Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery at the GABF 2010

The Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery is probably my favorite Twin Cities brewpub. This is in part because it is within walking distance of my home. It’s always nice to be able to have a brew (or a few) and not have to worry about driving. The main reason though is the beer. Brewmaster Mike Hoops and his crew craft a wide assortment of great tasting, ever-changing, and sometimes innovative beers. New releases happen every week.

I talked with Mike Hoops during the Saturday afternoon session of the Great American Beer Festival on September 18th. During the interview he talked a bit about trends he’s seeing in craft beer (herbal beers anyone?), as well as happenings at the brewpub, including an upcoming anniversary celebration and the opening of a new South Minneapolis taproom.

Here’s the interview.

Check out other videos on the Perfect Pint You Tube Channel.

Winterfest 2010 Recap

Friday night saw seven hundred Minnesota beer fans assemble at the Minnesota History Center for Winterfest 2010. The annual winter beer festival presented by the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild is a showcase of all things beer in the land of lakes. Seventeen Minnesota breweries and brewpubs were on hand pouring over seventy-five beers. The arrangement of the History Center was much better this year than last, spreading out the brewery tables to prevent crowding of the narrow hallways and allow easier movement and more comfortable imbibing. The only downside to the arrangement was that it was sometimes a challenge to find the particular breweries that I was looking for. Another plus this year was the plentiful food. In past years the food was usually picked over and nearly gone by the time I felt the need to refuel. This year there was still food to be had at multiple feeding stations right up to the end of the event. One of the greatest things about Winterfest is the presence of the brewers behind the serving tables. The only missing faces this year were Jeff and Cathie Williamson from Flat Earth who just welcomed their new daughter Heather into the world a couple of days ago. I guess they can be excused for missing. Beer was flowing, kilts were on display (though fewer than in previous years), and it seemed all festival goers were having a great time.

So what about the beers? In general I found the beer selection to be wanting in comparison to past Winterfests that I have attended. The variety of styles was a bit limited, lots of heavy stouts and big IPAs. It seemed like the brewers brought fewer special beers this year and there were fewer that stood out in the crowd. That said, there were some real winners and a few that were not so great as well.

For my money, Town Hall Brewery had the most interesting and consistently tasty selection of beers at the event. If the lines at their table are any indication, I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Nearly everything that I tasted from Town Hall was wonderful. Especially noteworthy for me was LSD, an ale brewed with lavender, honey and dates. It has a wonderful floral aroma and a flavor that starts out dry and hoppy only to explode with honey and raisin sweetness mid-palate. I loved it at Autumn Brew Review and still love it now. Also impressive were Twisted Jim, an American barleywine aged in Jim Beam barrels, and Russian Roulette, a huge, rich, chocolaty imperial stout served on cask.

Recounting my top-five of the fest, starting at number five is Smoked Porter from Rock Bottom Brewery. This smoked porter is made with 25% cherry wood smoked malt for a char-pit kind of smoke flavor that is totally different than the familiar meaty smoke of the classic Rauchbiers of Germany. A year ago I had a cherry wood smoked bock at Goose Island in Chicago that blew my mind. Ever since, I have been searching for another cherry wood smoked beer that works as well as that one did. I have tried many, including a couple others at Winterfest. Most have failed. While it didn’t blow my mind, the Rock Bottom Porter really worked.

Number four goes to Flat Earth’s Winter Warlock Barleywine. I have always loved Winter Warlock. Lacking the intense caramel and dark specialty malts of most English barleywines, this golden barleywine finds layered depth in simplicity, just English base malt and sugar. The 2009 batch is good now, but will be even better next year. While I am talking about Flat Earth, let me move on to my number three pick, the Grand Design S’more infused porter. This was the Great Snowshoe best beer of the festival winner this year as chosen by the attendees. I hate s’mores, but I really do like this beer. Built on the base of one of my favorite local beers, Cygnus X-1 porter, it explodes with vanilla, cocoa, and graham cracker sweetness that really does remind one of flaming marshmallows on a stick by the fireside.

My number two beer is the above mentioned LSD from Town Hall. I described it briefly up top, so suffice it to say here that it is a floral and fruity delight. A truly unique beer.

For my personal best beer of the festival I chose Unoaked Rosie’s Reserve from Barley John’s. This is a huge and hugely complex beer. While others opined that they preferred the oaked version, I am somewhat tired of bourbon barrel aged beers. I’m not that fond of bourbon to begin with and I think they have been overdone. The lack of bourbon and vanilla flavors in this 15.5% beer allowed for the discovery of delicious caramel and dark fruit without a trace of hot alcohols. Another beer that coaxes complexity from simplicity.

A few other beers deserve mention. I enjoyed the Winterye Mix and Blackwatch Oat Stout from Great Waters Brewing Co. Surly Mild was delightful as always and Four was tasty, but I want to reserve judgment until I can actually taste more than a couple ounces. It took on a kind of chalky, charred flavor that annoyed me slightly the more of it I drank. Winter Wheat from Rock Bottom was a great palate cleanser to end the evening.

A couple of beers for me missed the mark. Fitger’s Undertow Pilsner seemed a bit thin and flavorless. It could be because I had been sampling the endless number of imperial stouts and barleywines before I arrived there, but normally I like to seek out a pilsner as refuge from the huge. This one did not provide it. Great Waters’ Vulcanus Rex cherrywood smoked beer took the char pit smoke to an unpleasant level. The Smoked Doppelbock from the Herkimer Pub & Brewery, another cherrywood smoked beer, promised greatness with the aroma and then failed to deliver. The worst disaster of the evening in my view was the Chipotle Wee Heavy from Town Hall. All I can say is what a waste of their great Wee Heavy.

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.

Session Beer Night Recap

TC Perfect Pint Beer ClubMembers of the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club who have attended even one meeting have heard me rant about balance and subtlety in beer. While I like big beers and appreciate the complexities of high alcohol, barrel-aged, über-hopped, snifter-sippers, my real preference is for simpler, smaller brews. With this in mind, the club met Saturday night at the home of member Vickie Parks to explore session beers. A session beer is the essence of balance and moderation. Low alcohol allows you to down a few and still retain reasonable possession of your faculties. The best ones are both flavorful and light enough to make you want more. Session beers are beers for socializing and conversation. For the purposes of this event defined session beer as having no more than 6% alcohol by volume. It would have been nice to stay below five percent, but in this time of “bigger is better” those beers can be a bit hard to find. We persevered, however, and sampled our way through eight flavorful beers ranging from 3.3% to 6% ABV.

We began the evening with Samurai from Breckenridge Brewing Company in Denver. Like an ale version of an Anchor Small BeerAmerican or Japanese rice lager, Samurai is light, crisp, and refreshing. Lightly sweet and grainy malt is balanced by moderately bitter spicy licorice hops that set off a nice apple and citrus fruitiness. A great lawnmower beer for the lingering summer. Samurai was followed by Anchor Small Beer. For this beer Anchor Brewing, the folks that make Anchor Steam, have revived an old English brewing practice of getting two beers from one barley mash. The rich, sweet first runnings become their Old Foghorn Barleywine, while the more dilute second runnings become Small Beer. At 3.3% this was the lowest alcohol beer we tasted. But low alcohol doesn’t have to mean no flavor. Small beer has a sweet caramel malt profile with hints of toast that serve as a base for an assertive bitterness. Pleasantly grassy hop flavor and light fruitiness round it out. The big taste in this small beer led one person to ponder why all the supermarket 3.2% beers aren’t as flavorful.

Next up was Trout Slayer from Montana’s Big Sky Brewing. This beer was the surprise hit of the night. Big Sky calls this beer a “wheat pale ale” and the description is apt. This is a very well balanced 4.7% beer with moderate bitterness, bright citrus hops, and a beautiful bread and biscuit malt. Neither malt nor hops dominate as the beer heads to a clean, dry finish. This one’s a keeper. A fruit beer was next. Samuel Smith’s Organic Cherry Ale to be exact. Next to the Belgian Red and Raspberry Tart from New Glarus, the Samuel Smith fruit beers are the best tasting fruit beers I have had in a while. These blended wheat-based ales are brewed in collaboration with Melbourn Bros., the last sour beer brewery in England. They are lightly tart, deliciously refreshing, and enormously fruity. While the strawberry and raspberry versions are great, the cherry gives the most fruit bang for the buck. I would drink this beer all night and at 5.1% ABV I could.

Tyranena Brewing CompanyIt’s time for Oktoberfest, so we celebrated the season with Ayinger Oktoberfest-Märzen. Traditionally brewed in March at the end of the legal brewing season in Bavaria, Märzen style beers were stored cold over the summer to be consumed in the fall to celebrate the harvest. Lighter in body than some examples and with a crisp, clean lager character, the Ayinger Märzen still has a rich caramel/melanoidin malt profile. Malt is the star, but it is supported by moderate bitterness and spicy German hop character. The other German style session beer that we tasted was Headless Man Amber Alt from Tyranena Brewing Company in Wisconsin. Brewed in the style of a Düsseldorf Altbier, it has a caramel and toast malt profile with assertive bitterness and spicy German hops. This was everyone’s least favorite beer of the night. I found it to be a bit out of balance with thin malt and overdone bitterness that was somewhat astringent in the finish.

The favorite beer of the night was Moose Drool Brown Ale, our second beer from Big Sky Brewing. Moose Drool displays a rich toasty and Moose Drool Brown Alecocoa malt profile that I described as toasted Tootsie Rolls. The balance leans toward the malt, but spicy/resinous hops play a significant supporting role and assertive bitterness from both the hops and the light roasted malt keep it in check. It had been a couple of years since I had tasted this one. I don’t think I will wait so long to try it again. The last beer of the night was also the biggest. At 6% ABV, the silky smooth Black H2O Oatmeal Stout from the Town Hall Brewery in Minneapolis seemed almost decadent compared to the evening’s other selections. While some thought it was lacking in body and oat character, I found it to be quite satisfactory. Smooth and a bit sweet with pronounced coffee and cocoa roasted flavors, Black H2O was a satisfying capper.

At the end of the night, after tasting eight great beers and consuming the leftovers, we each headed our separate ways still sober. That is the real beauty of session beers.

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.