Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks

So, usually I keep this blog pretty innocuous and beer related.  I don't tend to go much into politics, religion, or really into my personal life.  Those things really need to be more personal for me, discussed with good friends over a beer perhaps.  But today, I want to do a post that is a bit more personal, as I reflect on the past year and the things I have to be thankful for.  Oh, and there will be talk of beer...this is a beer blog after all!

This year seems to have been a crazy one for us, not really in a bad way, just busy, busy, busy.  I've found myself too busy to check my e-mails, see movies in the theater (or on Blu-Ray for that matter,) call friends and family, and even my reading has fallen off greatly.  I can't really complain about these things, since much of my business has been fun-related, but it seems that the year has flown by us in a whirlwind.  For once in my life I'm actually looking forward to winter (yes, in Minnesota,) because that means less travel and less things going on...we Minnesotans tend to hibernate like bears, crawling out of our caves in spring and glaring blearily at the neighbors that we barely remember.

This year I had the best trip of my life: our 10 day jaunt to Belgium with two good friends on our organized beer tour.  I had two beers go to second round of the National Homebrew Competition.  Even though I didn't win, it was pretty cool to play with the big kids for a while.  Sj has continued to expand her jewelry making into not only a fun hobby, but a small business as well (she is having an open house in a couple weeks, and I'll be serving beer.)  My family is healthy, though I don't get to see my sister and brother much anymore.  Work is going well and keeping me quite busy during the day...and most importantly I love my job and the people I work with!  My Jack Of All Brews club-mates have really stepped up this year, hosting meetings and organizing trips and swag for the club.  I started this blog too.

The most important thing I can give thanks for this year is my beautiful-beyond-words wife of 11 years, Sarajo.  She is truly the yin to my yang.  She is quite the opposite to me in many ways: Talkative, where I am quiet; speaking her mind, where I am a stolid Norwegian Minnesotan with a penchant for passive aggressive methods; standing up for friends and family like an angered mother bear when she needs to be.  Yet she has had a great influence on me and I have learned to  more talkative and outgoing, speak my mind if it really means something to me, and to stand up for things and people.  I like to think that she has absorbed some of my traits as well, becoming a bit less fiery and more relaxed about things.  And though she would deny it, she is the sweetest wife I could ever desire.  I had to drag her all the way here from Alabama, (by way of Illinois,) but it was well worth it.

I am the cook in my household, and every year I do a whole Thanksgiving spread.  We enjoy hosting friends and family who don't have family nearby, but this year it was just the two of us, (and our three cantankerous cats of course.)  I thought I would do some beer pairings for this holiday dinner.  As I worked feverishly in the kitchen I noticed white fluffy snow flitting past my window.  It was around 60 degrees yesterday!  Scratch that bit from above where I said I was looking forward to winter!

I'm dreaming of a white...Thanksgiving?

For a starter I cooked up a red pepper and pumpkin soup using the last of our East Henderson Farm CSA produce for the year.  This was garnished with some fresh rosemary and toasted pumpkin seeds.  I served this up with our growler of Town Hall Brewery's Petunia's Pumpkin Ale that we had squirreled away for just such an occasion.  A fantastic pairing, with the sweet malty beer counteracting the more savory soup.  I'll make this soup again, but might add some chipotle pepper to give it a bit more zing.

The main event was filled with a bunch of old favorites.  The essential green bean casserole (or hot dish if you are from my area.)  The chilled jellied cranberries are essential for Sj's holiday enjoyment.  A stuffing made with pork sausage from our meat CSA True Cost Farm, and dried cherries is always a winner.  Mashed potatoes with tons of butter and sour cream...Sj did a great job this year!  And of course I had to do an outrageously big turkey for two...18.5# this year.  I tried out a new recipe for maple and smoked paprika glaze on the turkey, and it was fantastic!  I used wonderful local syrup from a colleague of mine, and I'd recommend you try it, but this year was hideously bad for maple syrup, so you may have to wait until next year's batch.  I should mention that the gravy, despite giving me a lot of stress, tasted very flavorful and tied all the components of the meal together.   We paired the main course with a beer Sj brought back with her from a recent trip: The Bruery's Autumn Maple.  This beer uses maple syrup, yams and molasses, really playing well with my maple flavored turkey and the other side dishes.  A complex Belgian style beer that was much better with food than on it's own.

Once the food coma had worn off a bit I set about making my own turkey stock from the carcass and drippings, for use later in the week with my annual post-TG spicy turkey tortilla soup.  Yum!  A bit messy and slightly gross, but it tastes a lot more interesting than the store bought chicken broth.  Some of the smoky paprika comes through in the finished stock.

For desert, since I don't bake, we had a rare French cider called Dupont Reserve.  This was made with 2010 apples and aged most of a year in their own Calvados (apple brandy) barrels.  It is about 7.5% ABV and certainly has a hint of oak and booze to it.  Very effervescent, more like a champagne, coming in a large caged and corked bottle.  There is some brettanomyces funky character coming through as well and I really liked this cider a lot!

To all of you who read this blog entry:  I hope your day was as fulfilling as mine, and if not, then may next year's be better!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Surly Abrasive Release at Old Chicago in Eden Prairie

Yippee!  Finally a special beer release out in the Western Suburbs of Minneapolis!  Every day I read about special tappings and releases by local and not-so-local breweries and nearly all of them are in Minneapolis, St. Paul or the inner ring suburbs.  I have noticed lately that more events are starting to trickle out to the hinterlands, such as the Top Brewer event in Maple Grove last month.  So yesterday Surly released their fantastic citra hopped double IPA, Abrasive at the Eden Prairie Old Chicago to much applause! 

The place was a zoo when we got there around 5:40, bustling with people in search of this sought-after seasonal ale.  The entry way was full of other folks waiting to eat, probably unhappy that there was a special event there that night.  I put our name in for a table at that point and got my pager.  We pushed our way through the sardine-can crowd and discovered that our friends Chris and Hassan (who went with us to Belgium,) were sharing a table with Mike and Keith, (other good friends from Brew Club.)  Small world.  Seated just beyond them in customary good spots at the bar were Dave and Kent.  Great to have a bunch of friends at this event, but I feel bad that I didn't get much chance to talk to our bar-sitting guys.  The restaurant had some free wings and pizza hidden in the hallway for attendees, which was a nice touch. 

After a while I got my glass of Abrasive, a brilliant light yellow color with fine white head, served in a tulip glass.  The aroma on this is mango, grapefruit, and a hint of alcohol and those go right through to the taste.  Ends dry enough to keep drinking more, but dangerously high in alcohol.   Yum!  This beer is in my top three desert island list, and I eagerly search it out each fall/early winter.  Interesting that while every other brewery puts out their malty and spiced beers this time of year, Surly puts out the hop-bomb DIPA.  I actually got quoted about this beer for Zymurgy magazine a couple years ago. 

Surly had several employees at OC, including Omar, Derek A. and Jim (Number 4.)  I talked to Derek for quite a while, a friend from beer judging circles, keeping him too long from his wife.  I'm happy that he is back in the cities after working in New Ulm for Schell's.  To come back and get to brew for Surly is a huge step!  I talked to the other Surly folks briefly and met a couple new people as well.  Abrasive is good for getting me to be more sociable!  Sj asked me who I was and what I had done with her real husband...

Overall a great beer, a great brewery and a great event.  We need more of these things out in the West, and based on the turn-out I think breweries should take notice.  With more and more new breweries fighting it out for the City territory, the outer ring suburbs are the next battle-ground for local beer domination.  Our bars and liquor stores out here still predominantly carry macro lagers, but are a huge potential growth market for Minnesota craft beers.  Oh and Abrasive is out in stores around the Metro as I write this, so stock up now!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Civil Life, Buffalo, 4 Hands: Breweries!

For lunch on this day we went to the extremely popular BBQ joint ,(rated the best in St. Louis,) Pappy's.  Fantastic ribs barely needing the flavorful sauces on the tables.  Usually this place has a line out the door and around the building, often completely selling out of food before dinner time.  We lucked out and hit it at just the right time.  On our way out I noted Buffalo Brewing right next door, and couldn't pass up trying a new micro-brew.  The place is small and has a lot of faux Texas decorations, including a stuffed armadillo on the bar.  The tap handles were home-made jobs in the shapes of coyotes, guns, and cactus.  We had the beer sampler to try 5 beers.  The Buffalo Gold was pretty skanky.  The Vanilla Porter and  pumpkin were not too bad.  Overall not great, and the feel of the joint was not amazing.

The same day we went on our epic tour of AB in St. Louis, we visited two smaller breweries, both about a year old.  These were the young punk upstarts trying to make a name for themselves in a town overshadowed by the quintessential Macro-Lager beer.  With the rise of craft beer as a legitimate movement and the take-over of AB by foreign companies, I think the city is ready for this revolution.  They may need to hide in the woods (and industrial areas of town,) and fight a guerrilla war to get noticed and fight The Man, but I believe these two have the right idea.

The first of these two breweries was A Civil Life.  They specialize in session beers and I think the highest alcohol beer they had on tap was 5.6% ABV.  They are trying to fit into a small niche amongst craft beer drinkers within a small niche amongst beer drinkers in general.  And seem to be doing a good job of it!  We first tried their brown ale at a pizza restaurant near our hotel and were fairly impressed.  Then a bartender at another brewery suggested we check them out.  The brewery is in an industrial area in an industrial building, with a nice metal gateway and sign on the way into the outdoor beer garden.  It being winter, the outside was closed down, but we noted that they have a drive-through style window from the tasting room inside to minimize servers having to run in and out.  Great idea! 

Coming through the main door you can see the open area where the brewing equipment is located to the left and there was a brewer in action while we were there.   To the right of the entrance is the tasting room itself, a long dark wood bar with a huge selection of glassware on matching shelving behind it.  There are a few tables as well, but this is the type of place you want to belly up to the bar and talk with folks.  Immediately on entering Sj and I felt at home here and it seemed warm and cozy after after the damp and cold evening outside.  Our bartender looked like a young Gary Oldman with astonishing handlebar moustache, and was incredibly helpful and friendly, probably adding to the relaxed feel of this bar.  They don't do samplers here, but our bartender let us try several things before we ordered.  You can buy half or whole pints served in style-appropriate glassware.  As you order the bartender puts a chalk mark for each half pint on a strip of chalkboard set into the bar itself. Half pints are $2.50 and pints are $5.   By the end of our stay here, we tried pretty much all the beers and there was not one that wasn't great to amazing.  The top of my ranking was the mild (never had better) and a German Alt.  Each of the beers was subtle, to style and perfectly balanced.  It takes some serious skill to do this many lower gravity beers and keep that level of clean ferment and balance.  Two local friends of ours met us here and have vowed to return frequently!  This would be my second home if I lived close by.  Probably for the best that I don't!

Our fourth and final brewery on our whistle-stop tour of St. Louis was 4 Hands.  This was in another more industrial area, but let's be honest, so is most everything in St. Louis.  Located in a large warehouse, it has a modern, clean and spare look.  You can see the brewing equipment through some glass behind the bar, very clean and modern looking.  The bartender here looked like maybe he belonged in a biker gang but was very helpful and friendly.  They have a double IPA called War Hammer and had a real war hammer up on the wall behind the bar.  I get the feeling that our bartender could easily use it on rowdy patrons.

They had 8 beers on tap and all of them were excellent.  The selection here was the exact opposite end of the spectrum from Civil Life, embracing tons of hops and spices and yams.  Our favorite was the Foundation, a strong but lighter tasting pale beer with ginger, lemon balm and peach juice.  I did manage to score a bottle to take home.  A very refreshing and tasty brew!  The best name goes to the smoked dark beer called Pigasus.  Along with beer they have a small menu of food including a nice charcuterie plate filled with meats and cheeses to compliment the drinks.  I really like the artwork on their labels, and most importantly the beer in the glass!

St. Louis has a new and vibrant beer scene and is well worth a visit for that if nothing else!  Breweries and brewpubs range from the gargantuan AB/In-Bev steeped in history and fizzy yellow beer, to older brewpubs like Morgan Street and Schlafly, to the new upstart niche breweries like Urban Chestnut and those mentioned above.  Oh I guess there are other things to do in town other than drink beer...but you can do both!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Anheuser-Busch Brewery St. Loius, MO

For a change of pace on our recent trip to St. Louis my wife and I took a tour of the biggest, baddest, brewing behemoth to be found in the USA:  Anheuser-Busch Brewery!  Let me first off explain my thoughts of AB.  I came to the beer scene late, (despite helping my mom brew when I was much younger,) I really didn't get interested in beer until I tried Pyramid Apricot Ale and Sam Adams Cherry Wheat.  Realizing that all beers were not pale fizzy flavorless macro-swill I tried my hand at homebrewing some of my own and really learned a lot about different styles by hanging out at Goose Island Brewpub and tasting all their concoctions.  As Goose Island grew, they tried new things like bourbon barrel aging and sour beers, and I continued to love these interesting new beers.  Not too long ago, my GI was bought by AB to the consternation of many of us beer geeks.  I have to say that so far the only change I have noticed is increased distribution and availability of their beers, and no big drop in quality.  AB has brewed many attempts at craft beers on their own, but they always seem to pull back and put out a product that is too sweet, too light, too flavorless to really appeal to the craft beer drinker, instead aiming at trying to get the widest audience.  I have viewed AB and the other macro companies as more interested in marketing and selling product than being concerned about actual beer quality.  So going into this tour, I had some serious preconceptions, making this trip almost an ironic one. 

On arrival, we entered through a large entry way decorated by a glorious wooden eagle symbol, seemingly made just for photo-ops.  Beyond this was an enormous open gallery area filled with cases of AB paraphernalia from the ages.  Cool old pocket knives, bottles, logos, and a full sized old beer truck.  Since we arrived early we had time to check out all this neat stuff, really getting a feel for the age and scope of one of the early and most successful breweries in the USA.  They had a collection of the old German style intricately decorated beer steins that were amazing to look at, and I'm still mad that they didn't have any replicas for sale in the gift shop.

We chose to do the Brewmaster's Tour for a more in-depth visit of the brewery than is given for free to the general public.  Our tour started promptly at 10 AM and consisted of us and one nice couple from Canada, obviously big fans and decked out in Budweiser gear.  Our Tour guide Jonathan was a very friendly guy and quite knowledgeable about brewing and the history of the place.  He started working there before he was legal to drink and was excited to finally be old enough to give the tours.  We started out in a cozy room with plush leather couches and a big TV.  There was a quick overview of the brewing process and looking at hops and malts.  I was passed a canister of Black Patent malt and snarkily asked what AB beer that was used in.  The answer was was just to show the potential differences in color of malts.  Maybe they should start using some...  We received an AB ball cap, protective eye wear and headphones.  Once we were all decked out in our gear we started the tour proper.

First stop were the glycol jacketed primary fermenter conicals.  These things boggled the mind.  I've seen all types of conicals ranging from homebrew 7 gallon to New Belgium's large tanks, but the monolithic nature of these tanks was insane!  I couldn't fit a whole fermenter in a picture!  It was also somewhat chilly in there.  We discovered why we had headsets since the background noise would overwhelm a normal tour guide...we simply turned up the volume and learned more about the capacity of those enormous tanks.  Do I remember any of that info?  Nope, my mind is like a sieve.

Next step was the secondary fermenters, smaller but still huge.  Very cold in here and I'm glad we had coats on!  They showed us the large stainless tea-ball apparatus filled with beachwood chips that help with clarification and fermentation of the beer.  These strips of wood are boiled to hell first so they don't impart any flavor to the final product.  One of the perks to the Brewmaster tour was getting to try a fresh sample of beer right off the fermenter.  That day we had Bud Light: brewed at about 8.5% ABV and unfiltered at this stage, it tasted like a cloudy Imperial Cream Ale.  Best Bud Light ever!  This would eventually be filtered and watered down to its final light beer status, and no longer taste like anything.

A word about the brewery grounds.  Massive.  That is the only word that describes it.  The complex takes up several city blocks and is made up of dozens of huge brick buildings, all of various vintages, shapes and sizes.  Some of the buildings are original from the 1890's, others from 1910, and onward.  The grounds themselves are very well-kept with gardens and trees abounding.  Even the trash cans and man-hole covers have the AB eagle symbol on them.  A large clock tower sits in the center of this complex, flanked by eagle-topped pillars.

Our next location was the brewery itself filled with gargantuan stainless mash tuns.  This is the fanciest brewery I've ever seen.  Two extensive hop bine chandeliers dangle over the brewing area, which is beautifully tiled and accented with gold leaf.  There are large and impressive paintings from one of the old World's Fairs in the building as well.  Scroll work metal railings look out from each floor into the central area and sky-lights let in what little light there was on this cloudy day.  I could have spend an hour in here taking pictures, but we were on a schedule.

A bit farther to walk and we came to the packaging building.  This was built just prior to prohibition and was initially meant to be used as a hotel if the brewery was threatened with failure.  Because of that, there is ornate tile work and fanciful light fixtures.  Each corner of the building boasts a large rock Bevo: the man-fox holding a mug and a chicken leg that became the mascot for AB's non-alcoholic malt beverage during prohibition.  Bevo also frolics amongst the tiles in the lobby of the building.  Upstairs is the bottling line.  Even with earphones turned up, it was very difficult to hear our guide inside.  They were bottling 40 oz Becks beers that day and I can't even imagine how many bottles there were zinging this way and that on the extensive and maze-like apparatus.  Labeling, filling, capping, boxing.  One lady was pulling off the low-fills and tossing them into a big dumpster.  Green glass littered the ground.  That is why they have about a thousand warnings about no open toed shoes in the literature and agreement for doing this tour!

From Bevo, we caught a cool old wood-lined Budweiser trolly to the Clydesdale stables.  They keep a few horses here for show as well as a bunch of the old tack and bridles.  The majority of the horses are bred and cared for at a large stable outside of town, and travel in air conditioned padded (and big) trailers to their other home and for special events like the Superbowl.  Much like the rest of AB's grounds and style these horses are freakishly huge.  They stand 6 foot tall at the shoulder, making me feel like a small child next to one.  All of the horses there that day were not cooperating with good picture taking and all I could get was a few pics of unusually large horse behinds.  They also had three of the red wood and sparkling brass beer wagons that are usually hauled by the draft horses.  Very neat, but the glare off all that brass also made for crappy pictures.

At this point it started to lightly rain, which I had been expecting for a while now.  We continued to walk between towering buildings that cut out most of the wind and rain.  We passed a white metal trailer covered with bio hazard symbols that houses the limes for Bud Light Lime.  I had no idea they actually used limes in that!  Not sure why they are so hazardous though... Just past there we saw a tanker truck filled with clam juice for the Clamato.  Our guide said that when they spill some of the clam juice it stinks up the whole complex.  Of note at one point in our walking tour a group of people hustled past us frantically donning yellow hazmat bunny suits.  Perhaps they were on their way to clean up a clam spill?  Or dealing with dangerous limes?

We came next to the chilly bright tanks, where they lager the beer before bottling it.  Our guide inserted a pig-tail into the grand tank and Budweiser began to spill onto the ground.  We were given AB tasting glasses with the eagle logo etched into the bottom for better bubble formation, and got to fill them directly from the tank.  Probably due to the cool factor of getting to drink directly from the tank, this was the best Budweiser I've ever had.  Don't worry, I'm not going to suddenly drop craft beer!

To cap off the tour we walked into the large tasting room.  Our guide led us through the room past all the coolers and taps and back to the room we started the tour in.  "We don't drink with those people," our guide commented.  Back in our comfy warm room with big leather couches we were shown to a mini fridge packed full of beers, and told that we had about an hour until the tour was officially over.  The regular tour gets two samples at the tasting room, but we could open whatever we wanted.  Pretty cool, but would have been cooler if the beers were better!  We tried the nasty Wild Blue, and a bunch of the Shock Top flavors...all of them just not quite getting the amount of flavor right to be called craft beer.  The Bud Light Lime was surprisingly good, I could see drinking it on a hot day with tacos.  Dangerous limes though...  The Lime-A-Rita sounded gross, but wasn't too bad.  Not a beer though.  The other guy on our tour really had no interest in trying the other beers, he just wanted his regular Budweiser.  This is one of the core difference between craft beer drinkers and macro drinkers.  Most people find a beer they are comfortable with and know it will taste the same wherever they are, sticking to it forever.  Craft beer people always want to try something new, but can still have favorites that they return to.

This was a great tour and a really interesting way to spend the morning in St. Louis.  Despite my thoughts of the beers in general and of the predatory practices of the big companies, I was pleasantly surprised with the trip.  To come full circle, like Goose Island being bought out, AB themselves have recently been bought by In-Bev, the Belgian based macro-giant.  Looking at the history of this place and the generations of brewers and workers that have been here, I regret that the company is no longer a true symbol of American industry.  Who knew I would ever feel bad for AB?

Friday, November 9, 2012

St. Louis: Rain, Bowling and Beer

For our second day in St. Louis we had unfortunate weather, overcast sky and frigid rainfall.  Luckily our wonderful hotel provided a large umbrella for our day's explorations.  We had a very pleasant breakfast in the Moonrise Hotel's restaurant which was decorated in awesome Flash Gordon-esque pulp sci-fi art and had a giant funky juke box in the bar area. 

From there we wandered in the rain along the Walk Of Fame, featuring stars for such folks as Scott Bakula and Chuck Berry.  Most of the shops along here didn't open until 11, so we mostly window shopped until our walk back.  We saw a strangely large amount of Thai restaurants including Thai Pizza, as well as many small independent art galleries and curio shops.  I discovered a Vintage Vinyl, a large music store with actual CD's!  I bought the remastered Sugar CD Copper Blue and a Yes box set to fulfill my Alternative and Progressive rock needs.  Sj got some CD's by a band called Wussy that she had seen in concert recently...they are really good!

Our next stop was the Schlafly Bottle Works, the other location for this fantastic local brewery.  Located in a large warehouse building with a large but very wet outdoor beer garden, this is the larger of the two brewpubs.  Inside is a bit more modern and industrial than the other site, but still welcoming.  Black and white pictures of the brewery and brewing equipment line the walls in the dining area, interspersed with fantastic colorful chalkboard art and label paintings.  I tried the tasty and drinkable Belgian Singel, and the New Zealand hopped Tasmanian IPA.  Love the Schlafly beers!  My food was an enormous pastrami sandwich that made me not want to eat for a day!  Over our trip we found the Schlafly beers pretty much everywhere we went and it was always a great go-to brand.  Try the beers if you get a chance.  I bought myself a present there: a heavy stainless steel tap handle with 6 interchangeable beer displays.

On our way home we my have become lost briefly, but ended up running into a most impressive animal and jungle structure made entirely of iron.  We stopped the car and made sure to get a closer look.  This was near the entrance to the Zoo, but we didn't have time to really go in there.  An amazing piece of work!

Next up was Six Row Brewing, a newer and smaller brewery located in the old Falstaff Brewery building.   This is a small brewery, reminding me a lot of Barley Johns in Minnesota.  The bartender was very friendly and attentive, and knowledgeable about the beers.  He took our picture climbing up the stairs to the mash tun.  Overall the beers were not great, but I've had far worse.  The Whale (wheat pale ale) was interesting, but not my thing.  The special release Killer Whale had some fermentation issues:  Sj sniffed hers and gave me a funny look...yes buttered popcorn diacetyl was strong with this one.  Knowing we had more drinking to do this evening, we left some beer unfinished and headed to our next destination.

Our next stop: Urban Chestnut Brewery.  This place was in an old mechanic shop, with the brew system visible through the large garage doors.  The Tasting Room was concrete, solid wood chairs and tables, and a very nice wood bar.  One group of beers they brew is the Reverence Series:  more traditional ales and lagers like Zwickel, Pils, and Belgian Wit.  They also have a Revolution Series that is aimed more at pushing the envelope:  STLIPA (St. Louis Double IPA), Winged Nut (nice brown with real chestnuts,) and Old Tjikko spruce ale (Pine-Sol in a glass.)  All the beers (minus Pine-Sol beer) were very tasty and there was something for each of us to enjoy.  The tasting room was busy but not insane on a Monday night, but I bet this joint is crazy on the weekends.  The brewery style was great and I'd love to spend more time here.  No samplers, but they will serve a taste of something for free when you place your drink order.  One of the bartenders steered us toward two more places we should visit tomorrow...showing off the collegial nature of the local beer scene.

Next stop Three Kings pub for food and more drinks.  Captain Crunch Shrimp = awesome!  Great burger with deep fried jalapenos, spicy mayo and pepper jack cheese as well.  They had a great beer list and did samplers.  Got to try the Schlafly Bourbon Aged Imperial Stout that was quite tasty...but I wouldn't want more than that sampler size of it.

By now we had been out on the town all day and were back by our hotel.  Not to stop the excellent day we were having, we opted to try out the Pin-Up Bowl right next to the hotel.  A lot like a newer and less crowded Bryant Lake Bowl, this place had great beers and cocktails.  They have an excellent pin-up theme with cool posters and of course hipsters abounded here.  We actually had the place nearly to ourselves late on a Monday night, and bowled several frames getting ready for our JAB homebrew club bowling coming up later in the month.  I beat Sj two games and came so close to catching up in the third.  She really hates losing.  And wearing skanky bowling shoes.  But we had a great time and I'd highly recommend the place.  A quick wander back and we were at the hotel...up early in the morning to visit Anheiser Busch Brewery!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

St. Louis Trip 2012: The Arch...and some beers!

Last week my wife was in St. Louis for a conference and I flew out on Sunday to join her for a few days of concentrated fun in a new city for both of us.  I was out there one time just after graduating college, and remember seeing the zoo, but not much else, so this was really mostly new to me.  At around noon I picked up a rental car and with the help of my trusty and out of date GPS, I managed to find Sj at her downtown hotel and find a parking spot nearby. 

Keep in mind that small building back there is a huge Cargill malt house!

We walked across the highway to view the incredible work of architecture and human hubris that is the St. Louis Arch.  There is no way to truly describe this amazing monument that will get across the scale of it.  All of the pictures I've seen before failed to demonstrate the sheer size of this titanic structure of metal.  I am afraid of heights and just looking up at the top of the arch was making me want to sit down and hug the earth.  I had planned on going up in the little 1960's era yellow pods that pack 5 people in and hoist up to the top.  That did not happen once I saw how far up that really was.  Luckily Sj had figured I'd gimp out and had gone with a friend the day before. 

We went into the subterranean structure beneath the arch that houses a gift shop, mercantile and a free museum of the Westward Expansion. For the second time in one day I had to go through a metal detector, with security being almost as good as the airport.  The museum was fairly cool, and apparently set up pretty randomly.  Can't complain about free though! 

By this time we were getting a bit hungry.  Not wanting to settle for a crappy national chain, I wanted to try something local for lunch.  I checked out my trusty iPhone and discovered a brew pub within walking distance and we headed out in search of adventure and food.  We found a street of clubs and bars that looks like Mini-Bourbon-Street and the pub was very busy.  Morgan Street Brewery was on the end of a block, taking up a large space in a very old red brick building.  We talked to the host and he said there was a 45 minute wait for a table and there were no seats left at the bar.  He promptly left us hanging without waiting to see if we wanted to get on the list.  Of note, he apparently was helping a big group add a 4-top table to their seating arrangement to make room for more people joining them.  Sj and I were not pleased and very hungry by this time (2 PM.)  After some evil stares we moved to an empty area of bar-top where other tables had stolen the stools from.  5 minutes passed before we even saw anyone working the bar.  2 more minutes and we had made eye contact with no less than three people to make it known we were waiting.  7 more minutes and a bartender finally came over and helped us.  They did have a sampler of the beers on tap, and we ordered one to quickly share.  I tried a marzen (OK,) a honey wheat (meh,) Unbreakable Girder (a mediocre Imperial Pilsner,) and a pretty decent Pumpkin Lager.  Overall, not fans of this place.  I'd give them another try on a quiet day, but the beers were not enough to get me back here.

While I was finishing off the beer sampler, Sj was in contact with our local friends Steph and Paul and organizing our next stop.  "Why are you drinking at that place?" They asked, as we got directions to a "Real" brewery:  The Schlafly Taproom.  This place was much more like it!  Taking up a large old brick building not too far from where where we had been, it boasts a large white tank, some foliage and a few old barrels outside.  Inside it has two large seating areas, each with a separate bar, and large wooden beams and open duct work.  Each bar is unique, with my favorite showing a back-splash of deep green tiles and a goat, hop and grain crest in complimentary colors.  I was able to get a sampler of six beers, but they had about 12 on tap, not including one or two cask offerings.  All the beers I had were quite good.  The coffee oatmeal stout was well done, with a perfect mix of coffee and malt.  My favorite was a 2011 vintage barleywine that had a deep color and lots of dark fruit complexity and firm hopping.  I bought a bottle of this year's vintage to age on my own.  Thank goodness they had some food!  I had amazing fries that came with a sampler of 5 different dipping sauces, as well as a spent-grain beer bread with a blue cheese spread.  The feel of this brewpub is relaxed, comfortable and classic brewpub.  I automatically felt like this was "my" local brewery and I would certainly spend a lot of time here if I lived in town.  Reminds me a lot of Town Hall Brewery in Minneapolis, but with slightly more upscale food.

From here we checked into The Moonrise Hotel, a really unusual boutique hotel featuring a ton of moon related art, and memorabilia.  A TV in the lobby plays old moon-landing footage, and old toys and decorations line packed cabinets around the place.  A huge moon rotates on the roof, up by the (closed this time of year) Rooftop bar.  Tastefully frames old 1900's prints of people hanging off moons adorn the walls in the room, adding some charm.  The service here was amazing with everyone we met being incredibly friendly.  The place is located along the St. Louis Walk Of Fame on the loop and is walkable to a lot of cool stores and restaurants.

For dinner we walked across the street to Pi, a local pizza place featuring fresh local ingredients and amazing pies.  They had a great beer list and did samplers, so we got to try some more local brews without over doing it.  One beer in particular was Pi Pale ale brewed for them by upstart local brewery 4 Hands (more on them later!) Also a great California Common brewed for them by Schlafly. 

After this we were in food and beer coma mode and promptly staggered back home and to a restful night's slumber under the watchful winking eyes of several moons.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Top Brewer Event

I somehow totally missed out on even knowing about Top Brewer, but I did manage to get to an event.  Top Brewer is a local Minnesota homebrew competition that has a new and interesting twist:  several homebrewers were picked to compete in four rounds of taste-off competitions at the various Blue Plate Restaurants.  The winners from each will go on to a final round where they are given ingredients and must do their best to make that particular recipe.  I believe that the overall winner will get to brew with Lucid Brewing, who is a big sponsor of this event.  Several of my friends and acquaintences have been in on the action over the last month or so.  I managed to miss all of them but one due to being out of the country...or just back and jet lagged.

Last night's qualifier was held in Maple Grove at 3 Squares, my favorite of the Blue Plate restaurants.  My mom lives in town there and loves beer, so it was a no-brainer to drive out there.  Everything was held outside on the patio, so it was a bit chilly.  They did have some heat lamps and a gas fire pit to warm things up a little.  It got crowded too which helped block out the wind.  On arrival we were checked in and given our bracelets.  We were given a ticket for a free Lucid beer:  they had several on tap outside in a jockeybox (Air, Saison, and Dyno I think.)  They also had Foto and Cammo inside...I got the latter since it is my favorite beer that they make. 

Several of the Primary Fermenters were there to support club-mate Dan Herman who's pumpkin porter was in this round of the competition.  The brewers were not allowed to tell us which beer was there, but we found out later after the voting was done.  I did wear my PF T-shirt to represent since there were no JAB members involved.  I'm fickle that way.  We also talked a bit to Steve Piatz and his wife Janice a bit.  He also had a been the competition.  It is always nice going to homebrewer events these days since I will always know a few people and get to meet more over time.  I have finally found my own weird little dysfunctional group that understands what drives my passion for beer and brewing.

Overall my favorite beer of the ones we tried was a Belgian Dark Strong that was bursting with complexity and well hidden alcohol.  It didn't win.  My second favorite was Dan's porter, a well made beer, but a lot of folks hate pumpkin beers with a passion. 

My mom and I went into the restaurant to warm up and get dinner.  The fish and chips was fantastic this particular evening.  It was great to get some time to catch up, since I have been so busy recently.

A very fun way to spend a Thursday night, and I look forward to second round.  I've sent in my application for the next Top Brewer which should take place in the Spring.  Cross your fingers for me, I've already got some ideas of what to brew...