2015 Firkin Fest at the Happy Gnome

The eightieth annual Firkin Fest at the Happy Gnome happened last Saturday, April 4th. Okay, it wasn’t really the eightieth, but it has been going on for some time now. I went to my first in 2010 and it was a couple of years old by then.

For those who haven’t been, Firkin Fest is a celebration of “real ale” – that is beers that are naturally re-fermented in the container from which they are served and poured from the keg using gravity instead of being pushed with CO2. The result is a smooth, creamy-textured beer with relatively low carbonation that is served at cellar temperature of around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Real ale or cask-conditioned beer is the traditional beer service of England.

Firkin Fest has seen its highs and lows over the years; great beers mingled with serious over-crowding and too few porta-potties, exquisitely well done casks of straight-up beer and monstrosities with added extras like Peeps or mushrooms. Cringe-worthy cask abuse has been common as pourers turn the firkins on end in an attempt to squeeze out every last drop and end up pouring glasses of yeasty sludge that drunk festival goers lap up like nectar.

This year saw some changes to Firkin Fest. While in the past the firkins have come from breweries across the country and the globe, this year every brewery represented was Minnesota born and bred. This meant fewer breweries and fewer beers than previous years, but there were also many fewer attendees. I don’t know whether the lower attendance was intentional. Marketing doesn’t seem to have been all that good for the event. I didn’t even get a press release and I get press releases for EVERYTHING from brewery openings in the UK to announcements for the Hay and Forage Expo. Whether it was intentional or not, it was certainly welcome. This event has historically crammed so many people into the small tent that getting from one booth to the next was an unpleasant chore. That was not the case this year and that made me happy.

Firkin Fest has always been a place where brewers see what kinds of craziness they can stuff into a cask. Sometimes these experiments work. Sometimes they just seem ill advised. This year felt to me like there was less experimentation. That’s not to say there weren’t some crazy casks. Wasabi and pickled ginger, anyone? But for the most part infusions were limited to things like coffee in stouts or citrus zest in IPAs. Many of the casks were simply dry hopped. This also made me happy. Sometimes simplicity is best.

There were a few standouts.

My personal best-of-show was Schell’s Starkeller Peach, which will be the next installment of the amazing Berliner weisse series. Tart lactic acid and sweet, sweet peaches were what this beer is all about. Yummy! Jace Marti says it will be bottled in the next couple of weeks for release later this month. I can’t wait to try it with the proper level of carbonation.

Summit also scored high with an El Dorado dry-hopped version of the new Hopvale Organic Ale. In a tent full of heavyweights, this light, refreshing, hoppy brew was a treat. The added hops gave a nice, citrus boost to its already hoppy aroma.

Staying on the hoppy side, Triple Hop Size 7 from Steel Toe was a treat. Size 7 IPA is already the best IPA in the state. Add a healthy dose of dry hops in the cask to boost that heady hop aroma and you have a recipe for hop heaven.

On the other end of the spectrum was Sideburns Chocolate Milk Stout from Lyn Lake Brewery. This already rich and creamy brew was conditioned on chocolate and vanilla that added extra layers of velvety smoothness. The beer’s sweetness was amplified, making it a delicious, drinkable dessert.

If you like cocktails, the go-to beer had to be Cobra Commander from Lift Bridge. Their 12.5% ABV Commander barleywine was casked with citrus zest and Falernum and rum-soaked oak. It truly was like drinking a rum cocktail. And a good one at that.

The Commander Barleywine Ale from Lift Bridge Beer Co.

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.

Lift Bridge Brewery Moving Into Stillwater Site

Lift Bridge Brewery – Equipment Delivery from Lift Bridge on Vimeo.

Things are heating up at the soon-to-be Lift Bridge Brewery in Stillwater. The cooler is in place (and already in use). The brewhouse and fermenters are moved in. All that remains is to hook it all up, as if that’s a small task.  If all goes well, the Lift Bridge boys hope to be producing beer in their new home by the end of the year.

Dan Schwarz, one of the Lift Bridge partners, recently met me at the site and gave me the tour. Here’s what’s happening.

I walked through the front door into a spacious, sun-drenched front room. Every wall was windows, making it a cheery space. Although empty now, it will eventually become the brewery’s taproom. Schwarz says they hope to put in a bar space for sampling and growler sales. They want to make it “a place where people can hang out.” Don’t expect this space to be ready soon. As Schwarz explained, “It isn’t really the top priority. There are other things that are more important on the spend list.” Like a brewery perhaps?

Stepping through a door at the back of this room takes you to the brewery. It’s a large space, just under 10,000 square feet, offering plenty of room for the brewery, cooler, and keg storage; for now at least. The brewery sits to the left. On the right are the cooler, an office space and a workshop. Beyond the cooler on the left is space for keg storage and distribution. Delivery vans are currently parked on the other side beyond the brewery.

The cooler has capacity for 1000 kegs when stacked four high. Sampling taps have already been installed in the outside wall. You have to attend to the important things first. The cooler also has a historical pedigree. While moving it in, the guys discovered a plate identifying it as the property of the Grain Belt Brewing Company in Minneapolis.

The brewery itself, a 15-barrel Newlands Systems brewhouse and three 30-Barrel, glycol jacketed fermenters, sits on a specially installed floor with a curb to contain water. The floor is coated with a chemical resistant epoxy and has some grit to keep it from becoming slippery. Floor drains were already in place when they moved in. Schwarz says that running at maximum capacity they anticipate producing around 2000 barrels a year on the system.

2000 barrels leaves Lift Bridge with less capacity than their current annual output. They also will not have a bottling or canning line at first. Schwarz explained how they plan to deal with this. “At least for now the plan is to do a little bit more experimental and high-end specialty stuff here and continue to contract brew the other beers at Cold Spring. And we’ll see how it goes.” Draft production will also be moved to Stillwater. As business grows and they are able to expand, they may move all of their production to the new facility.

Expansion is built into the brewery plan. They have room in the current brewery space for 12 more fermenters and expansion of the specially-floored area would not be out of the question. Of course that is all in the future, but Schwarz says, “For now I don’t think we’ve overbuilt. But we haven’t boxed ourselves in either.”

To get thing off on the right foot in the new brewery, Lift Bridge is hiring a Brewmaster. Schwarz explained, “There is a significant difference between homebrewing and production brewing. We all realize where we are with that. And we realize that this is something that we could use some help with. We really wanted somebody to come on who could help insure the quality and the consistency of our beers and stay on top of production, especially now that we’re getting our own equipment.” Look for an announcement from the Brewery about this very soon.

At the end of the tour Schwarz said, “Brewing in Stillwater has been the goal from the very beginning. This is like a dream come true. We’re excited.”

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.

Local Brewers’ Beers of Spring

Spring arrived early this year. We lived through the first snowless March since records have been kept and April has been even better. Warmer weather and longer days call for a shift away from the heavy, dark beers of winter. Spring means lighter beers, but beers with enough body to tackle the lingering night time chill. Spring is when I begin to crave the bitter American Pale Ales, their citrusy hops flavor giving a bracing wake-up call to the senses. The traditional old-world beers of spring, German maibock and French biére de garde, have sturdy malt backbones supporting spicy hops and yeast character, contrasting flavors to match the seasonal temperature swings. Several of these springtime beer styles are crafted here in the metro by our great local brewers.

Minnesotans love hops, the source of bitterness in beer, and there are plenty of locally produced bitter brews to satisfy these springtime cravings. The most balanced of these is Sweet Child of Vine, the debut India pale ale (IPA) from newcomers Fulton Beer. Only available on draft, the floral hops flavor, moderate bitterness, and balancing caramel malt make this one of the easier drinking versions of the style. More bitter but still balanced, Lift Bridge Brewery’s Crosscut Pale Ale features subtle citrus notes from abundant Cascade hops and grapefruit zest added to the brew. St. Paul’s Flat Earth Brewing calls its Northwest Passage IPA the “bitterest beer in Minnesota.” A step up the ladder in bitterness, body, and alcohol content, Northwest Passage is bracing enough to snap one out of winter hibernation, but has enough warmth and comforting caramel to take the bite out of those sudden springtime temperature drops. Topping the list for hops intensity is Abrasive Ale (formerly 16 Grit), the double IPA from Surly Brewing Company. This nearly 9% alcohol bruiser of a beer is aptly named. The aggressive bitterness gives way to massive citrusy hops flavor that is supported by full-bodied sweet, grainy malt. This is one for hops lovers. Surly is making Abrasive Ale available in cans this year for the first time. The release date was April 12th, but don’t tarry, this one won’t last long.

For the traditional spring beers look no further than St. Paul for Summit Maibock and Flat Earth Ovni Ale biére de garde. Bavarians still celebrate the annual May release of maibock, a hoppier, lighter-colored version of the malty-rich bock style. Summit’s version is appropriately malt forward with grainy sweetness and a quiet toasty background. The sweetness is balanced by moderate bitterness and floral hops flavor.  Biére de garde, a traditional farmhouse ale from Northern France, was originally brewed in early spring and cold-cellared for consumption by farmhands as the weather warmed. Ovni Ale is another beer for malt lovers. On the sweet side for the style, it features rich caramel malt and hints of chocolate with low bitterness and only the lightest touch of spicy hops flavor.

The long-term forecast looks good, so grab one of these great local beers and celebrate spring’s return before summer creeps in.

Lift Bridge Brewery Buys a Brewery

When Lift Bridge Brewery started making beer almost two years ago, they were brewing at Flat Earth Brewing in St. Paul. I interviewed them at that time and they stated their intention to build their own brewery in Stillwater. Having outgrown Flat Earth, they moved their brewing to the Point Brewery in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. When I spoke with Lift Bridge partner Steven Michael Rinker about this at Firkin Fest a couple months ago, he indicated that they were already outgrowing the available capacity at Point and were closing in on finally buying their own space. Today they announced an agreement to purchase a building with the purchase of a brewery coming soon. Here’s what the press release says.

Stillwater, MN – April 21st, 2010 – Stillwater will be the home of a new brewery in 2010.  Lift Bridge Beer Company is happy to announce that they have chosen a building to develop a new craft brewery in Stillwater.  In the shadows of the Stillwater water tower stands a 10,500 sq. ft. building that will become home to Lift Bridge Brewery in the months to come.  Lift Bridge Beer Co. has entered into an agreement to purchase the building located at 1900 Tower Drive in Stillwater, MN.
Plans are in place to purchase brewing equipment and obtain a brewer’s license.  The 10 year old building will allow for tours, brewing, retail growler and merchandise sales, events and expansion of existing Lift Bridge distribution in the Twin Cities metro area.
The distribution includes kegs and bottles of Crosscut Pale Ale™, Farm Girl Saison®, and the upcoming summer seasonal, Minnesota Tan™.  Lift Bridge is also currently being distributed to other areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin, please check the website www.LiftBridgeBeer.com for specific retailers in your area. The Lift Bridge team is proud to bring a brewery back to Stillwater.

Best of luck guys.

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 Beers Part I

View from my office on October 12th.It seems strange to be writing about autumn beers when the temperature is in the twenties and there are two inches of wet, heavy snow on the ground. At this very moment the snow continues to fall. But autumn it is! It’s only mid October, and while the trees on the west bank of the Mississippi River near my home have turned bright hues of orange and red, most of the trees are still sporting green leaves. We haven’t yet set the clocks back for the fall, an act that dooms those of us in the North Country to early afternoon darkness until spring. “It’s autumn, damn it!” I keep repeating to myself. “I didn’t miss my window. It isn’t too late to enjoy the great beers of fall.”

Autumn is an in-between time. There is a chill in the air, but it hasn’t yet turned brutally cold.Fall Color on the Mississippi The days are getting shorter, but it is still light at 4:00 PM. The leaves are turning colors and beginning to fall, but the trees are not yet the gray skeletons that they become in the winter. Most of the time fall is a beautiful season, the season of harvest. So what makes a beer appropriate for fall? Well, slightly higher alcohol for one thing, just enough to take the edge off the chill air. A little color would be welcome, amber, red, orange, and brown to match the colors of the season. A bit of spice is always nice and perhaps a wink and a nod to the fall harvest, be it of hops or pumpkins.

Fall is a great time for special seasonal releases including wet hop beers and pumpkin ales. Hops are harvested in the fall. The bulk of the hops harvested in the world are dried and pressed onto bales or processed even further into pellets that resemble rabbit food. The majority of beers produced in the world use these dried and processed hops. However, during the harvest season many craft brewers take advantage of the opportunity to brew with fresh, unprocessed hops. For these beers, huge quantities of “wet” hop cones are added to the beer often within hours or even minutes of picking. Now I have to say that I am not a huge fan of the wet hop beers. In most cases I don’t feel that the use of fresh hops adds any significantly different character to the already hoppy American pale ales. What it does sometimes add is vegetal or grassy notes that I don’t find altogether pleasant. That said, these beers are immensely popular at this time of year so you should try a few examples and make up your own mind.

Fresh HopsThere are several locally brewed examples of wet hop beers to choose from. Surly Wet is available on tap right now in several locations. I found this to be a one-dimensional beer with a muddy hop character and excessive bitterness. While you are greeted with a beautiful, bright, citrusy hop punch at the beginning, the bitterness just hangs on in a way that is oddly mouth-coating and throat-burning. The somewhat sticky malt in the background is not quite enough to balance. One of the things that I love about Surly beers is the articulation of flavors. Each flavor seems to stand apart while working together with the others to make a delightful whole. I missed this articulation of flavors in Wet. The boys at Lift Bridge Brewery in Stillwater are releasing their Harvestör Ale at the Happy Gnome on October 25th. Harvestör is brewed with hops grown in Lift Bridge’s own hop garden. I haven’t tried this year’s batch, but my notes from last year indicate a big American IPA with somewhat sweet caramel malt, bright citrus hop flavor, and assertive bitterness. Brau Brothers Brewing from down in Lucan, MN also brews fresh-hop beers using their own hops, this year including a Fresh-hop Lager. Town Hall Brewpub in Minneapolis will be releasing their Fresh-hop 2009 tonight (October 12th).

If you want to try some non-local fresh hop beers there are many to choose from. Founders Brewing from Michigan recently released their Harvest Ale, available in four-packs at better liquor stores. Another regional example is the Heavy Handed IPA from Two Brothers Brewery outside of Chicago. Sierra Nevada releases a line of fresh hop beers every year including the Southern Hemisphere Harvest Ale with hops from South America and this year’s Estate Ale, brewed with hops and barley grown on the brewery’s own land.

The other big fall seasonal beer is pumpkin ale. While I may not be a fan of the wet hop beers, I do love the pumpkin ales. Not some extreme invention of American craft brewers, pumpkin ale has been around at least since the early days of colonial America when thirsty colonists, lacking barley which is not native to the eastern US, needed an alternative source of sugar for making beer. Pumpkin beers are usually amber-colored ales with generous amounts of caramel malt, relatively low levels of hop bitterness and flavor, and aromatic pumpkin pie spices like cinnamon, clove, allspice, and nutmeg. The best of them will display at least some character from the squash, although some are more pumpkin pie spice beers than actual pumpkin beers.

I have made it a mission to discover the essential pumpkin ale. My favorite is Pumking from Southern Tier Brewing in New York. This 9% Southern Tier PumkingABV desert-in-a-bottle is rich and smooth with notes of buttered rum and cloves. The pumpkin fruit comes through loud and clear, complemented by overtones of hazelnut. If you can find this one, snatch it up. But good luck, it arrived on store shelves in mid September and sold out within days. There may still be a few bottles lurking around out there if you make some calls. My two other favorites are both Midwestern offerings that are not available in Minnesota. O’Fallon Brewing located outside of St. Louis and the St. Louis Brewing Company, who’s beer sells under the brand name Schlafly both make outstanding pumpkin beers. The O’Fallon offering is a low alcohol pumpkin session beer with surprising levels of great pumpkin and spice character. The Schlafly beer is bigger and richer with more caramel sweetness and alcohol warmth. For a locally brewed example look for Mummy Train from St. Paul’s Flat Earth Brewing. While I found this beer to be a bit over spiced, it does have nice pumpkin flavor and caramel malt. Mummy Train is only available on draft or in growlers purchased from the brewery.

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.