Saturday, October 24, 2015

Harvest Beer Festival @ Bachman's on Lyndale

Hibiscus Sour by Fair State
I was lounging around on a Saturday watching a KARE 11 news segment on the Harvest Beer Festival to be put on by MSP Magazine over MEA break.  Usually travelling for the fall break, I decided to try the new festival.  If I had seen it earlier, I would have likely gotten tickets to the fresh hop festival at Town Hall Lanes with other beer geeks, so I had a little buyers remorse going into the day.

Showing up a half hour early, I wandered around the massive Bachman's on Lyndale hoping I was in the right place because my ride was gone and not coming back until after the fest. All the way in the back, the breweries were set up under an empty green house.  Nice gig, really.  Bachman's gets a lot of foot traffic for using a space that's empty this time of year, and host MSP Magazine likely doesn't pay a lot for the space.
Kathleen serving her brew for Sidhe

I got the VIP ticket to start drinking at hour early, but there were so few of us that I was unclear if anyone was pouring when it started.  I've met the folks at Sidhe before, so started there by talking to Kathleen and Rosemary. Their fall beer was Non-Kin Apple Cream, which had a bright apple taste and the beer was very refreshinga potential big seller for them.

A harvest fest, most brewers had a fresh hop or dry hopped offering. While not the popular winner, my best fresh hop of the fest was Lucid's Foto Fresh.  Clean and bright, it was everything you'd want in a fresh hop beer.  Unfortunately, not all of the fresh hop beers were as good, though some of it was presentation. Surly Wet was just poured out of a can, leaving it flat and not the spectacular beer that I've been drinking at home for the last week. Others were pouring out of growlers, which were also a bit flat after a few pours. For me the best beer of the day was Lactobac 2, a hibiscus sour from Fair State Cooperative. Fruity and floral with a singular sour base, this beautiful beer was a treat, serving to confirm my positive recent visit to Fair State.

Curried Mushroom Fries from
The Moral Omnivore food truck
While I had only a few top notch beers, there were plenty to try. I logged 33 new beers and two new breweries on the dayimpressive for a small festival. I showed without lunch because I under the impression that I was getting a complimentary Lotzza Motzza pizza from the VIP ticket. Turns out the pizza was all meat samples, so I had to buy a slice of cheese from the truck. Basic cheap pizza, but it did the trick. The curried mushroom fries (portobello mushrooms sliced and deep fried) by the The Moral Omnivore were a much better for my mid festival respite on a nearby bench.

And I was supposed to get a free T-shirt on the way out, but I forgot after a day of samples and walked out the wrong way. Oh well. Overall, I had a very pleasant day at the festival tasting in solitude. From overheard discussions, many of the patrons were learning beer and more than a few basic questions were answered by those pouring. At first, I felt like I was in the wrong place and that I had too easily fallen for the pitch of fresh hop beers on KARE 11. While not exactly Great American Beer Festival, the Harvest Beer Festival cheered a lot of locals on a bright fall day with some very good beer, including me.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Quaint Drinking Village: Waconia Brewing (Waconia, MN)

After an excellent stop at Excelsior Brewing, I headed out to Waconia to try another brewery named after a town. Waconia Brewing sits snugly in the corner of a mall. A food truck was outside on the street, inconveniently not in the parking lot, and it specialized in big, meaty burgers without a veggie option so I passed. 

I ordered a rack of samples rather than a pint to be conservative. Of the group, I liked the Lake Town Brown the best: dark brown with ruby highlights and a thick tan head; full nose with malt, minerals and chocolate; roasted nut and chocolate sweetness on the tongue; not a chewy beer, but just enough body to support the taste. Well done, but mind blowing. Wactown Wheat, Pontoon Pale Ale, and the 255 Amber Ale were all thin bodied, but the lightest ale, the Carver Co. Kolsch was well brewed, clean and had a nice flavor that may be popular in town. The final sample, the 90K IPA, was a reasonable IPA with good balance and a lingering hop that settled with pine and grass on the tongue.

A sign over bar says Waconia, Minnesota: A quaint drinking village with a fishing problem. And the beauty of the surrounding lakes and the friendly feel of the full bar makes the appeal of the area clear. If I lived nearby, I would happily stop in at Waconia Brewing for a pint, likely ordering the newest beer on tap and drinking the brown as a back up. For my trip, the beer wasn't good enough to spend the time for a full pint, but the locals crowding the bar seemed to be having a great time as I walked out the door.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

F-Town Brewing (Faribault, MN)

Walking up to F-Town Brewing on a summery Thursday afternoon, I was disappointed by the clear lack of air conditioning due to the garage doors being open. My dashed hopes of a cool bar where lifted by the first sip of IPAlicious: dark for an IPA with a creamy beige head on the top, cherry maroon in color with gold highlights around the edge, grassy nose with clear hops, but not fruity. The malty nose like a good amber ale with a big chewy body.

IPAlicious feels like an "old" IPAmore to style, with a malty base to support the hops before craft beer pushed the hops to shine over the malt.
The caramel and malt flavors are punctuated by the solid hop bitterness. An excellent IPA that doesn't have the flavor of 100+ IBUs, but the hops are needed to burn though the malt. Nice balance and enjoyable to drink.

After looking at the brewhouse, I traded my empty glass for a Nutso, an excellent nut brown ale.  I sampled both Nutso and #1 American, a pale ale that was good but didn't quite measure up to the nut brown for me. At the bar were patrons Tracy and her father Charles. They told me about the Fleckenstein Brewing connection.  I assumed the F of F-Town simply referred to Faribault, but there's a history connected to reviving the Fleckenstein name, a historic brewery in town. In researching, I found a difficult to navigate website giving the history of Fleckenstein. The Faribault Heritage Preservation Commission has a much more understandable video. chronicles the fight over the Fleck's brand name without a conclusion in the article. The Growler makes the clear connection between the controversy and the opening of F-Town. Tracy and Charles at the bar said their last name was Fleck, the reason for their drive.

Two of the three people behind F-Town were in the brewhouse when I walked down to look at it. Talking to Travis while his kids played emphasized the family nature of the operation. Only open two weeks when I visited, sales pressure was already outstripping production. From the articles, these beers have been tested over time and worked on to make this brewery a success. All that I tasted were solid and point to being popular. I sat down to write up some impressions and ended up chatting with more locals at the orange picnic tables that naturally bring everyone together. While I didn't find AC, the shade and friendly locals combined with good beer made F-town a pretty cool stop.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Craft in Cans: Give Me a Tallboy!

On my last few visits to local liquor stores, I've noticed a new sensation: I turn my nose up at bottled beer. Not every bottlejust six-packs. Bombers, or 22 oz bottles, of beers are perfectly fine, mostly because they are generally something a bit more special, while a six-pack is something I'm looking to drink every day. It seems that I have a preference for canned craft beer, especially 16 oz tallboys. Surly tallboys frequent my fridge.

One of my recent tallboy favorites
I toured the original Surly brewery in June 2006, according to my database. The image of Omar talking about the hopes and dreams of the new brewery still lingers in my thoughts, including the revelation that Surly was going to can. Oskar Blues is famous for canning early, and Surly was going to follow. The most sensible argument at the time from Omar was space. Cans packed more efficiently and space was very much at a premium in the old brewery. Omar went on to discuss the benefits to the beer, but that sounded like rationalization: Surly had little choice but to choose cans.

Now, it looks like amazing foresight. I think Surly's quality in the can is part of the reason other breweries have joined the bandwagon. The benefits of getting to beer in market in better shape with less stigma took care of the rest. An article in MarketWatch on craft beer in cans summarizes the benefits versus costs from a total perspective rather than from my consumer's view.

While only one beer drinker, I seem to have a clear bias for cans. Besides freshness, not having to worry about being light struck in the liquor store, etc, a tallboy fits well in my favorite Brooklyn Brewery daily-drinking glass; I can pour the full can with a proper head and be happy with one for the night. In the old days, beer geeks always looked for corked and caged as a sign of quality. Then, caps were better for beer, so a wax dipped bottle was the beery grail. Now, the informed beer geek knows that cans rule and I, for one, will keep buying tallboys.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Take 16 Brewing and Sterling's Cafe (Luverne, MN)

Kick the Can IPA
Driving from a family reunion in my Iowan home town, a route I'd had driven nearly every weekend for three years in high school to my wife's home town of Luverne, I now sat down at the bar of Sterling's Cafe and ordered a Kick the Can IPA from Take 16 Brewing about twenty minutes before closing on a Sunday night. 

Kick the Can IPA is a beautiful beer in the glass with a solid hop nose of citrus and grass, almost like an fresh hop smell. The malt balances a clear bitterness and an underlying sweetness. Excellent IPA and I was sorry that I didn't bring growlers along. For those not familiar, Kick the Can is a childhood game, one that I played with cousins on my grandma's farm in the 1970s, which is my guess as to the origins of the name.  
Brewery on Main Street
A local softball team walked in a few moments before closing, so I had time to have a second beer, Stormy Jack. A smooth and easy drinking Irish Stout, it just confirmed the quality of this southwest Minnesota brewery, whose named confused me. I was chatting with my sister-in-law about my plans to beer hunt at Sterling's. She said the local highway through town used to be Highway 16. Growing up in Iowa, I know that road names with locals can remain for decades; for example, the country black top near my home farm was known as Old 9 even though the highway had been moved north before my memory. Just a theory. 

Across  from the Palace Theatre on main street, Sterling's is just down the street from the brewery, so it's about as fresh as you can get all four Take 16 brews. More importantly, Sterling's did an excellent job of beer handling and representing the brand. Check the website for the likely to be growing list of places with Take 16 taps. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Finding Gold: Excelsior Brewing (Excelsior, MN)

After having lunch with a former student, I had a free Saturday afternoon for some beer hunting. Heading west to Excelsior Brewing in Excelsior, MN, I admittedly had low expectations.

I'd tasted Excelsior at the 2013 Firken Fest at the Happy Gnome and was completely unimpressed. But I didn't think a cask ale fest was a fair test of the brewery. Nine months later, I picked up a couple bottles at the now defunct Four Fikins. While clearly better, I still wasn't impressed.

MinneGose at Excelsior

When I arrived at Excelsior, I struggled to find a parking spot and then was surprised by the exceptionally long line to get a draft at the bar. One stool was available next to a couple at the small bar, so I jumped on it and ordered t MinneGose (Min-uh-Gos-uh). Say it like the exaggerated Fargo pronunciation of Minn-eh-Sew-ta. MinneGose is an exceptional summer ale with the tang of the sea salt and coriander from the description floating over a fresh bread character of the wheat beer.  Each sip filled the mouth with this slightly sour and lemony sun gold beer.

With another brewery in the area, I had a tough choice: try another beer or move on. Conversing with the couple at the bar (moving to New Jersey next week and on a last weekend in Minnesota drinking fling) and the pint were both excellent, so I decided to quit while I was ahead and not fight the crowd, preserving the glow of a great beer drinking experience. I'll wait a bit and find Excelsior again to check out if the rest of the beers live up to this visit.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Sidhe Brewing (St. Paul, MN)

Every year at school, there are always a few students who desperately work for an A, but can't see the path to earning the grade: heartbreaking for me and frustrating for the hard working students. Unfortunately, Sidhe Brewing  is working hard but just not making the grade.  

I've known about Sidhe (formerly Four Elements) Brewing for a long time because the owners attend many One Voice concerts, one of which where I was introduced to the brewer Kathleen and we chatted a bit about their beer adventure. There was even an earlier, smaller, location in St. Paul before finding its present home. To keep from repeating history reported elsewhere, take a look at A Perfect Pint's first look

The small door on Jenks Ave belies the comfortable space at the bottom of stairs. On a Saturday afternoon, the place had several scattered customers enjoying the hot summer day with AC and a beer. I hunkered down at the bar to do all eight samples offered today. 

Senor Sol Victorious, a clone of Victoria Mexican lager, was as advertised, clean and very drinkable. Requested by the building owner for the locals, I'm guessing it pairs well with food from the Mexican restaurant in the same building. Next, I liked the Barking Cat, a strong golden Belgian ale. Having the most flavor and complexity, this 9.9% ale was a bit hot and not quite balanced. Finally, the Dark Moon Rising was serviceable dry stout that I considered getting a full pint. None of the beers warmed up well. This test is of limited use at Sidhe because the lighter styles are meant to be colder, especially Senor Sol and the Bast Kissed cream ale. My rather sluggish style of drinking doesn't fit well with some of the styles. 

In reading the menu, Sidhe's mission is to brew approachable session beers for all beer drinkers, not catering to the old school geeks like me. So don't expect a Surly Furious or Stone Ruination at Sidhe. I think this is an admirable mission, especially in the diverse, up-and-coming neighborhood. Sidhe has a real chance of making themselves a community pub, for locals to congregate and commune over lighter, flavorful session beers. However, this raises the bar for Sidhe. It's easier to homebrew a stout than a pilsner because the dark flavors allows for wiggle room to hide flaws. Big, and especially dark beers, are more forgiving, thus why I generally brew big. To focus on session beers, the brewing techniques must be perfect and, to get more flavor out of a small grain bill, the creativity must be inspired. 

While I think many of the ingredients for a great local pub are present, at the moment, in spite of my hopes and desires for these women brewers and owners, Sidhe is coming up short of top marks. However, my evaluation is just that: mine. Beer media is biased towards more radical brewing, so the buzz (including mine) will likely be slanted against them. Quite a few patrons in the bar where happily drinking, chatting and playing games throughout the time I was there. Often by the end of the school year, some students who persevere and continuously strive for improvement will learn how to make the grade. The philosophy and location of Sidhe seems to be well matched, so hopefully the locals will make Sidhe a success in spite of a low beer geek grade, which will give the brewery time to mature and find their path to better beer.  

Update 8/1/15

Based on the photos of my first visit, a group of friends put together a afternoon at Sidhe.  We walked in late and joined Cards Against Humanity with a draft of Barking Cat. To be safe, on my last visit, I only was able to do samples. The draft of Barking Cat was much better than I had remembered from the sample. Slightly hot from the 9.2% ABV, it has a spiciness from the yeast and a warm, round Belgian flavor. Barking Cat is a short, potent pour, so I switched to a pint of Tri-City, which was also significantly better as well.

Glad I went back for a draft, which was much better than my first impression.  Moving from samples to a draft seemed to make a difference. Normally, I prefer to end with a draft for a full review, but it's not always possible.  Friends and full glasses seemed to make quite a bit of difference for Sidhe, and I encourage people to keep giving it a try.