Old Chicago Gold Medal Mini Tour

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

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

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

Blue Moon Belgian White Ale

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

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

Leinenkugel’s Berry Weiss

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

Summit Extra Pale Ale

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

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

New Old Chicago Debuts in Eden Prairie – And It Is Good

I recently got a press release from Old Chicago about doings at the Eden Prairie store. I frequently get press releases from Old Chicago. Some are more interesting to me than others. This one got my attention. While the release didn’t give the whole scope of what was happening, it suggested that the Eden Prairie location was the beta for a nationwide re-do of the chain; new food, new design, and most importantly to me a new beer list. There was also something about Cicerone Certified bartenders. My curiosity was piqued.

You’ve been to Old Chicago, right? It’s that pizza joint with the 1980s decor and the World Beer Tour. They have a big beer list – 30-some taps and a bunch of bottles – but fully a third of the list is standard American lagers. There’s little chance the staff will be able to tell you much about the beer they are pouring. Hopefully the draft lines are clean.  You go there because you know you’ll find a decent beer, but the experience is always somewhat underwhelming.

This press release suggested all of that was about to change. To get to the bottom of things I talked to Mark Newman, the person in charge of beer and spirits for the chain. “When Old Chicago opened in 1976,” he told me, “we had 110 beers. People thought we were crazy. It wasn’t easy to get 110 beers back then, so we brought in all of these imports. Old Chicago introduced the whole idea of the beer-centric restaurant.” Over the years helped launch some of today’s top craft brands. Old Chicago was one of the first to pour New Belgium. According to Newman Odell’s first account was at Old Chicago. But somewhere in the 1990s he says, the chain lost its way. Now they’re trying to get that old vibe back.

Photo from Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal

Newman gets audibly excited when talking about the changes. You can tell he’s genuinely passionate about what they’re doing, which is just short of a total re-do. The cluttered-casual 1980s design has been scrapped in favor of a sleek, modern look; minimalist almost. The menu was gone over from the bottom up. They worked with chefs from the Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You group on the culinary redesign. Old items were dropped, new ones were added, and everything is made in-house, from scratch.

But it was the beer aspect that interested me. The changes on the beer side encompass both selection and service. In terms of selection, Newman says they considered a couple of options; the Flying Saucer model with hundreds of taps and bottles or a more-focused model with a smaller selection. They opted for the latter, choosing in his words “quality over quantity.” The new restaurant has 36 taps and maybe twice that number of bottles. Of those taps 24 are craft rotators and only three to four taps are given over to what they are calling “US Classics.” As Newman explained, “There is a market for those beers and we will always sell them, but we don’t need eight of them.” One of the most exciting changes to the beer selection is a focus on local. Newman says they want every Old Chicago store to reflect its location, and that means always having several beers available from local brewers.

Changes on the service side include both the way beer is served and the knowledge of the staff that serves it. As part of the Eden Prairie re-make they tore out the old draft equipment and replaced it with a brand new state-of-the-art system. With the exception of branded specialty glasses, they have replaced all the glassware so that beer is served in an appropriate style, non-frozen glass; no more icy shaker pints. Beer-clean glassware is especially important to Newman. Proper cleaning methods have been put in place and all glasses are rinsed before filling. As well, glassware is checked twice a day to make sure it is beer clean.

Server knowledge is important. It’s frustrating to go someplace and not be able to get information about the beers that are being poured. At the new Old Chicago everyone goes through some basic beer education. It is mandatory for bartenders to pass the Certified Beer Server level of the Cicerone Certification Program. It is encouraged for servers. Newman says the company will support any staff that wants to advance to higher levels of the program, paying for exams and education. Additionally, they have instituted a policy encouraging staff to offer samples to guests; kind of an “if you like that you might also like this” idea.

Photo from Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal

After talking to Newman I had to see for myself, so I trekked out to Eden Prairie for dinner. I was impressed. The food was good, the décor was a big improvement, but this being a beer blog I’m going to focus my review on the beer experience.

Selection: Of the 36 beers on tap I counted eleven from Minnesota. The local selection was even bigger in bottles. The rest of the beers were a high-quality mix of national crafts and imports. Of the three American lagers available on tap, one of them was Grain Belt Premium. In the printed menu each beer is accompanied by a set of icons that describe its basic flavor profile. The list seemed to me a little heavy on hops, but there was a range available from Victory Prima Pils to Brooklyn Brown and Stone Smoked Porter.

Service: My two beers came out in proper Nonic pint glasses with a perfect half-inch of foam on top. They left circles of lace all the way down the glass as I drank. Glancing around the bar it seemed like proper glassware was the norm, and I saw that beer-clean lacing everywhere I looked. I even witnessed the bartender explaining the concept of beer-clean glassware to some patrons sitting at the bar.

My server Jen was great. She is a Certified Beer Server and seemed to know her stuff. I asked about local beers and she pointed me directly to them, even telling me the thumbnail sketch of Fulton’s history. She was able to describe the flavors of beers reasonably well and guide me toward the profile I wanted. As I sat enjoying my Sweet Child of Vine, she brought me an unsolicited sample of Lucid Camo, another hoppy beer from a local brewery. I saw others being offered samples as well. When I asked Jen about a beer to accompany desert, she suggested Brau Brothers Moo Joos.

To head off any suspicion, I am not being paid to shill for Old Chicago. In the interest of full disclosure, they did buy my dinner.

What interested me about this story was the fact of a national chain committing itself to quality beer and beer service. When TGI Friday starts serving craft beer, it’s significant. When Old Chicago reasserts an emphasis on proper service, staff knowledge, and quality selection, including a number of locals, it says something about the state of craft beer. Are they just cashing in on the craft beer boom? Perhaps, but what’s wrong with that? The thing is, these places attract a broad clientele. It’s great to have dedicated beer bars like Happy Gnome or Muddy Pig, but they primarily preach to the converted. These national chain restaurants have the potential to introduce a huge swath of people to better beer. If they do it right, like I believe Old Chicago’s Eden Prairie rollout suggests they will, then that’s all the better.

Old Chicago Restaurants Revive Old Chicago Beer

In 1891 Prussian immigrant Peter Hand started a brewery in Chicago. The brewery’s flagship brands Old Chicago and Meister Brau carried the Peter Hand Brewing Company through prohibition and beyond, until it was sold in 1965 and renamed Meister Brau Inc. The brewery sold again in the 1970s, this time to Miller. I had Old Chicago cans in my childhood beer can collection. I drank more than my share of Meister Brau in college. But ultimately those once-strong brands were retired.
But classic (if you want to call Meister Brau a classic) beer brands die hard. Like others before it (think Schlitz, Grain Belt, and Pabst Blue Ribbon) the Old Chicago brand is rising from the grave. Craft Works, the parent company of the Rock Bottom and Old Chicago chains, has bought the rights to the brand from Miller and will be using it for a rotating seasonal series of in-house beers at the Old Chicago restaurants. This is a great idea…as long as the beer is good.
The first of the Old Chicago branded beers to debut in the Minnesota Market is good. Old Chicago Old Curmudgeon Winter Warmer Ale makes its debut today as part of the Winter Mini Tour at all Old Chicago locations. The beer is brewed at the Minneapolis Rock Bottom Brewery by Brewmaster Bryon Tonnis. It is apparently a tweaked version of a beer that has been in and out of rotation at Rock Bottom for a number of years.
Old Chicago Old Curmudgeon is a classic winter warmer in the English style. The creamy mouthfeel and malt-forward flavor make it smooth and easy to drink. Rich caramel and dark fruit sweetness is just barely balanced by subtle spicy hops. It has pleasing alcohol warmth that is surprising given its moderate 6.5% ABV. I was pleasantly surprised by this beer.
The full line-up for the Winter Mini Tour is a good one. In addition to the house beer are standouts like Chimay Red, Schell’s Hopfenmalz, Lift Bridge Chestnut Hill, Summit Winter Ale, and Odell Isolation Ale. Other decent beers on the list are Sam Adams Winter Lager, Blue Moon Winter Abbey Ale, and Bell’s Winter White. The one odd-ball on the list is Stella Artois. I was stumped by its inclusion until I learned that Stella was originally introduced in 1926 as a Christmas beer. You learn something new every day. While I’m still a bit stumped by its inclusion in an otherwise “stella” line-up, at least I know there is a logic to it.
While the Blue Moon Winter Abbey isn’t a bad beer, it was interesting to taste it side-by-side with the Chimay. These two beers of the same style are very different, and the Blue Moon version is clearly, and not surprisingly, the inferior. Whereas the Chimay is sharp, dry, moderately bitter, with multi-layered complexity, the Blue Moon Abbey is overly sweet and somewhat one-dimensional. I wouldn’t turn the Blue Moon away, but it really can’t stand up to the real thing.
On the menu, Schell’s Hopfenmalz is called “miracle lager.” Every year Old Chicago includes a “miracle” beer in the Winter Tour list. A portion of the sales of this beer go to support the Miracle Foundation, a charity that is involved in several causes including homelessness and breast cancer. For every glass of Hopfenmalz poured, Schell’s Brewery is kicking in 25 cents toward the Foundation. A Miracle Day event, staffed by volunteers from the Rock Bottom and Old Chicago restaurants is held on Christmas Day at the Minneapolis Rock Bottom. Homeless people from local shelters are invited for a huge meal, with Santa Clause delivering gifts for the kids. Drink up the Hopfenmalz. It’s a great beer and you get to support a good cause as well.
The Old Chicago Winter Mini Tour kicks off today, December 1st, at 6:00 PM at all Old Chicago locations. It runs through January 2nd.

Paulaner Wiesn Blonde – The Real Oktoberfest Beer?

It’s September and in the beer world that means Oktoberfest beers start to appear in stores and bars. While it may seem strange that October beer would come out in September, bear in mind that the Munich Oktoberfest ends on the first Sunday of October. Most of it happens in September.

Any beer fan knows what Oktoberfest beers are. Amber-colored lagers with rich caramel/melanoidin malt, moderate bitterness to balance, and spicy European hop character. But was Oktoberfest beer always like this? Is the beer poured every year in the tents on the Theresienwiese the same amber lager that we in the US enjoy at this time of year?

Look at photos from the real Oktoberfest and the beer being served in liter mugs has a distinctly golden color, not amber. The “fest” beer served up by the millions of gallons during the sixteen day celebration is in fact a blond lager, not the amber märzen style beer that we all know. Beer writer Lew Bryson has written a nice article about this here.

This blond Oktoberfest beer is brewed to legal specifications regarding alcohol content and body. Some have said that the fest beers have always been blond. I find this difficult to believe, as the first Oktoberfest took place in 1810, but the brewers in Bohemia didn’t invent Pilsner, arguably the first golden-colored lager, until 1842. A better explanation is that sometime in the late 20th century the beer served at the annual festival was lightened to appeal to changing tastes.

Whatever the case, the authentic blond lager of Oktoberfest has never been available in this country.  That is changing this year. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the fest, Paulaner is releasing a limited amount of Wiesn Blonde to the US. The “Wiesn” in this case refers to the Theresienwiese or “Theresa Medow” that has been the site of the Oktoberfest since the beginning. Wiesn Blonde will be available in certain markets in one-liter cans. I don’t know if Minnesota is one of those markets. But you will have the opportunity to try this unique beer on draft at all Old Chicago locations. The chain has secured exclusive rights to draft service for this beer (at least for a time) and will be launching it today (September 8th).

I was invited to the Roseville store for a tasting yesterday afternoon. This is a very nice beer. Think of it as a big version of a Munich Helles style lager. Not a huge imperialized helles, just a helles that is a couple of percentage points ABV bigger than normal with an accompanying boost in richness and body: not quite a maibock but bigger than a helles. It pours a light golden color with a moderate white head. The flavor showcases big, sweet, grainy malt with overtones of fresh bread. There are even some raisiny fruit notes in there. As befits a helles, it is moderately hopped, with spicy European hop flavors allowing the malt to shine. Alcohol makes its presence know, but in a subtle, sweet way. The whole thing ends with a bone-dry finish. Wiesn Blonde is a clean, smooth, easy-to-drink lager with a bit of a kick.

If you want to be among the first to try this beer, head to Old Chicago this evening. Celebration kick-off times may vary from location to location, so be sure to check before you go. At the Roseville location festivities start at 6:00. Along with the beer, World Beer Tour members can partake in a German buffet featuring brats, potato salad, and other typical fest-foods.

Wiesn Blonde is also included in an eight-beer Oktoberfest Mini-tour. Sample all eight beers and you walk away with a T-shirt for your trouble. The mini-tour selection is a grab-bag mix of some great beers and some not-so-great ones. The best of the bunch are Wiesn Blonde, Ayinger Oktoberfest-Märzen, Spaten Lager, and Franziskaner Hefeweizen. Be sure to do a side by side tasting of the three Oktoberfest beers included (Ayinger, Sam Adams, and Becks).