St. Paul Summer Beer Fest: a Quick Recap

The rain started to fall at about 12:30 as brewers and vendors were putting the final touches on their booths. Not a heavy rain, just a light but continuous drizzle. Enough to be annoying, but not enough to really get you wet. It was still raining as the bagpipes signaled that the start of the St. Paul Summer Beer Fest with the admission of the VIP early-entry ticket holders. Those folks got wet. Fortunately a good number of brewer-booths were under the canopy of the International Bazaar at the Minnesota State Fair Grounds. By 2:00 when the doors opened for general admission, the drizzle had largely stopped, leaving the rest of the fest with perhaps the best kind of beer-fest weather, overcast with temperatures around 80. No unwanted sunburn this year.

Once again Juno Choi and Mark Opdahl of Chop Liver LLC, along with an army of volunteers, put on a great fest. As in the past two years it was very well organized. From my own experience, very little was lacking. Although there were several water stations, drinking/rinse water coolers seemed in short supply or hard to find, at least in the “south forty” outside the confines of the actual Bazaar where I spent a good deal of my festival time. People kept asking after water. Next to the education tent were coolers full of water in which various hops and malt had been steeped. I got a kick out of watching the expressions on faces as people filled their glasses expecting straight water and got a mouthful of Saaz hop instead.

The change in venue was a good one. The International Bazaar seemed perfect for the event. Each booth was like a little chicken cage with chain link on which brewers could hang their banners. The canopy was nice during the early-hours drizzle. Behind the actual Bazaar was an overflow area where several brewers’ booths were located along with the education tent, the charity dunking booth, and the VIP hang-out tent. It looked to me like the location outside the main event did little to stop people from visiting those booths. The fact that Surly was out back probably didn’t hurt.

I’m not sure how many brewers were actually in attendance, but I’ll call it “a bunch.” In the program I count 80-ish. There didn’t seem to be any big new-comers this year aside from the new entries into the Minnesota market; Alaskan, Olvalde, Brooklyn et al.

No one brought any really exciting beers this year. The selection was mostly culled from the normal offerings of each brewery. That said, Rock Bottom was pouring from bottles of their barrel-aged, bottle-conditioned series and had a couple of beers from the new Brewmaster Bob McKenzie. I was also happy to see a Genesee Cream Ale booth (really). I have been thinking about that beer for a little while and it was good to have the opportunity to enjoy a sample at the fest.

Overall, the beer selection was disappointing to me. Was I in a bad mood? Definitely not. Have I grown hyper-critical from my beer-travels through the Midwest? Perhaps. Maybe I’ve just become jaded. Or was my palate off for some reason? All I can say for sure is that very little stood out to me as special. Granted, I didn’t try nearly all of them and most of the breweries’ regular offerings are tasty. There just wasn’t anything that made me say “wow.” Several beers even stood out as less than adequate. It was a bad day for saisons in particular. I tried many and didn’t care for any.

The one beer that was memorable to me was apparently also memorable to others, as it took the People’s Choice Award. That one was Engine 20, a smoked pale ale from Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Co. It was unique without being extreme. It had a very drinkable malt/hop balance and just enough smoke to make it interesting. Great Lakes won the best-of-fest last year with Nosferatu Imperial Red ale. They must be doing something right in Cleveland.

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.

St. Paul Summer Beer Fest

A few thoughts following the St. Paul Summer Beer Fest

Last Sunday was the first St. Paul Summer Beer Fest. It hopefully won’t be the last. While there are several beer festivals through the year in the Twin Cities, it is good to have one smack in the middle of summer. The weather was perfect, if a little windy. The beer was great. And it seemed as though all in attendance were having a good time.

I want to give kudos to Mark and Juno, the organizers of the event. This was their first attempt at staging a beer festival and they did a great job. From my experience and observation it was very well run. The parking lot at Midway Stadium was a great location, providing ample yet focused space for people to form beer lines and just mill about. Picnic tables in the middle gave folks a place to sit down, not unwelcome when the whole afternoon is spent drinking beer. Booth access for brewers and vendors was super easy. There was enough food and the lines for food and toilets moved pretty quickly. All-in-all, well done!

Congratulations to Flat Earth Brewing for taking the People’s Choice award for their Sunburst Ale. The honor is well deserved. This apricot infused version of their Belgian Pale Ale has become one of my favorite local brews and was the best of the beers I sampled at the event.

Congratulations also to the folks who won the Perfect Pint beer tasting party in the silent auction. Give me a call or shoot me an email and we will set up your event.

I was working at the event representing A Perfect Pint, so my sampling was limited. I commented to someone that this was the most sober I had ever been at a beer festival. It made for some interesting people watching. I was fascinated as the lines formed and ebbed for both food and toilets. Particularly interesting was the shift in the lines from these two things to the breathalyzer machines as the festival drew to a close. The Perfect Pint table was next to these handy machines so I got to watch as festival attendees, having just finished a beer, blew .35 or more BAC. I also witnesses as one guy who had clearly sampled a good number of beers blew a 0.00 BAC. I don’t think he believed the machine either. Good thing. As the day went on the number of cheers that rose from the crowd as patrons dropped their tasting glasses increased.  It totally seemed like everyone was having a good time. The pinnacle for me though was the couple I spotted as the bagpipes played the event to a close, swaying to some unheard music with large brown stains all down the front of their white T-shirts.

There were a few breweries represented that I had never tried and a couple that I had never heard of. One of the latter was Gray’s Brewing Company of Janesville, Wisconsin. I tried their ESB and found it to be quite tasty. I’ll have to give some other of their beers a try. I was also pleased with both of the offerings from Founders Brewery. Their Red’s Rye P.A. was pleasantly hoppy with balancing malt and a nice touch of spicy rye character. While the cherry flavor in the Cerise was a little candied, I still enjoyed this tart, refreshing beer. [EDIT] I forgot that I had wanted to mention Minnesota Tan from Stillwater’s Lift Bridge Brewery. This was my first opportunity to try this, their newest release. A so-called lingonberry tripel, this is a tart, extra-dry beer with nice berry flavor and a bit of the Belgian fruit and spice yeasty character. I enjoyed it and would recommend trying it if you find it on a menu.

Once again, great job Juno and Mark. Please do it again next year.