than in previous years), and it seemed all festival goers were having a great time.
So what about the beers? In general I found the beer selection to be wanting in comparison to past Winterfests that I have attended. The variety of styles was a bit limited, lots of heavy stouts and big IPAs. It seemed like the brewers brought fewer special beers this year and there were fewer that stood out in the crowd. That said, there were some real winners and a few that were not so great as well.
For my money, Town Hall Brewery had the most interesting and consistently tasty selection of beers at the event. If the lines at their table are any indication, I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Nearly everything that I tasted from Town Hall was wonderful. Especially noteworthy for me was LSD, an ale brewed with lavender, honey and dates. It has a wonderful floral aroma and a flavor that starts out dry and hoppy only to explode with honey and raisin sweetness mid-palate. I loved it at Autumn Brew Review and still love it now. Also impressive were Twisted Jim, an American barleywine aged in Jim Beam barrels, and Russian Roulette, a huge, rich, chocolaty imperial stout served on cask.
Recounting my top-five of the fest, starting at number five is Smoked Porter from Rock Bottom Brewery. This smoked porter is made with 25% cherry wood smoked malt for a char-pit kind of smoke flavor that is totally different than the familiar meaty smoke of the classic Rauchbiers of Germany. A year ago I had a cherry wood smoked bock at Goose Island in Chicago that blew my mind. Ever since, I have been searching for another cherry wood smoked beer that works as well as that one did. I have tried many, including a couple others at Winterfest. Most have failed. While it didn’t blow my mind, the Rock Bottom Porter really worked.
Number four goes to Flat Earth’s Winter Warlock Barleywine. I have always loved Winter Warlock. Lacking the intense caramel and dark specialty malts of most English barleywines, this golden barleywine finds layered depth in simplicity, just English base malt and sugar. The 2009 batch is good now, but will be even better next year. While I am talking about Flat Earth, let me move on to my number three pick, the Grand Design S’more infused porter. This was the Great Snowshoe best beer of the festival winner this year as chosen by the attendees. I hate s’mores, but I really do like this beer. Built on the base of one of my favorite local beers, Cygnus X-1 porter, it explodes with vanilla, cocoa, and graham cracker sweetness that really does remind one of flaming marshmallows on a stick by the fireside.
My number two beer is the above mentioned LSD from Town Hall. I described it briefly up top, so suffice it to say here that it is a floral and fruity delight. A truly unique beer.
For my personal best beer of the festival I chose Unoaked Rosie’s Reserve from Barley John’s. This is a huge and hugely complex beer. While others opined that they preferred the oaked version, I am somewhat tired of bourbon barrel aged beers. I’m not that fond of bourbon to begin with and I think they have been overdone. The lack of bourbon and vanilla flavors in this 15.5% beer allowed for the discovery of delicious caramel and dark fruit without a trace of hot alcohols. Another beer that coaxes complexity from simplicity.
A few other beers deserve mention. I enjoyed the Winterye Mix and Blackwatch Oat Stout from Great Waters Brewing Co. Surly Mild was delightful as always and Four was tasty, but I want to reserve judgment until I can actually taste more than a couple ounces. It took on a kind of chalky, charred flavor that annoyed me slightly the more of it I drank. Winter Wheat from Rock Bottom was a great palate cleanser to end the evening.
A couple of beers for me missed the mark. Fitger’s Undertow Pilsner seemed a bit thin and flavorless. It could be because I had been sampling the endless number of imperial stouts and barleywines before I arrived there, but normally I like to seek out a pilsner as refuge from the huge. This one did not provide it. Great Waters’ Vulcanus Rex cherrywood smoked beer took the char pit smoke to an unpleasant level. The Smoked Doppelbock from the Herkimer Pub & Brewery, another cherrywood smoked beer, promised greatness with the aroma and then failed to deliver. The worst disaster of the evening in my view was the Chipotle Wee Heavy from Town Hall. All I can say is what a waste of their great Wee Heavy.