Thursday, January 31, 2013

Pour Decisions Brewing Company

On our recent stay in in Roseville Minnesota for the Upper Mississippi Mash Out homebrew competition there was some down time to go explore the Saint Paul beer culture a bit.

Our first stop was Pour Decisions Brewing Company, located conveniently close to Grumpy's where the competition was being held.  The brewery was established back in 2011, but hit quite a bit of delay red tape mayhem.  Then the Surly Bill passed allowing tap rooms in breweries, causing more delay as they fit this into their plan.  I remember reading a write-up on them in an issue of Zymurgy way back and was wondering what had happened to them!  They opened this last fall, and I first got to try one of their beers at Autumn Brew Review.  The brewery was formed by Kristen England and B.J. Haun: two excellent homebrewers from the area who have taken home a boat-load of homebrew medals over the years.  Kristen is the guy who runs the UMMO and I've been able to get to know him over the years.  I've been really looking forward to trying more of his commercially produced beers, but haven't had time to make the trek to the East Side.

Ok, I might have made this look more 70's on purpose...

Located in a 1970's looking commercial office and warehouse park, the only reason we found it was a small sign pointing out the way out by the street.  There is the world's tiniest ghetto paper sign in the window--look close or you may end up walking into some Carpet supply place!  I'm guessing that they hope to invest in a nice sign at some point, but putting out good beer comes first.  Priorities!

The brewery itself is much like any production brewery:  Boil kettle, mash tun, large conical fermenters, kegs, hoses, bottles.  I didn't get a tour of the workings, but you can see the whole place--just one large warehouse room.  There was a cool mural of a northern pike striking at a lure on one wall that was painted by Jake Keeler of Brewing TV fame, but my picture didn't do it justice so I didn't post it.  In one corner they have an unusually shaped wooden bar for tasting.  This has a nice shiny epoxy coating that must make clean-up easy.  There is some spill-over seating in tall long table as well as a stand-up bar area along one wall.  Granted several of us from the UMMO were here to visit, but based on how busy this place was while we were there I think they are going to need to consider expanding the tasting area at some point!

Kristen's wife Orsi and another very helpful lady whose name I didn't catch were busy serving beers at the bar and entertaining us hooligans.  I was able to sample the beers to decide what I wanted to buy, then you could order small or larger sized glasses of your favorite.  The Patersbier was a very pleasant and strongly aromatic Belgian ale of lower than typical strength, aimed at cloning the lower alcohol beers that the monks would typically drink day to day.  My favorite was the Pubstitute: a low gravity (3.1% ABV!) session beer with a lot of flavor and a darker color.  Infinitely drinkable, I could go through a lot of this beer--and took home a growler of it for later!  They also have been expanding into bottling some beers and had the Acerbity (a traditional Berliner Weisse) available to buy in the bottle.  Several folks were drinking that at the bar, with all the flavor syrups traditionally used in Germany to flavor the tart base beer.  I had my fill of sours the previous night so held off, but I took home a bottle for later to share with Sj.

I had a great time hanging out at the bar with Jeff and some of the other folks from the Mash Out and tasting these wonderful beers.  I can honestly say that these guys know their beers and are making some unusual styles to find their niche in the increasingly crowded Minnesota craft beer scene.  I'm excited to see what Kristen and BJ come up with next and would love to know what their future plans are.  Both brewers are legitimate scientists (with PhD's and everything) and have really put this knowledge to work in the production of these beers.  If you find yourself up near Roseville, or really anywhere in St. Paul, during open hours--stop by the brewery and check them out.  I highly doubt you will be disappointed!

Addendum 5/2014: Pour Decisions is no more.  Kris England remains head brewer for Bent Brewstillery however.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Upper Mississippi Mash Out Day 2: The Big Wrap-Up

There was just too much info to fit the UMMO into one blog post!  See the Day One entry for more info if you want it. 

Day 2 of the Mash Out began with a bleary breakfast and coffee in the hotel.  Several of my friends were hanging out there and looking much more awake and bright-eyed than I felt.  Over a lively discussion of all things beer, and more coffee, I started to feel like a member of the human race once more.  A brisk walk to Grumpy's and we were ready to start judging beers at 9 AM again.

This day I judged Belgian Dubbels and Dark Strongs for breakfast.  Lots of booze to these, but the flavors were pretty good for this early in the morning.  At least one I tried would have been fantastic with pancakes.  This particular grouping had three tables of judges to share 29 beers, then they found five or six more that weren't on the sheet.  When judging beers and trying to not get palate fatigue, (and a sore hand from all that writing,) it is best to keep it to maximum of about 6-7 beers per flight.  This would have put us at about 10-11.  Too much!  Drinking these strong beers and trying to write complete score sheets for all of them while trying not to get drunk and disorderly at 10 in the morning can be quite a chore.  Contrary to popular belief, judging is actually hard work...though it can be a fun and rewarding experience to be sure.  We managed to wrangle another team to help us with our mystery beers and get through the flight.  Then I had a large mini-bos of the best from each table to do.  By noon I was tired, but some food and an informative lecture got me going again.  The afternoon was filled with judging amber hybrid beers.  I thought these were all of very good quality, so it was a nice way to finish the judging of the two day event. 

After the final judging session is done there is some down time to deal with.  During this time there is a lot of set-up for the award banquet and silent auction, as well as getting all score sheets and medals organized.  Meanwhile behind closed doors the second beer from each of the first place winning beers, meads and ciders are cracked and tasted head to head, looking for the absolute best in each category.  This is incredibly tough since comparing a great cream ale to a great Imperial stout can be like comparing apples to oranges.  Often there is a lot of deliberation in this large of a competition.  There are special hand turned wooden mugs for the winner of each Best Of Show (beers, meads and ciders.)  Someday....

I hung out with Jeff quite a bit during this time, heading over to Pour Decisions Brewery, and then Ward 6 for more beer and some food.  More on those in future episodes... When we had eaten our fill and were still ahead of schedule, we ended up hanging out in a large Supermercado and stocking up on chili peppers, nopales, Mexican cokes made with real sugar, hot sauces and questionable salsas.  We might have received some odd looks as the only gringos in the store, but everyone was very nice.   Finally we returned to the scene of the crime and things were ready to get rolling.

During the banquet and award ceremony there are several things going on simultaneously, and I do not envy those who are in charge of making them run smoothly.  There is a raffle for various beer glasses, shirts, hats, metal signs and more, with Orsi and Amanda handling that this year.  There is a sweet silent auction with collections of rare beers, signs, Winterfest tickets, and more.  This year they had a giant 50 pound box of bottle caps to guess a number and get rewarded with a large prize package including several bottles of Darkness.  I should probably say at this point that all the proceeds from this entire competition, other than what is needed to finance the event itself, goes to a local women's shelter.  Drinking for charity!  This year in the silent auction I won a set of Lost Abbey beers, with cool glasses and a large Leffe metal sign to hang in my garage.  I always make it a point to bid high on the silent auction--it is something I know I can win if I don't do well at the raffle or in the actual awards.  And that type of charity is very important to me as well.  Dinner this time was a great spread of Mexican dishes with some very authentic sauces and some freaking hot chicken wings.


Once the dinner is over, there is time to get some last bids in and then the action really gets going.  They have Jeff Cotton as MC on this, and he can always be counted on to properly tease and roast nearly every winner as they come to claim their prizes.  A great guy named Ed is teased mercilessly year after year for wearing a Freddy Krueger sweater, yet still persists in wearing it to this event.  As I have spent more time with these people and have become friends with them, this is all the funnier.  With breaks for raffle drawings the winners in each category are called out.  Many of the winners are from out of state, but a good portion are present at the ceremony.  I'm always amazed how many people come from places like Seattle, Wisconsin, Colorado, Missouri and other states to both judge and enter this competition.  Some of these folks I see here every year and look forward to the next year's event just to hang out and have a beer with them.  Others are more local like my friends with the Primary Fermenters club, who are always a hoot to spend time with.  They came in force this year and saved my Jack Of All Brews peeps some seats as well.

Medals!! The Bling!!  The Swag!!  In the end this is the perceived goal of the whole event.  To win a medal amongst such strong competition and against such long odds means you have come to a point where you can play with the big kids.  So a win is huge for you as a brewer as well as brewcred for your club.  The competitive nature of this event comes out here, but really all in good fun.  This year I walked out with two third place medals and was so excited to be walking around with these things dangling off my neck.  The PF's brought it strong (Kyle Cisco I'm talking to you) and JAB took home 8 medals.  Tim Roets, our resident secret weapon won four of those, including taking home the coveted Eis-Anything special category steam-punk snowflake trophy for the second year running.  You rock Tim!  Keith Brady and Wayne Doucette also took medals for our club.  We also had several of our guys help with judging, stewarding and organizing this year (myself, Tim, Jeff, Andrew, Mike B., Eric-Bob, and Brett that I can remember.)  The more people I know at this thing the more fun it becomes--even when someone else wins, chances are I know them and am happy for them.  Unless the beat me in a category of course...

Heavy Medal!

At the end of the event this is one of the only competitions that is organized enough to hand you your winnings, medals and score sheets right there.  Those folks behind the scenes do a fantastic job and never get enough credit:  thanks to you for making this thing really work.

When it all comes down to it, beer judging and this competition in particular have come to mean a lot to me.  I take pride in meeting here every year to taste beers, give feedback, meet up with old friends and make new.  I am unquestionably excited and proud to have my beers place in the UMMO this year, and hope to increase that number next year.  Compared to my early experiments I feel good about most of the beers I put in this year, most averaging a score of mid-thirties to low forties--high praise for this group of hardcore beer experts.  I have met those goals set several years ago of becoming a judge and medaling at this biggest of competitions.  When it comes down to it though, I am more excited about having discovered this group of passionate and unusual people from all walks of life.

If you haven't ever thought about entering beers in a competition, try it--it could lead you down a whole new road.  Or try stewarding or judging to improve your beer and brewing knowledge.  You might want to start smaller than the UMMO.  I suggest Byggvir's Big Beer Cup (MN Renaissance Festival Comp) as a great starting place since it is much smaller and we always try to encourage new folks to get right into judging in a very relaxed atmosphere.  If competition isn't your thing that is OK, but you owe it to yourself to at least give it a chance once or twice.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Upper Mississippi Mash Out 2013: A Homebrew Competition That Goes To 11 (Day One)

Five or six years ago I took a chance and entered a beer in my first competition.  I chose the Upper Mississippi Mash Out because I saw it advertised at my local homebrew shop, not realizing that this particular comp was the second or third largest in the country (and world really.)  My beer was singularly skewered, lambasted and spat upon with much disdain.  After the initial horror of how bad my beer must have been, I took a step back and paid attention to those wicked comments and actually learned something from them.  "Use a yeast starter."  Hmm, I've read about those, but I thought my beer was pretty good without one.  I remember one particularly verbose individual who moved to the back page of the score sheet to continue with his informative roast of my beer, filling nearly a third of that blank page--that man was Al Boyce, who I now respect as one of the best and most dedicated BJCP judges out there.  I was hurt by this process, but I took it in stride and learned from those comments.

The next year I tried it again, after making some improvements in my process, and after starting a homebrew club and getting new friends to learn from and with.  That year I thought I had a winner and decided to go to the competition and try my hand at stewarding.  I spent a whole day gophering for judges by bringing cups and bottles, helping tally score sheets, checking the math on those sheets, and setting up and tearing down all the tables, etc.  This was fun, and I met several other stewards who seemed as new to this as I was.  I looked up to several of the judges with awe having read articles by them in Brew Your Own or Zymurgy, and wanted to learn from them and soak up the knowledge it would take to become like them.  I was a bit disappointed in that aspect since they were mostly so busy and professional that they didn't have a lot of time to talk.  Oh, and my beers got slammed quite soundly again, but not quite as bad this time.  I walked away from the experience feeling that there was an entire  sub-community of homebrewers who were really into the judging and competition aspect of the hobby. I envied the camaraderie between those people and their knowledge base.  I didn't just want to steward and hand out beers, I wanted to taste them, and judge them, and learn from them.  The following year I trained myself (with help from my club mates JD, Dave and Bill) to take the BJCP exam and get in the game for real.  I tried my hand at judging at Bygvir's Big Beer Cup for the first time and also won my first medal there for a Wee Heavy.

Now for the last several years I have returned to the scene of the crime--that place and collection of people that sparked this particular drive in me to become a beer judge and become a part of this somewhat dysfunctional but amazing group of people.  The UMMO.  A shout out to the organizers and volunteers before I forget:  You folks rock!

Now that I have a forum for beer talk, and some audience, I thought I'd give a run-down of how this particular competition works.  Most comps have a similar process, but this one is tightly run and incredibly massive in scale.  The contest caps off entries at 1000, and usually fill that.  One thousand beers, each with a second bottle held in reserve in case that particular beer makes it to the final round for Best Of Show and they need another bottle to open.  That makes hauling around, labeling, chilling, and cellaring nearly 2000 beers.  That is more than most small liquor stores have in the entire building.  Mind boggling.  The festivities start early in the week with small groups of high ranked judges meeting in homes to judge some of the smaller categories.  Friday morning the big stuff starts, for the last several years in the basement of Grumpy's in Roseville.  Around 8:15 people start showing up at the Grumpy's and hauling in tons of beers, prizes, equipment, coolers, paperwork, etc.  Each table needs score sheets, cover sheets, flight summary sheets, drinking/rinse water, pencils, staplers, cups, dump buckets, and more.  This year they used compostable cups which I think is fantastic--as a group we probably went through well more than 1000 of these over the weekend.  A jockey box is set up in the corner with hospitality beers to serve through-out the next two days, because what do you do between judging beers?  Drink more beers!  I would love to bring a beer for this, but it seems to be invite only at this time.

Judging starts around 9 AM.  One can only hope to get a category that isn't too rough to drink at that time in the morning--I find that IPA or sours in the morning is a bit rough.  This year I had porters so the dark roasty character in those was pretty close to my morning coffee.  Stewards will bring beers from the cellarmaster to the table in a cued judging method aimed at getting each group of judges in that category to finish around the same time and have a similar amount of beers.  This competition is so large that many of the categories had to be split into multiple subgroups of judges (I think around 5 for IPA's!)  Once all the judges have finished the two or three most experienced judges in that category will go on to do a mini best of show showdown tasting all the top 2-3 beers from each judge group.  In IPA this was about 10 or 11 beers.  The judges will pour all the beers and do a quick taste off; getting rid of the ones with flaws quickly and then zeroing in on the top three.  Usually the ranking is fairly easy, but sometimes the judging can get a bit heated as each judge makes a case for their favorite of the set.

Lunch and dinner are provided for volunteers and helps break up the judging sessions.  There is always some down time as you wait for the mini-bos tables to finish up, especially the larger categories and meads.  There is always a lecture over lunch which is usually very educational.  This Friday was a discussion of sour beers by Steve Piatz that I really enjoyed.  The Saturday talk was by Joe Formanek on unusual brewing techniques and ingredients that also got me thinking of trying something new. 

Friday has two more judging sessions in the afternoon, which went by in a blur of hop haze for me.  IPA and Double IPA's.  After dinner Andrew and I went upstairs to carb up on some of Grumpy's amazing tater tots and have more beer of course. 

Later in the evening, once the dust has settled, they start the Piss Up.  Bad name, but good event.  This is open to the volunteers only and is a reward for helping out.  There is usually a special theme to the initial part of the event.  Two years back several of the guys brewed up clones of commercial malt liquors...blech!  Last year was about 17 beers each brewed with the same base recipe but each with a different single hop.  This year's treat was 8 or 9 different styles of beer ranging from IPA to cherry stout all fermented with the same brettanomyces yeast strain.  The differences in the flavors and fermentation characteristics in each were impressive, though not all were beers I'd want to drink much of.  The IPA was stellar with lots of pineapple to compliment the fruity hops.  After this warm up the real fun begins.  In order to take part in the big tasting you have to sign up ahead of time and bring one or two rare beers.  These are then chilled down and there is a shared tasting of an extraordinary assortment of white whale beers.  This year's was split down the middle between a ton of sour beers and a whole slew of bourbon barrel aged beers.  Stand outs for me were the Cantillon Vignerone, Baller Stout, Bruery Smoking Wood Rye, Cascade Sang Noir, and Perennial Peach Berliner Weisse.  I may have gotten the Slow Down You Are Drinking Too Fast Badge on Untappd.  This was a great way to try a bunch of these amazing beers that you only hear or read about.  After that it was off to the Country Inn Suites just down the block and not nearly enough sleep!

Next Up: UMMO Banquet and Award Ceremony

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fulton & Great Lakes Happy Gnome Beer Dinner

For those of you who get jealous easily or hate foods that are not Hot Dish, you may want to move on the next blog post now!  My wife and I end up at most of the Happy Gnome beer dinners and have been doing this for years now.  We have met some amazing friends by sitting at tables with strangers during these events.  We have also really been able to get to know the staff at The Gnome well which really brings our enjoyment of the dinners to the next level.  Over many dinners we have met a multitude of brewers, brewery owners, local reps and distributors:  all with interesting stories and personalities.  Where else can you talk one on one with non-local brewers from Goose Island, New Belgium and Alaskan?

This month was brought to us by an unlikely combination of breweries: Fulton (a small local brewery just 2 years old) and Great Lakes (a large regional brewery out of Cleveland, OH.)  Apparently the local representative for GL (Brent) hooked the brewers up together and suggested that they do a collaboration, so we have him to thank for getting the ball rolling.  Collaboration beers have been a recent trend and are a way to let brewers attempt new things and keep in touch with the craft beer community, especially for larger breweries that tend to focus on a core of flagship beers.  Mikey and Brian from Fulton went out to Cleveland and brewed this beer with Luke from GL on their 7 barrel brewpub system.  It is a baltic porter made with molasses and the GL proprietary lager yeast strain.  The release of this beer was the cornerstone of the collaborative beer dinner at The Gnome and one could feel the excitement emanating from the Fulton guys.

The dinners all take place upstairs in the Firehouse Room of The Happy Gnome, up a steep staircase that probably weeds out those who shouldn't drive after one of these events.  At the top of the stairs you are greeted by Ryan the new General Manager and directed to the beautiful auxiliary bar in the corner for your meet and greet beer.  This time we were handed two pint glasses: a Fulton glass with Sweet Child Of Vine IPA; and a Great Lakes glass with Commodore Perry IPA.  Double fisted IPA drinking from the get-go!  It was interesting trying these two beers head to head.  The GL beer is actually made with their previously mentioned yeast strain so is much more like a hoppy lager than a classic IPA, while the Fulton beer is more malty and balanced in a more English IPA style.  Both were good, but I think the Fulton won my vote this time. In fact I liked this beer more than I remembered liking it in the past.  Perhaps I'll be ordering it more in the future...especially if they start carrying it out in my neck of the woods out West.  Whilst drinking from two glasses of beer we met up with our old friends Carol and Kevin, as well as Hassan and his brother-in-law.  It is also nice to get see Molly and Paul, our regular beer dinner servers, and catch up on the last month or two...they are such great people, even while trying to pour beers, bus tables and serve food for 50 people!

Once we had settled into our seats, (always near the front so we can hear the talking once the diners start to get louder,) there was a talk about the breweries and discussion of the first few beers.  Then came the first course:  red snapper ceviche and a lightly dressed tuna tartare with watercress, dill cream and a honey-lemon vinaigrette.  Unless it is sushi I'm not much of a fish fan, but the flavors on this plate were amazing and bright.  The pairing with the malty and refreshing Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold was spot on, helping to clear the palate for the next bite.

The second course was a foie gras stuffed quail with bitter greens, root veggies and citrus jus.  Quails are very tiny birds and difficult to eat, but these were mostly deboned with just the legs and wings to gnaw on if you wanted to.  And of course foie is a freaking awesome thing to put in any dish.  The Fulton Ringer pale ale was a nice pairing with the dish.  The citrus flavored savory sauce on the bird really went well with the American citrus hopping in the beer.

The main course was a deconstructed rib eye steak of epic proportions served over creamy black lentils, house made boar bacon and smoky BBQ sauce.  Wow was this a perfectly prepared steak!  This was the best pairing of the night, showing off complementary roasty and malty flavors in the Collaboration baltic porter.  I would go out of my way for this beer and am somewhat sad that there are only a few kegs of it around.  They should have some at the Beer Dabbler this weekend and possibly some other places around town.  I'm guessing that The Gnome has some left, but I'm not sure.  I sincerely hope that the guys at Great Lakes will scale this recipe up and do a big batch next year!

For desert we were first served a roasted apple sorbet with a very flavorful walnut tuille (fancy cookie.)  That was paired with one of the small batch beers Great Lakes Loch Erie, a very smooth and somewhat sweet Scotch ale.  I'm always appreciative when breweries bring unusual or harder to find beers for these dinners.  After our intermezzo sorbet we were served a brown sugar coffee cake with cinnamon ice cream and poached pears.  Very subtle and tasty, but I was getting so full by this point that I didn't eat much of it.  Remember that gargantuan steak portion?  This desert was paired with my favorite beer of the night-- the Fulton War & Peace.  This is a version of their Worthy Adversary Russian Imperial Stout that has been dry-beaned with dark roast Guatemalan coffee from local Peace Coffee at a rate of one pound per barrel for about 4 days.  I find it interesting that they don't even grind the beans, just using the alcohol in the beer as a solvent to release the coffee flavor compounds.  I had this beer at Firkin Fest a couple years ago and wasn't impressed with it at the time, but all that has changed now.  This was apparently the last keg of the 2012 vintage around, but they will be releasing the 2013 batch soon.  I'll certainly be in line to pick some up and would recommend that you do so as well!  Perfectly balanced with a strong and smooth coffee flavor.  The beer lost some of it's power when paired with the very sweet desert so I kept them separate for the duration.

I didn't quite know what to expect going into this dinner but once I found out about the collaboration/connection between the two breweries this all made more sense.  The mix of beers served this evening had quite a bit of range and appealed to a large audience of beer drinkers.  Getting to try three rare beers was a great treat as well.  Executive Chef Scott Brink does some amazing things with food that I've only seen on Top Chef and rarely seen in action.  I always enjoy the Happy Gnome beer dinners and if you haven't been to one yet, you owe it to yourself to make the trek out there.  Next up is Lagunitas.  They sell out fast though so like them on Facebook or sign up for the e-mails so you get word early.  I'm very happy that Ryan has continued this tradition for The Gnome and really seems to be doing a great job at organizing things.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Enki Brewing

You heard it first here folks:  A new local brewery rises from the frozen landscape to burn brightly upon the steel grey horizon!  Enki Brewing will be a new production brewery located in Victoria, Minnesota.  They will be the closest brewery to where I live and this makes me very happy!  Way too many breweries have been opening in Northeast Minneapolis or in St. Paul and not enough out West, leaving us to feel unloved and forgotten by the brewing community.

Enki is a long time dream of Dan Norton and John Hayes, two fellows who met while both working at Nike many years ago.  Both men are avid homebrewers and have finally taken the plunge to start their own business and finally work for themselves.  The current plan is to move into the historic Victoria Creamery, building a production brewery and tasting room into the existing structure.  Being such an old building, there will certainly be some changes necessitated by local and state laws regarding breweries, but this will hopefully not cause any unnecessary delays in their schedule.  The fermentors and brewing equipment have already been purchased and a head brewer has been hired, so this looks like it will really happen soon!  The goal is to be serving fresh local beer by this Summer, both at the tap room and on draft at local drinking establishments.  They are also aiming to have a patio area off of the tasting room for outdoor seating during the warmer months.  Being in the depth of the Minnesota winter I find it difficult to remember that we do get some nice weather here.

I met with Dan Monday at my bar where we discussed these plans as well as the local beer scene over some homebrews.  Dan is a very friendly sort of guy who knows more sports trivia than I'll ever comprehend, and seems very excited to be taking this next step in his career.  The partners and their brewer have already been at work this past week brewing up some smaller scale test batches to come up with their flagship beer.  From the sounds of it this may be a kolsch, a refreshing and lighter style with subtle fruity notes that should appeal to beer geeks as well as those who are still nervous about drinking anything with color or hops in it.  Not a bad idea for a good craft cross-over beer for our more conservative area.  They hope to do at least one lager since Dan is a huge fan of them after living in Germany for several years, but since these tend to take longer to ferment and clear it may be tougher to start with one.

When asked about the name of the brewery Dan revealed that Enki was the Sumerian Goddess of running water, as well as being an anagram for Nike, where the two partners began their dream of this brewery.  The logo is pretty wicked as well, and I've put in my order for a hat already!

It seems that they are willing to embrace the Jack Of All Brews club and involve us in beer releases or tastings and possibly even eventually brew one of our homebrew recipes commercially!  I'm very excited about the ability to be involved in these things and I know a lot of our members will be as well.  I'm sure that Enki will need volunteers to help out at the brewery and with events and hope that we can assist with those things. Dan and John also plan to make it to some JAB meetings which should be a great way for them to get acquainted with a bunch of the local beer fans.

I think these guys have a good goal and plan and seem fun and down to earth.  I have every hope that they will succeed and make a stellar local beer that I don't have to drive 45 minutes to have on tap.  As with any new brewery in this time of rapid craft beer growth they have a lot of hurdles to jump over before they can succeed: local laws and inspections; local tastes in beer; learning a new brewing system; getting beers into bars and restaurants; learning how to use the local water; and potential for hop and grain shortages.  I wish them lots of luck and will do everything I can to help their plan!

Addendum:  As of June 2013 Enki Brewing is open for business!  If you are coming to this blog entry late, I have a review of the brewery here.  Feel free to check it out--and to check out the brewery itself!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Butcher & The Boar

Sj and I have season tickets to the Broadway Series downtown and end up there for shows every month or two during theater season.  This has been much more entertaining than I originally expected and also gives us a great excuse to try out new restaurants and watering holes that are far from our usual stomping grounds.  Most recently we went to the incredibly glitter filled and over the top production of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert. Not totally my style, but well acted and quite the spectacle.  After the show we briefly stopped into Mackenzie for a pint and to kill time before our dinner reservation.  I really like that place and will do a proper write up soon.

Our dinner reservations were at Butcher & The Boar, a fairly new gastropub that is just a few blocks from Orpheum and State theaters.  Since parking can be a little difficult we figured we could make the walk.  Minnesota winter is for sucks.  Even a couple of blocks in 9 degree windy weather is a bone-chilling prospect.  I had take my hands out of my gloves for the incredibly brief and shaky picture of the Adam Turman mural on the side of the restaurant.  I hear that one must bleed for their art, and maybe frostbite counts...

Even the shadiest place would have been a welcome after the cold, but one walks into this restaurant and feels warm and comfortable.  The decor is somewhat fancy: a very cool floor that looks like copper coins in epoxy; marble top tables; deep copper textured stucco walls; giant Victorian era mirrors.  Despite the upscale look the place does not seem stuffy.  It is crowded and bustling and the staff are knowledgeable and attentive.

The beer list is not huge but has a large range of craft beers from Minnesota and beyond as well as some great bottled beers.  They have a lot of wines and cocktails, and even do Bourbon tasters for those who like the hard stuff.  I had one of my favorite beers the Surly Abrasive and Sj had the La Folie.

This is a restaurant first and foremost so let us talk of the food.  The menu is filled with smaller plates to share as appetizers or as sides.  Lightly wood grilled oysters on the half shell were the best I have had (except maybe for the fresh oysters at the Porterhouse in Dublin paired with Oyster Stout.)  I am a sucker for freaky meats, so any time I come across a charcuterie plate I have to get it.  I was not disappointed in the least.  Rabbit terrine; turkey braunsweiger; wild boar prosciutto; and Boar head cheese (not really cheese) all spread on a board with house made pickled vegetables and condiments.  Yum!  Only the Happy Gnome has a better one.  For main courses they have several types of house made sausage, (including a sampler for the table,) or various steaks and a few other dishes.  The sides are great too ranging from spicy Brussels sprouts to corn bread to smothered greens.  Everything we had to eat here was spot on and perfectly presented.

When it comes to food and drink these guys get it!  I highly recommend a visit to this place, especially if you are a big fan of craft beers and meat!  Not the best place to take your vegan spouse or date unless you want a short relationship.  Make sure to get your reservations long in advance though.  We made ours over a week out and had our choice of 5:15 or 8:30, and when we came in at 5:15 walk-in people were already being turned away.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Fulton Brewery Tap Room

After our organized tour of Excelsior Brewing last weekend, several of us did a caravan Downtown to the Fulton Brewery Tap Room.  Fulton is one of the new upstart Minnesota breweries that have opened in the last two years and is making quite a name for itself locally.  They were one of the first breweries to take advantage of the Surly Bill by building a tap room where people can come in and buy pints of fresh local beers. 

Located within walking distance of Target Field, the tap room is located in one of many old warehouse buildings.  They have about 5 parking spots on their very small lot and there is other street parking nearby.  On arrival we realized that the food truck (Barrio) wasn't coming until 3 PM and we were starving.  Also we had been to one beer tasting already without any food to soak up the alcohol in our bellies.  We walked about three blocks through a historic warehouse district to Black Sheep Pizza and shared a couple of amazing pizzas there.  I highly suggest a visit there!  After some good grub we wandered back to the tap room for some beers.

The tap room itself is a spacious and well painted area cut off from the main brewery.  You can see the tanks through a window by the bar, but otherwise it looks like what it is: a converted warehouse space.  The old homebrew system they started with is on display up in the rafters.  They have a long bar in the back corner and had two pleasant ladies serving beer there.  Large school style picnic tables fill a large part of the floor and provide a lot of seating options.  The atmosphere was warm, relaxed and fun. 

They had four beers on tap, selling samplers or by the pint.  I've had the Lonely Blonde and Sweet Child Of Vine IPA before so I didn't get those on this visit.  I tried the Ringer American pale ale which was pretty good, seeming like a lower alcohol version of the IPA.  I also finished Sj's Worthy Adversary Imperial stout which was served in a snifter glass.  That was my favorite of the day with chocolate and roast tones.

I would recommend the beers and the venue here and will come in again if I'm anywhere near the area.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Jack Of All Brews Excelsior Brewing Company Tour 2013

Excelsior Brewing Company is a veritable baby in the local Minnesota craft beer scene, clocking in at just over 6 months old at this time.  I visited the brewery shortly after they opened and felt that they needed some time to mature before I would really want to go back: here is my previous review.

Our club Social Director Bryce contacted the folks at Excelsior and organized a tour for us this past Saturday.  We arrived at the quiet parking lot outside the brewery at 11:30 am with a group of about 12 members.  We were greeted by Ben Flattum, the brewery's main PR guy, and immediately handed samples of beer for us to try.  I have to say that Ben did a fantastic job of handling our group!  I know how hard it is to run herd on a bunch of drinking homebrewers but he seemed to know when to move on the the next sample or show off a new gadget to us.  He was also very knowledgeable about the brewing process and equipment, able to answer most of our beer-geekery questions.

The brewery is in a fairly small building that used to house a mechanic shop.  One can tell from the way things are stacked tightly in every corner that the brewery needs more active space.  Ben showed us plans for an expansion to knock down the back wall and take over the other mechanic shop next door.  Since they have done that particular demo before they already know what they are getting into.  It sounds like they are limited in production now due to storage space.  The tasting room itself is right in the center of the brewery with two separate stainless bars are placed in an L shape around the periphery.  Unlike some tasting rooms, this one really lets you feel like you are in smack-dab in the middle of a working brewery.

We were shown the huge old monstrosity of a boiler that came with the building: looming in a small back room like some industrial behemoth from a long past Steam-Punk age of dirigibles, gears and lots of bowler hats.  We saw the grain storage and milling equipment, and Gary took his obligatory pictures of the Rahr malt.  We saw the new stainless steel brew kettle and mash tun.  Apparently that boiler is so wickedly powerful that the brewer has to constantly toggle the switches to prevent boil overs!  Another interesting tidbit is the growler filler that came with instructions only in Russian and took the brewery a while to get the hang of.

Jim in front of his favorite Industrial Revolution Relic

And of course there was beer.  Compared to my first time here the beers have improved greatly, as has the serving of those beers.  The beers are now served out of taps at the correct temperature and with the correct amount of head.  They were serving 5 different beers on this visit and let us try them all.  The Pale ale is probably my least favorite of their beers.  The Big Island Blonde was still much stronger than a real blonde ale, but much more balanced and drinkable than my previous experience with it.  I almost feel like that one should be their  pale ale flagship beer.  I guess Fulton's blonde ale is also much more bitter and strong than I expect, so maybe soon we'll have a special category for Minnesota-Style Blonde at the GABF...  The wonderfully named Bitteschlappe Brown was a bit hazy but had a nice subtle nutty and roast character that was easy to enjoy.  The Shattered Solstice ale was a spiced winter ale that I liked quite a bit.  I think they got just the right amount of spice in this beer for my tastes.  And the last beer was my favorite, the Oar Lock oat stout.  That one was just a really smooth and tasty beer and I'd go back just for a pint of it.

The brewery really has its own style and great branding with a ton of options for shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, glassware, hats and bottle openers for sale.  Yes Sj and I bought shirts, they actually have long sleeved options!  I'm always annoyed by MN breweries who only sell short sleeved shirts...we live in a state where you can only wear those for 4 months out of the year!

Before we finished our tour Ben pulled a couple of unmarked shiny cans from some obscure hiding place and cracked them for us.  This was a canned version of their first beer, the Bridge Jumper IPA, that ended up having a crazy high ABV due to a much better extract efficiency than they were expecting.  I tasted that first batch in growler and was less than impressed, so it was interesting to try it again in the context of their new beers.  The beer has mellowed and is drinkable now, but has a pretty strong buttery character that I think was hidden initially by the now-fading hop flavor and bitterness.

Overall, I think that I can safely recommend Excelsior Brewing Company to anyone who wants to check out a young brewery and try some interesting new Minnesota beers.  I still think the brewery has a little growing up to do, but is more of a gawky adolescent now than the mewling newborn babe that I met earlier in the year.  Once that expansion takes place, I think the brewery will get its driver's licence and get to play with the grown ups.  I really appreciate Ben and the brewery owners hosting our tour and providing us with tastes of all the beers.  We were made to feel at home and our group had a fantastic time tasting, talking and exploring at this new venue.

Addendum 1/28/12:  My friends just shared a growler of the Excelsior baltic porter and I have to say I was very impressed with this beer.  It is one I would search out--very rich and complex with a smooth lager character.  Good job guys, make more!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012: The Beer In Review

2012 is now past--fading quickly in the rear view mirror of life, to be replaced by a new year of events and happenings.  And beers of course.

Last year was a good year for me and seemed to be busier than most.  I started this blog which has been a fun way to document and remember what I did (mostly beer related) over the year.  I did do non-beer things too, I swear!  Highlights of the year include:

1) Our nearly 2 week trip to the beer Mecca of Belgium where we sampled nearly 150 different and amazing beers and got to hang out with some great friends.  This is also where I got to try the most elusive of beers: the Westvleteren 12.  Yup it was worth the hype!  Getting to visit that country with all of its breweries, beer bars, amazing churches, and great restaurants was a high point of my life so far.

2) A fun trip to St. Louis with Sj where we went to at least 8 different breweries and brewpubs.  While there we stayed at the hipsterific Moonrise Hotel and ate amazing barbecue.  On our last day there before hopping on a plane we went to the City Museum which is one of the coolest places I've ever been to.  I would make a trip to St. Louis just to see this place again.  Cross House On The Rock with a giant McDonald's Playland and a human sized hamster habitrail made entirely of recycled materials and that kind of describes the place.

3) Beers!  This year I managed to try many of what I consider to be the best beers I've ever had.  See above for one of the best.  By being involved in the Limited Release episodes I got to try Kate The Great, Three Floyd's Dark Lord, and Surly Darkness 2012 (thanks Rob!)  By hosting a Darkness 2008-2011 vertical tasting and Imperial stout taste-o-rama I got to try many of the most sought after beers around.  Black Tuesday!  Rob brought me back Pliny The Elder and we had a Pliny vs Surly Abrasive smack down.  I finally got to try Sam Adams Utopias (and I will post a separate entry on that one soon.) We were able to get into Winterfest with scalped tickets and Autumn Brew Review.  We also froze our buttocks in line waiting for Steel Toe Lunker.  I also got to meet Garret Oliver, Mitche Steele, and Charlie Papazian.  Also we went to an amazing pre-ABR brewmaster's dinner at Blackbird and a bunch of great Happy Gnome beer dinners.

4) We had a sour beer tasting at Andrew and Janelle's place that really got us excited about trying more sour beers.  Whilst in Belgium we were able to visit the grand-daddy of all sour producers--Cantillon.  We lucked out in getting to visit there during a special food and beer pairing event where we got to try nearly every beer that they produce.

5) Homebrewing!  This was a great year for Jack Of All Brews as well.  We helped organize the Renaissance Festival competition this year and had a great time doing it.  We had a lot of great meetings with members old and new joining in on the fun.  I tried homebrews that rival the best commercial beers I've tasted.  We had a tour of Steel Toe Brewery as a club event.  Several of our members won medals at various competition and brought us some brewcred.  We were nominated for The Growler's Kind Of A Big Deal Awards and had a nice little article in the Southwest Metro magazine was written about us as well.  We also organized and put on a great Inter-Club camp out this year!

6) NHC!  I took an extended trip to the National Homebrewer's Conference in Seattle where I had two beers that made it to second round of judging for the competition.  No medals but had a lot of tasty beers as consolation.  I was able to meet a ton of people, visit a plethora of breweries and hang out with the Primary Fermenters.

Where do we go from here?  For 2013 we already have tickets to Winterfest, Duluth's All Pints North, and Autumn Brew Review.  We also have a family wedding in Bend Oregon that should be quite a trip.  I'm looking forward to a lot more fun and an even better year.    Thanks to all of you who have helped make this a great year for me...I appreciate it!