The bagpipes blared at precisely 7:00 on Friday night, signaling the start of Winterfest 2011 at the Minnesota History Center. The doors opened and the crowd of 700 local beer fans, some of whom had been waiting in line for an hour or more, flooded into the hall. Because I was doing educational sessions at the event, I had arrived early to set up. I got to witness the opening rush from the inside for the first time.
I attend trade shows for the college campus-activities market. There is a novelty attraction in the college circuit called Wax Hands, which consists of students dipping their hands into vats of hot wax and ending up with brightly colored molds of the “hang-loose” sign, “peace” sign, or some other such sign. As soon as the doors of the exhibit hall open, students make a frenzied dash to be the first in line for Wax Hands. I happened to be standing at the Surly booth Friday night when the doors opened. Surly Brewing Company is the Wax Hands of the local beer world. It was fascinating to watch as the line went from nothing to a long snake down the hall in a matter of seconds.
In fairness to Omar, Todd, and crew, Surly did have some interesting beers for sampling. Molé Smoke took their smoked Baltic porter south of the border with cinnamon, cocoa, and chili peppers. It had a slight tingling bite, but the chili heat wasn’t over the top. I wouldn’t have wanted a pint of it, but I enjoyed the sample. Pentagram, the single-barrel version of what will become Five, a multi-barrel, blended, sour beer brewed for their fifth anniversary, was very tasty and took the Great Snowshoe award as the crowd favorite.
But Surly’s weren’t the only intriguing beers on the floor. Looking at the program the day before the event made my taste buds tingle with barrel-aged Belgians, smoked beers, infused beers, fruited beers, and even some plain-old beers. There were three brand new breweries to check out. It was an awesome lineup as the members of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild brought their best to the fest. With so many beers on offer, I didn’t get to try everything I wanted to, but I did sample more than a few and found some standouts.
Superior from Fitger’s Brewhouse was perhaps my personal favorite. This was a strong version of a German Schwarzweizen or black wheat beer. At 9% ABV, it had a kick, but was still delightfully easy to drink. Chocolate flavors blended with doughy wheat malt and the unique banana and clove of the German wheat beer yeast. Brewmaster Dave Hoops first tasted the style on one of his annual trips to Germany and immediately wanted to make one. He said that this first attempt hadn’t quite hit the mark he was aiming for, but that he is continuing to dial-in the recipe. If this one missed the mark, I can’t wait to try it when he thinks he’s gotten it right. Fitger’s also got my vote for most attractive table display (see photo below).
Another standout for me was Port Odin from Town Hall, a traditional Baltic Porter that was aged for 18 months in French-oak, port-wine barrels. This one was rich and dark with deep roasted-malt flavors and hints of sourness beginning to peek around the edges. Complex and mysterious, Port Odin joined Surly’s Pentagram and Fitger’s Superior as my top three picks for the festival.
Other favorites for me included Dark Knight from Barley John’s, Flat Earth’s Winter Warlock, Fallen Angel Abbey Ale from Rock Bottom, and Vulcanus Rex cherrywood smoked scotch ale from Great Waters. I was very excited to see and sample beers from three new Minnesota breweries, Harriet Brewing, Big Wood Brewing, and Carmody Brewpub. Harriet’s Devine Oculust was very nice, as was the Scanlon IPA from Carmody. Unfortunately I didn’t get to Big Wood’s booth until the very end, when my palate and mind were both blown. The beers seemed tasty, but I’ll have to pay the guys a visit to make a more appropriate assessment.
Once again the festival was an intimate and well organized affair. Traffic flowed smoothly in the crowded halls of the History Center. The food was delicious and plentiful. The attendees seemed genuinely interested in sampling the beers and talking to the brewers. Cudos go out to Laura Mullen who put the festival together. Winterfest remains for me the best beer festival of the year.