Sunday, February 3, 2013

Winterfest 2013

Winterfest is one of my favorite beer festivals, taking place appropriately in the dead of icy winter in Minnesota.  The idea behind this festival is to have a smaller venue and crowd to keep it a bit more intimate.  It is put on by the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild and showcases only Minnesota breweries and brewpubs.  This was my fourth year at the festival and it has changed a lot in the last few years.  The first year I went was also the first time they used the Minnesota History Center in Saint Paul for a venue.  The organization and placement at that time was a little suspect, but we had a great time.  The amount of breweries this year compared to that first time about 5 years ago has about tripled...and the space hasn't increased in the venue at all!  The tickets sell out in seconds when they go on sale, and with the increased popularity of craft beer locally this has sparked some anger at Winterfest from those who can't get in.  Last year Sj and I had to get scalped tickets, but this year invested in the six-pack of Winterfest, All Pints North, and ABR tickets.

This year Sj and I took off work a bit early so we could beat the rush hour traffic and make the one hour drive to Saint Paul without issues.  Ha!  A blustery wind and 5 degree temperature was not enough--it had to start snowing as well.  Welcome to Winterfest!  Passing multiple spin-outs and multi-car pile-ups we inched our way from Waconia to Saint Paul.  About two hours later we landed at our hotel, with just enough time to drop our bag in the room and snag a cab to the nearby History Center.  Our cab driver was very nice but managed to get lost and the subsequent white-knuckle death-ride through the ice and slush was a bit harrowing.  Brown trousers time folks.  After throwing some cash at our driver and kissing the frozen ground we headed for a large tent that was plastered with Cargill signs.  This was a different set up from previous years, where the line was inside the entry to the building.  It turns out that the entry space was taken up by new brewery pouring stations, so they had us wait outside.  Did I mention the 5 degree weather?  At least we were out of the wind and snow.  Earlier this week I had somehow injured my left foot and have been hobbling around with crutches for the last two days.  Standing in this line, and losing sensation in my feet for 45 minutes was not a great idea.

Hardy Nordic Minnesotan Beer Geeks
As the tent filled up they shoved the head of the line into a small area of the building foyer, and kept cramming us in like sardines to try to get the poor back of the line people from suffering hypothermia outside.  Luckily we were near the front and got inside for the first wave.  I'm glad I do not have a fear of crowds.  Soon the bagpipers arrived--the traditional start to MN beer festivals.  At the sound of the pipes we were off!  Gather up your glass, check for cracks, and plunge headlong into the fray--there is beer to be sampled!  Speaking of glasses--this year's were very nice 8-10 oz stemware with the MCBG and Republic logos etched into them.  The larger glasses were a bit dangerous, as we kept getting pours that were filling at least half the glass...too much for some of these wickedly strong beers!  It hurts me to have to dump a great beer, but it hurts less than seeing that beer again the following morning.

The event is spread in the halls of all three levels of the History Center, a very cool backdrop.   I loved the signs up in the restrooms reminding people to wash hands and cover coughs with old turn of the century pictures of flu epidemics on them.  With my bum foot I staggered about before I'd had a drop to drink...not a good start.  Often Sj had to go rinse my glass for me or get refills while I propped up my weary carcass against a wall or railing somewhere.  We began with Town Hall Brewery and had one of the best beers I've had from them: the Manhattan--Belgian Grand Cru aged in bourbon barrels with cherries.  Yum!  They also had a carving station for sandwiches because you WILL need food during this event.

It is difficult to put the experience into words, but I'll do my best.  The place is crowded, but with limited tickets sold, it isn't uncomfortably close.  There were 38 breweries here to try, each offering between two to eight beers.  A lot of the beers at Winterfest are big winter beers like bourbon barrel barleywines and Imperial stouts, with the occasional IPA or session beer thrown in for good measure.  Most of the stands had the brewers serving their beers so we were able to ask questions of them directly.  That is one of my favorite aspects of this festival as opposed to the larger ones with more volunteer pourers.  The pouring stations/jockey-boxes for the breweries are very cool to look at as well: Indeed's rustic wood bar and Excelsior's impressive dock were my favorites.  I was blown away by the number of new or recent breweries and many were showing off some really good beers.  Several were just debuting their beers here, and I'm excited to seek them out when they open for business.

Ben pouring a cask beer from his dock!

Stand outs of the new breweries were 612's Winter IPA, Dangerous Man Coffee Porter, Pour Decisions Blackberry Acerbity Berliner Weisse.  The collaboration beer between Indeed and Northbound Smokehouse was very good but bordering on too smoky--Sj described it as a "campfire in the mouth."  An accurate description, but I liked it anyway.

The second wave breweries brought it strong as well, showing some maturity and improved craft from previous festivals.  Fulton had a wonderful passion fruit/mango bomb double IPA and a version of Libertine aged on local 2 Gingers Whiskey barrels.  Excelsior's Mr. Jimmy's Baltic Porter was quite tasty and appropriate to this cold evening.  My favorite beer of the night was Steel Toe Brewing's Dawn Juan--a one year old black barleywine infused with coffee.  Hands down the best coffee beer I've ever had, with sweet toffee, firm bitterness and so much complexity.  That was the only beer we tried to get seconds on, but they had already emptied the keg.

Jason pays the Piper!

There are always old standbys that we know to seek out.  Those breweries who have been putting out amazing beers for years and form the backbone of the Minnesota craft beer community:  Town Hall, Fitgers, Barley John's, Summit and Surly.  These guys showed their seasoned brewing chops and brought a lot of fantastic beers.  Town Hall brought the Manhattan as well as Czar Jack, and Twisted Trace (barleywine aged in Buffalo Trace barrels.)  Fitgers had Evil Rabbit (made with lychee puree and orange rind,) Edmund bourbon Imperial Stout, Mango Trail IPA, and the Spanish Fly (with peppers!)  Surly brought all sorts of cool beers and I got to talk to brewers Derek and Todd briefly about them.  Surly stand outs were:  The new batch of Pentagram; Damien (the Darkness' second-runnings beer); and the aptly named Fiery Hell.

Looking at my list of beers, I didn't even get close to trying a quarter of the available libations.  I didn't try any beers that I thought were awful, though there were some I didn't love.  The overall quality was great and I can honestly say that Minnesota has come of age as a great beer state.  Look out Oregon and Colorado, we are nipping at your heels here!

As with any beer event for me, a lot of what makes it enjoyable is the people.  The beer is great, but I consider it more of a social lubricant and a common ground for discussion than an end in itself.  Beside my wonderful wife, I got to talk to friends Chris and Hassan, as well as running into Scott and Emily Brink, Chris German, Doug Hoverson (of Land of Amber Waters fame,) and many people I judged beers with at the Upper Mississippi Mash Out last week.  I also got to spend a bit time talking with brewers Kristen England, Jason Schoneman, Pio from Rock Bottom, as well as Peter Mack and Mike Hoops.

Sj is the victim of a vicious drive-by gnoming

The end of the fest came too soon, with my last (full) pour being the cedar aged IPA from Fitgers.  Parting is such sweet sorrow my, dear friend Winterfest.  The end always comes too quickly to these events, but that is probably for the best.  Usually finding your way home from the History Center is a trial.  In the past (before Sj really got into beer) she would drive, but those times are gone.  We would often see very drunk people peeling out of the parking lot, so I'm fine with staying away from that area.  Cabs should be lined up for this event, but are usually as hard to find as an honest politician.  A few years back Sj just about started a fistfight with someone who tried to snake the cab we had called for.  This year, with not a cab in sight and hordes of drunken patrons milling about, we opted for braving the now sub-zero weather and snow and trying to walk the mile to the hotel.  Imperial stouts and barleywines help folks to make good decisions.  Remember my gimpy foot?  I was worried that someone would find our freezer-burned and dessicated bodies hunched over at the side of the road come the Spring melt-off.  But lurching like some demented peg-legged pirate, with Sj navigating on her iPhone using her nose to avoid taking off gloves, we successfully hobbled our way back to the hotel.

I hope to make it to next year's iteration of Winterfest...if the stars align and I get tickets.

Next Up on JABlog:  Interview with Rock Bottom's new brewer Pio!

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