Friday, June 26, 2015

Brewery Review: Sidhe Brewing


Earlier this year I was living the geek life at the 50th anniversary of Minicon, Minnesota's oldest science-fiction and fantasy fan convention.  If you're interested, you can read my take on the event, as well as some internal geek monologue HERE.  At the amazing complimentary CON bar I had tasty Surly Furious and Summit Porter, but more intriguing to me was what I thought was some homebrew.  As I ordered my free taste of the mythological Greenman's Harvest brown ale, I discovered that my server was actually Kathleen Culhane, the brewer for the then nearly open Sidhe Brewing Company.  As a beer geek and beer blogger I was excited to hear about a new brewery that I was not already aware of.  Even more, I was also happy to discover this at an unexpected place and time!  Getting to be the first test market of a budding new brewery while hanging out with a ton of science fiction and fantasy lovers?  Sign me up for that!  I talked briefly with the busy Kathleen, and got a little background on the place.

Later, while again hanging out at the CON bar, we met Erica and Robin, two of the other owners of Sidhe.  I got to try Erica's very nicely balanced orange blossom mead, and shared a couple of my own meads with them.  Hey, this was a fantasy convention--you have to bring mead!  At different times over the weekend Sidhe had several beers and ciders to test out on us.  I found the brown ale to be a bit roasty for my palate, but still tasty.  The Dark Moon Rising dry Irish stout was one of the better versions I've had recently, and served on nitro it would be even better!  I was also very happy with Kathleen's Dry Cider:  very dry and tart, reminding me of the slightly funky and complex French cider style.  I will say that my wife (the cider drinker in our family) would have liked it a bit sweeter.




Which brings me to up to the actual brewery.  The brewery itself has been open for about two months now, and my wife and I finally got a chance to get over to East St. Paul to check it out.  Normally I try to give about 4-6 months before reviewing a brewery to let them get the kinks out, but I thought I'd break with tradition and write this up anyway.  The name Sidhe (pronounced "she") comes from Irish mythology and usually describes the fairy folk, especially female fairies like the beautiful and dangerous Leanan Sidhe and the deadly Banshee.  The group of women who started the brewery are self described "fringey folk" including members of the LGBT community, and have brought a unique point of view and style to their project.  As such, the group is very open and inviting to those of alternative religious and sexual orientations.  Despite focus on their woman-owned and operated tag-line, their admirable goal is to make the brewery a comfortable place for all people.

At the time of this writing we found the brewery to have a small sidewalk placard and a vinyl banner outside to draw us in.  I really like their colorful logo, bringing in the classical elements of Fire, Air, Water, and Earth in a pleasing and beer-centric way.  After entering the doorway, you make your way down stairs into a fairly small sunken taproom.  I'm not going to lie, the place is not the most attractive taproom I've been in.  Mismatched stools at the utilitarian bar, small tables, and a stage in the corner round out the space.  A few paintings on the walls add a bit of character, but the room needs a bit more work to get that comfortable pub vibe that I think they're looking for.  Hey they opened this tiny 2 barrel brewery on a shoe-string budget and I think they have done what they need to do to get the place open and running!  Hopefully, once they start getting some publicity (that's why I'm writing this!) they can start bringing in money to spruce the place up a bit.

There were several people at the bar when we arrived, without the place being crowded.  There were a couple of servers behind the bar, including Jacqueline Stoner, a recently made homebrewing friend.  These folks all knew their stuff--being able to describe all the beers in detail!  We also got to say hi briefly to Kathleen, who was actively working back in the brewery.

We didn't have much time to linger, so we ordered the sampler of 7 beers to get a taste of everything.  Soon we had our sampler glasses before us.  Both my wife and I agreed that our favorites were the Bast Kissed (a fantastic example of a cream ale) and the Greenman's Harvest brown ale (more balanced and tasty than the preview tasting I had previously had.)  My next favorite was the well-done dry Irish stout Dark Moon Rising--very spot-on for style.  I still want to try this on nitro!  The Barking Cat strong Belgian golden was very tasty as well, and funny to us since our cat Freya will often bark at the birds nesting outside the house.  I think my least favorite of the group was the Hopped Up McGonigal--a higher ABV (8.6%) IPA--while beer was not bad, it really lacked hop aroma and flavor.  I'm hoping to see some cider or mead in the future...

We were sitting at the bar when a fellow on my left (also tasting through everything) commented on how clean and good all the beers were.  I had to agree!  Even my least favorite beer was well fermented, just not to my personal taste for the style.  No sign of infection or poor yeast handling here!  For a place just recently open, I think the beer quality was better than many places I've been to that have been open over a year.  This is more impressive when you take into account their home-made 2 barrel brew system and the potential for quality control issues inherent in small batch brewing.  Good job so far Kathleen!

Overall, I was quite pleasantly surprised with the beer quality at Sidhe.  I think they could spruce up the taproom a bit, but it works and gives folks a place to hang out and try that beer!  I like the inclusive nature of the brewery's mission and, as a geek, find their mythology/Wiccan/fantasy vibe to be fun and very different from most breweries.  I'm looking forward to seeing how they do over the coming year and encourage people to give them a chance.  If any fellow geeks are reading this, Sidhe will be providing beer at the Royal Manticoran Navy room party at CONvergence over July 4th weekend in Bloomington--I'll certainly be swinging by.  And if you need any other incentive to get to East St. Paul, the wonderful fine dining restaurant Tongue In Cheek is right across the street.



Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Whale A Week: Alaskan Smoked Porter Vertical Tasting




Last week we covered the rare Goose Island Bourbon County Stout 2009.  This week, tired of endless barrel aged beers, I decided to try something a little different.  Our friends Randy and Andrea own a boat on Lake Minnetonka and invited us to come out on the lake for some food and beer sharing.  We've been trying to make this work for almost two years, and finally the stars aligned!  The two of them added extra enticement with a vertical tasting of Alaskan Smoked Porter that they had been saving up for such an occasion.  The beer itself is not incredibly rare, and most would agree that it isn't a whale beer on its own.  However, getting to taste vintages ranging from 2002 to 2014 in one sitting?  That is a different story!  Maybe we'll call this a Pod of Dolphins instead...

Alaskan Smoked Porter

A little background before we get to it.  Alaskan Brewing was one of the early craft breweries to lead the current wave, starting up in Juneau way back in 1986.  For those Minnesotans reading this, that's the same year Mark Stutrud opened Summit here.  Alaskan was one of the first American breweries to brew a smoked beer--a style usually reserved for old German breweries at the time.  Even those German beers were almost always lagers, so a smoked porter was a new and intriguing beast for the cautious American palate.  The beer was first released in 1988, with a portion of the grain being smoked across the street at the Salmon smokery over alderwood.  German rauchbiers pretty much all use a milder beechwood smoked malt, so this was another break from tradition for Alaskan Brewery.  Overall, for 1988 this was a crazy beer to make.  Especially in Alaska! They have won many GABF and World Beer Cup awards for this beer over the years.

The beer has 6.5% ABV, 45 IBU, and is brewed for a vintage release every November.  Let's talk about cellaring beer a second.  Beers that stand up to time in the cellar tend to be high alcohol, dark, or sour.  These are usually the type of beers that I review for this blog series.  Alaskan Smoked Porter is dark, but the ABV is below average for aging.  The trick to aging this beer seems to come from the smoked malt.  The smoke has some protective effect on oxidation, letting you age this beer for years beyond what you would expect.  I've had 2 year old versions and still liked them, but the 12 year span of this vertical tasting was really exciting to me!

On with the show!  Our cast of characters for this tasting are as follows:  Me--BJCP judge, homebrewer, beer geek extreme.  Randy and Andrea--our friends for years, originally meeting at Town Hall Brewery.  Both are novice judges but have been traveling far and wide tasting craft beers all over the US.  Chris and Hassan--our friends originally from The Happy Gnome beer dinners who have traveled with us to Belgium twice.  And of course my wonderful wife Sarajo!

There we were, floating on the lake, Captain Randy at the helm like some mad squinting Ahab.  Finding a quiet spot to weigh anchor and relax, we settled in for a long tasting of amazing beers, with a veritable smorgasboard of snacks and food to share.  The breeze came and went, bringing periods of cool to an otherwise hot afternoon.  Perhaps hefe's or IPA's would have been more suitable for the day, but we had smoked beer to drink!  I contributed the 2014 vintage but Randy and Andrea furnished the rest.  Between the sun, the rock of the boat, and differing weather conditions, this may not have been the most controlled tasting ever.  However, we all had small glass tasters and tried each vintage together--pooling our thoughts as we went.


This was our "catch" on the lake, and by the evening this fantastic sunset sent us on our way...

2014:
We started with the most recent vintage, figuring we would see how the beer tastes when fresh.  Even then, this batch came out November of 2014, so it has already aged about 7-8 months.   Our impressions:  Super smoky.  A bit rough.  Not much mouthfeel.  Cedar smoke.  Hassan--"Anise flavor."  Chris--"Sharp edges." Just not well balanced, but still decent.

2012:
A bit smoother than the 2014.  More roast flavors, but a little less smoke.  Carbonation seemed higher than the 2014.  Still a bit harsh or uneven.

2010:
Sweeter aroma.  Not as much smoke in the aroma as the previous bottles.  Taste is sweeter as well, but the smoke flavor actually seemed increased from the 2012.  Balance is much better in this vintage.  The best so far...

2008:
Darker and more opaque appearance.  More smoke aroma--almost as much as the 2014.  Sweeter, but more complex than previous years.  Pre-processed molasses flavor.  Chris--"Heading into Stout waters..."  Hassan--"Has lost the sharpness."  Eric--"Yum!"

2006: 
Licorice.  Soapy.  Smooth.  Smoke has faded a lit.  Aroma is sweet but the flavor is not.  Numbing on the tongue.  This one is not as good.  Sj--"Slides right down."  Randy--"Bitter chocolate, I like this one."  As we dump some of this over this side, Hassan asks "Are there fish down there asking 'Is this the 2006 vintage, or the 2008?'"

2004:
Getting pretty old now--10 years!  Aroma is a balance of sweet and smoky, the best nose so far.  Body seems slightly thicker.  Overall the flavor on this batch is perfectly balanced and melded quite well. Smooth and easy to drink.

2002: 
Strangely, the smoke aroma is stronger in this vintage than the last 2.  Smoke flavor increased, and is the first one that really reminds me of bacon.  Complex flavors leap about in the middle of this vintage.

Rankings:
Randy--Favorite is 2002, but liked some of the others for differing reasons.  Least favorite was 2014.
Andrea--Favorites in order were 2004, 2006, 2008.  Least favorite was 2014.
Hassan--In order, starting with favorite: 2004, 2008, 2010, 2014, 2002, 2012, 2006
Chris--Favorites 2004, 2010.  Least favorite 2006.
Sj--Favorites 2008, 2004.  Least favorites 2006, 2014.
Eric--Favorite was 2004, followed by 2002.  Least favorite was 2006, and 2014 a close second.

Overall:
This was a fantastic experiment, and fun to get everybody's input on.  And while the venue was a little less-than-controlled, it was glorious to be out on a boat with friends drinking amazing beers!  We came to some interesting conclusions after finishing our tasting.  The first of which is that this beer really does age well.  I sensed no cardboard/oxidation flavors or aromas in any of these beers, which I'm usually very sensitive to.  There was a strange variation of smoke aroma and flavor in these beers.  Instead of dropping off and continuing to fade, the smoke would pop back up in the next vintage!  There may be some variation in recipe or quality of smoked malt year to year, but I've heard that even one vintage tasted in subsequent years has this variability in smoke character.  I just recently read the short paragraph about Alaskan Smoked Porter in Patrick Dawson's Vintage Beer book--in which he mentioned that at 10 years old the beer gets thin and isn't worth aging much longer.  Based on how good the 2004 and 2002 vintages were on our tasting, I would disagree!  I'm looking forward to using his book as a resource when I do an upcoming tasting of aged Bigfoot.

Our overall least favorites were the 2006 (sorry Andrea you are WRONG!) because of some off flavors, and also the somewhat harsh 2014.  Overall favorites ranged a bit but 2002, 2004, and 2008 had the best showing.  So based on this, drink this beer aged about 6-10 years for best results!  Of course all this demands that you have stored your beer in cool conditions and out of light.  Has anyone else had any experience with aging this beer?  I'd be glad to hear your thoughts!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Sociable Cider Werks Review



Earlier this spring, my wife Sj and I went to a Happy Gnome beer dinner featuring beers and ciders from local Sociable Cider Werks.  Previously both of us had been a bit underwhelmed by their early ciders and were a bit sceptical.  However, knowing that we have never had a bad dinner at The Gnome, we decided to take the risk and try it out.  While folks were arriving for the dinner, they handed us a glass of the Freewheeler, their flagship dry cider, and we were pleasantly surprised at how tasty and quaffable it was.  During that dinner I got to meet one of the founders, Jim Watkins, who's official job title on their website is Bullshitting (Operations).  Nice!  He was a cool guy, and very excited about what he was doing--a great advocate for their brand.  Coming away from the dinner with a distended belly and a new-found respect for Sociable, we jumped their place up on our list of places to visit.

Which brings us to Art-A-Whirl weekend.  This is the fun Nordeast art-show/artist studio hop that I have managed to miss every year so far.  Finally, the stars aligned and we were able to get down there and wander through a bunch of cool artist studios in old characterful warehouse buildings.  After buying a slew of glass beads for Sj's jewelry making, we made our way to the nearby Sociable Cider Werks taproom.



The taproom is located (like many) in a reconditioned industrial space.  Unapologetically a "working brewery/cidery" the taproom is not fancy.  The inside is a bit dark, but not dingy.  A long shiny polished bar takes up a good space to the left side of the space across from the main entry.  The fermenters and canning line are right behind that, with more stainless brew equipment off to the right of the building.  A few large cable spool tables offer some more seating away from the bar.  The place was bustling but not overly crowded during our visit. My one quibble with the setting is that the ceiling has a strange, slightly arts-and-crafts-from-elementary-school twig and yarn thing going on.  A small patio outside offers additional seating and folks were just taking down a portable stage from earlier live music.

Just weird...

I wanted to order a sampler to try more things, but apparently they only offer them in the first hour they're open.  I understand that samples take longer to pour, but they are the best way for someone like me to get a gestalt of how the whole brewery's line-up tastes in a short period of time.  On the other hand, our helpful bartender was more than willing to let us have a couple of tastes to help make up our minds before ordering.  They do offer small and large glasses, so we still got to try several of the offerings without getting tipsy.  Interestingly they do straight ciders (most fairly dry), beers, and some hybrid beer/cider mixes.  This combination is really what makes Sociable stand out to my mind.  I got to try some unusual takes of traditional beer and cider styles that were truly unique.  My favorite of the group was the Everblack--a fine example of an oatmeal stout that was easy to drink and well crafted.  The Pinch Flat was a cider with saison yeast and had an interesting character somewhere between a beer and a cider.  I think our least favorite was the Burnout Smoked Apple that just had a chemical phenol that was a bit off-putting--I still gave it a 3 of 5 though.  Some of the hybrid styles like the Spoke Wrench (stout/cider) can have the cidery taste that I associate with young or "green" beer which is a flavor flaw when judging a beer.

I'm glad I gave these guys a chance and I think they're trying some cool new things that you can't find anywhere else.  They're also putting out good quality dry cider (in cans now too) to compete with the big producers of overly sweet commercial ciders.



Monday, June 15, 2015

A Whale A Week: Goose Island Bourbon County Stout 2009




Last week we covered the tart raspberry gem Atrial Rubicite from Jester King.  This week we return to the boozy RIS category.  This was the last of an epic whale tasting with a group of friends.  We poured this into Surly Darkness and Steel Toe snifter glasses for tasting.  Here is our cast of characters: Me (Eric)--homebrewer for over 25 years, beer judge, beer geek.  Sj--my wife who inexplicably is a woman of few words when it comes to reviewing beer.  Sean Kampshoff--Winner of National Homebrew Competition medals, beer judge, cool guy.  Jim & Cindy Moldenhauer--a very fun couple of craft beer geeks we got to know at several McCoy's Public House beer dinners.  Sean contributed this wonder to our tasting after storing it properly for over 5 years in his cellar.

Goose Island Bourbon County Stout 2009

I've talked in the past about my personal history with Goose Island--being one of the first brewpubs that I frequented in Chicago and leading me down the craft-beer road I now speed over.   Check out my very first A Whale A Week post on GI's Coffee BCS for more background HERE.

Bourbon County Stout was one of the very first commercially available barrel aged beers in America, and in many ways Goose Island started the trend for these beers back in the 1990's.  Over the years this beer has grown incredibly popular and demand has risen.  Back in about 2008 I remember buying a 4 pack of this for $8.99 at the liquor store and no one working there knew what it was.   But I did!  Now, with expansion and AB-Inbev taking over, the quantity of this beer has sky-rocketed, but demand has also continued to rise.  Now I'm lucky if I can track down individual 12 oz bottles for under $15.  2009 was the first year they moved away from the twist-off cap and the boring white label to the newer sleeker black labels.  The bottle we tried for this tasting was a harder-to-find bomber bottle, oh and this comes from before the AB buy-out so even if you hate the "Big Guys" you can still drink this beer with impunity!  For BCS the brewery claims first-use bourbon barrels that have aged bourbon for more than 8 years.  They store these in a non-climate-controlled facility that encourages swings of hot and cold that enhance the aging process and lead to more wood character in the beer.

Fun with Photoshop!

Aroma:

Eric: Strong bourbon, vanilla, milk chocolate.  Deep dark fruit.  Some definite alcohol zip.  Toasted oak.  Moderate roasted malts.  A hint of cinnamon.
Sean: Roasty/Whiskey combo.  Vanilla and oak.  Dark chocolate and medium caramel.
Jim: Bourbon of course!
Cindy: Chocolate

Appearance:

Eric: Black, pretty much opaque.  Very light tan head that fades quickly.
Sean: Very dark brown/black with off-white head.
Jim: Dark ecstasy.
Cindy: Moonless night.

Flavor:

Eric: Sweet maltiness up front--like a fine dark chocolate torte topped with a vanilla cream sauce.  Vanilla, mild coconut.  Thick mouthfeel and quite coating.  Very boozy and warming.  Ends sweet, but not quite cloying.  Hints of coffee and roast is actually retrained in this. No hop flavors.
Sean: Rich whiskey character of vanilla and marshmallow.  Dark chocolate and caramel.  No hop flavor and low hop bitterness.  Finishes medium-sweet but flavors meld together well.  Mouthfeel medium-high.  High alcohol warmth.
Cindy: Sweet!  Cognac.  Cherry.

Overall:

Eric: Very sweet beer but not overwhelming.  One of the boozier barrel aged beers I've had (but not Black Tuesday boozy).  I love this beer.  Strangely there was almost no oxidation in this aged beer.  Flavors have smoothed out and melded well over the years. 5
Sean: 4.75
Jim: Take me home Goose! 4.5
Cindy: 4.5
Sj: Delicious!  4.75

Overall Tasting Score: 4.7

This was a great beer and has held up amazingly well for its age.  Right on the bottle it says "Ages in the bottle for up to 5 years."  And they are right.  Thanks for sharing Sean!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Whale A Week: Jester King Atrial Rubicite




Last week we talked about the stellar Mother Of All Storms from Pelican.  This week we change gears and try out a sour beer from Jester King--Atrial Rubicite!  This was part of an epic tasting with Surly Darkness and Goose Island BCS and was the only sour we tried.  Talk about a palate cleanser! We poured this into Surly Darkness and Steel Toe snifters for tasting.  Here is our cast of characters: Me (Eric)--homebrewer for over 25 years, beer judge, beer geek.  Sj--my wife who inexplicably is a woman of few words when it comes to reviewing beer.  Sean Kampshoff--Winner of National Homebrew Competition medals, beer judge, cool guy.  Jim & Cindy Moldenhauer--a very fun couple of craft beer geeks we got to know at several McCoy's Public House beer dinners.

Jester King Atrial Rubicite

So, living in Minnesota, I have always viewed Texas as a bit of a craft beer wasteland.  You know--land of lite beer, country music, big belt buckles, American flags, etc.  When I discovered that there is a farmhouse brewery specializing in sour beers in Austin, I was a little shocked and frankly a little skeptical.  Last year I made a big purchase of a local craft beer collector's cellar and found several of these little gems hiding in there.  Not knowing what to expect I did a little research on-line.  What?!  Turns out that Jester King beers are much in demand among the sour-head beer hoarders out there!  And I had a bunch just ready to try!  Oh, and the bottle labels are a work of art on most of these...

So on the beer: Atrial Rubicite is a barrel aged sour beer fermented with Washington raspberries.  It comes in 500 ml bottles with an awesome/disturbing label featuring a raspberry heart popping out of a ribcage.  ABV is only 5.8% so this is easy to drink.  They use their house yeast and wild local yeast to ferment this beer out.  Beer Advocate gives the beer a rating of a solid 100 and it is featured in their top 100 beers, while RateBeer also gives it a 100. 

Freya just loves sour beers!

Aroma:

Eric: Huge raspberry blast!  Very tart and makes the mouth pucker just sniffing this beer.  Slight sulfur notes.  Acetic, lactic, and brett funkiness.  No hops.  
Sean: Powerful raspberry aroma with a lactic sourness.  No malt character or hop aroma.  Jammy!
Jim: Raspberries!

Appearance: 

Eric: Bright clarity with a crazy red to deep pink color.  Fine pink head at the edge of the glass.  Some bubbles on sides of glass.
Sean: Bright ruby red.  Extremely clear.  Little head.
Cindy: Sailor's Sky--Red sky at night...
Jim: Red/amber

Flavor:

Eric: Fresh raspberry is front and center in this beer.  Tart but not overwhelmingly sour.  Has a strong tannic bite from fruit and seeds, also possibly from the barrel.  Has a woody, almost beet-like finish.  No alcohol warming.  No hops.  Body is light and spritzy.  Finish is slightly astringent and quite dry.  
Sean: Medium-high raspberry flavor with a similarly medium-high lactic sourness.  Finishes tart and extremely dry.
Cindy: Sour cherry and strawberry.
Jim: Tart, sour raspberries

Overall: 

Eric: Really pleasant beer, balanced right on the edge of too sour/dry with a lot of tannin.  I'd like just a hint more residual sweetness to balance it, but I'm splitting hairs.  This is one of the better American fruit lambics I've tried.  4.5
Sean: A tasty, cleanly lactic raspberry beer.  Refreshing.  Not overly sour and great raspberry character in aroma and flavor. 4.25
Cindy: 4.25
Jim: Pucker up! 4.5-4.75
Sj: "I'm a sour whore."  This is Raspberry-riffic! 4.5

Overall Tasting Score: 4.43




This was a very tasty beer, and impressive for using wild fermentation from Texas!  I'm excited to try the other Jester King beers I've got hiding in my cellar--they are safe no longer!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Surly Brewer's Table



Surly's Beerhall as empty as you are likely to ever see it!
I think it's time for some Food Porn on this site!  Those who follow me know that in addition to being a huge craft beer geek, I'm also a foodie.  I've already done a review of Surly's new Beerhall as of February of this year HERE and I've been back several times since for food, beer, and even made one of the cool tours over Easter Sunday.  It will be known that while I don't love every single Surly beer, I would certainly qualify as a "Surly Fan-Boy" by most people's reckoning.  Just look at the number of Surly beer reviews I've done this year!  Well, how can you make me even more excited about Surly's new digs?  You open the upstairs restaurant, that's what!

A view of the Brewer's Table
While the food down stairs at the Beerhall is still well above average brewpub quality fare, many of the dishes have a hearty and rustic bent well suited to the surroundings.  That pork shoulder is a wonder for Minnesota BBQ!  However, the seating is all first-come and "get to know you neighbor" and it gets very busy and loud down there. Coming in from almost an hour drive away, I want to know I'm going to be able to get a seat!  The Brewer's Table is Surly's answer to these issues--a smaller fine dining restaurant located on the second level of the building, aiming at the more adventurous eating crowd.    They take reservations (Yay!) and also walk-ins if you are lucky, with some additional seating at the small bar within.  The restaurant is visible from the upper level hallway through sound-damping thick glass, but you can barely tell you are in a crowded brewery once inside.



We were greeted and seated quickly at a two-top table along the outside window, with a view of the huge derelict granary building at the back of the property.  I so want Surly to paint a huge mural on that thing!  The warm spring sun was just dropping in the sky and shone through the windows onto our table with a welcoming glow.  A few more people were seated outside on the small upper patio area, overlooking the busier Beerhall patio below, but it was a bit too chilly for us to want to be out there.



Our server, Sam, came over to meet us promptly and gave us a little run-down on the menu.  The menu consists of several smaller snack plates, appetizers, and some larger meat courses.  Everything can be shared tapas style, or ordered for individuals.  There is also a pre-set 5 course Chef &Brewer Pairing Menu where each course is paired with a 4 oz beer--the only caveat is that the whole table has to order this so that all the plates come out at the same time.  This is pretty much like having your own little private beer dinner!  Sam was very knowledgeable about the food and beers, and she offered to pair any dish we wanted with a beer as well!



The beer list was impressive--with a whole separate bar and tap system for the restaurant itself.  Most of the beers listed in the Beerhall were available, as well as a couple only offered at the restaurant like the food friendly sours Pentagram and Misanthrope.  One can order 4 oz sample of anything for a slightly hefty $3 (which allows more tasting, but adds up a bit in cost), 8 or 16 oz versions of most regular beers, or 10 oz pours of the higher gravity or sour beers.  Lots of options for different drinkers!  We each ordered a different sour to taste along with the dishes, and I had to get a Todd The Axe Man since we can't find that out my direction.

We started out our epic dinner with the mysterious Beer & Bump--a secret frequently changing special from the Sous Chef paired with a mystery beer.  Roll the dice and see what you get!  We were incredibly excited by this first dish and it set the tone for the rest of the evening.  Our beer was Mole Smoke (the Mexican spiced version of Surly Smoke and one of our favorites).  This was paired with a cold fresh shrimp ceviche with a jalapeno-lime-cilantro sorbet, fried plantain chips, and bright fresh citrus.  Holy cow was this amazing!  Spice level was on the edge for your garden variety Minnesotan, but for us this was stellar.  This dish was fresh and happy, very evocative of the summer to come.




Next we shared the fried green tomato--not bad, but Sj is from The South and it didn't quite stand up to her standards.  This was probably the least favorite dish of the night, but still good.  With this we also shared the panzanella--a fried bread crumb salad with pickled grape tomatoes, olive puree, and white sardines.  The flavors and textures of this dish were very bold and unusual.


Fried green tomato and Panzanella

At Sam's suggestion we ordered the cauliflower, which I'll be honest is one of my least favorite vegetables.  But hey, live a little and try something new!  This dish was lightly fried and served over a carrot puree with Thai flavored dressing and topped with fresh chili shavings and cilantro.  The Thai fish sauce laced dressing really brought in a lot of flavor and umami to an otherwise bland vegetable, and I was suitably impressed with the dish!  I would order this again in heartbeat.

And then time for our shared main dishes.  We started with the lamb sweetbreads.  Nope, these aren't really bread.  Sweetbreads are an organ meat (usually thymus gland) and are rarely seen in restaurants that aren't high-priced and usually French.  I've never seen lamb sweetbreads before so we had to try them.  The dish was more a take on Greek flavors with a yogurt and citrus based range of flavors that really complimented the distinct lamb-iness of the dish.  While we both liked the dish a lot, we have had better treatments in the past.  This is a challenging dish for the uninitiated.

The winner of the whole shebang for me was the Pork Jowl.  Again, using an unusual cut of meat, the Chef knocked this one out of the park.  Served with faro grain, hazelnuts and picadillo, the star of the show was the pork with that perfectly crispy skin, and amazing no-need-for-a-knife tender meat.  This is one of the best dishes I've had all year and will dream of it.  You owe it to yourself to try this one.  Oh, I was so busy eating that I forgot to take pictures of the main courses so you'll have to use your imagination!

And of course we had to have dessert!  The dish sizes were not huge, so I wasn't feeling quite as full as some restaurant visits, leaving me with a bit of room the course I usually ignore.  Sj ordered the bright and fruity avocado panna cotta, while I ordered the chocolate peanut sphere.  Both showed excellent technique and presentation, appealing to the eye and creating even more enjoyment from the dish.  Both were excellent, but the best part of my dish was the pairing with a 4 oz pour of Barrel Aged Darkness.  Yes, that was a great way to top off a fantastic meal!


Tastes even better than it looks!

We both heartily enjoyed our visit to Surly's Brewer's Table.  The setting was clean, polished, and professional.  The service quick, educated, and friendly.  The food options were somewhat adventurous and might be a little intimidating to some, but I recommend trying something even if it sounds "weird" to you--based on our experience you won't have a bad plate here!  For a little reference, I would already put this place in my top three favorite places in Minnesota for an amazing dinner with a great beer selection, along with The Happy Gnome and Butcher & the Boar.  None of these are cheap dining experiences, but they ARE true experiences and worth the money and time involved.


Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Rocket City Brewfest 2015: The View From Minnesota



On a recent trip to Huntsville, Alabama to visit my wonderful mother-in-law we were lucky enough to score tickets to the seventh Rocket City Brewfest (thanks Bill Fowler and the folks from OTBX!)  Being the super beer geek that I am, being in my wife's hometown on the exact weekend that they were hosting their beer festival was an amazing stroke of luck.  Or fate?  I already posted my blog entry on our visit to the recently opened Old Town Beer Exchange HERE, so feel free to check that out for some back story--especially on how much the beer scene has changed over the past several years.  As an outsider only making my way down every few years, the changes are even more dramatic!

The Brewfest itself was a two day affair over May 8 and 9 of this year.  The event is primarily a fund-raiser for Free The Hops--an Alabama based lobbying and education organization with lofty goals of improving the craft beer laws and attitudes in the state.  The website for the event is one of the best such sites I've seen--featuring good explanations, lists of the beers, and a countdown to the next year's event.  They also hosted an app for smart phones this year so you could figure out what brewery was serving what beer.  Traditionally the first (Friday night) session tends to a younger/rowdier crowd, while the Saturday late afternoon session is a bit more laid back.  We missed the first day, but were able to make the second day--probably perfect for our style.



I can't speak to previous year's events, but this was a great beer fest and run very smoothly.  Located on the grounds of the old Depot building, one has a good view of some of the old city, and its an easy walk to some of the downtown area.  After getting your ID checked, wristband (featuring a slightly tasteless advert for DUI defense), and taster glass, you are let loose on the grounds.

The brewery booths were a bit more spaced out than many such festivals, allowing for easier maneuvering and line management.  The local breweries almost all had their own tented booths, most with a separately run line for buying swag.  This is something I wish MN brewery fests would do, very few bring any glasses, hats, T-shirts, signs, etc. to sell us tipsy consumers.  Wasted opportunity!  Non-local and import breweries were serviced by combined booths, featuring beers from all over.  I focused more on the local stuff, but was excited to find the rare Tilquin Geueze from Belgium being poured at one station.  We also saw several of the breweries from North Carolina where we had just spent a week prior.  We also bought an awesome hand-made glazed ceramic growler with giant Grolsch swing-top from local Southern Growler--check them out HERE.

Let's talk water.  This particular fine spring day boasted temps over 90 degrees, but luckily some clouds drifted in to give us a little cover from the direct frying heat of the Alabama sun.  Every pouring station had a 2.5 gallon jug of potable water with a spigot as well as a dump bucket.  This made rinsing your glass out between and IPA and an Imperial stout a breeze!  Also if the beer in your glass was nasty, it was easy to dispose of the evidence.  Not that I had that happen very often.  This is in contrast to the otherwise well-run Minnesota Brewer's Guild events where they usually have only two dump/rinse stations for the entire festival.   There was also a booth handing out free bottles of ice cold water!  These guys know how to deal with preventing dehydration.

And food?  Oh, there was plenty of food available, though they were handled through annoying tokens.  Our favorite food option was the fantastic Sugar Belle Cupcake Truck that was serving a bunch of treats made with local craft beers.  Monkeynaught IPA cupcakes?  Heck Yeah!




We had a chance to try a lot of different beers, with extra attention paid to Alabama and other southern brews of course.  Some arcane law prohibits free samples of beers in the state, so each station has a bucket requesting a penny a pour.  If you forget, you can give a quarter to another bucket and count this as credit for 25 pours.  Strange.  Star local brewery Straight To Ale (celebrating it's 5th anniversary) had a constantly rotating line-up of over 20 beers--I really enjoyed most of them.  They also had a poor guy dressed in a suit (90 degrees!) and made up like a devil pouring samples of their 5th anniversary Belgian Quad from a tank on his back!


Pour bastard...

I enjoyed most of the things I tried from Yellowhammer.  One of the biggest lines in the fest was for Salty Nut, but all four of the beers we tried from them were just average to my palate.  We also got served beer from taps set into the side of a firetruck--best kegerator ever!



Going regional, we tried no less than 4 peanut butter beers!  I have brewed one of these with fair success in the past, but have never had a good commercial version.  Our favorite of them was the Rocket Republic brown ale that was then run through a randall filled with peanut butter chips.  Yum!  We actually went back for more of that one.  The rest of the RR beers were quite tasty as well--and I feel all the happier to display their rocket shaped tap handle that my niece Anna sent to me last year.

Overall this was a very well-run, and well-maintained beer festival.  For variety, water accessibility, and smoothness it was one of the best I've been to.  Top that off with the fact that almost every beer there was new to me and I was quite happy!  The beer quality was very good, but I would say that they are perhaps a bit behind where the general state of Minnesota breweries are these days.  We do have about five times the number of breweries to choose from here though...


If this came to emergencies there would be a LOT more false alarms...

The festival ended at 8 PM with dusk starting to cool things off outside.  My wife and I had snacked on amazing cupcakes, but were ready for something a bit more substantial to fill our bellies, so we walked a few blocks to Below The Radar.  This is a brewpub (one can see the fermenters through glass from the bar) but at the time we were there, the house beers were not on tap yet.  Instead they had a good selection of tap and bottled beers with a lean toward local/southern beers.  The food was fairly standard selections for a brewpub or bar, but the quality was above average.  The staff seemed friendly, but at least one server had no clue about beer at all...something they really need to fix if they are planning on being a real brewery!  

A great day spent in Huntsville, and far more impressive from a craft beer standpoint than I would EVER have guessed the city to become.  I'm excited to go back and see how things progress!