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.