Friday, March 14, 2014

Great Waters Brewing Company Review

I've focused recently on reviewing several of the new brewpubs in the Twin Cities, (see my entries on Free House and Day Block at these links if you haven't checked them yet,) but realized that I have not done reviews of many of the old veterans of the Minnesota beer scene.  With a recent trip to the Minnesota History Center to see their prohibition exhibit, I finally had a reason to return to Great Waters Brewing Company for lunch.  I'll be honest I'm a creature of habit and living in the Minneapolis (far) suburbs I rarely go to St. Paul.  My car's GPS also seems to dislike the Old City and will often send me on random wild goose chases at times.  It is always nice to get out of your safe areas and try new places though!  Sj and I met with our friends Bill and Jackie S. around 12:30 at the brewpub on a Sunday.  As with any review, I'll talk about the experience we had, but your results may vary!  I always encourage folks to comment on this post if you have had different experiences or thoughts--good or bad.
Great Waters Brewing Company opened back in 1997--one of the first brewpubs in the Minnesota and up until about a year ago, one of only about 4 that have remained in business over the years.  The brewery is in the Historic Hamm Building on St. Peter Street in downtown St. Paul.  I enjoyed walking past some of the old buildings after leaving the pub.  There is a pedestrian mall that abuts Great Waters and provides an outdoor seating area for warmer weather.  When we visited the temperature outside was just warming up and the Ice Patio from the Winter Carnival was just starting to melt.  I would love to be served a pint at the ice bar some time!  Yes we Minnesotans are incredibly weird.  Parking is at several area ramps as well as metered street parking (meters are free on Sunday!)
The quickly melting remnants of Minnesota ice culture...
The restaurant itself takes up a sizable area with a large bar at the entrance and a spacious dining area off to the right of the main entrance.  The bar itself is no shiny newfangled bar imported from Ireland, but rather a well-used working-man's bar-top.  The place has high ceilings and plenty of space to spread out in and get comfortable.  One can also see the small brewery through some logoed glass behind the bar.  The wall-paper and decorations are a bit dated, but not in need of desperate overhaul like some places I've been to.  The ambiance fits exactly with what this place is--an unpretentious and serviceable bar and restaurant. 
Regulars at the bar.
Where the newer brewpubs are trying unusual menus to differentiate themselves, (pizza, haute cuisine, smoked sandwiches,) Great Waters has a pretty old-school brewpub menu of sandwiches, burgers, pastas and salads.  They do have some fancier items like steak and duck breast on the dinner menu as well, but I can't speak to them at this point.  While I appreciate fancier foods, I'm also just as happy having a nice burger or some chicken wings with my ale!  I've had food here several times over the years and have not had a bad experience with it, other than the fact that those Rasta Wings are not "Minnesota Hot", they are "Jamaica Hot!"  On this most recent trip we arrived during Brunch on a Sunday and Sj got the Eggs Florentine, while I ordered the patty melt with fries.  The burger was done exactly to my specifications and my meal was exactly what I was in the mood for.  I think Sj was a little less excited about her meal, but I think she just wasn't completely sated after eating.  Bill ordered a huge open faced meatloaf sandwich smothered in gravy that he continued to rave about. 
Grilled meaty perfection...
Decent food aside, this is a brewpub--so lets focus on the beer!  This place has been brewing their own beers for 17 years, starting long before the current craft beer craze.  They were an anomaly back then but have waited out the years, continuing to craft unusual beers over that time.  Now with the craft beer boom, I feel like some of these old-guard places like Great Waters, Town Hall, and Barley Johns sometimes get ignored in favor of the next new thing.  I'll also admit, the last time I checked out Great Waters I was less than impressed with the beers I tried.  It has taken me well over a year to get back and try it again.  That last visit was right at the time when their old brewer left and they had just hired on Tony Digatono as the head brewer that very week!  I had just taken up using Untappd to keep track of my beer ratings around then and looking back now I was less than glowing about my tastings at that time.  Luckily, I was quite pleased by the improvement in the beers since that trip!
A nice mix of beers, with up to date info print-out to go give details.
Great Waters has an impressively large tap list of house brewed beers.  I ordered the full sampler to try them all and ended up with 10 different beers!  Their standard beers like the Saint Peter Pale, Brown Trout and Golden Prairie Blonde, were all decent and much better than I remember them.  The seasonals were interesting with a very flavorful and malty O'Byrne's Irish Red leading the pack.  But where the beers really shone for me were in the cask conditioned ales.  Firkins and casks have been getting more popular the last few years but these guys have been serving these for over a decade now!  I did not love the House Ale--it tasted a bit metallic to me--but the Joe Moment Mild and the Invidia Barleywine were very tasty and made the most of the smooth mouthfeel and warmer temp of the cask serving method.  And by far the best beer I had there was the Blackwatch Oatmeal Stout.  This is the beer I ordered a pint of once I had worked my way through all those samples, and may be one of the very best oatmeal stouts I've ever had! 
Overall I had a very pleasant experience at Great Waters, with tasty food, many good beers, and a great time hanging out with friends.  This type of place is really where the craft beer movement came from and it is worth it to pay homage to the folks who have been slowly and steadily educating our palates over all this time.  If you haven't had much experience with English cask conditioned ales, you owe it to yourself to check this place out--and get a pint of that Blackwatch!  Oh, and they have a nearly up to date tap list on line so you can get a good idea what's on tap before you head over!
Head Brewer Tony Digatono has been brewing for Great Waters over the past few years.  Tony is a really nice guy, somewhat quiet as many brewers are, and doesn't really live in the spotlight.  Because most of his work happens behind the scenes and only shows up in your beer glass, I thought it would be worthwhile to learn more about him.  Sj and I met Tony back when he worked for Town Hall and he was one of our favorite servers there.  We were very surprised and excited for him when we heard he had taken a professional brewer's job at Great Waters.  Look for Tony at beer festivals or Great Waters events and say hi--just look for the slim guy with the red beard!   
1) Tony, tell me a little about yourself: where did you come from and what did you do prior to becoming a brewer?
I went through my late teens and early twenties without any idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I started taking night classes so I had an excuse to go part time at my crappy warehouse job. Six years later I ended up with a B.A. from the U of M in Religious Studies. Naturally, after earning that degree I took a job as an apprentice with the plumbers union. Which, leads us to question two.
2) What made you want to become a professional brewer?  Did you have any formal training or did you just jump right in?
I made a ton of money working construction, but work became intermittent when the economy crashed. About that time I took up home brewing as a hobby. After getting laid off for the umpteenth time, I knew I had to do something else for money and wondered if it could be brewing.  I got my toe in the industry by getting a job as a server/manager at Town Hall Brewery.  Mike (Hoops) and his crew were incredibly generous answering my questions and letting me shovel grain on my days off.  After about two years, an assistant job opened up here at Great Waters. As soon as I accepted the job here, I signed up for the Brewing and Malting Science Course through the MBAA. The course was good, but in some ways I wish I could retake it now that I have more practical experience.  I am currently trying to find the right correspondence course to further my formal education. If I was younger and single, I would love to go through a long formal education.
3) I noticed that you guys had a LOT of different beers on tap at the brewpub.  Do you enjoy brewing this many different beers or is it difficult to keep up?
Yes and yes. I feel obligated to give our loyal customers something new to try when they come. I also feel it's good for the front of house staff to be able to have a wide variety of styles to recommend to their tables. At the same time though, I have to remember this is a business. Space is at a premium in the cellar and I can't risk running out of our best seller because I wanted to brew something fun for me.
4) Great Waters has always prided themselves on serving some of the beers in traditional English fashion.  Is it easier or more difficult to brew beers that will lend themselves to that method?
In my mind beers brew the same regardless of the style. We are very proud of casks though. Physically it takes a lot more work.
5) If you had to choose a style  (or styles) of beer as a favorite, what would you choose?
Like a lot of drinkers, my tastes go through phases. Right now my fridge is entirely full of German Pilsners. If I'm out to eat, I'm probably going to get a local pale. I'm also about out of my mind waiting for Maibock season to start.
6) Many of the beers on tap at Great Waters have been around for years.  Have you been able to experiment much since taking over as head brewer, or have you kept more to traditional Great Waters recipes? 
There's a reason those beers have been around so long. I count four former Great Waters brewers as friends and want to stay true to their legacy. That's not to say the recipes haven't been tweaked a little. Some tweaks were happy accidents caused by something being on back order and a substitution was necessary.  Other changes were made just to satisfy my curiosity.
7) Is there anything else you would like to talk to my readers about? 
I would like people to know how much I appreciate that their hard earned dollars allow me to make a living doing something I love. My assistant Shane and I are trying to make the best beers we can and always want the next to be a little better than the last.

Thanks again Tony! 

No comments: