Friday, July 26, 2013

Duluth Beer Scene: All Pints North 2013

This year Sj and I managed to get the six-pack of tickets from the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild which included two tickets to Winterfest, ABR and All Pints North.  Since last year we were forced to buy scalped tickets to Winterfest at the last minute, we wanted to make sure we were prepared this year, and were willing pay the price.  The bonus tickets to All Pints North just gave us the excuse we needed to schedule our first summer trip to Duluth! 

Last year was the inaugural festival and apparently they had low attendance.  Being the first year I think people didn't know what to expect and were less likely to take a trip all the way up to Duluth and take the risk.  It may also have been scheduled against another big beer event.  This year, between better PR, word of mouth from the previous year, and the six-pack tickets, the festival sold out.  Many folks from the Twin Cities were in attendance, including my friends Shawn, Randy, Andrea, and many more.  The whole weekend most of the breweries and pubs we visited were especially busy with the hoard of city-folk in town for the festival.  Very smart move for a tourist destination!  The night prior to the festival Surly did a tap take-over at 7 West (a local beer bar with lots of taps) and we caught wind of it before most of the other invaders.  We were able to get samplers of Surly Seviin, Syx, Darkness 2012, Smoke 2012, and Hell before the festival had even begun! 

The festival was held at the large Bayfront Festival Park, walkable from the Fitgers Hotel we were staying at.  Though I admit we had the free shuttle service drop us off.  The weather was hot and muggy, with a deeply overcast and ominous sky above us.  Despite the threat of rain we only received a few cooling sprinkles during the festival itself.  A cluster of festival goers were already in line when we arrived, many preparing pretzel, cheese, and beef-stick necklaces for wearable sustenance during the fest.  In line we happily ran into Thad and Elise, folks we have met at other fests and at Happy Gnome beer dinners.  It was nice getting to hang out with some people we knew already.  Some other people I know were in town for this and we never actually ran into them during the festival!  At the sound of the bagpipes (traditional for starting Minnesota beer events) we all calmly moved forward to receive our booklets and taster glass and get into the festival grounds.

There were four big tents with all the breweries situated underneath.  A large bandstand hosted some mediocre music once the festival got going.  There were smaller booths hosting, Northern Brewer and some more sponsors.  A special tent had educational programming throughout the fest: like a Better Beer Society blind sensory tasting; a talk by beer historian Doug Hoverson; and Michael Agnew of A Perfect Pint.   One big gripe I have about this and most beer fests we have been to in Minnesota is the lack of dump buckets and rinse stations.  There was only one trough with running water for the entire festival to use.  I like these events so I can taste as many new beers as possible, and don't want to get hammered by drinking the whole 2 oz pour from each brewery--I like to taste, dump the rest and move on.  Being outside, we could dump on the ground, but the area soon ended up muddy and sloppy.  More buckets people!

On to the beers!  I'm not going to lie, we tasted a lot of beers that day and I stopped keeping track about an hour into it.  As a result my memory may be vague on some details, but I'll post some high and low lights of the beers we tried.  Since I had tried other local beers in the previous days I will talk more about those beers in my other blog posts.  Hence the absence of Bent Paddle on this list...

1) Because we had tried most of the Surly beers the previous night, the only one I had to try was their collaboration with Three Floyds called Urine Trouble.  "For that cat peed on the Christmas tree aroma."  Yup, as an owner of three cats, I think this is well named.  I did not really like the brett mixed with the strong hops though, and am in the minority by not loving this beer.

2) Schell Imperial Grain Belt Premium in cask and dry hopped.  I wanted to like this.  I really did.  But it was nasty and bitter and forced me to go all across the fest to find that one rinse station.

3) Blacklist Beer:  A new one in Duluth, featuring Bob McKenzie on the brew staff.  All Belgian styles but needing a little refinement I think.  The Or De Belgique was very tasty, but a bit under attenuated and sweet for my tastes.  The Imperial wit with Kaffir line had a lot of flavor, but maybe too much lime flavor.  I will certainly be watching for more from these guys over time.

4) Borealis Fermentery:  A tiny brewery from Knife River (just north of Duluth) that also puts out Belgian styles in 750 ML bottles only.  The Mon Cherries Belgian dubbel is my favorite from them, very well balanced.  The Raisin Liason Saison was more than just a cool name, mixing unusual yeast and fruit flavors.

5) Dangerous Man:  Chocolate and Coconut milk stouts were both fantastic, with the coconut being one of top three from the entire festival.  These guys are bringing it strong. 

6) Fitgers Brewhouse:  More on them in my upcoming  Fitgers blog post.  I had tried many of the beers at the brewery but they still had several new ones to try here.  Both Sj and I thought the Gooseberry Gose was one of the best of the festival, only being beat by our favorite from Town Hall--Hoops brothers smack down!  Red Wheat and Blue was a pretty tasty concoction as well.

7) Fulton:  War and Peace is one of my favorite coffee beers and I was happy to try it again.  Maybe twice.  They also brought a version of their Libertine Imperial red aged in 2 Gingers Whiskey barrels that is even boozier and tastier than I remember.  These two beers have really increased Fulton in my estimation.  Keep them coming!

8) Hammerheart:  A new brewery opening in Lino Lakes and focused on Celtic and Nordic culture.  These guys had a great display featuring a Nordic wooden shield, excellent artwork and tattooed servers.  All of the beers were very interesting, featuring oak aging, smoke, habeneros, etc.  They had an impressively long line throughout the festival.  I tried them all and was intrigued by the ideas, but feel that they maybe should get their base recipe styles a bit more refined before adding all the crazy stuff.  I had this issue when I first started homebrewing, wanting to add all sorts of fruit and spices and things to my beers.  Watch them though--and they have a cool aesthetic.

Celt-Punk Hammerheart!

9) Jack Pine:  Brewmaster Patrick Sundberg has really started making some great beers in his small Baxter, MN brewery over the last year.  Disclaimer: I contributed a small amount to his successful Kickstarter campaign, and this was the second time I have been able to try his beers.  All the beers he is putting out are incredibly clean and well balanced, perfect for his location and main clientele.  The Dead Branch is probably the best cream ale I've had in years, and the Duck Pond is easily better than Newcastle.  Check them out but don't expect Uber beers.

10) Pour Decisions:  Contining their tradition of making rare and extinct styles of beers to appeal to the beer geek in all of us, we sampled a great Gose (Salinity) and Verity (a tart and refreshing ale aged in a wine barrel.)  Always something cool to try here.

11) Rock Bottom:  Another day another brewer.  Pio has apparently moved on and Larry Skellenger from the Iowa Rock Bottom has taken his place as brewer.  His Evergreen Red IPA was a very nice and subtle spruce ale, and a good start to a new career move.

12) Town Hall:  Always one of my favorites, these guys continually impress me.  The mango IPA was probably the first IPA my wife has ever tasted that caused her to go back for her own sample!  And Russian Roulette (Belgian chocolate Imperial stout anyone?) was my favorite beer of the day.  They tied for best beer with Bent Paddle for it! 

Sj and I actually finished a bit before the fest was over, cutting ourselves off long before we got sloppy.  Restraint is good.  We headed over to Tycoons, the new upscale restaurant by the folks who own Fitgers Brewhouse.  They had some good Fitgers beers on tap, a few that were only at the restaurant, and very good food.  The smoked fish appetizer platter was a huge hit at our table and we ended up splitting two.  The place is very large and takes up much of the historic city hall building.  There is a large upstairs the was taken up by a post-beer-festival party for the brewers when we were there.  They have a small downstairs bar (located in the old jail area) that is worth just checking out if you can:  exposed brick, dark corners, and a creepy/cool speakeasy feel.

Overall, All Pints North was an amazing festival in a cool outdoor venue.  I would love to come back to it again in a year or two.  Other than not enough BIFs and dump/rinse stations I think this was one of the best festivals I've been to. 

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