2010 St. Paul Summer Beer Fest Recap

So what’s the deal with beer, kilts, and bagpipes? I have never quite understood this. While I love a good Scottish ale as much as the next guy, I don’t consider Scotland to be a world beer Mecca. And yet, at any beer event in the country you will see more kilts per square foot than perhaps any place else in the US. And bagpipes are the traditional starting bell of nearly every festival. I remain bemusedly baffled.

And so it was at the second annual St. Paul summer beer fest. At precisely noon the pipers piped to signal the start for those lucky enough to have snagged early entry VIP tickets. This year’s fest was bigger than last year, making it perhaps the largest beer festival in the Twin Cities, if not the state. Once again it was well managed and just crowded enough to be exciting but remain comfortable in the large expanse of the Midway Stadium parking lot. I only wish I had remembered sunblock. Last year I got burned to a crisp as well. You would think I might have learned.

And that brings me to one of the better beers at the event, Minnesota Tan from Lift Bridge Brewery. Minnesota Tan aptly demonstrates that an easy-drinking summer beer doesn’t necessarily have to be a small beer. This Belgian Tripel style ale is light and refreshing with lively tartness from the fermented lingonberries. First released last year, this year’s version is better balanced and less pink. It goes down easy. Almost too easy, because at 9% ABV it won’t take too many of these to mess you up under the hot summer sun.

San Francisco’s 21st Amendment was pouring two versions of their Hell or High Watermelon Wheat from watermelons. The first was the straight-up watermelon wheat. I have always enjoyed this beer, but soaking it in a watermelon upped the fruity flavors, making it a great summery ale that reminded me of seed spitting fights as a kid. The other version was infused further with cucumber and jalapeño. I am not a chili beer fan, so I was hesitant. The watermelon and cucumber gave this one a wet coolness that was followed by a gentle pepper burn on the way down. I liked it.

I had a great time sampling experimental IPAs with Aran Madden, the brewer at Furthermore Beer. He was in town a while back for a Brew with the Brewmaster event at Vine Park that I wrote about in an earlier post. At the fest we tasted four of six India influenced IPAs that were brewed that day. Very unique. Think English style IPA with curry. None were bad, some were better than others. You can expect more about these beers in a future post.

I finally had the opportunity to taste Flying Dog’s Raging Bitch Belgian IPA. It has been around for a while, I know. I just never got around to trying it. I’m not normally such a fan of the Belgian IPAs. The Belgian yeast phenolics clash with the high level of hops on my palate. I didn’t really mind this one though. It seemed well balanced and didn’t strike me with the same harshness that others tend toward. Or maybe I was getting delirious under the hot St. Paul sun.

My long conversation with the young guys from Tall Grass Brewing Company out of Manhattan, Kansas was a highlight of the day for me. Only four years old, the brewery is growing fast with an output of nearly 5000 barrels a year. Their brewery currently shares space with a limo service garage, so you might say that they are brewing in the underbelly of luxury. I particularly liked their Oasis Double ESB. Nice English style malts with bracing and sharp bitterness in a 7% ale. A good one for sipping of the patio as the cooling of a Minnesota evening starts to set in. Tall Grass beers will be showing up in Minnesota stores in the next couple of months.

I sampled a number of other very nice beers, including Goose Island’s Pepe Nero black pepper dark saison, and Geary’s Hampshire Ale and London Porter. The winner of the people’s choice best-of-fest beer was Great Lakes Nosferatu Imperial Red Ale. Unfortunately I did not try this one, so I have no comment.

Once again Juno, Mark, and crew did a great job putting this one together. The St. Paul Summer Beer Fest is a fantastic addition to the Twin Cities beer scene.

All Photos by Mark Roberts.
For more on the fest and the National Homebrewers Conference that also happened this weekend check out my Hoppress Blog.

Furthermore Beer at Vine Park

The table full of exotic ingredients in the bottling area of St. Paul’s Vine Park Brewing hinted that something interesting was about to take place. Around twenty-five people milled about surveying the little baggies of cardamom, coriander, fenugreek, cilantro, and black pepper, anticipating the brewing adventure that awaited us. This was the scene on Monday morning at Vine Park’s second Brew with the Brewmaster event featuring Aran Madden and Chris Staples, the two-man team that is Furthermore Beer.

The idea of the Brew with the Brewmaster events is to give beer enthusiasts an opportunity to interact with professional brewers. Brewers create recipes and then work with guests to actually brew those beers on Vine Park’s brew-on-premise system. It’s an opportunity to see firsthand how brewers work and to witness the minute-to-minute adjustments that brewers make during a brew session. And best of all, after two weeks each participant gets to take home bottles of the beers they brewed. “This is fun.” said Vine Park co-owner Daniel Justesen of the Furthermore event. “It’s been interactive. It’s been exciting. It’s been recreating things on the fly and adapting to the environment. That’s what makes brewing fun, taking things from here and there and turning it into something that’s hopefully going to taste great. And it sure smells great in here.”

As Furthermore brewmaster Aran Madden explained it, the theme for this brew was “taking India Pale Ale back from the colonizers.” Each of the six beers was a unique take on the pale ale or India pale ale style using pungent Indian spices as flavoring elements. “I’m pretty excited about the beers. I think that this ‘real ales of India’ could be a thing.” said Madden. “It’s just funny that for us as a beer culture, it’s not just that it’s a style; it’s the dominant style in craft brewing right now. And nobody seems to think about the fact that India pale ale originates in something that the British did to India. And there’s so much that India has to offer.”

Participants were split into six groups, each group responsible for making one of the beers. My group brewed a beer called The History of Non-Violence. It is a reasonably bitter, low-alcohol IPA featuring tamarind, coriander, candied ginger, and cilantro.

With multiple beers coming together at once, the atmosphere was a bit chaotic. Justesen laughed, “This is exceedingly crazy, more than usual. Normally we’ve got a bit more control over the whole process.” And Madden said, “Brewing six beers at once is hectic. It’s really hectic. Especially since most of the beers were developed over the last couple of days.” But the craziness also presented him with an opportunity. “It’s really gratifying to be able to do all of this in one day. This would take me a year to get around to buying ingredients, and test batching, and getting stuff from a fermenter into a corny keg, and carbonating, and all that stuff. So six beers in one fell swoop is fantastic.”

In the end, chaos included, I believe everyone had a great time. Vine Park regular Cory Reiman summed it up this way, “Free lunch, great beer, and recipes that no one, including the master brewer, has tried? Come on. How often do you have access to a master brewer to pick their brains? Even if you’re a novice you can come here for the whole experience that most people would never have. Even if you’re fully knowledgeable, to be able to pick the brain of a master brewer is a great opportunity.”

I can’t wait to try the beers.

Autumnal Ales Recap

Continuing on the fall beer kick, the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club met on Friday night to enjoy some of the best beers that autumn has to offer. Eleven of us gathered at the home of club member Loren to sit by the fireplace and sample nine great brews, including a good number of local and regional selections.

Furthermore Fallen AppleThe night began with Fallen Apple, the quintessential autumn offering from Furthermore Beer in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Light and refreshing, but surprisingly high in alcohol, this tasty, tart, cider/beer blend was loved by all in attendance. One member reported that while she didn’t like cider, Fallen Apple tasted enough like beer to overcome that. It was one of her favorites for the night.

Next up was Wisconsin Amber from Capital Brewery, another regional brew from Wisconsin. Capital specializes in German style lager beers. Wisconsin Amber is a smooth, balanced Vienna style lager. The sweet, toasty malt is dominant, but is well balanced by spicy German hops and a crisp lager finish. A couple of the more beer-knowledgeable members commented that they had always passed this beer up with the thought, “Wisconsin Amber…how interesting could that be?” They won’t be passing it up any more. Wisconsin Amber was the second favorite beer of the night overall.

From there we went for another essential autumn beer, pumpkin ale. We had two examples to sample and compare, Ichabod from Michigan’sDogfish Head Punkin Ale New Holland Brewing Company and Punkin’ from Dogfish Head in Delaware (thanks Stephanie). Ichabod is a session pumpkin beer, more beery than pumpkin, with rich caramel malt and nutty butterscotch flavors supporting subdued pumpkin and pumpkin pie spice. The offering from Dogfish Head is more intense. Higher alcohol, full-bodied caramel malt, and an explosion of pumpkin and spice make this a more interesting beer overall, but one that you may not want to drink more than one. Both were tasty. In the end it comes down to whether you want a nice session beer or a high-intensity pumpkin experience.

The KaiserFor Oktoberfest, we dispensed with the traditional and went for the tweaked. The first of these was Surlyfest from Surly Brewing. Surlyfest has the toasty, caramel heart of a traditional Oktoberfest cranked up with spicy rye malt and higher levels of hopping for a sharply bitter/spicy bite. This was another crowd favorite, which was a surprise to some who did not expect to enjoy a bitter Surly brew. The other Oktoberfest was The Kaiser Imperial Oktoberfest from Avery Brewing in Boulder, Colorado. This 9.3% ABV bruiser of a beer received a mixed reception. While some liked the intensely sweet malt, others found it offensively boozy and perhaps a bit overly sweet.

You can’t talk about fall beers without a wet-hop IPA. For this, I selected Harvest Ale from Founders Brewing. Unfortunately I selected and purchased this beer for the event before trying it. You can read my review below. While a couple members enjoyed it, most did not. The general consensus was that “this was not so much a hoppy beer as straight-up unsweetened grapefruit juice.” Even the usual hopheads among us had difficulty with this one. It was the only beer to remain untouched during the “free-for-all” following the formal tasting.

The remaining two beers were Autumnal Fire from Capital Brewery and Chestnut Hill from the local Lift Bridge Brewing. Capital calls Autumnal FireAutumnal Fire a “doppelbock based on an Oktoberfest personality.” I have no idea what they mean by this, but the beer makes a mighty fine doppelbock in my view. It’s a smooth and malty brew with a bit of alcohol warmth and loads of raisiny dark fruit flavors. Some felt the raisin was a bit too intense. Others liked it precisely because of the intense raisin flavors. Lift Bridge’s Chestnut Hill was the nearly unanimous favorite of the night. One of my Autumn Brew Review top five picks, Chestnut Hill is brown ale for those who think that brown ale is synonymous with boring. Packed with toasty, nutty, caramel malt, balancing spicy/herbal hop flavor and bitterness, and just a hint of nutmeg and cinnamon spice, this is one delicious brew. It’s only available on tap and the supply is running out. You will need to get it soon if you want to get it at all…unless the Lift Bridge guys can be convinced to make more.

If you want more information about the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club go here and request to become a member.

Autumn Beers Part II

Although the temperature lingers in the twenties this morning, the sun is shining and the weather report says it should be more autumn-like by the weekend. With that assurance I continue my review of fall beers.

Furthermore Fallen AppleBefore moving away from specialty beers I should mention one other that exists in a place of its own. Fallen Apple from Furthermore Beer in Spring Green, Wisconsin is a limited batch fall beer brewed at the height of the apple harvest. For this beer brewer Aran Madden makes a specially formulated recipe reminiscent of a cream ale. This is combined in the fermenter with fresh pressed apple cider delivered to the brewery from an orchard nearby. The two are fermented together to create a beverage that I have compared to Apple Jolly Rancher™ infused champagne. Light and effervescent, Fallen Apple’s flavor begins as a lightly corny and moderately bitter ale. Somewhere mid-palate it explodes into a bright, tart cider/beer blend that is perfect for those warm, early fall days. It is so light and refreshing that you completely forget about the nearly 7% ABV until you feel the buzz from your first glass.

Although not a fall specialty, American Amber Ale is another beer style that is perfectly suited to autumn. American Amber is basically an Ruch River Unforgiven AmberAmerican pale ale with amped up caramel malt character. While still assertively bitter and with plenty of hop flavor and aroma, the increased maltiness makes for a richer, sweeter beer. West Coast versions, like Rocket Red from Bear Republic, can be intensely bitter while those from the Midwest and East are generally more subdued. There are a couple of very nice local and regional examples of Amber Ale available in the Twin Cities. Rush River Unforgiven Amber is a pub standby for me. Slightly cloudy from dry-hopping, Unforgiven Amber has a smooth, rich caramel malt profile balanced by abundant citrus and pine hops. Another good local choice is Mesabi Red from Duluth’s Lake Superior Brewing Company. Mesabi Red is a bit more intense than Unforgiven, with a bigger malt profile that includes biscuit notes with hints of roast, and bitterness that is correspondingly higher. A couple of great examples from further away are Bell’s Amber and Anderson Valley Boont Amber. You can find the Bell’s in Minnesota. For the Anderson Valley you will have to travel to Wisconsin. I believe you can also find the afore mentioned Bear Republic Rocket Red in Wisconsin.

Bell's Best Brown AleOne step further down the beer color wheel and no less brilliant for fall is Brown Ale. A darker and more toasty/roasty cousin of the American Amber, American Brown ales tend to balance toward the malt with rich caramel flavors and light notes of roast and chocolate. The slant toward malt does not, however, mean that hops aren’t prominent. Most American Browns still feature assertive bitterness and ample hop flavors, favoring earthy and resinous varieties over bright citrusy. These are smooth, easy-drinking beers with enough toastiness to take the edge off the chill air. The best local example is Chestnut Hill from Lift Bridge Brewery. One of my Autumn Brew Review top five, Chestnut Hill has a complex malt profile with nutty notes of toast, roast, and caramel. The malt is balanced by spicy hops, and a wisp of cinnamon in the background adds character. At 7% ABV it provides nice fall warmth but is still light enough to have a couple. Also in this category is Surly Bender. More assertive and bitter, it retains the smooth Brown Ale character with notes of toast, cocoa, coffee and caramel. The addition of oats gives it a rich, velvety mouthfeel. It is my favorite beer from Surly. A regional favorite of mine is Bell’s Best Brown. A slightly sweeter and less complex session brown, Best Brown still has plenty of roasty, toasty malt goodness for an autumn night around the fire pit. The English browns tend to be sweeter and subtler in character than their American cousins. Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale is an example that should not be forgotten.

You can’t talk about the beers of fall without mentioning Oktoberfest/Märzen. Originally brewed in March at the end of the legal brewing season in Germany, these rich caramel lagers were stored cold in caves over the hot summer, to be consumed in the fall to celebrate the harvest. Full flavored caramel malt dominates, but is balanced by spicy German hops and a crisp, dry lager finish. My favorite here is Ayinger Oktoberfest/Märzen, but there are several authentic German examples available. Closer to home try the examples from Bell’s or Schell’s. Surly‘s Surlyfest is an interesting and tasty Americanized fest beer. The Oktoberfest caramel base is recognizable, but the addition of spicy rye malt and ample American hops make it a thing all its own. It is definitely worth seeking out. Other contenders for fall lagers include the amber Vienna Lager style and the full bodied Doppelbock. To sample great Vienna Lagers look for Schell’s Firebrick or Capital Wisconsin Amber. For Doppelbock you can’t go wrong with Paulaner Salvator or Celebrator Doppelbock from Ayinger. For a regional fall Doppelbock pick up a sixpack of Capital Brewery’s Autumnal Fire. Full bodied and warming, this beer is chock full of luscious caramel malt and raisiny goodness.

Autumn Brew Review Recap

Autumn Brew ReviewSaturday was Autumn Brew Review. At least half a million people turned out at parking lot of the historic Grain Belt Brewery in Minneapolis. Okay, so maybe there weren’t quite that many, but there were a bunch of people there. The sold out annual event was very well attended with beer lovers given the opportunity to taste the wares of 57 different breweries both local and national. Construction in the field approaching the river made the festival confines feel much more confined than last year and hot muggy weather made the compact crowds a bit hard to take by the end, at least for me. However, food lines never reached the epic lengths that they did last year, which was a definite improvement. I think the line at the Surly Brewing booth was the longest that I saw anywhere all day.

It was a good day for sour beers in my view and so-so day for pale ale and IPA. The first three of my top five beers were sour beers, with funky wild brews on offering from a number of brewers including Surly, Herkimer, Ommegang, Two Brothers, Victory, Great Waters, and others. As for the huge numbers of pale ales and IPAs on offer, nothing really stood out. With so many of these out there, brewers have to do something really special to rise above the crowd. In this category I found myself writing over and over again, “yet another hoppy IPA.” I think I’m just kind of over it.

Because of a tie for the top beer, my top five picks are really my top six picks. Starting at the bottom and working up, my number five beer was Summit German Style Kölsch. This is just a fantastic beer. Light and delicate, bready and subtly bitter, it provided me a blissful retreat at the end of the day when my palate had been smashed by the excesses of big, bitter, and barrel-aged. Remarkably its flavors still held their own. My number four was Odin Baltic Porter from Town Hall. This was a wonderfully rich and chocolaty porter with luscious caramel undertones and assertive herbal/grassy hop flavors and bitterness. Continuing up the list, my number three pick was Chestnut Hill from Lift Bridge Brewery. A big Nut Brown Ale, this beer had a creamy nutty and caramel malt profile nicely balanced by spicy/herbal hop bitterness and flavor. Rich but drinkable, Chestnut Hill would make a nice session beer even at 7% ABV. In the number two slot I put Thermo Refur from Furthermore Beer. This was an aged version of the beer they released last winter. The further aging has done it some good. This beer has developed a wonderful wild yeast funk; not sour, but redolent of earth, leather and barnyard. It is bone dry, but not lacking in body. I even think I tasted the beets.

My two top picks for this year were Rouge from Brewery Ommegang and Gose from the Herkimer Brewpub. Rouge is a Grand Cru style Flemish red ale that is a collaboration between Brewery Ommegang and Brouwerij Bockor in Belgium. It was spontaneously fermented and aged for 18 months in oak tuns. The result is a beautifully sour and barnyard beer with loads of cherry and berry flavors. While the acidity is strong, there remains a balancing malt sweetness that keeps it from being over the top. Beautiful. The real surprise of the festival for me was the Gose from Herkimer Brewpub. Gose is a rare North German ale style from the city of Leipzig, one of the few surviving representatives of the “white” beers that were once brewed all over northern Europe. A sour wheat beer flavored with coriander and sea salt, Gose is unique. Only one or two breweries in Leipzig still produce it and I know of only one that is available in the US. The Herkimer example was a nice one. Light and refreshing, tart but not overly sour, with a roundness of body and subtle saltiness from the addition of sea salt, I went back for this one three times during the day.

Other beers that seem worthy of mention but didn’t make my top five list include New Belgium Hoptober, Schell’s Roggenbier, Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ and Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Extra from Lagunitas (the only pale ales that managed to stand out from the crowd), Surly Brett, Avery Collaboration Tripel, and Vine Park English Premium Bitter. All in all it was a great event with a lot of great beers to sample. Can’t wait for Winterfest.

Malty Beer Night

Saturday, March 21st was Firkin Fest at the Happy Gnome. For those of us wanting to enjoy good beer and good company without the hype and crowd of a festival, there was Malty Beer Night with the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club. Seven people gathered at the home of fellow club member Kevin Butler to chew on cheese, munch on malt, and best of all drink a lot of great malt forward beers. This was the first of three monthly meetings that will explore the flavor contributions of beer’s three main ingredients, malt, hops, and yeast. April is hop month for any interested hopheads out there.

The night started with Fuller’s ESB. Chosen to show a balanced representation of all three ingredients, this Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkelbeer starts with a sharp bitterness and herbal hop that quickly gives way to luscious caramel/toffee malt with a good dose of yeast derived fruit. It was a favorite for the night. From there it was on to an assortment of full-on malt focused beers, starting with Weihenstephaner Munich Helles. Like an under-hopped pilsner, this beer features clean bready malt with moderate bitterness and a background of spicy continental hops. This was followed by another southern German lager, Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel showcasing deep toasty bread crust malt. Another crowd pleaser, we emptied these bottles early.

Three Feet DeepThe next beers brought us closer to home with a local and a regional pick. A growler of Hope and King Scotch Ale from Town Hall Brewery in Minneapolis introduced the rich, nutty sweetness of caramel malt with just a hint of roast. This growler didn’t last long either. For real roast malt character we had Three Feet Deep smoked stout from Furthermore Beer in Wisconsin. This is a somewhat sweet dry stout with nice coffee and chocolate flavors and a subtle smoke from the use of peat smoked malt. While this was one of my favorites for the night, others found the smoke to be too intense. Oh well, more for me.

At this point, we moved into the realm of big beers starting with Celebrator Doppelbock. Rich, toasty, caramel flavors meld with malt derived, raisiny, dark fruit notes and a pleasantly warming alcohol to make this another winner for the event. Or maybe it was the added bonus of the little plastic goat that comes withHebrew Rejewvenator every bottle. Next was Rejewvenator, a doppelbock/Belgian dubbel hybrid brewed with fig juice from Shmaltz Brewing/Hebrew Beer. The group was split on this one as some found the figs to be too intense. We closed the night with Back Burner Barleywine from Southern Tier. This was the only beer of the night that I had not already tried. The description on the bottle and on the Southern Tier website led me to expect a big, malt-forward, English style barleywine. Unfortunately (for the event, not for the beer) the bitterness was too intense and the hop flavor was decidedly American. While it was a tasty beer, it wasn’t quite the malty sweet English barleywine that I was going for.

One thing at this event that all found helpful was having examples of brewers malt on hand to chew on and compare to the flavors in the beers. There were six malts to taste including two base malts, pilsner and Munich, as well as English and American caramel malts, Belgian Special B toasted malt, and English chocolate malt to represent the dark roasted malts. Some of us decided, myself included, that a little bit of Munich malt would be a great addition to breakfast cereal. All in all, good company and good beer made for a good time. The next Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club will be on April 10th. Hoppy Beers is the theme. Come check us out.