Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Amsterdamned! Beertrip Day 1

Nearly two years ago Sj and I went on a Belgian Beer Tour through  We loved it so much that we decided to return for another shot at Beer Nirvana!  Once again we joined up with Mike Saxton as our guide through the medieval cities, rolling countrysides and farmhouse breweries.  This tour went to Brussels, Ghent and several other cities in Belgium and the Netherlands.  Since the itinerary did not include our favorite city of Bruges we added a short visit there and also to Amsterdam on the front end of the trip.  The tour was a small one with four of our friends making the trek overseas with us, and one other brave traveler from Ithaca, New York.  The smaller size of these tours is part of what drew us to, since it is far easier to get around and fit into smaller pubs and restaurants than in larger tours.

I took copious notes on our travels and lots of pictures to share with you, my readers!  I'll be doling out these nuggets of beer-infused travelogue over the coming weeks, partially as review, partially as a personal journal for my own benefit.  Hopefully you will enjoy the process and perhaps even by swayed to try a trip with Mike in the future!

One disclaimer on this entire grouping of posts:  this is a beer trip so it of course involves a lot of beer!  In most cases our group shared tastes of most of the beers we ordered so when I mention having 5 or 6 beers in a row, I'm counting those tastes.  There is simply no way my liver could have handled this much beer on my own over the two weeks we were gallivanting around Europe!  I also was smart enough (this time) to try sticking with the lower alcohol beers when possible.

So without further ado, let us get on with the show and take a virtual seven and a half hour flight to Amsterdam from Minnesota.  Luckily you readers need not deal with the crying children, ubiquitous bronchitic coughing, heinous airplane food, and possible deep vein thromboses that we risked to make the trip.  We left the country at 7 PM and arrived in Amsterdam at 10 AM local after having slept a total of 30 minutes on the flight.  Here we go jet lag!  In the airport we changed our boring green paper money into an uncomfortably smaller amount of multicolored euros, and bought a 48 hour bus pass for the following 2 days in Amsterdam.  Onto a bus from Schiphol and off to the Hotel Fita, right near the Rijksmuseum.

The Hotel Fita was a small family run place right in the center of things.  They were just finishing some renovations, so there was a bit of wet paint and carpeting work being done, but this did not interfere with our enjoyment of our stay.  Roel and the rest of the staff were young, incredibly friendly and probably the most helpful I have ever met.  I would stay at this hotel just for the personal aspect and that is why our co-travelers Chris and Hassan took us there in the first place!  The breakfasts were wonderful as well and included a made to order pancake that was light, fluffy, buttery and dusted with confectioner's sugar.

Nearly impossible to take a picture in Amsterdam without several bikes in the shot!

After checking in to the hotel and getting recharged with some cappuccino that Maxime fixed for us, we headed out for some exploration of the city.  The weather was chilly and a light sporadic rain spat at us intermittently that first day.  Amsterdam is known for its canals and they were certainly something to see!  Encircling the city in concentric rings, these waterways were both aesthetically pleasing and functional.  Getting around the city was fairly easy with good tram and bus routes, but this is not a pedestrian friendly place. I have never seen so many bikes and scooters in my life.  Walking, you need to be very aware of yourself, as a scooter or biker could come roaring at you without any intention of slowing down.  Between the tightly clustered cars, bikes, scooters, and trams there were several near misses in our time here.  One tourist on a rented bike nearly ran down Chris and only Hassan's quick wits and even quicker arms were able to pull her from a certain collision.

Many of the buildings actually overhang the street and most have hooks or beams at the top for hoisting furniture and larger items into the upper floors.

We ended up having a wonderful lunch of Thai food with possibly the best waiter we had on our entire trip.  A good way to start the journey.

Windmills?  Must be Holland!

After lunch we headed for our first beer destination on our solo tour of Amsterdam--the Brouwerij 't IJ.  Located next to the Gooyer windmill, this is one of the most picturesque breweries I have visited!  They have been open since 1985, in a building that used to be a municipal bath house, and have been crafting beer there ever since.  The bar is a newer addition and they had 6 beers on tap when we visited.  They are one of the only breweries we saw that actually offer a sampler, so we were able to try all the beers amongst our group.  The walls of the tasting room are old and cracked white tiles from its bath house days and are lined with dusty and faded beer bottles.  My Minnesota radar was on and I spotted a Fitgers sticker on one of the doors.  Most of the beers were Belgian style, like a tripel, dubbel, and wit, but had a house flavor that didn't quite fit those categories.

The tripel and wit were a bit rough on the finish...perhaps too much coriander or other spices?  Their Struiss barleywine was fantastic though, dripping with dark fruit, sugar, yeastiness and complexity.  The busy family style bench and table set up in the room encouraged talking to neighbors and we ended up discussing beer with Canadian ex-pats and several locals.  A very fun place to visit and worth the trip out there.

Tastes as good as it looks!

Next we wandered the streets (warily now) looking for the de Proef brewery, but they were closed by then.  Their store was open and we bought a few bottles for later consumption, then forgot them in our hotel fridge when we left town.  Hopefully the staff at Hotel Fita like craft beers!  Balked in our attempt for another brewery, we set out looking for a beer bar that Hassan had discovered on his previous trip to Amsterdam.  We passed the "historic" Red Light District passing some working ladies showing of their wares beneath  a lurid red glare, situated just feet from the Gothic spires of an ancient church.  A strange place for sure.  We passed many Coffee Shops that do not actually sell coffee and often had strange smoky aromas wafting from within their dark recesses.

Possibly the coolest pub sign ever...

Eventually we finally stumbled upon our quarry: In De Wildeman.  This is a fantastic beer bar, boasting 18 taps and over 250 bottles of imported and craft beer.  Located in an old Amsterdam distillery, the inside is small, wood paneled and has all the charm of an authentic English style pub.  Beers ranged from Brewdog, to a plethora of Belgians, to a 17 Euro bottle of Alaskan Smoked Porter!  We discovered a cute little back bar hidden around the corner from the main area and settled in.  Several beer books and board games looking to be as old as the bar lined the shelves in this room.  I ended up trying the wonderfully malty and smoky Schlenkerla Doppelbock on tap, while Sj ordered the Netherlands' own trappist beer La Trappe Quadrupel.  It didn't take much before all four of us weary travelers were nodding off with the comfort of clinking glasses, murmur of background chat and tasty brews.  This gem of a pub is well worth the visit and I'd love to go back when I have more time and energy!

Sj falling asleep while I sneakily drink half of her La Trappe...

Off to a quick dinner of felafel and a much needed early bed time!

Coming up: Day 2 in Amsterdam and ton of flower pictures!

Monday, April 21, 2014

One More Call To Help The Four Firkins!

I already wrote one post about these guys, but I just wanted to throw it out there one more time!  The Four Firkins is trying to raise enough money to put a down payment on a second store site in Woodbury and need help to get there!  The idea is to crowd fund this so they don't have to take on investors who may want to change the style or aim of the store...possibly taking away the very thing that makes The Firkins unique.  So help them out with a donation and feel good about supporting small business and bringing more good beer to Minnesota markets!  There are also some cool perks for some of the donation levels so check 'em out.

The campaign runs out on April 25 so get out there now and do it!  And watch the very well-done video about the project that is on the page too.  Check out their Indiegogo page HERE.  

Monday, April 7, 2014

Bank Brewing to Open Brewery in Hendricks, MN!

In my attempt to cover upcoming breweries, I came across Richard Drawdy, the brewer for the soon to open Bank Brewing.  The brewery is located in the small border town of Hendricks, MN and I'll let Richard tell you more about that in his own words!  When I first looked up the brewery I discovered that they are responsible for the Beer for Wildlife series of beers that include Rooster Lager and Walleye Chop.  They have been donating to wildlife conservation with profits from those beers for a couple of years now.  A friend of mine won a whole case of Rooster Lager at a Pheasants Forever benefit and shared a bunch with me a while ago.  These are pretty easy drinking lagers (and I have to admit that I had so many that I boiled up some amazing locally made brats in some of it!) that certainly appeal to the majority of beer drinkers.  The company is poised to make some big changes in the coming months!

So without further ado, here is the interview:

JABlog:  I like the wildlife conservation aspect of your current beers.  What made you want to take that path? 

RD:  The Beer for Wildlife line of lagers were born out of love for hunting, fishing, beer, and the desire to develop a way to give back to the land and preserve hunting areas.  When our proprietor Jason Markkula was on a hunting trip to Hendricks, MN there was a unique conversation that occurred in an old bank building turned hunting lodge.  Jason and his hunting buddies decided that he should start a beer company, brew his favorite home brew recipes at local breweries and sell the beer to local hunting enthusiasts, contributing a portion of every sale to land purchase and wildlife preservation.  Since 2009 these brands have been brewed seasonally to coincide with the hunting season they represent and the passion for crafting beer grew.  The old bank building, turned hunting lodge, has now been turned into the taproom at 200 S Main St. in Hendricks, MN.
JABlog:  I'm assuming that the previously mentioned beers were contract brewed off-site since you are now planning to brew on premise.  What led you to make that change?  Also do you plan to brew those beers at your new site?

RD:  You are right, the beers for wildlife are made in 15 BBL batches at Brau Brewing Company in the 12oz bottle and Keg formats and the Walleye Chop cans are coming out of Cold Spring, MN being brewed 75 BBL at a time.  The decision to move to a brew on-premise was driven by an opportunity that presented itself in Hendricks.  The historic creamery building at the other end of the same city block as the bank taproom was screaming to have a brewery in it.  After years of renovations it has a new life making beverages for fans to enjoy much like it once did as a creamery, now with beer instead of dairy.  It’s been fully restored with a 15 BBL brew length, 1500 BBL capacity brewing system on the main level and a loft with apartment and office space as well as rooftop patio on the upper level.  

The beers for wildlife will continue to be brewed the way our fans have always enjoyed them, out of the Brau facility.  This will free up the Bank Brewing Company to start fresh with new beers, facility, and brewing team.   

JABlog:  Hendricks, Minnesota is long ways from the present craft brewery action of Minneapolis and Duluth!  Why open a brewery in a small town nestled on the South Dakota border?

RD:  The location was a derived out of a love for the area and the people of Hendricks. The two abandoned spaces on main street were begging for a new life. In working with area economic development associations and historic preservation organizations we were able to give these two buildings a new purpose.  Hendricks is a great, supportive community that has been extremely excited to see this to completion from day one.  We have a burgeoning craft beer boom of our own over here on the border, with Brau just east in Marshall, MN, Wooden Legs Brewing to our east in Brookings, SD, Take 16 Brewing soon to open in Luverne, MN, as well as Gandy Dancer in Sioux Falls, SD, among others also in planning like Remedy Brewing of Sioux Falls, SD.
JABlog:  I like to know who my beer comes from!  Tell me a little about your brewing history.

RD:  I am a home brewer and will always be one.  It is really a homebrewer's dream come true to be given the opportunity to take over a commercial system.  I'm currently taking a Chemistry of Beer course with the University of Oklahoma, as well as studying all the brewing texts I can get my hands on.  I've watched or listened to every episode of of Brewing TV, Basic Brewing Radio, and The Brewing Network and have learned an amazing amount from those sources as well.  In addition to those learning opportunities I have been helping the guys at Brau to brew out wildlife lagers once in a while to gain some commercial brewing experience.

JABlog:  Tell me a bit about your personal connection to brewing and craft beer.

RD:  Brewing to me has become an obsession, something that I think about doing all day every day.  It has captivated me with its raw simplicity and its archaic techniques, while its intricacies, complexities, and unknowns are what keep me coming back for more.  I know that there is no way that one person could possibly know what all the different combinations of water, grain, hops, and yeast taste like.  However, I see it as a challenge to try and figure out many of themes that form those relationships.  I love being a craft beer fan and am guilty for getting caught in the frenzy of always wanting to try the latest and greatest things that breweries dream up.  I will carry this desire into my role as brewer, always pushing the envelope of innovation and creativity while brewing new and exciting things regularly. I want to focus the majority of our time on brewing interesting, exciting, thought provoking, conversation worthy beers.  Not only that, I look forward to developing the community of craft beer in and around the Southeast Minnesota/ Southwest South Dakota area.  I believe that offering a wide variety of palate entertaining and educating beers will be a fun and exciting experience for everyone.  I am excited to brew beers that will span the gamut from classic to eccentric and everything in between.  What you can expect from me as a person is friendliness, openness, humor and fun.  I truly believe that life should be fun everyday and if its not then you are doing something wrong, this is why I am so grateful to be given the opportunity of taking a dream to reality and brew beer for a living!  

I am a very open person, willing to share anything and everything with you about our brewery, our beers, and myself so please don't hesitate to contact me via email, Facebook, Twitter, Untappd or in-person at the brewery and taproom.

JABlog:  What types of beer are you planning on releasing from your new brewery?  Are you aiming at the serious craft beer geek or more at the local casual beer drinker?  

RD:  I touched on this above as well but really what you can expect from us is things that excite the craft beer geeks and aim please the casual drinker with exciting flavors that temp their palates into further exploration.  There are a couple styles we plan to lead with the first of which is Wanted - a tropical hoppy punch of a session IPA.  This is a style that I have found myself wanting the most in the last year.  A beer that has all the hop punch and amazing aromatics you get in a Double IPA while allowing you to have a few amongst friends without worrying about the inebriation that comes with the DIPA.  Another beer that I have focused a lot of time on refining recently is Sour Bomb - a lemony, intensely tart beer that quenches my thirst for sours while being an everyday drinker. I look forward to playing with fruit variations on this one as well. 

JABlog:  How do you plan on  marketing your beer?  Taproom, bottles, cans, kegs?

RD:  I may be crazy with this idea but my initial plan is to take 80% of every batch into kegs and sell in the taproom as well as draft accounts.  The remaining 20% of each batch will be going into the 750 ml format with some great new label art, sold in the taproom only. So we will then be developing an archive of our bottle product since we will be taking some from each batch we can monitor how the beers develop over time. 
JABlog:  When do you plan to be up and running?

RD:  The facilities are nearing completion and we should be cranking out the first batches early this summer.

JABlog:  Thanks so much for the informative interview Richard!  I look forward to trying the beers and seeing how this new move for the brewery will go.  There may have to be a road trip involved!  I'll post an update here when the brewery opens as well.  For my readers, if you visit the brewery please post back here and tell us how it is!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

30 Words: Friendship

Thrown together by chance...or perhaps fate.

From humble beginnings we grow together.

Time passes with its bitter inevitability.

Over forty fleeting years many things change.

The best do not.

I'm continuing a weekly challenge from Treasures Found blog: check it out Here for more details and to check out the blog.  The man to my right in this picture is Bryan Keehl, my oldest friend.  We met in Kindergarten.  Both of us recently celebrated our 40th birthdays.  The sentiments of this week's 30 word quasi-haiku were written with him in mind, but count for all my friendships.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Hijacked! Fruity Drinks on the High Seas

Hi there!  This is Eric's wife Sarajo (or Sj as he often calls me) doing a little blog takeover for the day.  Last week while my husband was stuck at home holding down the fort, I was off on a grand adventure with my friend Kathleen... cruising the Caribbean and making jewelry with about 48 other bead ladies!  Sound crazy?  Crazy fun!  I swear that this is a real thing.  You can check out my post all about the Bead Cruise over on my blog HERE.

The one thing that my sweet husband asked in return for letting me go off on a girls trip (other than rum cake, of course) was for me to take notes and pictures of the fruity cruise drinks I consumed and report back for his blog.  So, I'm now making good on that promise.

My first cruise drink was sort of an accident, but it was also one of the fruitiest/cruisey-ist in many ways.  The Aquarium bar was out of one of the components for my first choice drink and I panicked.  I didn't notice that the drink I ordered, the Batidas, had half  & half in it.  Also, I missed that there was supposedly a choice of fruit (not a blend of them) and the waitress didn't clarify what I wanted... so what I ended up with was basically an adult strawberry milkshake!  It wasn't terrible, but the half & half made it VERY rich and it just wasn't what I was expecting.

iPhones are not great at low light... but here's me with my Batidas on the first night of the cruise.
Day two our group had our disco party in the Chamber night club.  We got free drinks and I tried the Yellow Bird.  I'm not entirely sure what was in that other than rum, but it was a little watered down so I can't really give it a fair review.  That night also brought about the discovery of my favorite drink of the cruise, the Elderphire!  Made with Bombay Sapphire gin, elderflower, sugarcane, and fresh lemon this drink was sweet, tart, and refreshing.  This is the only cocktail I ordered multiple times.  Perhaps that makes my "research" a little less complete, but sometimes you want what you want.  We also tried the Elderflower Lemonade which was similar but not quite as tasty as the Elderphire.  It's a mix of elderflower, Absolute vodka, and lemonade.

Elderphires in love?  I loved how they usually did something cute with the straw wrappers!
On day three (night actually!) we went back to the Chamber night club for a little dancing with our new friend Kashmira where we all ordered Lemon Drop martinis.  This was a pleasant suprise for me since I'd ordered this drink (at least I think it was the same thing) someplace else and it had been way too tart for me.  This one was a nice blend of sweet and tart!

Three little Lemon Drops all in a row...
Day four was a port day in Nassua.  Kathleen and I had an excursion to Blue Lagoon Island to play with the dolphins.  We had some down time after that so we had Bahama Mamas on the beach while lounging.  This felt like the perfect drink for a hot beach day! It was a mix of rum, grenadine syrup, orange and pineapple juices... yummy and tropical for sure.  Later that day while lounging by the pool, I indulged in what amounted to an adult Kool-Aide... also known as the Pomegranate Spritz.  My photo of that one did not turn out at all but it was a lovely red/pink but a little too light on flavor for my taste.

Bahama Mama on the beach.  It doesn't get much better than this!
On Day five we didn't order any fruity drinks... can you believe it?  But don't worry, we did put a dent in a bottle of wine at dinner!  The next day we made up for our lapse.  In the afternoon we checked out the jazz themed bar on the 14th floor and I ordered my new favorite drink, the Elderphire.  Kathleen tried the Captain's Caipirinha which was made with Captain Morgan spiced rum, Leblon Cachaca (a spirit made from distilled sugar cane and the official spirit of Brazil), sugar and lime.  It was interesting but far too boozy for me.  My dad would have said that it would put hair on your chest!

Captain's Caipirinha
After dinner we joined several other ladies from our group at the Schooner Bar for music trivia.  I tried the Frozen Mojito while Kathleen tried a very pretty drink called the Goombay Smash.  The Frozen Mojito flavors were pretty true to the traditional version's and it was very tasty and refreshing.  The only downside is I felt like the aftertaste stayed with me for awhile!  The Goombay Smash was another rum based drink with two different types (one coconut), Cointreau, lime and pineapple juices.  I think that I'm just not as big a fan of rum overall... and especially not when it's coconut flavored.  so I was happy with my choice for this round.

Goombay Smash (and a little of my mojito on the left).  Poor lighting strikes again!
Day seven it was back to my standby Elderphire while we listened to the live band play and watched folks dance up in the 14th floor bar.  We did some dancing ourselves when they played the occasional faster song.  Kashmira also ordered a yummy Frozen Mudslide that I got to taste.  A great dessert drink if you want something with coffee and chocolate flavors.

I would have to drink far more than I normally do (and probably spend all my cruise time at the bar) to try all the drinks available on the ship.  Hopefully this gives you a little taste of what is on offer and maybe an idea of cocktails you might want to try in the future either on land or at sea!