Sunday, November 9, 2014

Elevated Beer Wine & Spirits (Minneapolis, MN)

Out and about running errands and shopping on a Saturday, I took a little extra time to head up Hiawatha to give Elevated Beer Wine Spirits a try. I've been meaning to check it out for a while, but it's generally on the wrong side of the street when I drive by, usually when heading home from Town Hall or other pubs.

I will no longer make this mistake. Elevated's name is spot onnot just a fun pun because of the nearby grain elevators. The selection is spectacular.

Half of build your own six pack aisles

From this first stop, I noticed a particular emphasis on Minnesota craft beers, giving the local drinker a full selection. I went home with two Blacklist beers but had five from which to choose. Plus, there were full choices of many Minnesota brewers that I have difficulty finding without going to the brewery (Steel Toe, for example), Next, I put together two full six packs of new beers from the by-the-bottle aisles (notice plural on aisles). The price of craft beer has risen since the old days (a decade ago) and I am more reticent to just try a four or six pack and being stuck with a less than amazing beer for a week. And, I've been sampling beers seriously since about 2000, it's rare for a store to have enough new single bottles to build a six pack. The Ale Jail would be an exception, but, for me, it's a bit far away to visit consistently. In addition, the local choice didn't reduce the offerings of top national brands. Today I went home with personal favorite Stone Ruination plus a six pack of Anchor's seasonal Christmas Ale.

Overall, Elevated is an excellent stop that I intend to repeat. I no longer live is a beer wilderness with two local liquors stores having a more than adequate selection, but the range is limited by my outside the inner ring location. Elevated gives me a relatively close alternative to the sort of quality associated with Four Firkins, The Ale Jail or Blue Max Liquors without the long drive.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Third Street Brewhouse (Cold Spring, MN)

Entrance to Third Street Brewhouse
After several attempts during trips to St. Cloud, I finally found the time to visit the Third Street Brewhouse, even making the 1 pm tour.

Brewing since 1874, Cold Spring Brewing today contract brews a range of beverages. For a more detailed summary of Cold Spring, check this MinnPost article. Knowing their background, I was amused that only top notch craft brewers like Tallgrass and 21st Amendment were mentioned by the guide. I noticed a TCHO chocolate box on a shelf, which the guide said they were using it to test a new brew. Compared to other brewery tours, Cold Spring is very slick and industrial.  A very cool set up, I can see where they can produce a lot of beer very efficiently to specs.

Bitter Neighborhood

After the tour, we sat as a group at the large, wood communal tables. All are brewed cleanly and good beers.  The Hunny Do Wheat Beer was an interesting wheat beer made with honeydew melon, which was very apparent in the taste. Too thin for my taste but I can see why others might like it. The Jack'd Up Autumn Ale, not a pumpkin ale but a spiced fall ale according to the description was a more unique interpretation for a fall seasonal and one the proved popular at the bar the night before. I finished the visit with a draft of my favorite of the Third Street line up: Bitter Neighbor Black IPA. It's a full flavored India Pale Ale that is smooth and quaffable, a great introduction so someone new to the style yet complex info to interest a beer geek.

Part way through my pint, I noticed a fellow coach sitting at the bar, someone I've met but haven't gotten the opportunity to know well. As always, beer as a common denominator accelerates the process. While the tour of the brewery and the samples were more or less what I expected, a good bar and a good beer still ends with a pleasant surprise.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Drinking at the 2014 State Fair

S'mores Beer from Giggle's
At a my little sister's wedding reception, I joked with my cousin Randy that I would love to see Joan Jett in concert but few have ever agreed to go with me and been available. But, now, I had a partner in crime for the state fair closing night concert of Journey with Joan Jett opening. So, I was going to the fair.

Don't get me wrong. I think the Minnesota Get Together is a pretty amazing spectacle. I just don't need to go every (or even every other) year. But living in Minnesota, events, family or fate (aka my mouth) will conspire to get me the fair occasionally. I decided to try to make the fair into a beer festival.

Based on the Growler's state fair guide, I had names of beers and their locations on a pdf.  However, I didn't include the map in the article for how to get to the places and had to download the state fair food finder app to get around. In the meantime, I walked by and recognized Mancini's al Fresco from my list. I was pessimistic about the beer gelato made with Summit's Oatmeal Stout. It was ok and the beery flavor was definitely there but it had too much of a acrid finish for me. Happy to get to the bottom of it.

Beer gelato with Summit Oatmeal Stout
Next was a bag of Tom Thumb donuts (my heart's true love and desire) to change the flavor in my mouth.  By this time I'd found my bearing and headed to the Ballpark Cafe, which was out of the minidonut beer. I settled for a Red's Apple Alea mistake. Clean apple flavor but without the fresh punch of a good cider. On the slightly warmish last day of the fair, it was more than refreshing for walking around. Should have tried the Burning Brothers on tap instead, but the gluten free scared me away since I hadn't heard of the brewery before.

In the middle of machinery row is Giggle's Campfire Grill. With very long lines, I jumped in and figured I would decide on the way.  When I got there, the S'mores beer was the only option in the line I had chosen, so gave it a try. Surprisingly, marshmallows don't soak up beer at all. I found the crusty rim to not be very tasty but the overall effect was fine, especially the comments from fair goers as I walked back down the street (it's so dark, that's that S'mores beer, etc). It's the kind of fun one expects at the state fair. Sadly, I was unable to return for the Walley Mac n Cheese on the menu. Oh well.

By this time, my nephew Josh (who is going along to the concert as well) arrives and we chat and take in the fair. After a malt break in the dairy barn and seeing the finishing touches on the butter sculpture of Princiss Kay of the Milky Way, we headed to the MN Brewer's Guild exhibit "Land of 10,000 Craft Brews."  My nephew and I opted to share the Flight 3 Hoppier, which include sample of Surly Furious, 612 Rated R, Schell's Arminius and Fulton Lonely Blonde. The Arminius was the only new brew in the flight for me, but it was worth hunting down. While the exhibit isn't going to blow the minds of any beer geeks, it was extremely popular and there were a tremendous amount of chatter about beer by fair goers around me. Sadly, the exhibit was robbed of $10,000 in cash, the first such robbery in the history of the fair.

Overall, beer hunting at the fair wasn't terribly successful.  The main reason was the each of the beers listed at locations can run out (like the minidonut beer) or they aren't all on tap at the same time. Trying this on the last day of the fair also wasn't a great idea. As we settled into our seats at the concert, we each hand a Summit EPA in hand, for which I was perfectly happy sipping this iconic Minnesota beer while the stage speakers thumped through my chest. While I didn't find much new, it was fun. Plus, the fact that I walked by so many craft beer taps at the fair is a comfort all by itself—a day at the fair is no longer hot dry walk for craft beer drinkers.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

To Style or Not to Style

Opening day at taproom
Bent Brewstillery
When I took the beer judge certification classes with the Minnesota Home Brewers, studying the BJCP style guidelines made it apparent that winning medals in home brew competitions is about hitting the bullseye. The style guidelines are the mark and winners hit the mark.

For example, one of my favorite beers anywhere is Masala Mama IPA at Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery. And, that's the straight pushed beer and doesn't consider Mango Mama or the cask version.  It's an amazing beer in any form and yet none of Town Hall's 14 medals at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) is from Masala Mama. My interpretation (shared by a others) is that Masala Mama is a fine IPA that falls in between styles. As a result, this amazing beer won't get a medal even though it would be a top national IPA if it was ever allowed to be released outside of the state.

All of which is back drop for my same night visit of Bent Brewstillery and Sisyphus Brewing. As the beer boom grows, every brewery is fighting harder than ever to carve out a niche in the heart of MN beer drinkers. Both breweries are attempting to do that but in very different ways.

I miss so many openings that I couldn't resist the Facebook post by Bent Brewstillery to celebrate their reopening as the merged company (Joining forces with Pour Decisions). I opened big with a draft of Dark Fatha, listed as an American Emperial Stout (and yes my spelling is correct). The menu description calls this a hybrid beer style that combines the feel of a light ale and the robust dark flavors of a stout. I think that descriptions at Bent Brewstillery will likely be important. Reading the tap handle in line, I read Imperial Stout and ordered. Tasting at the table, it seemed like a thin for the style and that's how it registered for me. However, reading the intention of the brewer, it really is light and refreshing while still being a full flavored ale that's cleanly brewed and excellent. However, checking out the reviews on BA, there seems to be some similar confusion and low ratings as a result.

On the Bentbrewstillery webpage for the opening today, it states specifically that one of their goals is to rebel against styles. In theory, many of us applaud this approach (unless you truly love the BJCP guidelines, which some do). Anyone familiar with Minnesota homebrewing or reads the AHA results will know of head brewer Kris England. No one has the success Kris has in homebrew competitions with knowing how to hit the style mark. So, I'm extremely confidant that I am drinking exactly what Kris intended. While style guidelines can be seen as restricting creativity, they are also map to what you want to drink, especially for those that are new to craft beer. For an all dog like me, a little reading solves the problem to enjoying an opening of some pretty cool beers that hit a mark all their own.
Sisyphus Brewing

Next stop was Sisyphus Brewing, which is taking a different approach.  With only four taps, the names are simple and straight forward.  My Brett IPA and Double IPA were excellent, and very much what I expected from the names. Sipping on a pint while listening to the comedy show that's laying the groundwork for a future theater, I ponder my evening and wonder which approach to a brewery is best. Or, if comparing even makes sense. As a veteran geek, my beery knowledge is a comfort in new situations, something I worked hard to achieve from the early days when tap lists were bewildering.  Drinking a variation of a clear target is something I enjoy.

Yet, tonight, I'm drinking from a growler of Town Hall's Sunshower, a honey lager interpretation of the awesome Thunderstorm with lemongrass and a serious hop bite that I can't seem to get enough. Velvety smooth lager with a lemony nose that draws me in and a lingering acidic bite of lemon and hops.  Love it and totally not a style.

When this began this post, I thought I had an opinion. Turns out, I'm conflicted. I find styles reassuring and helpful, yet want to be challenged by master brewers to break the very rules I learned to embrace.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Drinking order philosophy: Go Big

Al and I going big at Great Taste.  
On the path of beer geekdom, most of us have read the same advice for tasting samples: drink light to dark. In theory, sampling light to dark will allow a drinker to not blow out the taste buds by starting with the double IPA. For years, I slavishly followed the advice.

I changed my drinking order philosophy after a short night at Spuyten Duyvil in Brooklyn. With a small but legendary draft list, there we're several that I wanted to try. We settled in and I ordered a Chelsea Blizzard IPA, which was disappointing, and then moved up to La Merle, a saison from North Coast. While a good visit, I had been eyeing a barleywine on the board (that I can't remember the name on now). If you haven't been to Spuytin Duyvil, it's a pretty sketchy walk through Brooklyn. And, in our search for an affordable hotel in New York, we tried a hotel in Jersey, which required a late night train transfer. The combination sent us packing to the subway before I got to the beer I was most interested in drinking.

Not a catastrophe, but enough disappointment to make me re-think my approach, especially on vacation. Now, I go big early and drink whatever looks best on the menu regardless of style or size. This approach will often get me a quizzical look from fellow drinkers when I order the 10% plus barlewine or triple IPA for the first draft. Working through a rack of samples, I will still follow the light to dark guideline (leaving samples that are unimpressive half full or more—another change). But, when ordering drafts, I go big early and drink the best I can find.
First draft and biggest on the menu that
day at Hammerheart Rune Stone Stout

I'm happy with my new philosophy over the last six years since Spuyten Duyvil and our recent trip to Lagunitas is a good example of the approach. Drinking for clear reasons, I started with their IPA because it was 57% of sales (info from the tour) and I couldn't remember it's taste. Then, we jumped right into a sample tray of all the special beers, including some big barrel aged offerings. As a result, we found the fantastic Rye Barrel Aged Gnarley Wine that we were delighted to drink it in spite of the 100 degree day.

This philosophy does have a downside. It will inevitably reduce the overall number of beers you can drink before heading home, whether driving or not. To drive home, a single beer before water and dinner might be required. At the most recent Great Taste, Al and I started with a 16% barleywine and a couple of bars later I ordered New Holland's Pilgrim's Dole wheat wine that comes in a 11%. Even taking a bus home, the big beers slow down the night pretty fast. While this approach takes some discipline and may not be for everyone, it's gotten me to better beers faster and improved my beer stops by simply stepping off the trodden path.

Friday, August 15, 2014

La Trappe (Berkel-Enschot, Netherlands)

La Trappe beer garden with brewery
in background
7/1/14 and 3/8/03 visits

A few weeks before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the price of airline tickets to Europe plummeted and we flew nonstop from MSP to Amsterdam for a long weekend because it was cheaper than any domestic vacation we tried to book. One of the best trips we've ever taken, a highlight was a train to Tilburg to taste La Trappe at Koningshoeven.

Returning this summer to the Netherlands with our niece for her college graduation trip, we took the opportunity to stop again for the tour. La Trappe was both familiar and changed at the same time.
First round of Wit and Quadruple

In 2003, we walked into the tasting room and the tour guide, Berrie Verhagen, asked if I was Cal on the first beer I ordered. I asked "How did you know?" We were the only Americans there. We toured the brewery with Berrie giving English translations of the previous Dutch explanations from each stop. Today's tour is very similar minus the walk through the bottling room. Also, at the end now, there's a video covering all things La Trappe while samples are poured. English speakers drank first, which was a nice bonus for coming so far.
Salad with fenugreek goat brie, apple, nuts
and apple-syrup dressing (minus bacon
to be vegetarian)

If my memory is correct, the present gift shop was the old tasting room.  Back then, cheese made with the quadruple and brewery bread, while great, was the best on the menu. For this trip, we showed up early enough for the 2 pm tour to have lunch first. My salad was pretty incredible, but my wife hit the jackpot by ordering the raisin-nut bread with Brabant blue goat cheese, pear compote, and nuts (grantinated in the oven). Not even sure what to call it, but the bite I was allowed to savor was spectacular. After the tour, I had Brabant strawberries with "hang-op," a uniquely Dutch topping according to the waitress. Even without the trappist ales, this is a place worth visiting just for the food. Magnificent. If you make the trip to Tilburg, please leave enough time to eat. And, of course, there was beer: before, during and after the tour.

My wife predictably startedand stayedwith the Quadruple. Easily distracted by something new, I got the once brewed 25th Anniversary Ale called Jubilaris and followed with Puur, La Trappe's organic pale ale.  Ended with a bottle of the Oak Aged Quadruple, batch 16. According to the waitress, each batch of the oak aged quad is tweaked a bit differently. In beer press, La Trappe sometimes doesn't get the respect of other trappist breweries, but I love their line up, especially the quad.

Tilburg is a bit off the beaten tourist path, but public transportation to Koningshoeven is easy. Bus 141 drops off right in front of the abbey and it's an easy walk to the tasting room. The bus runs hourly, so timing is important. To return, the bus pick up is across the road and down a little bit.  In 2003, I read the time wrong because we didn't realize that the return bus was on the other side of the road, which resulted in a us walking back to the train station in a light rain. Our first trip, we took an easy train ride to Tilburg from Amsterdam for the day and returned that night. This trip we had rented a car for a few days, so simply got a room at the Bastion Hotel (cheap, basic but perfectly adequate) because it's the closest one to the abbey. We just missed the bus from the hotel to the brewery, so we walked the 20 minutes rather than wait for the next bus. In the end, we've ridden the bus each directionjust a decade apart.

Two years ago, my wife and I visited Westvleteren in Belgium, which was also a great day, but much more difficult to get to with public transportation. While I've only been to two trappist breweries, La Trappe is an easy visit and well worth the effort, especially with the serious upgrades to the food and tour structure. I encourage you to settle in for an afternoon and leisurely enjoy the full range of La Trappe beers.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Growlers and Minnesota

Growler storage in my trunk
My first knowledge of recent changes in Minnesota beer laws was Harriet Brewing's policy for growler refills. Bring in your Harriet growlers before September 1st and get $5 back. Brought mine in today and filled up Fulton and Fitger's growlers with Harriet brew.

I decided to take advantage of Harriet's policy to make some room in my trunk. A couple years ago, I walked into the Container Store in Edina with a growler and proceeded to test it in each type of storage system. I finally found a archival box that fit 12 growlers perfectly. To date, I haven't had a growler break in the back. This was my solution to Minnesota's requirement to turn in an empty growler in exchange for a pre-filled one, and a lack of storage space in my house.

Now I'm torn. While it's nice to have three fewer growlers in my collection, I like the pre-filled growlers. They store exceptionally well in the beer fridge until opened and, in my opinion, have a significantly better carbonation retention than those filled from the tap. My problem is that I only like it in Minnesota.  When travelling, I, for obvious reasons, prefer to get beer in my own growlers.  I will rarely purchase a growler from out of state to bring home because of the waste.

My double standard extends to the present system.  I'm hoping that my favorite places like Town Hall Brewery continue to pre-fill growlers while others I visit less frequently can change with my blessing. It's just a bit more work to wash and sanitize before visiting a brewery. Less spontaneous but it'll work. Asking bartenders to not rinse the growler with water and pour on the foam will take more effort. Besides, I have my trunk system in place alreadyeven the guys of the food truck tonight were impressed by my system. We'll see how long I will need it.